Grace Presbyterian Church
February 17, 2019, Epiphany 6C
Blessed Are You Who…
In a recent sermon I made reference to a social media “hashtag.” Realizing that possibly this isn’t a familiar thing to some folks here, an explanation is in order, because that particular hashtag is even more interrogated by today’s reading than it was a few weeks ago.
In social media – domains like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter – that symbol # that looks like the pound sign on your telephone (or a sharp sign to musicians) has a special function. I won’t pretend to be tech-savvy enough to explain how it works except that to say that if you “hashtag” a word or phrase in your post, anyone else – not just your friends or followers – can, by searching for that hashtag, see your post. And indeed, one relatively popular such hashtag across various social media is #blessed.
It’s interesting to see what kinds of posts get the hashtag #blessed from different people: Sometimes they seem pretty sincere:
Kids…grands and great grands…fruitful and multiplying. #blessed (with a smiley-face emoji for good measure).
Sometimes they might seem a little on the edge of being boastful or even arrogant. These often accompany pictures, say of a significant other and the very expensive gift just given (lot of that with Valentine’s Day having passed this week). And then, to top off the picture, #blessed.
Hopefully you get the idea. Some new event, some new gift, some new relationship or milestone or achievement…#blessed.
I don’t want to run people down or dump on them necessarily; some are quite sincere in their gratitude that they can’t stop themselves from sharing. Still, it can seem a bit awkward, because it often feels like there’s an unspoken opposite hashtag being, if not outright suggested, then very strongly implied.
Look at my hot boyfriend…#blessed. You don’t have a man like this? #notblessed.
Look at this new car…#blessed. You can’t afford one? #notblessed.
Or even worse: I’m a Good Christian. Look at my wife, my kids, my home, everything I’ve got. #blessed. You aren’t a Good Christian? You disagree with me about (insert favorite theological point of argument here)? #notblessed.
It’s an old way of thinking, a little bit like the one found in the reading from Jeremiah. I do good, I’m #blessed. You aren’t, you’re #notblessed.
But boy, oh, boy does Jesus blow up anything like that way of thinking in today’s reading from Luke.
Jesus has been up on the mountain, resting and praying. That’s a pattern in his ministry, especially as Luke tells the story. When he and the disciples come down, they are met by a large crowd – this is also a pattern – with many in need of healing. The opening verses tell us that Jesus did not ignore these needs; he begins to speak only after “power came out of him and healed all of them.” That’s not how such events are normally described, but that’s what Luke tells us here. Then, in a neat storytelling trick, Jesus begins to teach his disciples, with the whole crowd listening.
Now, if you started mentally reciting the Beatitudes in Matthew’s version to yourself, or even if you were listening and singing along with the choir a little while ago, you’re probably feeling as though something’s wrong. The verses you just heard may have sounded wrong, somehow. It’s “blessed are the poor in spirit. You left out the “in spirit” part, preacher. And it’s “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not just plain old hungry. And what happened to the meek and the merciful and all of those other blessings? Where are they? You messed up, preacher.
In fact, you can read along in those pew bibles and see that no, I didn’t mess up, or at least not on that grand a scale. If anybody “messed up,” it was Luke, except of course we don’t really make that claim about the authors of the gospels.
No, Luke is quite deliberate about these blessings spoken by Jesus. They are very much directed to the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated and reviled and defamed. No spiritualizing qualifiers.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Luke includes “woes,” something Matthew doesn’t touch at all. And it will not escape your notice that the “woes” correspond exactly to those truncated blessings. “But woe to you who are rich…” is all, again with no spiritualizing qualification, and it goes exactly with “blessed are you who are poor.” The full will be hungry, the laughing will weep and mourn, and those who are well-liked and lauded by the world…well, that puts you in some very bad company.
A word of caution here; it’s probably not wise to think of these woes as punishments. Indeed, far more likely, Jesus is simply pointing out the consequences of these conditions. When you’ve accumulated everything, what else is left? How can you possibly know your need of God when you have more money than God? If suffering the consequences of your choices is punishment, then, well, I suppose these are punishments. But that misses the mark; these are warnings, meant to call us away from any thing that prevents us from acknowledging our need for God and acting in accordance with what Jesus shows us and teaches us, here and throughout the gospels.
Still, though, we are left with this hard teaching to swallow. It doesn’t take a lot to look around and see that, in our world, the poor are notblessed. That isn’t how we live. That is not how our world is oriented. We don’t honor the poor or the hungry or the weeping or the reviled as being somehow particularly blessed of God, and even if we did, I’m pretty sure the poor would still rather have something to eat. So, to be blunt about it, these “blessings” just don’t ring true out there. And it’s pretty hard to see those “woes” at work either.
You know what? You’re right.
These blessings and woes don’t hold true out there. You know why?
Because this is not Jesus’s world.
This is not a world that is submitted to the Lordship of Christ. This is not a discipled world, not by a long shot. Pretty clearly this is an eschatological thing – a thing still to come, even if the kingdom of God is breaking in now.
And this is why that little narrative trick up front matters. Remember how when all the healings were done, Jesus “looked up at his disciples” and started teaching? While all this crowd was hanging around, this message was directed at a much smaller audience, an audience of twelve. Will we see the poor as blessed of God? Will we see the hungry, the sorrowful, the hated as blessed of God?
Evidence isn’t great. On the large scale, both in history and in the present, the church doesn’t do well by the poor or hungry. And of all things, the Christian church, easily the most prominent and powerful religious group in this country if not the world, manages to act as if it is persecuted. It doesn’t look much like the church as a whole gets it. To be blunt, we still have a long way to go.
And we can never get there by ourselves. Without the risen Christ of whom Paul so fervently speaks in the passage from the Corinthians letter, this is all as futile as everything else Paul describes. Indeed, if we’re trying to go forward with only a dead Savior, we really might as well pack up and go home. But, as Paul so clearly reminds us, we aren’t.
Are we listening? Are we going to learn to see this world as Jesus sees it? Will we take up that call to see and love this world through Jesus’s eyes?
The world is listening, and the world is waiting.
For blessings and, yes, for woes, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #35, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty; #457, How Happy Are the Saints of God (Psalm 1); #372, O For a World; #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least