By Rev. Sarah Buteux
Epiphany 6, Year C
Before we begin, there is a confession I need to make. In the interest of full disclosure, there is something you need to know before I even pretend I can help interpret this morning’s scripture reading, and it is this:.
I am blessed…like seriously blessed…and apparently not in a good way.
You need to know that I ate breakfast this morning – two eggs with cheese, washed down with my favorite tea, all of which I cooked in my beautiful new kitchen while laughing with my precious daughter. In this very moment, standing here in front of you I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I am rich, I am full, and I am happy.
I love my family. I love my house. I love my church. I have my health plus insurance. I have friends and a good reputation. And we have a summer house in Maine, which honestly sometimes feels like overkill.
I mean how many good things can one person have? I actually have such a good life that sometimes it makes me nervous. And not just because of Jesus, though reading this passage does give me serious pause. It makes me nervous because sometimes it all feels like too much.
Sometimes it feels as if all the goodness in my life is just a set-up for some cosmic reversal…like it’s just a matter of time before I cross the street and get hit by a bus.
Hopefully just metaphorically speaking, because that would be a rough way to go, but do you all know what I mean? Does anyone else ever feel this way? Do you ever look around at your life and think: who am I to have all this? Especially when you’re well aware that there are people who have so much less than you do, or who are dealing with so much more.
But then, on the other hand – and here my confession continues – I admit that there are other times when I look at, say, my car – my cute little Honda Fit that I love, love, love- and rather than think, “I am so blessed to have a car,” wonder at how crappy it is compared to all the newer, nicer cars all around it.
I may love my house, but sometimes it seems really small, at least compared to some of the bigger homes down the street.
My kids are great, but I could probably do better. No, I’m kidding, I don’t actually think that. Except on Wednesdays.
And although I mostly feel blessed and only occasionally self conscious about serving a church that can afford two pastors, I was shocked and maybe even a little jealous to read this past week about Trinity Wall Street. Did you all see that article in the N.Y.T.?
They have a 6 Billion dollar endowment. Imagine all the good you could do with 6 billion dollars? I was afraid we were rich until I read that, but compared to them – thank you Jesus – we’re poor as church mice. Compared to them, we’re barely getting by.
All of which is to say: sometimes I feel blessed and sometimes I feel woe. Things could always be worse, but they could also always be better. I’m not poor, but compared to some, I’m not exactly rich either. Do you know what I mean?
And yet, if I’m honest, my sense of what constitutes better or worse, richer or poorer…my sense of what constitutes blessing or woe, seems diametrically opposed to what Jesus lays out in our reading this morning. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.
It is such a strange passage because you see the word “Blessed” literally means “happy,” and it’s really hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea that it is the poor, depressed, and despised people of this world who are truly happy rather than all the rich, well respected, instagram worthy people most of us aspire to be.
It is natural to read a passage like this and wonder: does Jesus really want me to be sad? How will that make me happy?
Does Jesus really want me to be poor, hungry, and unloved?
Why would that make him happy?
And not for nothing, but am I really too blessed to be saved?
And I’m going to tell you, straight up, right now, I’m not entirely sure. Please don’t fire me, but the truth is: I don’t always understand Jesus. And Oh, how I’d love to follow that up by saying, but I trust him.
However, one look at my life, and that’s not entirely true either. The truth is that I struggle to understand him and I struggle to trust him, but I do believe, deep down, that his way is the best way -whether I get it or not – and that Jesus loves me no matter what.
And I do believe that if this is the gospel then there is good news buried somewhere in here for me and for you, if we have the courage and the patience to hold out for it. So let’s take a step back, look at these words in their larger context, and see if we can’t find it.
Go ahead and pick up your bulletins or your Bibles so you have the scripture handy. Are you ready? Good, because this is about to get real.
The first thing I want you to notice is where Luke places Jesus during this sermon. These words he preaches sound familiar, right? They sound just like the words he preaches in the Gospel of Matthew, at the beginning of his most famous sermon, the sermon on the _______. Well done. But Jesus isn’t preaching from on high today, is he? Where is he? On a level place, yes. In Luke, this is called the, “Sermon on the Plain.”
When we catch up with Jesus he’s actually just come down from the mountain where he’d called 12 of his disciples to step up and be his apostles. And I imagine they were feeling pretty good about themselves. It would seem that they are taking their own sweet time coming down after him.
But Jesus, seeing the crowd milling around at the bottom of the mountain, rushes down and dives right into this massive sea of human need.
As the disciples are trying to catch up, power starts flowing out of Jesus. He can’t touch people fast enough, so they’re touching him; pressing in, pushing forward, holding up babies for him to kiss, making way for the old and infirm to get close.
And it’s not just Jewish people who have gathered, but Gentiles as well; not just good, conservative salt of the earth sort of people, but arugula eating coastal elites from godless places like Tyre and Sidon ; ).
Jesus come right down to everyone’s level – the good, the bad, the ugly – and, while he is healing them all, looks up the hill to his disciples and begins to preach. Everyone can hear him, but there’s a special word in all this for them, even up where they are.
Now, here is the second thing I want you to notice. Jesus is employing a familiar pattern in his sermon of blessings and woes. He’s riffing on the holiness code in Deuteronomy and the established motifs of proverbs and prophets, which typically go something like this:
Be a good doobie and God will be good to you.
Love the Lord your God and you will live long and prosper.
(Spock hand signal)
But forsake God and you’ll get what’s coming to you.
Curse God, and God will curse you.
Only Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus, from the midst of a huge crowd of seemingly cursed and definitely suffering people, looks up at his disciples and says this instead:
“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.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
I can just see him putting his arms around someone who is really hurting as he says that.
“Blessed are you when people hate you..exclude… revile… and defame you on account of the son of man…
But woe to you who are rich…woe to you who are full…woe to you who are laughing and respectable,”
because for you – and these are my words now –
this is as good as it gets, and God can give you so much more.
Jesus isn’t just turning an old formula upside down and inside out, he’s shattering it. He’s not just saying that the cursed are blessed and the blessed are cursed, he’s saying that a whole new world order is on its way, a world where you can’t earn your way into God’s good graces by being holy. Jesus is calling all of us, the rich and the poor, the happy and sad, into a deeper relationship with God.
He’s calling us into something other than a quid pro quo sort of arrangement where we do right by God so God will do right by us, into a relationship where we do the right thing out of love for God rather than fear of punishment.
As a side note, please don’t think for a moment I think the Jewish people didn’t get this but thanks to Jesus, we Christians do. I think you will find that people across time and faith have always struggled with this and very few of us ever truly get it.
Which is why I believe that God came to us in the person of Jesus, because it’s just that hard to understand. As Jesus heals the so called cursed and undeserving, as he lavishes his presence and power on the least of these, he wants us all to see that God is more loving and generous and full of grace than we can ever conceive or imagine.
Just as God lets his rain fall on the good and the evil alike, Jesus is allowing his healing power to flow out and over everyone, whether they’re good or not, whether they get it or not.
Which brings us to the third thing I want you to notice, and that is that these new blessings and woes don’t work the way the old ones did.
This is not a new set of directions for what you need to do in order to be blessed.
Jesus is not saying that God’s blessing is only for the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the unpopular, with the implication that we ought to go out and do what we need to do to become just like them. Jesus isn’t like some puritanical version of Marie Kondo, only without that extra spark of joy.
I think he is simply acknowledging the reality his disciples are are bound to live into if they stick with him. Think about “The Twelve” for a minute.
They weren’t necessarily poor, hungry, sad, or unpopular when Jesus found them. That isn’t why he chose them. But now, on account of their choice to follow him, they will come to know what it is to experience all of these things, just as we will if we follow in their footsteps.
Which is to say that if you choose to follow Jesus you may come to find yourself poor, not because he only loves the poor, but because the money you do have just isn’t as important to you as it used to be. Wealth will no longer be an end in itself, but a means by which you can do good in the world, and you’re going to want to do a lot of good.
You may suddenly find yourself going hungry at times, not because Jesus prefers the starving, but because once you choose to follow him it feels better to share what you have rather than keep it all to yourself.
As a disciple of Christ you will cry more, because you will care more. You will offend people more often because you will feel compelled to speak up more often. You won’t be able to let things pass or look the other way, as you used too.
Poverty, hunger, sadness, exclusion, these are not credentials you need to earn to become a disciple… they are merely the natural consequences of living as one.
Which leads us to the big question: will such a life make you happy; really and truly happy? Is Jesus telling the truth when he says that his disciples are blessed? Well, not by the world’s standards, but by the standards of the kingdom, yes, paradoxically, living this way might just make you happier than you’ve ever dared to be.
I think this is at the heart of what Jesus is trying to communicate. In the midst of the joy he feels as he heals all those people in the crowd, he looks up at his disciples and he says:
Do you see now how good it is to be poor? Everybody back home thought you were throwing your life away when you left your nets to follow me, but Peter, Andrew, James, & John, if you hadn’t given up the material security of your job as fishermen, you wouldn’t be here right now.
If you weren’t traveling so light, there’s no way you could keep up. But are you not blessed to able to stand here with me in this moment and experience the kingdom of God breaking into the world?
Salome and Susannah, I can see that you are sad; who wouldn’t feel sadness in the midst of all this suffering? Whose heart wouldn’t break to leave family and friends behind?
James, Philip, I know you’re hungry – and not just for righteousness, am I right? And no, Judas, we don’t know where our next meal will come from or even where we will sleep tonight, but my friends, look around you. Look at these people.
Look at all the hunger and the hurt and the longing. If together we can meet this need, why would you ever want to be anywhere else? What could possibly be more important or more worthwhile than standing here in this moment serving the least and the lost and the lonely for the sake of God?
Here, with me, you will have a purpose beyond yourself. Here with me your life will make a difference. Here with me you will know the abundance that comes when you give it all away, the courage that fills you when you have nothing left to lose, that peculiar peace that fills you when you choose over and over again to just keeping loving others no matter what. And if that isn’t what it means to be blessed, then what is?
Jesus invites all who would be his disciples into a whole new way of seeing and being in this world. And if his invitation seems profoundly counter-intuitive and extremely foolhardy, that just means you’re paying attention.
Which brings me to the last thing I want you to notice, and that’s what’s going on in your heart right now…
Jesus’ sermon on the plain may be good news for the poor and the hurting, but it will never be easy news for the people who have it made. So thank God, Jesus came down for people like me, too.
Thank God that even though it’s really hard for me to keep up with Jesus sometimes, he’s still willing to look up at me, just as he looked up at his disciples all those years ago, and keep inviting me into something deeper and more beautiful than I have yet dared or ever known.
Sometimes he comes down to where we are to comfort us and sometimes he looks up at where we are to challenge us, but always he comes…and because of that, we are all blessed. Amen.