A Sermon for 17 February 2019
A reading from the gospel of Luke 6:17-26. And remember that right before the reading we hear today, the gospel of Luke records that Jesus choses 12 to be apostles – ones sent out in the world to carry on his mission. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Jesus came down with them (the twelve) 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. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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. 24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 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. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God!
Ah! The beloved beatitudes according to the gospel of Luke: the blessings and the woes. Blessed! Blessed are the poor! Blessed are the hungry! Blessed are they who mourn! Blessed are the rejected! Rejoice and be glad for theirs is the kingdom of God!
I don’t know about you; but all I can ask is: why?
The closest I’ve ever come to being poor has been trying to eek by on little to no money coming in as I worked my way through a very expensive Divinity School degree on SpaghettiOs, oatmeal, and plain rice – which was about all I could afford in those days. Honestly: it didn’t feel very much like a blessing. Most of us only have been truly hungry because we forgot to get ourselves up or out of whatever we’d been doing to make our way into plentiful kitchens, with running water, and electricity to ensure a refrigerator full of fresh food and drink. Can we imagine real hunger? Pain in our bellies because there is no food to be found. No freshwater. Again. Because of the circumstances of our lives. Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be hungry? And what about mourning? We all know this one – or will at some point in our lives if we’re willing to open our hearts enough to truly love. To allow ourselves to fall deeply in love with a partner or a friend or a child or a vocation so much so that our own insides literally feel broken when they are no more. When things fall apart. When our loved one dies. When it all comes to an end. Any of us who have truly loved – which I imagine is every one of us sitting in this room – know how it feels to mourn. In that dark pit, it doesn’t feel very blessed, does it? Why would anybody say blessed are they who mourn? And what about those being hated, rejected, reviled? While I’ve known my fair share of struggles as a woman in this biz – one who sometimes doesn’t fit others’ expectations – I don’t remember ever experiencing the evil face of hatred. Some of us may know this one better than others and I doubt that it feels very much like a blessing to be told that who you are or what you represent or what you believe or how you choose to live in this world is unacceptable. Worthy of persecution through fear mongering or violating crime or riotous rage. Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be reviled, rejected, persecuted on account of the Son of Man?
Maybe it would help to remember what it means to be blessed. To have the favor of another upon us. In The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, Christine Valters Paintner writes a whole chapter on “The Practice of Blessing Each Moment.” She explains the verb blessing. She writes: “Blessing is to live life from a place of gratitude, to offer thanks and honor for everything that we have, taking nothing for granted. When we remember to bless . . . we begin to live from an enlarged sense of being” (Sorin Books: 2018; p. 39). Paintner’s definition comes close to what the opposite way of living is like – the way Jesus warns with woe. Paintner writes: “At the heart of this practice and way of life is paying mindful attention to our lives. I know hours, days, and weeks can go by sometimes before I discover I have been skimming the surface of things, preoccupied by too many tasks to complete.” Paintner continues: “My calendar and to-do lists become misplaced holy grails.” . . . She concludes: “When we skate through life’s endless demands on us, we lose our connection to (the) deep well of nourishment” (Ibid., p. 40). Perhaps there’s no guarantee that poverty, hunger, mourning, being despised will lead to staying connected to The Deep Well of Nourishment that is God. But isn’t it the case, that when there is less of me (as Eugene Peterson’s take on the gospel of Matthew’s beatitudes goes in Peterson’s biblical translation called The Message). When there is less of me, there is more of God and God’s reign. When we’re at the end of our own ropes, we’ve no where left to turn to but to God and God’s people. When we’ve lost all that really matters to us, our arms are left open to be embraced by the only One who really matters (paraphrase of Matthew 5:3-4). When we can manage on our own, why bother to call upon God for anything?
I wonder about that a lot when I reflect upon the big picture view of what’s happening in so many churches today. Everywhere we look it appears as if we’re in lean days as the body of Christ. And then I remember what I’ve noticed in myself – what I’ve noticed in you and in other churches I’ve served these last ten or more years of significant cultural shifts. Churches are doing things they never, ever, ever would have tried before. Opening their doors, their hearts, their minds – not just on Sundays, but on Mondays through Saturdays too. I have a sister who is staff support for the older adult ministry organization of Presbyterians who has told me of all sorts of senior adult ministries happening all throughout the week in congregations that used to do little more than Sunday morning worship. I read about churches beginning Holy Grounds coffee shops in strip malls to get to know whoever comes in – in particular: being open late nights Fridays after high school games for students to have a safe place to gather. I’ve heard of congregations doing things like Lenten podcasts for those who commute in the community – kicked off by drive through imposition ashes on Ash Wednesday. I see members of the body of Christ finding new ways to build meaningful spiritual connection with one another. And – as I heard one of you remind us last Sunday night regarding our Mending Heart lunches: welcoming through our open doors those who may no longer be welcomed by their biological families in their own homes. I behold it all and wonder: if everything was going just great – pews over-flowing and church coffers overstuffed – would any of these new ways of being disciples in the world be taking place? If we could manage it all on our own, would we need to rely so heavily on the winds of the Holy Spirit to blow fresh vision into Christians here and around the globe?
About the beatitudes as recorded in the gospel of Luke, one biblical commentator writes, “God does not take kindly to half-heartedness. God does not bless us as we maintain the status quo, reaping the accolades of those who hear us and follow us. God does not bless us as we bathe in respectability in the eyes of the world. God does not bless us as we quietly maintain tradition and gloss over or ignore prophetic voices calling us back to God – in the church and in the world. God does not bless us as we protect and build institutions and empires. God does not bless us, well off, full, comfortable, hearty, and well-spoken of. The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, David L. Ostendorf, p. 360). That same commentator writes: “God wants the entirety of our lives. The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God” (Ibid., p. 358). For let’s face it: only that which is empty can be filled up. Only that which is broken can be shared. Only those who know their need, can rightly ask.
Jesus wants his followers to know. The blessings. The woes. The joy of utter reliance upon God. The surprises we will see. The Way with space enough to unfold. Why? Because there, in the midst of what is rejected, broken, battered within and without – there in what is called the Pascal Mystery – there dwells God. Sovereign of all; crucified yet risen Christ!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).