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- Facing Jerusalem – Ash Wednesday
- A Change in What Is Seen
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- From Generation to Generation
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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
February 17, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
One of the things that changed in my life when we moved to Austin two years ago was that I started having way more conversations about tacos. Not just here, but even with friends and family who heard we were moving here, all of a sudden it was all tacos. This town has that reputation, and as far as I can tell it is well-earned. As far as I can tell there’s basically nothing worth eating in this town that isn’t also available on a taco somewhere. One day about a year ago I realized entirely to my surprise that I had eaten tacos for five consecutive meals, which, again, is not really a category option anywhere else that I’ve lived, or at least not a category option you’d want to pursue. But the challenge of acclimating to a taco-centric diet here in Texas has been for me that even now two years later I never entirely know how many tacos to order.
I mean, sometimes a place will sell you a plate that has a pre-set number on it — that’s what I get from the little taco truck here in the Bevo Lot, which is my friend probably once a week, and those are three little street tacos and they basically perfectly hit the spot. But what has taken me a while to internalize is that not all tacos in this town are created in equal proportion. I mean, three tacos came on the normal lunch plate, and so when I would go to Torchy’s or when I would be at TacoDeli I thought the whole point was that I would just recreate that three-taco plate but now I have all these mix & match options to choose from and I have to tell you that more often than not that was too many tacos. It’s further complicated by the fact that even internal to a single establishment there can be such a wide variety of sizes. What I think I have finally learned, however, is that three is not a magical number of tacos. I just spend too much time ordering more than I needed. And too many afternoons feeling uncomfortably full.
You might know uncomfortably full. Uncomfortably full is right after you eat that second helping of Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing and then the sheer volume of it all hits at once. Uncomfortably full is when the Super Bowl chips and queso just keep winding up in your lap and then at halftime you’ve got no more room anywhere. Uncomfortably full is when you think that lunch means three tacos and you keep holding the line even when a single one of them would have done just fine. Uncomfortably full leaves you satiated and regretful at the same time. Uncomfortably full is when we take more than we need, or when we think we need more than we really need, or when we can’t be satisfied with just enough. Uncomfortably full is when you have so much that it hurts, and there’s not much you can do about it. “Woe to you that are full” Jesus says, uncomfortably full, with nowhere to go.
Our lectionary Gospel this morning takes up the first half of Luke’s story of the Sermon on the Mount. You will know this sermon best from its transcription in Matthew’s Gospel, which famously includes the classic version of the Beatitudes that the choir just sang. Luke’s version has minor differences of phrasing but also two major changes. The first is that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is actually not standing on a mountain; he’s actually just come down from a mountaintop and the text makes clear that he and stands “on a level place,” and so we refer to this sermon instead as the Sermon on the Plain, someplace where he can look the crowd right in the eye. And the second, and potentially more dramatic difference is that Luke’s account of the Beatitudes includes not only the dispensation of blessings — “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” — but also a dispensation of woes. Woe to you that are full now, for you will be hungry.”
It’s not obvious what we are supposed to do with these woes. It’s not a word we use much in everyday speech — I almost never go around talking about my woes, though if I did, I’d probably be making a list of complaints or things that make me feel bad. That doesn’t seem to be quite what Jesus is up to. For a minute it feels like maybe he’s handing out curses to go alongside the blessings, like he is standing there on the Plain and assigning heavenly or not-heavenly fates to each one of his listeners — Woe to you, and woe to you, and woe to you. But I’m not sure that Jesus is really prescriptive in that way; I think he’s just trying to describe the world that he sees. Part of what makes up the backbone of Jesus’s sermon both here and in Matthew is this deep reliance on existing wisdom literature, both Jewish and Greek, pockets of which would certainly reinforce a way of seeing the world where blessed are those whose tables are full of food and whose accounts are full of money but Jesus wants to describe something different. He wants his hearers to see with new eyes. So blessed are those who are hungry now.
And woe to you who are full. It’s not a fate that Jesus assigns. It’s an invitation to see the moment differently than we’ve seen it before. What if you’re not just full? What if you’re uncomfortably full? What if you’ve eaten too much? What if you’ve eaten more than you needed? What if you thought you needed more than you really did? What if we haven’t been satisfied with just enough? My friend and theologian Rick Spalding digs in to these woes and says that maybe the best translation for the word is “Trapped.” Trapped are you who are full now. It was supposed to be the feast of the kingdom but instead we ate too much. It was supposed to be the rivers of the city of God but instead we drank too much. Instead we took more than we needed. Instead we took more than enough. And now we have so much that it hurts. And the Gospel of the Sermon on the Plain is that Jesus looks us in the eye and says that the stuff we thought was a blessing has trapped us, and blinded us. Woe is us.
This seems crucial, particularly here in the land of infinite tacos. As you know, many of you better than me, this city has seen an influx of wealth and prosperity over the last generation that is almost unfathomable. Technology companies have brought in vast amounts of spending, alongside money in education and health care and government that has propelled this city out and up at a pace that even after only two years here kind of boggle my own mind. What I worry about, as the light glistens off the skyscrapers of steel and glass, what I worry about is what blinds us and what we don’t see. Sarah and I are fortunate enough to live in a comfortable house in a comfortable neighborhood and in our comfortable neighborhood we are surrounded by families who send their kids to the same school that Charlie goes to and within the cycle of birthday parties and PTA fundraisers and morning commutes in which we constantly encounter each other it feels to me very much like we are all eating approximately the same number of tacos.
And then this week the school sent home a copy of the 2018 State Report Card for Charlie’s elementary school, which calculated that 37.5% of his classmates are classified as economically disadvantaged. At once I have no trouble believing this number and also it is completely invisible to my normal experience of being a school parent. It is also notably lower than the number next to it — for the Austin School District, wherein 53.4 % of students have the same disadvantaged classification. Here in a city overflowing with wealth and opportunity and innovation and all those fancy words and more than half of the public school students in the district don’t have enough. Now this would be a terrible statistic no matter what. It should not happen, full stop, in a community with this level of wealth or in a country with any sort of commitment to moral decency. But what I find so gut-wrenching is how trivially easy it can be for those of us with comfort not to see any of it at all. Woe to those of us who are full.
And then perhaps there’s some grace in feeling hungry. When I was a teenage boy who could literally just eat everything, I would get excited when I came to church on Communion Sundays because that meant that even during worship there would also be snacks. For me, as a fifteen-year-old, 75 minutes was a long time to go between snacks, and if I could get a little bite along the way, so much the better. Of course, that doesn’t quite work. The Sunday communion practice at my home church was not that much unlike ours and a little crumb of bread or a little pre-cut cube was hardly going to put much of a dent in the constant hunger in my stomach. In some ways it even made the problem worse — like it was just a tease for the lunch that I wasn’t yet free to go eat, it just reminded me of the food I could be eating, it just ratcheted up the hunger pangs that I had managed to suppress all through the service until that moment. Which I know is not precisely the way we are meant to think theologically about the act of Communion. It’s meant to overwhelm us with the abundance of the kingdom. It’s meant to fill us with grace. But maybe part of that grace is that it can leave us a little hungry, too.
Maybe part of that grace is that this little piece of bread can leave us hungry for a world where everybody has just as much as they need. Maybe part of that grace is that this little glass of wine can leave us thirsty for a world where nobody ends up parched. Maybe part of that grace is that the abundance of the kingdom can help us see the world around us as it is, that Jesus shows up here and stands on a level place and looks us in the eye and tells us how it is. In just a few moments we will all gather around the table and receive these gifts of God for the people of God and I surely hope that they will nourish you for the journey ahead of you this week and I surely hope that they will strengthen you for the work to which God calls you and I surely hope that they will satisfy you as with the abundance of the kingdom. But if they also leave you a little hungry. A little hungry to see this world as it is. A little hungry to seek justice in this world as it is. A little hungry to bring the abundance of the kingdom into this world as it is. If you leave here a little hungry. That may just be the table doing its work, thanks be to God.