No easy way down. Sun. Feb 24, 2019
Luke 6:27-38 (with Gen 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37; 1 Cori 15:35-38, 42-50)
“Attention: No easy way down.” This is the sign posted at the entrance to the Gold chairlift at Nakiska. The Gold chair starts roughly half-way up the mountain and goes to the top, including access to “The Monster Glades” tree skiing experience. From the top, though, there are no “green,” easy runs. The runs are all intermediate or advanced with steep slopes and the treed glades. The operators want the skiing public to know this limitation, this difficulty, hence the sign: “No easy way down.” I chuckled the first time I saw it. I even took a picture because it seemed like a warning that could extend beyond skiing into other aspects of life. “Attention: No easy way down.” It’s a warning that should perhaps be posted about our Gospel passage today.
When we read and reflected on today’s Gospel passage at parish council Tuesday, I asked the group about something I’d heard on a lectionary podcast I often listen to these days. In the podcast, one commentator postulated that many church people would hear Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel and think: “yup, yup, yup… that sounds like me. I’m good.” I was curious so I mentioned it at parish council and… let’s just say that’s not the reaction I got. Maybe some folks just felt shy about it. But there was much more of a sense of “nope, nope, nope…” This is not easy. There is no easy way out. Our other readings aren’t particularly more helpful. They’re all about letting go, loss… the death of things we hold dear… things like resentment and pain. There’s just no easy way down today.
First we have the dramatic culmination of Joseph’s saga. By way of recap… Joseph was Jacob’s favourite son and was hated by his jealous brothers, who conspired to kill him. Saved from that fate, Joseph was instead sold for 20 pieces of silver and taken down to Egypt to work for an officer of Pharaoh. He managed to get in more trouble and go to jail, but it turned out, God wasn’t finished with him yet. Because of a gift of being able to interpret dreams, Joseph ended up working for Pharaoh and became one of the most powerful men in Egypt. And more, Joseph used his powerful role to collect surplus grain in years of plenty. That meant he had it to sell to hungry people when the predicted famine came. News spread and many people went to buy grain, including Joseph’s own family – the brothers who betrayed him. It’s the perfect opportunity to get even. To deal death to those who did him wrong and sought his death. It turned out, however, that Joseph’s own resentment born of pain had already died, or whatever needed to happen for Joseph to respond to his brothers with generosity and the grace of forgiveness instead. Joseph’s anticipated death in Egyptian slavery transformed into life for many. He chose God’s way… not an easy way… that ended in abundance of life for many, despite all the odds.
Our psalm today proclaims the way of life to be one of trust in the Lord and in abiding by God’s ways. “Trust in the Lord and do good…” the psalmist writes. “Take delight in the Lord, who will give you the desires of your heart.” Committing our way to the Lord, the psalmist contends, is the way to life and salvation, even if it isn’t an easy way. It’s a call to let go of vengeance. It’s a call to let go of wrath. It’s a call to patience in active waiting for new and abundant life to come from God, sometime in the future. Such life doesn’t come through fretting but through trust that good will out in the end.
For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing about resurrection from Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Today we near the end of his exposition with a question of process: “How are the dead raised?” Paul answers with a description of transformation taken from nature: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives is a body as he has chosen…” Paul goes on to build on the metaphor, describing things perishable and imperishable, weakness and power, physical and spiritual bodies.
The point of it all is that the resurrection body is different, fundamentally different, than how it began. The seed has to die in the earth before it can be raised to new life. It is the core of our faith. And it is not easy. We rightly fight death. We hold to the life we know as long as we possibly can… even when we know that none of us get out of this alive. And what is true for our bodies, physically and literally, is also true in other ways. Our families and communities, our world, our own hearts and souls go through times of difficulty – little deaths. We experience the chaos and confusion of loss, and we can only wait for the miracle of God’s resurrection life to come. We accept what is perishable, dishonourable, weak, physical about us, even unto death, and then embrace the imperishable, glorious, powerful spirit when it comes. There is no easy way down.
All of which brings us back to our Gospel and Jesus’ teaching on the level place: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” And so it goes, not getting any easier as we read on. In many ways, this Gospel meets our expectations of the bible as a rulebook. Rather than a collection of ancient stories, poetry and wisdom, many consider the bible as a guide for living, full of such injunctions such as we hear from Jesus today. But more than a list of what to do and what not to do, that we can fulfill or not, as the days and months and years go by in our journey of faith… more than that, Jesus’ sermon on the plain is a description of the kingdom of God. It’s easy to believe in Jesus as a great ethical teacher and understand Jesus’ teaching as moral guidelines for living. But as a description of the kingdom of God, it is about more than that. Jesus is more than wise ethicist.
The kingdom of God is the topic of pretty much all of Jesus’ teaching, particularly in key speeches and texts. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, that introduces the alternative world of the kingdom of God, that is coming in Jesus: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Jesus’ first public act of ministry, preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, delivered a similar message by quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” “Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is fulfilled but it is not yet visible. And so the Gospel goes on and this next of Jesus’ major blocks of teaching begins to put flesh on the bones of the kingdom of God. For mere humans, flawed as we are, it is no easy way.
The stakes involved in Jesus’ extraordinary and impossible teaching today are whether or not the kingdom of God is present among us. Is God here among us? How are we… how are you… participating in the kingdom of God? If you want to know how… if we want to know what that theological statement means, then we need to look at Jesus’ list of do’s and do not’s. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Give. Lend expecting nothing in return. Be merciful. Do not judge. Do not condemn. Forgive. Give. Practice mercy, as your God is merciful. These aren’t just good things to do. It’s not simply about ethical living. It’s about making visible the invisible grace, mercy and love of God… here and now… here among us… now in our community… in real, authentic and practical ways. As one of the commentators on that podcast I mentioned concluded: “God’s promised future of mercy and love breaks into our now when we do these things.”
The list of do’s and do not’s are about our active participation in the kingdom of God. Doing as Jesus teaches today begins with letting go of any lingering resentment or pain like Joseph did. It means getting over ourselves so that we can love and bless and pray and give and be merciful and forgive. Like the psalm says, it means choosing to trust God’s ultimate justice and love for us and all of creation. Participating in the kingdom of God means allowing some things to die, so that transformed life may grow. It means releasing our need to be right so that others too may experience God’s grace and mercy through our practice of love, however imperfect it may be.
It is no easy call. It is no easy way. There is no easy way down. But there is a whole lot of joy and satisfaction along the way. For, Jesus concludes today, the measure you give will be the measure you get back.