hen I was a boy of about 7, I discovered the Beatitudes. I didn’t know that the name meant “Blessed” but I knew I liked the name. They were, of course, the familiar eight sayings of Jesus from St. Matthew’s gospel with which in that gospel he is said to have launched his famous Sermon on the Mount. I associate the beatitudes with a little card I got from Sunday school. It had a little fuzzy red heart on it, on which was superimposed a plain light blue cross that glowed in the dark. I remember tacking it up on a wall opposite my bed where I could look up and see the cross glowing after the lights were off. For as long as I had the card—and I have no idea how long it lasted—it was a nightly ritual for me to look at the cross in the dark and to think about the Beatitudes, which along with The Lord’s Prayer were printed on the reverse side of the card.
|Not quite the same as my card, but close.|
But let’s take Luke on his own terms. Rather than compare further his short Sermon on the Plain with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, let’s hear what Jesus is telling his disciples in Luke’s story. They are the ones who are poor. They are the ones who mourn. They are the ones who are reviled and excluded. And why? Because they are associated with, even identified with the Son of Man, Jesus himself. They are called out from a great multitude of people who include Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon as well as Jews from rural Judea and Jerusalem. And it is they to whom the Kingdom of God has become a reality.
In my boyhood I learned to associate heaven with that place where I was going when I die. Only later did I learn that “heaven” was not a future reality that was going to start when I died and went there, but a present reality that was actually possible for me to live in and participate in. If you go further into this Sermon on the Plain, you will see that Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were eminently practical, if not easy. You’ll come across the apex of the entire thing:
Love your enemies; help people, and lend to them, looking for nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.
We hear “reward” and imagine that it is a prize that we’ll get when the game is over. What happens when we begin to see that the reward is immediate? Does it change anything? Well, yes. Beauty is its own excuse for being, and goodness is its own reward—a truth which you know from your own experience. Why? Because your soul cannot be fooled. It is your nature to be what you are created to be, and that is precisely what Jesus means when he says “children of the Most High.”
In fact it was about a year later when I was in third grade that my pastor taught me and other kids what turns out to be the most important theological lesson I’ve ever learned. The question in the catechism was, “Where is God?” and the answer was “God is everywhere.” And if God is in heaven, then where God is heaven is, and that is everywhere. But everywhere is different from ordinary life. It is like being in a room that you think is fully lit when someone comes in and switches on an entire bank of lights that you had no idea even existed, and it is as if the room had been black and white until suddenly all turned to vibrant colors. How did we miss it? We don’t know. We just did. It hardly matters. Now we see. And what a glorious thing it is really to see!
What shall we then say to the woes, if this is all what beatitude, or blessedness, is? That is a very difficult question for many contemporary Christians to deal with. We hear “woe” and we want to run the other way. Many of us are sick to death of religion that specializes in trying to frighten us into being good, shakes a finger at us if we fail to conform to socially approved norms, threatens with punishment or even annihilation if we don’t meet exacting standards of a God who is difficult to please. So we hear the warning “Woe to you…” as extraordinarily bad news, and imagine that no loving God could be involved in such a threat. Well, no. But the “woe” is not a threat but a statement that is a simple description of an inevitable situation. Look at them. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have your consolation already.” Is it not true? Give your life to money, gain whatever you can and justify it however you may, and it will give you exactly what you want. Except that what it gives and what you get is never going to last because money doesn’t last. Nor do possessions. Nor can they ever fill up the hole at the center of every living soul.
“Woe to those who are well fed now, for you shall go hungry.” That strikes even closer to home. I’m well fed. And I predict that I won’t ever go hungry. Well, maybe not for food. But there is a deeper hunger of the heart that food cannot satisfy. “Woe to you who laugh now.” I don’t much like that. I laugh a lot. I love it when people laugh and I especially love it when I say something or do something that makes them laugh. Is that so bad? Woe to those who laugh because they can’t get through life without facing pain or sadness or failure or decline or death. They will know loss, and that loss will be acute if they have a house built on sand with no foundation deeper than the pleasure of the moment. “Woe to the popular, woe to those of whom people are enamored and of whom they speak well.” There is no crowd more fickle than a flock of friends who like you as long as you speak words they agree with and do things they approve of and support their positions and prejudices and preferences. The minute you begin differentiating yourself from those in your closest circles whose expectations you cannot or will not meet, you will likely see how it was not you whom they loved but their ideas of you and their expectations that they could count on you to be in their court no matter what. Being true to your deepest self is being true to the God who lives within you, and Jesus is saying that you cannot do that without paying a steep price.
Exactly at this point we get really fidgety about the gospel, which is never about stasis but always about change and growth. It would be so easy if the gospel aligned neatly with society’s needs, desires, and customs. So we continue to try to make the two dovetail or match exactly. It is a project doomed to fail. The more we anesthetize ourselves from the dissonance between life in Christ and ordinary life driven by our deep need to survive and to succeed, the more likely we are to avoid the very pain of being born (or giving birth) to new possibilities.
We’d like, wouldn’t we, to get rid of the woes, the warnings and make life just a simple process of doing well and being happy. Well, guess what? We can do exactly that. Only we cannot do it by turning the gospel into a feel-good program that smoothly blesses what the advertising industry tells us that we want and need to make us happy, prosperous, secure. In this country churches by the hundreds and preachers by the dozens tell us we can do exactly that—and it isn’t just the case with Christians either, by the way. Everybody is looking for a painless and easy road to follow.,The surprise is right here in Jesus’ words. It is by identifying with the poor and the powerless that is the road to deep freedom. It is by letting go, not by acquiring, that brings true riches. Or, in a phrase that we are more familiar with, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
|Can you imagine?|
Lest you think that this is a sour, dull, unpromising proposition, altogether at odds with anything you could recognize as a “good life,” take a look at Jesus in the gospels. He is not a life-denying, up-tight, all-work-and-no-play kind of person. In fact he’s always getting into trouble. Plucking grain on the Sabbath, inviting himself to dinner with outcast tax collectors, friend of prostitutes and riffraff, fishing, delivering free health care right and left, paying attention to little kids who he consistently said were modeling what the Reign of God is really like. This is not a man saturated with sorrow and woe, but one who is free and who invites us into that same freedom. And despite what hosts of people want to make him—namely the guardian of conventional morality and the high priest of prosperity—Jesus is thoroughly human, in truth a God-soaked man who is very down-to-earth.
The question for you and me is whether Jesus’ kind of life is good enough for us. Truth be told, it scares the powerful so badly, including many professional religious people, that like the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s novel, they tell Jesus to get out, to go back where he belongs, to stay out of the religion business altogether because he simply messes up the racket that is working well for them. Good enough? If what’s important to us is to be rich, entertained, and popular, well, maybe not. But if we’d like to be free—
If we’d like to be free—
A sermon preached on Luke 6:17-26, Epiphany 6 C, 2019.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019