This Sunday, May 22, is the Sixth Sunday of Easter, on which Jesus performs a healing miracle on the sabbath. In doing so he invites us into the kind of creative power that true sabbath can offer. Join us this Sunday at 10:00, in person or via livestream here: https://youtu.be/EjDxdYrW4rY
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February 13, 2022
By the end of this day, we will have declared a winner. That’s what we like to do in America. Name winners and losers. Especially on Super Bowl Sunday. I will not venture to guess whether that winner will be the Bengals or the Rams, but I know this for sure: It won’t be both of them. Even if it requires going into overtime, which we’ve been reminded during the playoffs has some pretty weird rules, there will still be only one winner.
The Winter Olympics highlights these narratives too. It’s either agony or ecstasy. I keep thinking about Mikaela Shiffrin, who is among the most accomplished Alpine ski racers of her generation. She made a mistake just a few seconds into the slalom. She left the course, went over to the side, took off her skis, and sat down in the snow, stunned. She stayed there for twenty minutes. It was painful to watch.
Meanwhile, we quickly move on to celebrate the victories. Nathan Chen, unbeatable this time around, was simply dazzling on the ice. His gold medal seemed that much sweeter because four years ago he was the one whose errors kept him from medaling at all. Friday night I happened to catch the finals of the mixed team snowboard cross – not something I would usually watch. Lindsey Jacobellis (at 36) and Nick Baumgartner (at 40) made history as the two oldest medalists in Olympic snowboarding history. Their combined age is 76, and their medal is gold.
Winners. Losers. That’s the mindset we bring to so many situations, even when there aren’t explicit winners like there are in sports.
So when we hear Jesus talk about blessings for some people and woes for others, we can too easily translate that to mean: “Oh, the blessed people are the winners, and the ones with woes are the losers. Game over.” Then we lean in and listen more closely, only to realize that these categories are not at all what we expect.
We hear Jesus talk about who the blessed are: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted. The woes are reserved for the rich and the full and the laughing and the popular.
So what do we make of that? Especially if our lives seem pretty good. Are we supposed to be afraid to laugh or have a good meal?
Not exactly. Let’s put this in some context. The gospel of Luke is always concerned with the expansiveness of God’s love. Even in this moment we hear that Jesus is surrounded by a multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. This is no longer just his hometown crowd. On his way to this location, Jesus has spent time eating with outcasts and healing all kinds of illnesses (a high fever, paralysis, and leprosy, among others). And he’s assembled a group of close followers, some of whom have pretty sketchy résumés. So even before he utters a word of this sermon, Jesus is showing by his actions that he is most interested in spending time with people who are not the most polished and powerful folks.
Here’s where it’s interesting to compare the version of this sermon in the gospel of Luke with the one in the Gospel of Matthew. Luke keeps it simple – blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted. Matthew adds five more beatitudes, and finesses the language a bit. Matthew, for example, says “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Or “blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.” Matthew wants to spiritualize the situations a bit, removing them from the visceral realities of empty bellies and falling tears and eviction notices.
Matthew also speaks in the third person: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew makes Jesus sound like he’s talking about some other people, whereas Luke’s version uses second person pronouns: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” It’s a plural pronoun too. He’s speaking to “all of you” who are in that crowd right in front of him, hungry and hopeless.
To be “blessed” means that God sees your suffering and promises that your grief, your hunger, your pain will not last forever.
What, then, does “woe” mean? We’re tempted to read it as meaning “cursed.” We’re used to “cursed” being the opposite of “blessed.” Winners and losers, right? But in this case I hear “woe” as a kind of urgent reminder, like “Be careful!” or “Watch out!” So Jesus is saying something like: Be careful that your prosperity and joy don’t make you too self-congratulatory or self-absorbed. Jesus knows that when we’re comfortable, it’s sometimes easy to believe that we have earned that status entirely on our own merit, and it becomes easier to neglect those who are struggling or to blame them for their situation.
Most of us throughout our lives will in some way experience both the blessings and woes that Jesus describes. Sometimes we will be the ones who are crying, overwhelmed by a grief we can’t even name. And sometimes we will be hopeful, able to sit beside that crying friend so that they will not be alone in their grief. Sometimes we will be the ones worried about how to pay the bills or figure out the next meal. And sometimes we will be the means by which someone else is blessed because we have shared our bounty.
The other thing that always strikes me about Luke’s version of this sermon is where Jesus chooses to deliver it. We think of it as the Sermon on the Mount because that’s how Matthew presents it. In Matthew Jesus goes up a mountain before he begins preaching. But Luke has Jesus do the opposite. Jesus “came down and stood on a level place” with the crowd.
That’s what Jesus is about – coming down among the people to meet them in the midst of whatever they are experiencing. Jesus is born into the world for this purpose. He knows what it means to be human, both the joys and the griefs.
I imagine Mary singing to little Jesus the same song she sang to Elizabeth when Jesus was still in her womb, a song about how God has cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, a song about filling the hungry with good things.
Jesus knows hunger. He spends 40 days fasting in the wilderness, tempted by the devil.
Jesus knows grief. He cries when his friend Lazarus dies.
Jesus knows persecution. He is threatened and challenged at almost every turn by the authorities, and eventually his inclusive love costs him his life. When you threaten the powerful by siding with the vulnerable, you often end up on a cross.
But, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, in Jesus’ upside-down calculus, death is the ultimate loser. “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” Paul writes. And because resurrection has won out over death, we need not fear that death will defeat us.
Jesus sees and knows our suffering. Jesus summons us to see the suffering of our neighbors and friends – and, whenever possible, to be the means by which that suffering is relieved.
And to trust that God will never leave us, in this life or the next. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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