I have been very blessed. I have enjoyed good health, good relationships with family and friends, had secure employment for close to 30 years, been supported by a wife and daughter who love me and suffered very few setbacks, failures and losses in my life. Yet in the close to 30 years I have served as an ordained minister I have become known as someone who has skills and experience working with persons who live on the margins of our society. I am honestly not sure how that happened.
The only answer I have been able to discern to this question is my mother’s frequent advice to me, “when you walk into a room always look for the people sitting alone, in the back, people new to the surroundings.” My mother also took me with her when she visited people in hospital, nursing homes, seniors who lived alone and at the funeral home. I feel that advice and those experiences might have led me to this vocation.
But…having grown up with this sense of being blessed, I am particularly sensitive to the many who have never received a vote of confidence or heard an encouraging word or have ever experienced an overriding sense of well-being from their families. I leave conversations heart-broken wherein I am told that parents declared to their own children that they were "abominations to the Lord," or where neglect or physical abuse occurred. While “Church” has not always been a safe place, free from these kinds of words or actions at our best churches offer a grace-filled love where persons are offered unconditional love. A place that was set apart to be redemptive, especially to those of us who were wounded in some way.
The church's original challenge was to be the place where we would not just acknowledge God's imprints on our souls but where we could also celebrate the divine image within. It is the place where spiritual godparents/mentors could step in where earthly parents failed and bridge the gap for healing and restoration of personhood. That’s why in the early church persons associated with house fellowship would call one another sister and brother. It’s why when I offer a funeral for someone who has lived most of their lives on the street those who gather as the “family” are usually not the original kin but rather those who walked beside them, in good times and bad.
In our text for today we find that Jesus has been up on the mountain to pray. He selects his disciples and then comes down to be with the multitudes that have gathered. The audience includes the sick, the troubled and other persons of special concerns. As is usual in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' healing actions and his words are closely interrelated. While Jesus does not know these people intimately, he does recognize their personal condition in life and the deep expectations that they bring with them. The gospel writer informs us, as well, that they come hoping to be touched by Jesus - to receive just a little bit of his power so that they might be healed. They come, it seems to me, looking for a blessing. The crowd waits for Jesus to speak. They wait in anticipation of being told the divine agenda.
So Jesus begins with a short list of ways we can be blessed. It is happiness that is so complete that it cannot be contained. It is an awareness that bubbles up inside of us and overflows so that all notice our sense of elation. Jesus, however, does not include anything within his list that we would normally think of that would bring us such extreme joy. In fact, he completely contradicts the ideas and values of a materialistic, sensual society which equates happiness with house, car, and bank account. It is our introduction to the topsy-turvy world Christ presents as an alternative to the status quo.
He carefully constructs four symmetrical comparisons of blessings and woes, and they are the opposite of what we would anticipate. For he says:
Blessed are the poor…but woe to the rich.
Blessed are the hungry…but woe to those who are full.
Blessed are the weeping…but woe to those that are laughing.
Blessed are the rejected…but woe to those who are accepted.
I recall hearing the expression, “good preaching is comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”. In many ways that is precisely what Jesus did. His stories, his wisdom, his healings and most of all his pronouncements about the Kingdom he came to usher in, all speak to this notion of offering affirmation to those feeling the sting of judgement in our present age and a warning to those like me who enjoy the privileges of the status quo. In short don’t assume what is in front of you is the way it is meant to be, don’t assume what you are living is the Kingdom or even close to it. Don’t assume that how you are living is giving others a foretaste, a witness, to how we are meant to live.
As Jesus presents his thoughts to those gathered, it becomes apparent that he is not interested in keeping things the same. Rather, his purpose was to usher in a world that would literally be reversed. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon say of this: In other words, these blessings and woes announce that God, in Jesus Christ, already sees the world in a strikingly different way than we do. The "real world," for all those who are in Christ, is one in which most of the major status roles in life are utterly reversed.
I want to spend some time on this reversal. Jesus has come to usher in, to proclaim, to announce, a new world with a new set of standards. This world is not something we wait for until a Second Coming or some distant experience in an afterlife. Nor is this Kingdom something we take as marching orders, a vision we must fulfill to make it so. In short the Kingdom of God is not a distant reward or a political manifesto, it is a statement of reality, God’s reality. Jesus is telling us something new is upon us and this new place posits value where we in our culture see no value and conversely it tells us what we often value is meaningless to the integrity of the Kingdom.
Interesting to my ears is the lack of urgings or exhortations to behave in certain ways so as to earn these blessings and avoid the curses. In fact, there is no call to action at all. Rather, Jesus is just stating fact. He is painting for us a picture of what the Kingdom of God is. He is not making suggestions about how to be happy or giving warnings on how to keep from being miserable. Jesus is making defining statements of the way life is inside and outside the reign of God. It is a reversal of fortunes for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the full and the empty.
This is a reminder that with Jesus, we are already beginning to experience the Kingdom of God here in our everyday lives. Our task, then, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is "to be what in the reality of God we are already." To me this means that we are to be people who out of recognition of our own blessedness, impart blessing to others. In short when you and I live out this Kingdom reality we are presenting the world to others as we believe it is. We are inviting others to participate in a world they may have never heard of, a world they can’t really absorb immediately, a world that seems foreign and strange. And yet…it is a world, a Kingdom, that I believe the world deep-down yearns to know. It is a Kingdom that our world was created to embrace. When we as church live out our spiritual citizenship we embody not just some ideal or future heaven but we show people who we are, who we were meant to be.
During our study of the Book of Revelations I asked all 25 participants to share what they imagined Heaven to be. In broad strokes there were three themes articulated; 1) a reunion with loved ones, 2) a return to Eden, where we experience Creation with the innocence and sense of belonging as we were born to know and 3) a place of light, warmth, and sounds that bring us deep peace. But our brother Hedley had his own answer. “Heaven is a place of harmony, where no one is hungry, no one is sad to be alone, and no one is poor. We are all together, we are all family, we are all connected.” Hedley’s answer was a blessing. He did not do anything, make anything happen, or satisfy any need for action. Instead Hedley just spoke the truth, he named the Kingdom as it is and reminded us who we really are.
It was a blessing that was not dependent upon anyone else's judgment. It was a blessing that God willingly offers to every one of us; and as the body of Christ, we are to impart it to one another. All we have to do is receive it. So I wonder, are you ready to receive this blessing? Are you ready to begin to experience the blessing of the Kingdom of God?
God, give us the courage to accept your blessing and the wisdom to bless others. Amen.