Scripture: Luke 6:17-26
Given on October 16, 2016 at FPC-Anniston, AL
Jesus, soon after calling those twelve who will follow him until the very end, approaches a large plain, upon which a great gathering of people has come together to be healed of their afflictions, to be ridded of unclean spirits, and to hear Jesus’s teachings. And while you can never fully know the condition of a large gathering of people, because surely in such a large number there are going to be those from walk of life, we can be sure that the folks to whom he is speaking on this morning are primarily from the poorer stations of life. And we know this because we know that the vast majority of those who follow Jesus, who seek him out to hear the word of God come through his words, are those of the Jewish faith, those who are the people who have dwelt in darkness and are desperate to see any kind of light. Those who are the people who have lived through centuries of Roman occupation, and before that the Assyrians, and before that the Persians, and before that Egyptian slavery. Those who are the people who have known little of self-determination but have known far too much of being outcasts in their own land, hated majorities in a country overtaken by the powerful few, slaves too long held down by slave masters. And while there is little way to know exactly what each one came expecting to hear on that day, we can be pretty certain that none of them had ever had the experience of having their collective plight, their shared struggle lifted up and declared to be blessed. Because, for exactly none of them, had poverty felt like a blessing. For none of them was it a good thing to go to bed hungry and wake up unsure from whence their next meal would come. For none of them did it feel good to weep tears of sadness and resignation. And for none of them did the hatred they experienced feel like a blessing. So it is that, you have to imagine that many of them didn’t know what to make of these pronouncements of Jesus that ran so counter to the way in which they had experienced both their lives and their history. How can it be a blessing to be poor, to be hated, to be hungry, to be silently crying? How is it that the kingdom of God, the the realm of God can arise out of the painful circumstances that too many in our world experience as normative? How can God still be God in a world in which hunger ravages and poverty consumes? And what does the good news of Jesus look like in that world?
Never is the chasm between the rich and the poor placed in such sharp contrast as in the wake of natural disasters that tear down the physical and emotional foundations of a civilization. Never are the struggles of the impoverished so clearly seen as when the sheer agony of those whose whole lives have been washed out to sea are placed on our television screens each night. Never is the path we trod with Jesus so illuminated as when we see the least of these among us struggle to put together anew any sort of life in the wake of devastation. The images from the past week of those left in the wake of Hurricane Matthew that have been splayed across television and computer screens have been difficult to see. When the original path was predicted and it showed the destitute country of Haiti in line to take something like a direct hit from a major hurricane, I feared the destruction that would follow it. Haiti in a country that has known virtually no prosperity in the time that has followed its independence from France in 1804. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and in the best of circumstances, it’s people struggle. So poor a country is it, that when the hurricane hit some two weeks ago, it had not even come close to recovering from the massive earthquake that had leveled so much of it in 2010. Buildings that had been reduced to rubble then still sat exactly where they had fallen as the Haitian people did the best that they could to get by in the time that followed the earthquake. So it was that when Matthew did hit, the damage and the death toll were both incredibly difficult to even comprehend. Considerably harder still was it for me to see the pictures both on the national news but also simply first hand from my father of the devastation of my beloved hometown of Lumberton, NC. Some of y’all know that we were supposed to be there last weekend when the storm hit North Carolina. The church where I was raised was supposed to have a homecoming service paired with their annual Kirkin’ of the Tartans celebration and we had planned to go and participate for some time. And while we made the decision not to go in the wake of the hurricane, many did not have that option. As the storm hit and what was supposed to be 7-10 inches of rain quickly became 18 inches, the river that runs through the town soon crested its bank, and a levee that was in the downtown area broke and soon much of the city, especially the poorer section, was under about 6 feet of water. The devastation has continued throughout this week as the waters have been slow to recede, they still have not been able to get running water back to the people, and places like my dad’s medical clinic that serves much of the impoverished population in Lumberton continues to sit below the water and no one is sure what, if anything, will be left of it when they are able to get back into it. Yet, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor,” and I am left not knowing what exactly to make of such a declaration. How is it that there’s is the Kingdom of God?
In a similar way, Jesus tells this gathering of hungry people that those who are hungry are blessed because they will be filled. We know that we live in a world in which the division of resources have left many in our community, many in our world hungry. Many go to bed not sure how to feed their families the next day, how to take care of those that are closest to them. Many in our own community rely on the collective goodness of the community to receive their daily nutrition. Many children in our country rely on school meals, food banks, public and private assistance just to make it from one day to the next. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger now, for you will be filled.”
Next Jesus tells this group of depleted folks who have been dwelling in darkness for far too long that those who weep are also blessed. And we know that weeping is not crying. Weeping is not sobbing. Weeping is not that which we do when we are sad. No, weeping is that which comes over us when all our emotional, spiritual, physical resources have been completely spent and all we can do is collapse wherever we are and cry tears of resignation. Resignation that declares that there is nothing left to do. Resignation that declares that they brokenness of the world is too great to overcome. Resignation that hurt, the sorrow, the dark night in which too often we find our souls has won and there is nothing left for us to do but accept it. The psalmist tells us that by the rivers of Babylon the Jewish people wept for Zion, for their homes, for their God, feeling, for all the world as if that part of them was dead and gone and they had to simply accept that their captivity, their exile was just the way that it was and nothing was going to change that. “Blessed are those who weep now,” Jesus says, “for they will laugh.”
Finally, Jesus tells this group of occupied people, this group of second-class citizens in their own country, this group of the marginalized and downtrodden and disinherited folks, that they, too, are blessed because they are following in the same line as their ancestors before them. This collection of people who have seen their loved ones beaten and killed. Who have seen their houses of worship decimated and sacked. Who have experienced the harsher side of the Pax Romana. They, too, are blessed. In our own time, we know those who are oppressed as well. The one who doesn’t look like us. The one who doesn’t worship like us. The one who sits on the outside of our circles forever looking in. The one who thinks no one cares. The one who cannot experience the fullness of the love of God, the blessings of the world, the wholeness of simply being a child of God.
How can we understand these radical words of Jesus? Is it true that those who suffer are blessed? In our time don’t we so often hear the opposite, that those who have worldly goods, those who live life on some imagined easy street are the blessed ones? Jesus reverses this “common sense” to say it is those who experience trials and yet stand who are the blessed. Those whose houses are flooded but reach out to their neighbor, those who live under the Roman rule but protect each other, those who are hungry and share a meal. Where do we find such strength to stand, even in the darkest of times? We find the strength in our Creator. The one whose steadfast hand guides us even now to this place — where we worship. In many circles of recovery the following prayer is said every week: Dear God, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen. We cannot always hold back the flood, the oppression, or the hunger but we can decide what to do about it. We can cast our vision across the expanse of the world and see those who are poor as our own beloved, blessed by God. We can, as a community, redouble our efforts to both feed those in our midst who hunger but then also challenge the systems that marginalize the poor and oppressed. We can reach out from this place and bring in those who weep because there is nothing left to do and offer the love of God, the hands and feet of Christ, a warm cup of coffee, a smile, a hug, and the comfort that can only come from the Holy Spirit moving in our midst. Shall we, with God giving us the strength, bail the water, lift up one another, and share our bread? And then we shall know the blessed who benefit from our Christian love and moreover, we will be the blessed.
A large group of followers gathered around Jesus and he told them that right where they were, in whatever station in life they found themselves, whether poor or downtrodden, hungry or just plain done, that they are blessed, they are the beloved of God, that they can move into the next moment knowing that they are forever held in the loving hands of God and so, too, are we this morning. We are blessed to be a blessing to those who struggle. We are blessed because we have seen the rising Christ in our midst and we can help others to see as well. We are blessed because we have been filled with the Holy spirit of God and we can move into the next moment, hopeful in the face of despair, filled with peace when all seems to be falling away, and loving because we were first loved. May we be, as we have always been, the children of God. Now and always. Amen.