Blessings and Woes

Blessings and woes. Here in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke, we have Lukan beatitudes. Only Luke’s are a little bit different than Matthew’s (Matthew 5 for comparison). For one thing, Jesus is on “a level place,” not a mountain. Luke’s Jesus talks about the physical existence that people find themselves in (poor, hungry, grieving), instead of Matthew’s more spiritual conditions (poor in spirit, thirsting after righteousness). And Luke adds those woes to the blessings. What do we make of this? How do we define blessing? Let me know what you think about blessing in the comments!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As I walked into the small house, I couldn’t help but notice the buckets strategically placed to catch the water that slowly dripped from the roof. A good thing, too, because there was no floor, just packed dirt, and any water that fell would quickly become mud. Our host was excited to welcome us—students working on the local Episcopal church’s community center high in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.

She made us tea from a pot over an open stove and offered us cookies her daughter had made. The priest had sent us, with some local guides, into the small collections of houses that dotted the hills to tell people about what they could get at the community center: food, classes, childcare, clothing.

I don’t speak any Spanish, so it was only through my friend translating that I understood the woman’s responses, but one word stood out. “Bendecito.” That one I knew. Blessed. I am blessed, she was telling us. She loved her church, and would keep coming, but she had no need of charity from the community center, she said. She was already so blessed. What more did she need?

What does it mean to be blessed? By every measure I could think of, this woman was by no means blessed. She lived in a house that looked like it might fall with a strong wind, with a dirt floor and leaky roof. She lived over an hour away from any kind of doctor or any kind of school for her children. Why was she calling herself blessed? And yet, she said the words with such certainty, with such faith, that I could only believe her. This woman was blessed.

Jesus’ words about who is blessed might just shake us awake this morning. Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the excluded. It’s not softened at all, like in the better-known version of these verses found in the Gospel of Matthew. There Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” It’s easy to see why Matthew’s version of this sermon is more popular, because here in Luke there is no getting around it, no spiritualizing these conditions. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the grieving.

And not only are these seemingly un-enviable groups of people blessed, but those whom we usually think of as having good fortune and favor are given a list of woes: woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who are laughing, woe to you when all speak well of you.

This is where I start to get nervous, because I find myself fitting into all four of those groups—judged on a global scale, I am most certainly rich; if I ever find our fridge empty, which is rare, food is only a quick drive away; I have plenty of things in my life to make me happy; and I don’t think I’m being bad-mouthed behind my back.

And aren’t these things that we want to be? Shouldn’t we want to have enough money and food, to be happy instead of sad? Don’t we want people to speak well of us? This goes against everything that we understand blessing to be.

A few years ago, a hashtag became popular on Instagram. #Blessed. If you search it, you’ll find over 106 million examples of what people think being blessed looks like. Everything from a new pair of shoes, to a fancy brunch dish, to a bedazzled manicure. There are more serious ones, too, like a new baby, inspirational quotes, firefighters and surgeons, good friends. But I didn’t see anywhere that people choose to take a picture of someone in grief, or hungry, or poor, and tag it blessed.

Before we get any further in unpacking what it means to be blessed, I do want to keep in mind one thing. None of the blessings or woes that Jesus speaks of equals God’s ultimate salvation, grace, or forgiveness. Blessed does not equal saved. Woe does not equal damned. Regardless of whether we fall into the blessings or the woes, God loves us, forgives us, and saves us. The blessings and the woes are about how we live with each other now and about God’s vision for us. They are not about who is in or who is out. Throughout his ministry Jesus welcomes and includes both the rich and the poor, the full and the hungry.

So, what does it mean to be blessed? Clearly Jesus thinks it means something different than how we normally use the word. So, what can we learn about God and about ourselves from the way that Jesus uses this word?

Well, for starters, we learn that God has a very different value system than our culture does. The people that God sees, that God notes as worthy and important, and yes as blessed, are in many ways the opposite of those elevated in our world. And notice what Jesus does with these crowds: he comes down to a level place with them. He physically aligns himself with the poor, the hungry, and the reviled. When we are seeking God in this world, this gives us a good clue where to start looking: among those whom Jesus stood and among those he called blessed.

Another thing we learn is that God doesn’t make sense. Not in any way that we would define the word. God calls right left and left right. God calls terrible things blessed and wonderful things cursed. It doesn’t make sense. At least, not without the end of the story. As the Apostle Paul writes, if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.

Without the resurrection, the Christian life can be reduced to little more than a moral code to guide well-meaning people about how to live their lives. Only in light of the resurrection can we understand the paradox of saving one’s life by losing one’s life. Only in light of the resurrection does it make sense for us to join Jesus in standing with the poor, the outcasts, and the oppressed. Only in light of the resurrection does God’s vision of blessedness make sense.

The power of the resurrection is the power to transform our lives. Because it means that God is stronger than death. That God is stronger than evil and hatred. That our God is a God of new life, and that even when things seem darkest and despairing, the tomb does not get the final word in our story.

And God’s understanding of blessedness starts to become clearer. Blessed are those who know they need God. Blessed are those who do not rely only on themselves. Blessed are those who have been broken, because they understand the heart of God. And woe to those who think they’re great. Woe to those who do not come to stand on level ground with those whom God loves.

Despite my assumptions and prejudices, that welcoming woman in her tiny house in the mountains was every bit as blessed as she declared herself to be. As Jesus declares her to be. Not because she was poor—we should never use these words as an excuse to turn a blind eye towards poverty or injustice. She was blessed because her God saw her and stood with her. God stands with us, too. Jesus stands with us when we feel broken and despairing. When we have no hope for the future. God stands with us. And God pushes us, too, to turn and stand with those whom Jesus declares blessed.

Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who are grieving. Blessed are you who are reviled and excluded for Jesus’ sake. That might not always describe us. And when it doesn’t—when we find ourselves in a place of privilege relative to others—may we remember who Jesus called blessed. May we choose to stand with them and with Jesus. Amen.

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Whom Shall I Send?

Often, people tell me that it’s so nice that I have a “calling.” That is, a vocation or career that they consider to be somehow special–more than an ordinary job. It’s usually applied to the helping professions–ministers, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, etc. But the truth is, we all have callings. We are all called by God to use our particular gifts in whatever field or situation we find ourselves. We can be called in our relationships: parent, spouse, child, sibling. We can be called to the things we do outside of work: volunteering, driving children to and from activities, cooking, caring for others. And we can be called in our careers, no matter what they are. God calls us in every moment to be disciples. Take a look at the readings for this week (Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, Luke), then read the sermon and let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Back when I got ordained I was given cards by most of my family. The thing is, though, that Hallmark actually doesn’t make all that many different choices for ordination cards. So I got like forty to fifty cards, but they were really the same five or six cards over and over again.

And as someone who tends to find greeting cards in general a little bit schmaltzy, some of the ordination cards were over the top sickeningly sweet. But there was a phrase on one of the cards—which I got four or five times—that stuck with me. “God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called.”

I thought that one was schmaltzy, too, but there was no denying it hit the nail on the head. Here I was, twenty-five-years-old, barely tall enough to see over the lectern, fresh out of school, making all kinds of promises and vows at my ordination. I meant them, sincerely, but I didn’t yet understand fully what they meant. And I know that my understanding of this call will continue to grow and deepen as the years go on.

God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called. In most call narratives that we have in the Bible, the first response to being called by God is to run the opposite direction, often because of some perceived deficiency on the part of the person being called. We see it in every single one of our readings this morning.

Isaiah receives a vision of the Lord of hosts, and his first response is to say that he is not worthy of such a thing. “Woe is me!” He says, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” In other words: I’m not good enough for this. I’ve spoken indecently in the past, I’m not the right person for this job.

Paul is sharing his own personal story with the Corinthians and he calls himself, “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle.” Why? Because before he received his call, he was a persecutor of the church. He oversaw the stoning of Stephen, he did everything he could to kill the early church. He doesn’t deserve to be an apostle, to be one sent by God to bring good news.

And in the gospel reading, in the response to this miraculous catch of fish, a sign of the abundance and grace that Jesus brings, Simon Peter falls to his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” He has seen the kind of new life and healing that Jesus brings, and thinks that he is not good enough to be a part of it.

God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called. Isaiah’s lips are cleansed with the burning coal, Paul’s eyes are opened to God’s love in Jesus, and Peter becomes the cornerstone of the early church. Without question God uses these flawed and fragile human beings to proclaim God’s mercy and love.

“Who will go for us?” “Whom shall I send?” asks the Lord. There are a million reasons for us to shake our heads and say, “Not I, Lord. Surely, I am not the one you are looking for.” After all, who am I to have such an important mission and task? Maybe we think we don’t have the right words to speak for God, like Isaiah. Maybe we have regrets over past mistakes, like Paul. Maybe, like Peter, we think we’re just generally not good enough. There are a million reasons to say no to God’s call in our lives.

But the fact is, God calls us not because God is looking for some perfect version of ourselves. God calls us precisely because of who we are. God’s not fooled by us: our brokenness, our doubts, our suffering, our struggles—they are all on full display long before God calls us. And yet, God chooses to call us.

Call us to what, exactly, is probably a good question at this point. What is God calling you and me to do? Surely, it’s not to be like Isaiah, or Peter, or Paul. Well, yes and no. We are all called, like those three men, to be messengers from God. We are called by God to share with a hungry and needy world the good news we have found in Christ Jesus. But we all do that in different ways. We do it when we share with others what God means in our lives. We do it when we share the love that we have known in God with others.

And you’re going to do that differently than I’m going to do that, which is going to be different still from how the next person does it. And we don’t have to end up being famous like Isaiah or Peter or Paul. We live out this call in our lives in so many simple ways—sometimes we might not even realize what we’re doing.

At our most recent new members’ class, I started as I always do, by asking the group what first brought them to St. Paul’s. Several people said it was their neighbors. Their neighbors had shared with them that they were part of a church that was meaningful to them. They didn’t say it to pressure or convince anyone of anything. They said it simply because they wanted to share the love and community and grace that they had found. Answering God’s call might be as simple as hugging a friend in need of comfort or patiently answering a small child’s unending questions. It’s not necessarily dramatic, but it is meaningful.

As we begin our congregational meeting just after this service, we will seek the ways that we answer this call as a whole community. We’re able to do bigger things when we come together than any of us could do individually, but still we are answering that same call of God. To know Christ and to make Christ known through word and deed.

And no one else can do it but us. Because we are all so different, unique in beautiful and wondrous ways. By the grace of God, we are who we are. And so each and every one of us is needed. Each person’s struggles, pains, joys, accomplishments, and dreams are stories of the gospel that can light the way for others. In a way that no one else’s could.

“Who shall I send,” asks the Lord. “Who will go for us?” Here we are, God. Send us. Send us in all of our imperfect beauty, with all of our grace-filled cracks and holes. Send us, God, that we might use our voices to share your voice of love. Amen.