Here’s what I said on Sunday for the Feast of All Saints.
It was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals.
So runs one of the most famous – if not the most famous – first line in literature. A much parodied first line that is everything that a first line is not meant to be. For who today has any idea who wrote that first line, or what work of fiction it introduced us to? In fact, it is most famously used by Snoopy – Charlie Brown’s dog in the long-running Peanuts carton strip. Snoopy – unusually for a dog – would from time to time decide to write a novel. He would sit down at his typewriter and begin – usually with the words It was a dark and stormy night.
The first line of a novel is so important. It can grab the reader’s attention – or it can put them totally off. And some first lines are so memorable that people often known them when they haven’t read, or don’t even know, the rest of the book. But a classic first line will immediately draw the reader in and give a very clear hint as the what the rest of the book will bring.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife: Jane Austen, of course, from Pride and Prejudice. One of the most famous first lines in English literature.
My own favourite first line, from one of my favourite books is Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again – from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – which immediately conveys the sense of foreboding and mystery that pervades the rest of the book.
Some first lines of course, are a total giveaway:In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. The hobbit, of course, by J R R Tolkien. And how about I am an invisible man – The invisible man, by H G Wells. And as for It was a dark and stormy night… it is, in fact, from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Lord Lytton – who was more famous for writing The Last Days of Pompeii.
Our gospel reading this morning is important, because it contains a great and highly significant first line. More of that in a moment. In these days of film and TV, the great first line is becoming a forgotten art. It’s only in films and television shows with commentary that it still exists. As soon as, for example, you hear the words These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise you know exactly what you’re going to get. But the usual practice in TV these days – so that you can make sense of what is to come, is to begin with those words “Previously on …” and then they let you know what has happened previously so that you don’t get lost and confused.
Well, in order to make some sense of today’s gospel reading, we need to do just that – have a quick recap on what has happened before. So … Previously in Luke’s Gospel. It’s still very early on in Jesus’ ministry. And we hear how Jesus goes up a mountain and prays – and he prays all night. And at soon as daybreak comes he calls his disciples to him – and from those disciples, his followers, he chooses twelve whom he names apostles. And that name – apostles – it important. For it literally means ‘one who is sent out’ – Luke is reminding us that these twelve particular disciples were chosen for a special task.
Then he goes with the twelve down to what Luke calls ‘a level place’ and gathering the twelve and, Luke says, a great multitude of people, he begins to talk to them. And this brings us to today’s gospel. For by understanding what has gone before, we now know that the words that Jesus speaks are the first words that Luke reports Jesus as saying after he chooses his apostles. The opening scene, as it were, of this week’s episode – the very first line of the script – Jesus stands up and says: Blessed are you who are poor …
This, for Luke, is setting the agenda for the rest of gospel. He is telling us what Jesus is about.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
And so begins the section in Luke know as the Sermon on the Plain, with Jesus giving the Beatitudes. It corresponds with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, which of course also begins with the Beatitudes. With one highly important difference. We are so familiar with Matthew’s version:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn …
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
And we miss what Luke is saying. For Matthew’s version – the one we all think about when we talk about the Beatitudes, is spiritual. Luke’s isn’t. In Luke Jesus is dealing with economic and social conditions. And he is so blunt that we deal with the harsh reality of what Jesus is saying by spiritualising it and assuming he meant what he meant in Matthew. But Luke is very clear.
Blessed are you who are poor. Not blessed are you poor in spirit but blessed are you poor, blessed are you who have little or no money, nowhere to live.
Blessed are you who hunger now. Not blessed are you who hunger and thirst after righteousness, but blessed are you who are starving, who cannot get enough to eat.
Blessed are you who weep. Not blessed are you who mourn but blessed are you who live any kind of life where you are oppressed or downtrodden or uncared for.
And, Luke, unlike Matthew, goes on and shows Jesus presenting us with a challenge. For Jesus has harsh, uncomfortable, uncompromising words for those who are not economically poor or unable to feed themselves.
Woe to you who are rich – for you have received your consolation. Nothing there about those who are in the middle and reasonably comfortable – your one or the other according to Jesus.
Woe to you who are full – for you shall hunger.
And so, having chosen the twelve apostles, Jesus sets out his manifesto in his opening words in the Sermon on the Plain. And the rest of Luke’s gospel is spent showing us how Jesus has come for the materially poor and the physically starving and the oppressed.
So where does that leave us? For we cannot avoid the reality that many – though not all – of us are comparatively well off. We are certainly rich when compared to most in our world. While there may be times when we feel we are struggling to make ends meet most of us have a roof over our heads, and manage to feed and clothe ourselves. But many in our own country today go without basics that others take for granted.
To go back to our TV theme – many programmes now end with “Next time on…” and we get to see what is happening next week.
Blessed are you who are poor … woe to you who are rich
Blessed are you who hunger … woe to you who are full
Blessed are you who weep … woe to you who laugh.
What is “Next time…” for Saint John’s church? What is “Next time…” for you? How will Jesus’ words this morning make a difference to your life so that next week is different from this week? Can we learn to start getting a right perspective about the good things we have – seeing them as God-given and to be shared – not self-earned and to be held onto. Can we learn that as followers of Christ we are called to join the poor and the hungry and the weeping so that together we can share that happy ending in the eternal kingdom of God with all the saints – so that we can be ranked among the blessed?