February 13, 2022
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26
A few weeks ago, the billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya said on his podcast that “nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs.” He was speaking about the genocidal acts of the Chinese government against this Muslim minority population living in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. Governments around the world have condemned the incarceration of over a million Uyghur Muslims in internment camps, and many countries have staged a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics to protest these human rights abuses. Commenting on this situation on his podcast, he said, “nobody cares.” He went on: “Of all the things I care about, yes, this is below my line.”
His provocative remark sparked a fierce backlash. People everywhere said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up! How can you say that?” He eventually walked back his comments, admitting that human rights abuses matter wherever they occur. But it was too late; he had said what he had said. The interesting thing is that it actually sparked an important conversation. I really appreciated an editorial that appeared in the most recent issue of the Christian Century magazine. The editors wrote that the question Chamath raised is worth taking seriously. “There are so many problems in the world. Why should we care about what’s happening to the Uyghurs?” They concluded that maybe from a utilitarian perspective Chamath’s point of view is reasonable: “Most of us don’t have unlimited resources to marshal against injustice, and we typically have the greatest ability to help those who live closest to us.” But from a Christian perspective, they said, “caring about the suffering of strangers has inherent value. It can broaden our vision of whose lives matter. It can increase our capacity for empathy. It can also sharpen our ability to recognize evil…. Caring can lead to speaking out,” and “Christians believe in the power of words to shape reality—whether they’re spoken on a podcast by a famous billionaire, proclaimed in a sermon, or published by a religious body.”
Chamath’s ghastly remark had many people saying, “Whoa, hang on! That’s a terrible thing to say!” But the impact of his comment was that it sparked an important conversation and helped us get clarity about what matters and about what kind of world God wants us to live in.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is familiar to many of us. Actually, we’re probably more familiar with the version of this story found in Matthew’s Gospel, which is a little different. Both Matthew and Luke capture Jesus preaching this sermon in which he proclaims blessings on those accustomed to adversity and sorrow. But unlike Matthew’s version of the story, which has only blessings, Luke includes a series of woes: “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you who are laughing. Woe to you when all speak well of you.”
Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary wrote an interesting piece this week. She points out that in the ancient Greek language, “woe” is an interjection, a word used to get people’s attention—sort of like, “Hey!” or “Stop!” or “Whoa!” Karoline Lewis says maybe we should think of this word “woe” more like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up!” Maybe what Jesus is doing here with these “woes” is saying something that is intentionally controversial, something that challenges the well-established order, in order to get our attention. With his list of woes, Jesus is trying to stop us in our tracks. This part of his sermon causes us to interrupt and say, “Whoa, Jesus, come on. How can you say that?” He’s trying to spark a conversation that will get us thinking about what matters and what kind of world God has in mind for us.
In Luke’s Gospel, especially, Jesus’ ministry is about reorientation, trying to reshape people’s perspectives on questions like: Who is blessed? Who has value? Who is respectable? Who should we look up to? Later Jesus will tell a series of provocative parables that will cause his listeners to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up!” Parables that are intended to reorient people to a new way of seeing things and, most of all, to get clarity about what is most important. With this list of “woes” in today’s Gospel reading, I think Jesus is really trying to find a way to shake things up, to make us question our assumptions and ponder what really matters.
A few of you this past week shared with me an op-ed published in the New York Times by Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest. The title of the piece was, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Option,” and let’s just say that among my network of pastor friends and other church people, the overwhelming reaction to this piece was, “Whoa, hold up! Do you really mean to say we should stop including people who have found a welcome with us online?” At the end of the day, the impact of this op-ed was to get a lot of us thinking and talking about what really matters. Is it more important for everyone to be together in person or to welcome and include people who would otherwise be left behind? That’s actually a worthwhile conversation.
The past two years have forced us over and over again to say, “Whoa, hold up!” and to ask what is really most important. “Whoa, we have to cancel in-person worship services.” OK, well what’s most important about what we do when we gather for worship, and how can we translate that into online services? “Whoa, Sunday School has to be online, too.” OK, well what’s most important about our children’s Sunday School experience, and how we can approximate that on Zoom? “Whoa, we’ll need to move out of our sanctuary for six months.” OK, well what’s really most important about worship, and how can we do that with integrity in a temporary space? “Whoa, we need to have an annual meeting.” OK, well what’s the most important thing we do when we gather for congregational meetings, and how can we accomplish that in a hybrid online/in-person meeting?
It’s not exactly fun to be stopped in our tracks and forced to ask these questions. But the blessing in it for us—the blessing in the woes—is that these questions provide a new sense of clarity of what really matters, of what God intends for us and for our life together. The blessing is that we get to question our assumptions and reevaluate the status quo so we can cast off what no longer suits us and discern what is most important as we adapt to a different kind of future. Whoa, hold up! What is God trying to say to us today?
The Christian Century, “Why Should We Care?”, Vol. 139, No. 4, February 23, 2022.
Karoline Lewis, “Woes and Whoas,” on WorkingPreacher.org, published February 6, 2022, accessed February 11, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/woes-and-whoas.
Matthew Skinner on Sermon Brainwave, “#828: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – Feb. 13, 2022,” by WorkingPreacher.org,published February 6, 2022, accessed February 11, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/828-sixth-sunday-after-epiphany-feb-13-2022.
ish Harrison Warren, “Why Church Should Drop Their Online Services,” in the New York Times, published January 30, accessed February 11, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/opinion/church-online-services-covid.html.