February 17, 2019
Luke 6: 17-26
Rev. Nancy Talbot
Unusually Good News
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad and expendable. Woe to you who are rich, full, happy and popular. That, in a nutshell, is this week’s unusually Good News. If that doesn’t sound very good news to you, it might just be because of where you find yourself in this morning’s story.
Many of us are familiar with what we call “the beatitudes” or “blessings” of Jesus in the Bible. In Matthew’s Gospel there are 9 of them and unlike Luke’s stark and rather raw rendition that we heard this morning, in Matthew’s version there are no “woes” and the blessings are much more accessible. Instead of just the literal poor being blessed, the poor in spirit are included. Instead of only the physically hungry being filled, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are also satisfied. But Luke doesn’t let us off so easily. His blessings are for those without a nickel to their name, those whose stomachs are empty and hearts are broken and those whose circumstances that have made them reviled and excluded by others. His woes are for the rest of us.
In Luke’s account of these teachings, Jesus has been up all night praying on a mountain before choosing his 12 closest companions, the ones we call the apostles or disciples. As the sun begins to rise he descends from the mountain with the 12 (unlike Matthew’s version of the story where he delivers his blessings from the mountain like Moses on Mt Sinai.) There waiting for them is a throng of mostly desperate people. They’ve come from all over the country to see Jesus, from Judea and Jerusalem, from the coast of Tyre and Sidon. There must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of them gathered there and they all are pressing in to get close to him. They’ve heard rumours of people who have been healed, tax collectors and fishermen who have left everything behind to follow him. They want in on whatever it is that he’s doing. They’re reaching their hands out to touch him. The power coming off and through him was so strong even those who couldn’t get close enough to physically touch him could feel it. Scores of them were being healed.
You’d think with a mob that big around him all of them reaching out for him, grabbing him, patting him and pulling him like a modern day rock star in a crowd that he like them would have wanted a few bodyguards to protect him. But it doesn’t sound like he was interested in being protected. He didn’t retreat or try to get beyond or above them, he stayed in the midst of them, exuding his transformative power until it was time for him to speak.
And when he did speak he delivered in short and concise sentences the words we heard this morning: four blessings, four woes. The most shocking thing about those blessings and woes is that it sounds like he got them all mixed up. He made the bad things sound good and the good things sound bad. All the things we try to avoid in life: not having any money, not having any food, experiencing major losses, being hated by others he made sound good and all the things we strive for: well-paying jobs, food on the table, joy, happiness, success, esteem he makes sound like bad things. And then as if to make matters worse, at least for those of us who have jobs, pension plans, RIFS, OAS, happiness, dinner reservations, he adds in a great reversal and tells us we’re going to lose those things anyway. It’s as if he’s saying hope you like what you got cause that’s all you’re getting as if that was all any of us ever needed to be happy.
Notice that I have just addressed us as the people on the woeful side of this equation. That’s because, by virtue of living where we do at this particular time in history, we are automatically on that side of the equation. Lots of us here today have achieved a certain level of status in our working lives or we have parented children and grandchildren who have. On this day when we are celebrating black history month, if our skin is white we can consider ourselves even further down on the woeful side. Our privilege in society is even greater.
And that’s what makes this reading so difficult for us to hear. If any of us walked in here this morning with our stomachs rumbling from hunger, it’s unlikely that happened because there was nothing in our cupboards to stop the rumbling. So as soon as we hear Jesus start dishing out the woes, we begin to shut down because we feel guilty or judged. We know that even if we have given generously we probably have more to give. If we’ve lived all our lives on easy street we’re not sure what we could do to change that but we wonder if we should. We wonder if that’s what we’re being asked to do here. If we want to start applying this logic to the problem of racism that we know is alive and well in our country, it’s going to be hard for us to do because we can’t change the colour of our skin. So what are we to do?
According to American theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor* this speech that Jesus directed at his disciples that day on the plain when the crowds were pressing in on him seeking to be healed wasn’t really about what they or we should “do.” She says he isn’t actually dishing out advice. When he gives advice, she says, he makes himself pretty clear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” That’s advice, one imperative after the other with no distinction between rich and poor, hungry or well-fed, grieving or happy.
Instead, she says, in the beatitudes Jesus is describing different kinds of people, hoping that his listeners will recognize themselves as one kind or another. And then he makes a promise to everyone. He says the ways things are is not the way they will always be. He’s not making threats. He’s not trying to glorify poverty and suffering. He’s just speaking the truth about the way things work, loving each person the same as the next, the rich and the poor, the happy and the bereft.
The problem is that most of us hear about blessings and woes and we immediately think rewards and punishments. The blessings must be what we are supposed to do and the woes must be things we’re not supposed to do. Which is why it’s easier for many of us just listen to this with a half opened ear. Because none of us really want to give up what we have. If we did we wouldn’t have a polar vortex or the need for a Black Lives Matter movement. The beatitudes don’t tell us what to do. They tell us who we are. And they tell us who Jesus is and where he is found and what his unusually good news is all about.
If we think we’ve made it because we’ve climbed the corporate ladder all the way to the top he says guess again. No one stays on top forever. If we think we’ve blown it, we’re no good bottom of the barrel people he says guess again, we are worthy of love and consolable. If we think that the world will tolerate forever the kinds of divisions we have artificially created between people of different races, between white and black and rich and poor and the inequity that has ensued because of it, guess again, this too shall pass.
And although Luke’s gospel doesn’t really say so, there’s probably something blessed in tumbling from the top or choosing to come down from the lofty places at which we have arrived by mere circumstances or by choice, because down on the level playing field is where Jesus, where grace, where deepest love is found. Things might not be as comfortable there for many of us, we might not be able to ignore the pain, suffering, and discrimination we can turn a blind eye to when we don’t have to face it every day, but the promise is that we will be filled up and made happy in a whole new way.
So on this day when we are recognizing black history month, those of us who benefit from our white privilege might want to consider our woefulness. We might want to think about how we can give up some of our socially constructed power to reach out instead for power that heals and makes new, not just so that we can consider ourselves blessed, but so that we can be a blessing along with our brothers and sisters of colour and among all those the world excludes and reviles.
*much of this sermon has been inspired by Taylor’s reflection on Luke’s beatitudes found in her book Home by Another Way “
blessed are you who are raging.
blessed are you who are mourning.
blessed are you who feel numb.
blessed are you who feel sick. and tired. and sick and tired.
blessed are you who refuse to turn away.
blessed are you who need to turn away.
blessed are you who keep breathing deep.
blessed are you who are tending to your own needs.
blessed are you who are tending to the needs of another.
blessed are you who have been calling.
blessed are you who have been organizing.
blessed are you who have been testifying.
blessed are you who have been hearing.
blessed are you who have been resisting.
blessed are you who feel broken open beyond repair.
blessed are you who are raw beyond words.
blessed are you who are working hotlines and crisis care centers and bearing witness to the forces of violence and trauma unleashed and unloosed.
blessed are you who are marching.
blessed are you who are weeping.
blessed are you who preach and know that divinity resides in despised, abused, violated flesh.
blessed are you who know deep in your bones that you are good. and beautiful. and beloved. and sacred. and worthy. and believed. and held. and capable of healing beyond your wildest imagination.
blessed are you who remind others they are good. and beautiful. and beloved. and sacred. and worthy. and believed. and held. and capable of healing beyond their wildest imagination.
blessed are we when we dare to dream of a world without sexual violence, without white supremacy, without misogyny, without police brutality, without anti-trans and anti-queer violence.
blessed are we when we stay tender.
blessed are we when we stay fierce.
blessed are we when we dare to imagine repair and transformation.
blessed are we when we labor together to make it so.
– Rev. Anna Blaedel