Blessings and Woes

Psalm 1 (NIV)

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Luke 6:17-26 (NIV) Blessings and Woes

17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

20 Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.

23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.  

Right before our scripture reading for this morning, Jesus has gathered together the 12 people who will be his disciples. Their crash course on what it means to be a follower of Jesus has just begun for them. They are watching closely to see what Jesus is up to.

Jesus is on the move, preaching, teaching, and healing every disease. People are beginning to notice. A lotof people are beginning to notice Jesus.  Jesus soon finds himself booked as the headline act in every synagogue. He’s becoming rock star famous and the crowds who follow him get bigger and bigger. 

Because this is Jesus we’re talking about, the crowds who follow him are not shiny church people with deep pockets to support his new ministry. The people attracted to Jesus are poor. People in pain. People with mental illness. Disabled people and people with seizure disorders. Anxious people. Grieving people. Unclean people. You know…the kind of people everyone else finds rather difficult to deal with, but always seem to be hanging around Jesus. Certainly not the kind of people that will contribute very much to Jesus’ new church development.

And I imagine life for the disciples is already confusing. Complicated. The noise and the smells and the mobs is making them disoriented and exhausted. This kingdom building stuff is a lot messier than they bargained for.  

Jesus tells them the truth about what it will mean to be his disciple. That the people most in need of Jesus and his disciples will be the people most broken. Jesus promises life will continue to be messy for as long as the disciples follow him.

And Jesus tells the disciples they will be of no use at all unless they follow his way of becoming deeply involved in the pain of the world. And then he shows them how to do it.  By coming down from a high place, and getting in close. By being involved in the messiness of the people. By touching the untouchables. By blessing them simply because they are loved by God.

This reality about what is means to be a Jesus follower is hard for me to swallow some days. I am not very good at putting a positive spin on the world’s pain. Or the pain for people close to me. I do not leap for joy when I encounter those who are persecuted.

I do not see people who are suffering as blessed. 

I am hard-pressed to see anything good or valuable coming out of a friend’s struggle with mental illness. 

I don’t see anything that remotely resembles a blessing in another friend’s failing marriage or another friend’s struggle with anxiety and loneliness.  

I know, I know.  We are supposed to rejoice always in the Lord and be grateful for all of life, even the awful side of life. As if a sunny Christian attitude has the power to sterilize the messiness of it all.  As if an unquestioning faith is an analgesic for pain. Maybe that works for you, but I have spent enough time in ministry to know that people who are hurting need actual help in addition to impassioned prayer.

This is my struggle with the way in which Jesus names blessings and woes in this text. 

Somehow, Jesus proclaiming poor people and hungry people and grieving and persecuted people as blessed feels even worse, because Jesus seems to suggest that the world’s designated losers are winners in God’s eyes. 

And let’s be honest. None of us want to be losers. Nobody welcomes pain or persecution, and when pain or persecution or especially grief happens to us, we don’t consider it a blessing. In fact, we’d like the pain and persecution and grief to go away as soon as possible, thank you very much.

So what is a good Christian to do?  Is Jesus is setting up unreasonable conditions in order for us to be blessed? Do I need to be sadder that I already am? Is Jesus telling us to become poor and sad and hungry so we can be blessed by God,  but totally stomped upon by everyone else?

Maybe, just maybe, we should take a closer look at what Jesus says. 

What if Jesus is just plain blessing people? Maybe Jesus is reflecting God’s inexplicable habit of loving unconditionally and indiscriminately.

Maybe Jesus is, in fact, teaching the disciples to see that that God’s blessing isn’tconditional or contingent on being rich or popular.

Maybe we are blessed whether or not we or anyone else thinks we deserve it. 

Because Jesus doesn’t say you will be blessed…if.

Jesus says you are blessed because you are. 

Maybe Jesus is saying God’s blessings are for everyone. 

Which must have seemed like radical statement in a culture in which everyone assumed blessings reflected godliness. That people who are rich are more favored by God. And people who are poor must have done something that made God really mad, and that is why they are poor. 

Jesus says no. God’s blessings are here and now and everywhere for everyone. Rich or poor. Grieving or laughing. Hungry or full.

If God shows up here — Jesus seems to be saying —  

If God is showing up and blessing the people who are totally messed up and at the end of their rope, 

then maybe God really is everywhere and eager to bless everyone.

Even you and me.

Maybe Jesus is throwing around blessings as if they grow on trees to people who did nothing to deserve it but simply show up. People who probably never felt blessed a day in their life and had pretty much given up hope that they ever would. 

Maybe just knowing you are in need of the blessings of Jesus is a blessing.

Maybe depending upon the blessings of God, and nothing else, is a blessing beyond measure.

Let’s face it, it is usually when we are comfortable and satisfied in our own power, our own goodness, our own ability to bless ourselves that we run into trouble.

That is why Jesus doesn’t stop at the blessings in this text.

Jesus goes on to talk about what happens when we forget about where blessings come from.

What happens when we get too comfortable.

What happens when we think we have everything figured out.

What happens when we think the poor, the hungry, the lost have nobody but themselves to blame.

When my husband and I were first married, we were very broke. Not living on the street kind of broke, but eating hot dogs for dinner and taking a calculator to the grocery store to make sure we didn’t overdraw the checking account kind of broke.

And on nice evenings, we’d take walks in a neighborhood near our tiny apartment — an apartment which was overrun with cockroaches and had terrible water pressure and barely enough hot water for one shower a day.

And we’d walk around in this nice neighborhood that looked a lot like neighborhoods in Sewickley or Fox Chapel or Mt. Lebanon, filled with stately mansions and beautiful landscaping and Mercedes Benz’s in the driveways.

And inevitably, one of us would ask the other, “Do you think the people living in those big houses with the nice landscaping and the expensive cars are happy?”

My husband always said, “Are you kidding? They’re hysterically happy. What do have to worry about?”

And I would always say, “Maybe. I’m not so sure.”

The older I get, the more I realize that the woes of this world are not determined by the size of our bank account or our house or any of those things the world uses to measure prosperity.

The blessings and woes of this world are not determined by our health or wealth or sunny dispositions. 

The blessings and woes of this world are not determined by our reputations or what people think about us.

The woe comes when we forget where blessings come from, or fail to recognize them.

Woe to us when we imagine we need something more than God.

Woe to us when we imagine we don’t need anything from God.

Woe to us when we imagine we know better than God.

Woe to us when we imagine we can do anything apart from God.

Woe to us when imagine we deserve everything we have, and people who have less deserve less.

Woe to us when we imagine our blessedness means we are superior to those we think are not worthy of God’s blessings.

Our woe doesn’t come from lack of resources,

Our blessedness doesn’t come from an abundance of resources.

Our blessings come from God and they are blessings meant for everyone.

It just seems to happen that those who live in the low places are willing to reach out and reach up to receive those blessings.

Those are living high are often woefully unwilling to come down to lower themselves and participate in the goodness of God. Because it means we might have to look at one another, face to face, and give up something we don’t want to give.

And yet, Jesus seems to be saying:

Blessed are we when we are poor because we used our resources to serve our neighbor.

Blessed are we when we are hungry because we shared our food with our neighbor.

Blessed are we when we are weeping because our hearts our broken by our compassion for our neighbor.

Blessed are we when people hate us because we love our neighbor the way God loves our neighbor, especially those neighbors most people think unlovable.

Blessings are we when we realize our blessings are not a gift from God if our neighbors are left out of those blessings.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve consulted with dozens and dozens of churches, very much like Concord, who are worried about their future.

Most of these churches have leaders who are filled with woe.
Will they live? Will they die? What will happen to their buildings? 

The most joyful Christians I’ve ever met didn’t ask any of those questions.

I met the most joyful, blessed Christians I’ve ever known while visiting a war zone.

These Christians didn’t worry about their church building because they didn’t have one.

These Christians served God joyfully despite having no infrastructure, no running water, no paved roads, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no medical care, little access to education, and absolutely no creature comforts to speak of. 

Even as they described the deep losses of living through unending war, even though their tears of grief, these South Sudanese brothers and sisters professed an absolute and unshakable confidence that not only had God heard their prayers, but that the Lord was near to them.  Their faith was whole-hearted. All in. 

The Christians in South Sudan kept doing all the things they had learned and received and heard from the Holy Spirit, and worked together in communities to love and support one another and seek peace. 

My brothers and sisters in the South Sudanese church do not worry about what they cannot control because they are smarter than I am, smart enough to know they are not in control. 

I spend so much, too much of my time thinking if I just work harder, work smarter, think ahead, multi-task, I can be in control. In control of my life. In control of the life of my children. In control of the future of the church. The future of everything in our world that is broken.

My friends in South Sudan had something to teach me about blessings.

My friends in South Sudan work for peace and stick together and worship with joyful abandon and love the Lord their God as if their lives depend upon it.  

Because, of course, their lives do depend upon it. 

Their lives depend upon their deep connections to one another, just as their lives depend upon the God who called them into the Body of Christ.

Blessed are you who know our God is the God of those who have nothing but God.[1]

Which includes not only my brothers and sisters in Africa, but you and me, too. Even if our need is not as obvious because we do have so much prosperity compared to those Christians in South Sudan.

Let us find a new understanding of what it means to be blessed by God. God does not choose one person over another. But God has chosen the Church to be a vehicle for extending blessings to all – the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the reviled – for the sake of the Gospel, and even at the risk of losing our lives.  

[1] Peter Eaton, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1