I Contain Multitudes

Sermon for Sunday, February 13, 2022 || Epiphany 6C || Luke 6:17-26

There is a very silly scene in the very silly movie Life of Brian by Monty Python. Actually, the movie is fairly deep, but you have to dig through the silliness to find its depth. The movie follows Brian, a person unfortunate enough to have been born in the stable next to Jesus. In the silly scene near the beginning of the film, the camera pans away from Jesus speaking his famous Beatitudes; you know, blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, etc. The camera pans away from Jesus and settles on a group of people way at the back of the crowd, who are struggling to hear Jesus.

“What was that?” one man says.

“I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers,’” another replies.

“What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” a third asks.

The first man responds, “Well, obviously, it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

The scene goes on for another minute like this, but the group eventually gives up and leaves because they can’t hear what Jesus is saying. That’s the important bit. Did you notice in today’s Gospel lesson whom Jesus is talking to? There’s a great crowd around him, but his inner circle of followers – his disciples – are the ones who can actually hear what he’s saying. He’s teaching the disciples, and the rest of the crowd is struggling to hear.

I know this may sound like a silly detail to focus on, but I think it’s important to note that Jesus is speaking directly to people who are already following him. I also think it’s important to remember the audience for Jesus’ words here is not really the people he’s talking to in the story. His audience is the people who are reading Luke’s Gospel or listening to it being proclaimed – people like us.

So, why am I harping on Jesus’ audiences being first his disciples and second his later followers reading the Gospel? We need to see that Jesus speaks to his followers both the blessings and the woes. He does not reserve the blessings for his companions and the woes for his detractors. No, both the blessings and the woes are meant to be heard by those who follow him.

And these blessings and woes are directed right at the listener. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks the Beatitudes more generally: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But in Luke’s version of this story that we read today, Jesus speaks directly to the individual: “Blessed are you who are poor.” This makes Luke’s version more visceral, more immediate, and, yes, more confrontational. We all want to hear Jesus tell us how we are blessed. And exactly none of us wants to hear Jesus tell us how we might be sowing woe.

And that’s precisely why we need to stick with Jesus for this whole passage. His words invite deep introspection among his own followers as to how they – how we – contribute to the woes of the world. It’s human nature to cast ourselves as the protagonists – the good guys – of the story. We want to be Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter or the Avengers, not the Emperor or Voldemort or Thanos. We want to go on that hero’s journey, overcoming obstacles, defeating evil. We want to slay the dragon.

And I assure you, we all have that hero inside us. We all carry the light and love of God’s presence within us. We all can be vessels of God’s tremendous blessings. At the same time, as Walt Whitman famously wrote: “I contain multitudes.” We carry the light of God, yes, and we also own the ability not to shine it. Worse, we own the capacity to try to extinguish that light in others.

As a novelist, I have set myself the challenge of getting into the heads of my villains. Do you know the single trait that connects nearly all bad guys?* They think they’re the heroes. They justify their motives in one way or another to make their actions palatable, and soon their moral frameworks skew to allow all manner of horrors in the name of their so-called heroic plans.

Jesus understands human nature so well. He knows we want to see ourselves as the heroes of the story, and not as cogs in the machinery of woe. And that’s why he speaks both blessings and woes. In effect, he says, do not turn away from this reality, this reality that we contain multitudes, that sometimes we bless and sometimes we injure. And when we injure, the injury often happens because of our thoughtless conformity to the unjust priorities of the world. So with God’s help, we turn thoughtlessness into thoughtfulness.

In today’s passage, Jesus wakes up the multitudes within us. The whole next section of his words in Luke Chapter 6 is a master class in making hard choices so that we train ourselves to trend toward the blessings and away from the woes.

Love your enemies…bless those who curse you…turn the other cheek…walk the extra mile…give to everyone who begs from you…do unto others as you would have them do to you…lend expecting nothing in return…do not judge…forgive…examine your own biases…build your life on a firm foundation.

None of these actions is easy. But every one of them is heroic. These actions form the life Jesus lived and the life he calls us to live. Jesus is the true hero, and we can line up behind him, helping to shower this world with blessings.

This week, I invite you to spend some time in prayer, asking God to help you get in touch with your own multitudes. In what ways does God bless the world through you? Praise God for them and recommit yourself to shining the light of Christ through them. Also ask God in what ways do you contribute to the woes of the world? How can you partner with God to turn those woes into blessings? Perhaps you will uncover complicity in unjust systems of oppression or unconcern for environmental crises or a general apathy towards brightening the future. Whatever woe you find in your own multitudes, I urge you not to turn away from it or bury it. Allow those unheroic parts to exist alongside the heroic ones. Compare them. Contrast them. And see how the woeful multitudes are sickly and emaciated in comparison to the robust multitudes of blessing. The woeful ones don’t stand a chance at dominating because they are not of God. They injure and impoverish us just as they injure and impoverish the world. God desires nothing more than for us to choose to let go our woeful parts and embrace the utter abundance of God’s blessings.

Sometimes Jesus seems far away and we have trouble hearing him, like the characters in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. But the truth is, the crowds clamoring for Jesus exist within each of us, for we contain multitudes. Jesus speaks within each of us. Jesus speaks words of love and liberation. And we have ears to listen.

*Some fictional villains like Batman’s Joker just want to see the world burn.

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