February 17, 2019 – 6 Epiphany C
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
In today’s Gospel we hear Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. The beatitudes are also found in Matthews Gospel, but there are some differences between the two writers. Luke for example, has four beatitudes while Matthew has nine. Also, Luke’s beatitudes are more directly about economic and social conditions, which makes sense because Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts, is very concerned with the poor and rich followers of Jesus sharing resources together. It’s a theme you find throughout his Gospel and the book of Acts. He’s deeply aware of how wealth can separate us from each other, and wants his community, especially those who have wealth, to share what they have for the good of the church. And this is most likely why Luke’s version of the Beatitudes includes the four woes or curses directed to the rich and established Jesus followers in his community.
The term “Beatitudes” comes from the Latin word beatus which means blessed. But what does it mean to be blessed? It’s an important question and the way we answer it has a profound effect on the rest of our lives.
Some people think that being blessed means that life will turn out well. There’s a whole publishing industry based on this way of thinking, and it goes like this: If you are faithful to God, if you are a good Christian who prays, attends church, gives their money and time, and tries to follow Jesus, you will get that next job or promotion, or get more peace in your family, or get more money and material possessions. There are books by Christian authors that have sold millions of copies based on this definition of blessing. And you can watch them on TV and hear them on the radio. For them and their followers, being blessed means that life turns out well.
This theology of blessing is found in the Book of Deuteronomy. Here’s the setting of Deuteronomy, the Israelites have been delivered from slavery to the Egyptians. They have journeyed through the wilderness for forty years. And God is about to have them enter the promised land. But before he does, Moses lays out two paths for the Israelites. If they are faithful to God they will be blessed. If they are unfaithful, they’ll be cursed. The blessings include all kinds of things: the crops will produce, their flocks will increase, and they will have good children. But if they aren’t faithful to God, they will experience curses. Bad crops, bad flocks, poverty, sickness, and disease.
This type of theology of blessing is found in scripture, but it’s not the only theology of blessing. Just like Luke and Matthew have different theologies of the beatitudes, the Bible as a whole contains different perspectives and theologies within it. And one example is the book of Job which is a story about the most righteous and faithful person on earth who loses everything: his family, wealth, and even his own health.
But it’s easy to forget about Job, and the view that blessing equals a good life, was prevalent in Jesus’ time. At one point in John’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are walking along when they notice a blind man. “Jesus,” they ask, “was it this man who sinned and received the curse of blindness, or was it his parents who sinned who made him blind.” Because they believe that blindness is a curse caused by someone’s sin.
At another point, Jesus tells his disciples that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God and they are shocked. Because they believe that wealth is a blessing caused by someone’s faithfulness to God.
But as you can see, there are problems with this view of what it means to be blessed. There are faithful people who experience all kinds of terrible things like sickness, poverty, and great losses.
But those who hold on to the view that blessing equals a good life, can experience the destruction of their faith because they feel betrayed, like God has broken a promise. Barbara Brown Taylor describes the damaging effects of this view so well. “According to their Sunday School teachers, Taylor writes, “God made a bargain with each one of them the moment they were born: do what I say and I will take care of you. So they did, and for years it seemed to work. They obeyed their parents, their teachers, their coaches, and they were taken care of, but one day the system failed. They did everything right and everything went wrong. Their prayers went unanswered their belief went unrewarded, their God went AWOL, and the lie was exposed. One man I know, mourning the death of his infant daughter, confessed the depth of his loss. “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” he said. I don’t know whom to pray to, or what to pray. I tried to be a good person; I did the best I knew how, and it didn’t do a bit of good. If God is going to let something like this happen, then what’s the use of believing at all?”
As Taylor points out, some people believe that if they do the right things, if they believe and try to be faithful to Jesus, things will just work out and life will be good—that bad things won’t happen. And when things don’t work out that way, they feel betrayed and crushed.
But here’s the truth of the matter. Bad things happen to us that we don’t deserve. Good things also happen to us that we don’t deserve. Being blessed isn’t about us getting more and life turning out well. Being blessed is knowing that there is no place we can go where God’s love will not be there with us. Being blessed means that we are loved by God.
And that’s what’s so amazing about Jesus’ beatitudes in today’s Gospel. To whom does Jesus share the good news of what it means to be blessed? It was a great crowd of those who were sick. Those who were troubled and disturbed by unclean spirits. And as was common in the areas Jesus ministered, there were many who were poor. The good news of Jesus is that they aren’t living under God’s curse. Jesus looks at all who were viewed as cursed, and tells them they are blessed – they are all loved by God. That no matter what suffering they are experiencing, they are welcome in the embrace of God’s love. Others might shun them or look down upon them and call them cursed, but Jesus tells them the truth about who they are is that they are blessed.
Kate Bowler grew up as a Christian in a Christian home. She is a professor at Duke Divinity School. Her career is thriving, she is married to her high school sweetheart, and she loves her new life with their newborn son. Then she’s diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. There’s no cure. It’s terminal. She then writes a book called Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. As she processes her relationship with God and her husband and her son, who she won’t be able to watch grow up, she writes the following: “What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, “You are limitless”? Everything is not possible. The mighty kingdom of God is not yet here. What if ‘rich’ did not have to mean ‘wealthy’, and ‘whole’ did not have to mean ‘healed’? What if being the people of “the gospel” meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”
I think Kate has described what it means to be blessed. You can experience what it means to be rich without being wealthy. You can experience what it means to be whole while you journey with a terminal illness.
Bad things happen to us that we don’t deserve. Good things also happen to us that we don’t deserve. Life changes but our blessedness doesn’t. Being blessed is knowing that there is nothing that can happen to us, no place we can go, where God’s love will not be there with us. Being blessed means that we are loved by God.
As one of our blessed sisters says, “God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”