Plain Speaking, by Pastor Noel

February 17, 2019   6th Epiphany, C


      Matthew and Luke give us very different accounts of the birth of Jesus, and they give us different accounts of this sermon of Jesus’.

      From Luke we have the story of the journey to Bethlehem. We read of Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn, and having to search for a place to stay. Luke gives us the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest”, the shepherds, and the baby surrounded by animals.

      It’s a warm, fuzzy, Hallmark moment compared to Matthew. It’s also a reminder, if we let ourselves hear it, that life with God is not always easy or comfortable.

      Matthew gives us the star, Wise Men from the East, an angry Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. The journey in Matthew’s story is about Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt with the baby. Not such a pretty story. And we don’t see much of it in our Christmas pageants.

      The Gospel for today is part of Luke’s version of the “Beatitudes.” Beatitude is from the Latin for “blessed.”

      In Luke, this is called “The Sermon on the Plain.” And, even though Luke gave us the warm, fuzzy, Christmas story, he ends Jesus’ blessings with a list of woes or warnings.

      Scholars think that Luke’s is the original sermon, and that Matthew has taken the edge off it by saying, for example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

      Because of this change, Matthew doesn’t give us a list of woes. How could he say, “Woe to the pure in heart”? Or “Woe to the peacemakers”?

      Matthew has a theme of Jesus as the new Moses, so for him this episode is the Sermon on the Mount(ain.)

      Luke has a theme, too, wealth is not a sign of God’s favor. We hear that in the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.

      Mary sings that God has “scattered the proud in their conceit…cast down the mighty from their thrones…lifted up the lowly.” “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

      God’s kingdom, here and everywhere, is not like our human ways. Is it a reality? Not for most people. Is it a possibility? Absolutely. With God’s help and our love and compassion to make it happen.

      We hear this theme from Jeremiah, long before Mary and Jesus ever lived. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…whose hearts turn away from God.” And, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”

      Like many folks today, people back in Jeremiah’s day lifted up the rich and famous.

      They thought that these were the people blessed by God. Jeremiah and Mary and Jesus say that this is not God’s way.

      According to Jewish tradition, the poor were blessed because they gave the rich a way to use their money for good. That is God’s way.

      In the Psalm, we read, “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked.”

      The same word that we have as “blessed” can also be translated as “happy.”

      But the words have very different connotations.

      Feeling blessed is soul deep. It’s a long-term feeling that is a foundation for how we live. It speaks to my connection with God that is eternal.

      I can feel happy when my cat purrs, but that is not foundational to my life. And it’s fleeting and short-lived. And that’s not just about cats.

      Feeling blessed is also feeling hope. It’s about taking the longer view and trusting that God’s goodness is stronger than the evils we live with.

      Happy is more immediate and also fleeting. We can be happy about something for a while, but that fades and real life comes back.

      The words are not interchangeable. Would it make sense to say “Happy are the poor”?

      Looking at the news these past few days, I can see no way that “happy” can be used.

      Happy are those whose medical records have been hacked for they may have years of financial problems.

      Happy are those who live in the path of mud slides in California, for they may lose everything.

      Happy are the thousands of children and parents who were separated at our border.

      Happy are the victims of the shootings at Margery Stoneham Douglas School—or any others. I can’t find happiness in any of those situations.

      I can find blessings.

      If that sounds impossible, let me try to explain.   When bad things happen, good people show up and help. Maybe they bring a meal. Maybe they sit and hold our hand. Maybe they shovel mud out of the living room. That is blessed.

      Maybe they change laws that make life safer for us. Maybe they help us find ways to move on and have a life, even when everything is changed.          


      At Ascension yesterday there was a funeral for David Arnold. He was a firefighter in Narragansett for over 28 years. There were about 250 people there. The family didn’t feel happy, but I know they felt blessed by such an outpouring of love and support.

      To much of the world he would not have been important—a small town firefighter. Not a celebrity. No photo in the glossies.

      To his family he was everything.

      To God he is a beloved son. Now, in death, closer to God that he could ever have been in life.          

      Blessed are those who give their lives for others. Woe to those who live only for themselves.  

As our Presiding Bishop said, “God didn’t make anybody a second class citizen. Of this country, or of the human family. I believe it because I believe that’s what Scripture teaches. And that is clearly what Jesus taught. He says come to me—all of you. He didn’t limit love. That dude, he got it!”    

      That’s what I mean by blessed. Knowing God’s love for ourselves and then loving everyone with that love.      


The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details