Sermon

 

 

The Rector’s sermon for February 17, 2019         

                                                                                                                         

 

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26


 

Today’s Gospel passage is one of the interpretations of what we know as “The Beatitudes.”  But Luke’s version isn’t the typical go-to version that’s warm and fuzzy.  Luke’s version you might call “Blessings and Woes.”

                 

A man by the name of Lorenzo Jensen III, who grew up poor, published a list of woes he thought about in retrospect.  Among the standouts on that list are:

  • Going to Grandma’s house because there’s nothing to eat at your house
  • No Christmas
  • Ketchup sandwich
  • Trying to cook and serve dinner loud enough to cover up the sound of your mom crying in her bedroom because she can’t afford to pay the electric bill this month
  • Drinking sugar water to stay alive
  • You can’t replace things you break
  • Not everyone graduates from high school or goes to college
  • Getting a serious injury but not being able to afford a doctor
  • Sleeping in a coat because you can’t afford to heat your home

        

Without much effort, I’m sure we could ask around and add to that list, and we might be very surprised. With that list rolling around in your thoughts, you may find it confusing that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor ...”

                 

If you have ever been poor, hungry, sad or excluded, you probably look at those times of your life as some of the hardest. And if you’re currently in the midst of difficult times, you are looking for a way out, and that’s pretty normal.  So how could Jesus honestly say that these things bring blessings to our lives?

                 

In Matthew’s listing of these “blessings,” there are additional qualifiers that soften the blow.  In Matthew we read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit ... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ... Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake ...”  Matthew adds the spiritual side and we can at least make sense of those, but Luke’s list has no such qualifiers.  Still, Jesus speaks truth, so how do we deal with life’s “blessings” when they come?

                 

 “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”   This is reminiscent of when Jesus took up the scroll in the synagogue at the beginning of His ministry.  He read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   Clearly, in Jesus’ thinking, in his preaching and in his actions, the poor are not overlooked and ignored; the poor are lifted up as inheritors of the kingdom of God!  Imagine if you were poor and how you would have felt hearing those words of Jesus.  Imagine your sense of joy and satisfaction when, after being overlooked and ignored for so long, someone finally recognizes you!  And that recognition is not simply that you exist, but that you matter — you matter to God and you matter to the world around you.  It’s the Good News:  Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

                 

 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”  Here is another ignored part of society.  And something to take note of:  Jesus doesn’t say, “Food stamps are on the way.”  Notice that the promise in this blessing is in the future ... you will be filled.  Like the poor, the hungry have no important or loud voice to highlight their need.  Yet they have not been overlooked or ignored by Almighty God.  This promise is a reminder of The Magnificat, that beautiful prayer spoken by Mary after her cousin Elizabeth recognizes that she is carrying the Savior of the world.  Mary said, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Again, as with the poor, the fact that Jesus recognizes the plight of the hungry gives them a voice that cannot be ignored.

                 

 “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  Psalm 30 says the same thing: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  Again, the promise in this blessing is a future promise — but it is a divine promise nonetheless.  And once again, a group of people often overlooked are elevated.

                 

 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 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.”  Jesus’ blessing is a condemnation of the world’s treatment of those who believe in him.  When people hate you because of your love of Jesus… when people exclude you because you follow Jesus, when people make negative comments because you go to church every Sunday…the problem is with those who hate.  But for you?  Rejoice! For great is your reward in heaven.

                 

Now Jesus turns things upside down with this list of woes.  In each case, the woe is pronounced against that which, in any other circumstance, would be considered a blessing.  Being rich isn’t all that life is about.  Having all the food and drink you could possibly want isn’t what’s important.  Joy cannot be measured in laughter.  Remember Paul’s letters written from prison.  “I have joy,” he said in many different ways.  And if you think that those who speak well of you are always truthful, and will be there to back you up?  How quickly Jesus gave clarity, and how quickly Jesus reversed the prevailing wisdom of the age with these woes.

                 

But I think we are left with a question that must be asked.  In Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, old Scrooge is shown, through a series of dreams or visions, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be — how his life will turn out.  Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be if this future is certain.  When given the opportunity, he pledges he will change his ways to avoid this outcome.  Scrooge’s heart and future are changed for the better.  But that’s just a story.

                 

The question that must be asked is this: “Is there anything we can do to change the ‘woes’ Jesus pronounced?”  On the one side, the answer is clear:  Changing nothing will make the “woes” a reality ... with disastrous results. Jesus is simply stating the obvious: riches and self-centeredness can, and sometimes do, make people so reliant upon their status and resources that no room is left in their lives for God.  Later in Luke’s Gospel, he provides an example of this truth in the story of the rich young man.  The man asks Jesus:  “What must I do to attain eternal life,” and Jesus tells him, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  For that rich young man, his fate was set; he changed nothing.

                 

 Later in Luke’s Gospel, however, he gives another example of how the rich can change and alter their own lives and the lives of those around them.  The story of Zacchaeus…he gets the need for change.  He says to Jesus: “‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’  Then Jesus says to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”      

                 

In just about every town and city throughout the United States, there are people, churches and other groups that take the plight of the poor and needy very seriously.  Sacrificial giving is the order of the day. While struggling to meet their budgets and payrolls, they nevertheless continue to make helping the poor a top priority.

                 

In those same towns and cities, there are other people, churches and groups who prove by their actions that the poor are way down the list in their priorities and use of resources.

                 

Blessings and woes.  Where do you — where do we and our church — fit in?