Woe Is Me or Am I Blessed?

Passage: Luke 6:17-26
Date: February 17, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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While on study leave in January, I learned a new preacher’s trick: the four-page sermon, in which the sermon is structured in four parts: problem in the text, problem in the world; grace in the text, grace in the world.

Now I’ll admit that the four-page sermon has been a bit of a struggle this week. I can easily see – and so can you – the problem presented in the text and the problem present in the world. The grace, the good news, has been a little more elusive.

There is a problem in the text for the rich, the full, the happy, and those who are well spoken of. In the great prophetic tradition, Jesus pronounces woes on them. Woe on you, meaning, enjoy this while you can because the way you live now is as good as it gets.

Remember that in Jesus’ day, the people lived with the understanding that there was a finite amount of goods. There was enough for everyone, but no extras. That meant if someone had more than their fair share, that is, the wealthy, they were taking from someone else, that is, the poor. There was a moral element to wealth, and it was assumed that if someone was rich, they had gained their wealth by immoral means.

Being full – well fed or even stuffed– presents the same moral peril. There is enough food for everyone, but if someone is stuffed, that means someone else goes hungry. To be happy is to ignore the pain and suffering of others. To be well regarded is to be flattered by those who were seeking to gain your favor.

Jesus says woe on all these, because they either do not understand or refuse to believe that they are part of the fragile web of community that relies on fairness and kindness and generosity. They may live large in this life, but in the life to come, the tables will be turned.

Now it’s hard for me to hear good news in this. I see the problem in Jesus’ day and I see how this text is a problem for many of us today. Granted, we live today with very different norms. We Americans live in a capitalistic society in which wealth may be considered good and worth pursuing. We understand that wealth begets wealth, that there is no limit to what we can have, and our having a lot – a lot of money, a lot of food, a lot of power – does not mean others have less.

Or does it? I do not claim to have much depth of knowledge when it comes to economics, but I often wonder about CEOs who receive bonuses in the millions while some of their lower paid employees get laid off because profits aren’t big enough. That doesn’t make sense to me. If profits aren’t adequate, why doesn’t the CEO forego a bonus so that employees can keep their jobs?

Nowadays we don’t assume that the neighbor in the mansion on the hill acquired her wealth by unscrupulous means. Maybe she is an heiress. Maybe she started a company that followed fair and generous employment practices and everyone made money. Maybe she’s very generous and started a foundation that financially supports all sorts of worthy causes.

Maybe she is a good and generous person. And maybe Jesus would look at her and say, “Woe to you. You have so much, you are so secure, you have forgotten that you need God.”

The problem, then and now, is not wealth or satedness or happiness or a good reputation per se – the problem is having so much that we forget we need God.

Maybe it’s a little like scuba diving. When you go scuba diving, you get in your scuba suit and you put on your flippers and mask and you get yourself hooked up to your air tanks and in you go, marveling at what you can see in the ocean depths. You’ve got everything you need. For a while. Till the air runs out.

Eventually you’ll need to get above the water when the tanks are depleted. You’ll need to breathe the real air that is all around everywhere, free. Air is there for us, but without it, we will die.

The same might be said of God. We can surround ourselves with all the luxuries we want, with all the things we think we need, but eventually it might begin to dawn on us that all our stuff doesn’t satisfy the soul. We might find ourselves gasping as we drown in things we don’t need, things that don’t give life. And maybe then we might realize that what we really need is God, and God is all around us, free for the taking; God is there for us, and without God, in a sense, our souls will perish and we will die.

So what are we to do? Sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor? Cover ourselves in sackcloth and ashes? Hide our lights under a bushel lest someone say something good about us?

As one commentary I read this week put it, “These aren’t ethical recommendations, as if Jesus is saying, Go and become poor, hungry, sad, and outcast. On the contrary, Jesus is providing a map of blessing and woe, an orientation to how the world – both the world today and the world to come – actually works, despite appearances. It’s as if he’s saying, Let me give you a lay of the land: as you look around, it looks like the rich, well fed, happy, and admired have it made, that God’s blessings belong to them, and that the rest of us – the poor, hungry, sad, and excluded – are left out in the cold, as if God’s forgotten us. But I’ve come to tell you that the opposite is true.” (http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/2/12/blessing-and-woe-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-6)

That might not sound like good news or grace to you. I understand. It took some sleuthing and spiritual discernment, but eventually I found what might be considered grace in the text. I had to take a few steps back and leave the small confines of these ten verses. I looked at the whole of the story Luke tells in his gospel and the Book of Acts. And I saw hope there.

In the story he tells about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit, Luke includes people who had wealth and status. In chapter 19, Luke introduces us to Zaccheus, a wealthy tax collector who climbs a sycamore tree so he can see Jesus. Jesus invites him to come down, and Luke tells us that Zaccheus is happy to welcome Jesus. Others grumble, wondering why Jesus is even bothering with this sinner, but Zaccheus says, “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.” 

In the Book of Acts Luke introduces us to Cornelius, a wealthy Roman centurion whose generous almsgiving is remembered by God. We meet Lydia, too, a wealthy woman who deals in the purple cloth afforded only by the rich and royal. Moved by the Good News, she opens her home to the apostles.

I read good news and grace in these stories of people who could be generous and were generous. They practiced hospitality and they aided the poor because somehow this message of Jesus landed in their hearts and they realized that God was calling them to live differently, to live generously, and to see who in their community needed their support.

So there is good news and grace for us too. We have gifts to offer our community, and God calls us to do that. As the commentator said, this story is not about ethical recommendations but is descriptive of the way society looked in Jesus’ time and the way God intended things to look. We all know we do not live in a fair society. As we host people living in their cars in our parking lot and as I hear their stories, I am dismayed and livid that someone with a full-time job cannot afford a roof overhead. That’s not right.

So I’ve thought about what some of our modern day beatitudes might look like, the way Jesus might describe the way things are and the way God would like them to be.Here goes:

Blessed are you who are homeless, for you shall have a roof over your heads.
Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will have a table filled with food.
Blessed are you who are poor, for you shall earn a living wage.
Blessed are you saddled with student loan debt, for your debts shall be forgiven.
Blessed are you who weep, for friends and neighbors will come alongside you.
Blessed are you who feel ashamed, for you will be held in great honor.

It is very possible that among us here today are those who are homeless or hungry, those who are poor or saddled with debt, those who live in deep sorrow, and those who live with deep shame. It is very possible that among us today are those who live in lovely warm homes, who have more than enough to eat, those who have savings accounts and are debt-free, those who live with joy, and those who live with the right amount of self-confidence.

Wherever we find ourselves among these beatitudes, we still can hear a call from God to work as we can to make these beatitudes not merely aspirational but real. 

As the commentary reminds us, “Jesus indirectly encourages everyone… to become potential instruments and channels of divine blessing. And to the extent that we are rich, well fed, happy, or admired, we can hear Jesus’ ‘woes’ as direct challenges calling us toward more just and generous ways of life.” (SALT project)

I’d like to share a story with you to conclude these musings today, a story of a beatitude that came to life.

“A group of 34 college seniors set to graduate in May had their student debts paid off thanks to a local church that raised more than $150,000 during a month-long fast.

“Mya Thompson, a first-generation college student, and the other 33 seniors learned that their debts were being paid earlier this month when they were called to the university’s financial office. Instead of meeting with a school official, they met with Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, the pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church.

“Pastor Wesley led his 8,000-member congregation in a period of prayer and fasting during the month of January. Congregants were asked to fast not only with their diets but also with social media and their finances.Wesley, for example, cut his $4 per day coffee purchase and donated that money as part of his offering.

“’We said we would pray as a church to what the Lord was telling us to do [with the money] and that we would donate it 100 percent outside of the church,’ he said.

“The financial donations from the fasting, which took place during the government shutdown, far surpassed church leaders’ expectations. Instead of the $25,000 they expected, the church members had donated $150,000 by the end of the month, according to Wesley.” (https://www.yahoo.com/gma/month-long-fast-church-pays-off-100-000-111304470--abc-news-personal-finance.html)

I believe we who follow Jesus, who are part of this community called church, are invited and challenged and encouraged to make beatitudes real.

So: whom will you bless this day?