Comfort & Challenge
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 6:17-26
We had some technical difficulties towards the end of the recording, so please forgive when the video cuts out at the end. The audio is fine!
I’m going to let you in on a little homiletics secret from seminary. Homiletics, by the way, is just the fancy academic word for preaching. And the secret is this: broadly speaking, there are only two kinds of sermons—pastoral and prophetic.
A pastoral sermon is one that comforts those who are suffering. The preacher recognizes how the community might be suffering together: a death in the church, an economic downturn, a major disaster, a pandemic. And they speak to how God is present in that suffering. “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Perhaps the most well known pastoral passage in the Bible. King James Version, because I know when that translation still has its uses.
A pastoral sermon acknowledges hardship, assures us that God is present with us, and points us to the resurrection hope that is to come.
Then there’s the prophetic sermon. We often think of the word prophet or prophecy is about the preordained future to come. Recognizing signs that point us to a calamitous or utopian future—utopian for those who believe and calamitous for those who don’t. Many of us were taught that the book of Revelation is “prophetic” language for the return of Jesus to the earth. Plagues of locusts, nations rising against nation, the rise of false prophets. These are the signs.
And while I wouldn’t say that’s totally accurate, I also wouldn’t say that it’s not. Because the things we do, the choices we make, the ways we live DO shape the future. I just don’t think there are specific, pre-ordained signs pointing us to some pre-ordained future. I DO think that God created us and that we are, at our core, very good, and therefore capable of making manifest God’s kingdom on earth. If enough of us trust in God’s grace, if enough of us live as Jesus called us, God’s kingdom will come.
It’s not as dramatic as signs and wonders, but it’s just as profound.
So a prophetic sermon doesn’t predict the future, a prophetic sermon challenges us to step into the future God has prepared for us, to put our faith in action. The prophetic preacher recognizes the gaps between who we say we are as followers of Jesus and how we’re actually living. The prophetic preacher calls us to create the future in Jesus’s image.
And Jesus—Jesus was a brilliant preacher. As we see today in our gospel. Today, we hear Luke’s version of the beatitudes and woes. The Sermon on the Plain in contrast to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. And there is a significant difference between the two.
In Matthew, Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Let’s remember that both Luke and Matthew were derived from the same two original sources, the gospel of Mark and something called the Q document. Luke and Matthew each took this same material and put their own spin on it—some of the first interpreters of Jesus and his life and teachings. Matthew interpreted Jesus through a Jewish lens, speaking to fellow Jews. Luke, on the other hand, was speaking to gentiles.
Neither was more “right” than the other. They were just two different people living in two very different communities. Throw in the gospel of John, and we have four very different gospels with four very different approaches to who Jesus was and what he meant.
I think it says something about the early leaders of our church that all four were included in our Bible, all next to each other even with their differing accounts. But I digress.
Like I said, In Matthew, Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” But in Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Full stop. “Blessed are you who are hungry now.”
Luke brings us into the present. It’s not a spiritual poverty, a spiritual hunger that Jesus is talking about, it’s real poverty, real hunger. In Luke, Jesus is calling us to people’s real, material condition. He is concerned about people's bodily well-being right now.
And what makes Jesus so compelling is that in the same breath, he is both pastoral and prophetic. He both comforts and challenges. Because no matter who we are or what our situation is, we need both. Maybe one to a different degree than the other, but Jesus recognizes that without comfort, without hope, he cannot even start challenging us to live differently. I don’t think Jesus is talking to one group of people when he says “blessed are,” and a different group of people when he says “woe to you.” He’s comforting all of us. Giving us all hope. And he’s challenging all of us.
Right now. In this material world. In this body. Not for the well-being of our soul in the afterlife—we’ll leave that to Matthew—but for our well-being right now in this life.
Jesus is asking, Are you hungry? Weeping? How are you in need? Where do you need comfort right now? Where do you need shoring up? How do you need to be tended to and strengthened by God’s hope?
Because Jesus is there for all of that, ready with a blessing, ready to bring sustenance.
But we all know that Jesus is present on this earth through us. Taking communion reminds us of this every Sunday. We, the Body of Christ, are the ones who bring God’s blessing to others. We, the Body of Christ, are the ones who bring food to those who are hungry. We, the Body of Christ, are the ones who bring comfort to those who are weeping.
And woe to us if we seek to get what we need to survive and thrive without seeking to make sure others get what they need. Woe to us if we seek to be filled without seeking ways to make sure others are filled. Woe to us if we seek to be comforted without also seeking to comfort.
Jesus gives us hope that we may share that hope. Because hope hoarded is not hope, it’s fear. Resources hoarded is not faithful, it’s fearful. And not just spiritual resources. Real resources. Food. Money.
When we’re suffering, when we’re in need, God’s comfort doesn’t show up in a ray of light, in a disembodied feeling of love. Well, maybe it does. Sometimes. More often, though, it shows up in the people who show up for us. The people who sit with us in our pain, who bring us meals when we can’t feed ourselves, who support us when we can’t support ourselves.
In today’s gospel, we are called to open ourselves to receiving when we’re in need. AND, when we have been comforted and strengthened, we’re also called to be the people who show up, who give. It’s an ebb and flow.
And I think when we quiet ourselves, when we let ourselves really hear Jesus’ words in this gospel, we know what we need.