Having a penchant for good stories, I love to read and also to watch TV. There are some shows whose characters are just so compelling and engaging and I can’t wait to follow along with their story. While my go-to will almost always be a well-written comedy like the Good Place or Parks and Rec, I also really love medical dramas as well. There is just something about the pace at which they unfold, and my own experiences in hospitals both as a patient and as a chaplain that make these shows so compelling. There is almost always a trope in medical dramas, where an emergency hits, crowds rush in and the head surgeon gets to work, and after the immediate rush of the emergency has died down, and the healing has begun, they will turn to their students, those training to be surgeons, and have a teaching moment. In the middle of a crisis, once the main problem has begun to be taken care of, the attending wants her residents to know why and how she did what she did and asks them what they might do in a similar situation.
With perhaps less dramatic music and panning cameras, this is sort of how I imagine our gospel lesson playing out today. Jesus heals the crowds of people from all over, and then he turns, he looks up to his students, the disciples and goes into a teaching about how the kingdom of God will work in contrast to this world.
Jesus has crowds following him and he comes to a place where in which he can teach and heal; all the vast crowd of people seeking healing were healed and then Jesus stops and looks to his disciples and begins to teach them directly. What Jesus teaches here is something well known, but as opposed to Matthew’s nine blessings, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes from Jesus has four blessings and four curses, each corresponding to the other. Blessed are the poor – woe to the rich; blessed are the hungry – woe to those are filled; blessed are those who weep – woe to those who are laughing; blessed are those who are exiled – woe to those who are thought well of. In these four pairs, the inverse of what is blessed or cursed becomes the focus, and Luke’s Jesus gives us concrete examples of the ways in which the kingdom of God is not like this world.
The Beatitudes are something that are essential to even a cursory knowledge of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew or, what we hear today, the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain from Luke. Before Jesus, his disciples, and the crowds reached the level place, Jesus was engaged in a dialogue with Pharisees, a religious sect that were known for their dogmatic interpretation of the law. Then Jesus spends in the night in prayer and picks his twelve disciples and the first teaching that they encounter is these blessing and curses, which harken back to the Jewish law found in Deuteronomy.
These blessing and curses are complicated; although Jesus looks directly at the disciples to begin this teaching, I wonder if the they were confused. I wonder if this reversal of all of their knowledge about how the law and society worked was confusing to them. I wonder if they were eager students who were searching for theological depth or symbolic meaning even as Jesus chose to focus on the economic and social conditions of the people in front of them. These blessings and curses likely hit the disciple’s ear in a way that it hits ours, but we have the struggle of undoing the sepia-toned image of the Beatitudes as a placating ideal; because what the Beatitudes are about, what the blessings and curses that Luke presents here is not some dream of what the world will be, but a prophetic telling of how the kingdom of God will be ordered.
So what is the good news in these blessings and curses? Because while I’m all about finding layers of theological meaning, but what I want to know is how is this good news for the people literally on our porch or in our community or even sitting next to you in the pew? What is the good news for those who aren’t just broke, waiting for the next paycheck, but who are steeped in insurmountable poverty that feels impossible to escape? What is the good news for people who aren’t metaphorically hungry, but are actually experiencing unrelenting hunger pains? What is the good news for those who nights are filled with sobs so heavy that weeping is all that your body is able to do? What is the good news for those who are thought of as other and less than in the communities through which they walk?
The good news is, of course, that kingdom of God will not be this way; the kingdom of God will reverse many of these issues, but the good news is not just that in the kingdom of God you will be filled and laughing and leaping for joy, but my word, it certainly is good news. The good news is not just that though, because the reality of the kingdom to come, for which we pray every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the reality of that kingdom to come is that it isn’t here yet. So the good news isn’t just that God’s kingdom and God’s blessing will someday be upon those who go without, but that God has tasked God’s people to do the work bringing about this kingdom to come. The good news is that Jesus turns to his disciples and gives them this teaching of blessing and curses not so that they can sit quietly and meditate upon the blessings that are to come, but so that they can get to work; so that they can seek out the poor and the hungry and the downtrodden and the outcasts. The good news of these blessings is not just that God’s kingdom will one day come, but that there are folk out here trying to follow Jesus and to help bring about God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.
But what about those curses? What is the good news there? Those of us who choose to follow Christ have to listen to the curses as well as the blessings and remember that discipleship costs us something. I don’t know about you, but those woes first hit my ear, I am suddenly very concerned with a precise understanding of how wealthy is rich exactly? How full does my pantry need to be for me to be in the danger zone? How joy is too much joy; what if people really like me? The good news in these curses is not just in what we lose, because we will have to lose some things; many of us will have to give up some of our wealth, we will have to give food from our breakfast table, we will have to sacrifice that fun thing we were going to do to sit with someone in pain, and we will have to associate with people we never thought we would. The good news in these curses is not just what we have to give up, but what we gain when we aren’t concerned about me and mine first; the good news of the curses is that it reminds us that our own financial situation or plans for meals or the ways in which we are viewed by society matter very little in the eyes of God, but that how we treat those who are different matters a whole lot.
The reality of these blessings and curses is that most of us will wander in and out of them in our lifetime. This teaching today isn’t meant to make you feel guilty if you identify more with the woes or to make you feel better about yourself if you identify more with the blessings; no, this teaching today is about reminding us that God is encouraging us to work for that kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. As you leave this church today and carry your prayer out into the world, remember the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, and the outcast; remember that the good news of God in Christ is true and let it guide your behavior, and, like the disciples, remember to get to work bringing about God’s kingdom.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on February 17, 2019 for Epiphany 6C on Luke 6:17-26.