By Lucy Waechter Webb, Delivered January 30, 2011 This morning we’ve heard two different versions of one of the most quoted passages in scripture, the Beatitudes. The choir offered us a beautiful rendition of Matthew’s version, and Kelly read the version from the gospel of Luke, which for many of us, may sound a bit more unfamiliar. There is also a photography reflection on the Luke passage up this morning that I invite you to take a look at.
You probably noticed that the two versions have some differences.
Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and Luke says, “Blessed are the poor.”
Matthew writes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” –
Luke writes, “Blessed are those who hunger.”
You may have also noticed, that Luke includes some stronger language in the form of “the dreaded woes.” Matthew’s list is a long list of blessings, Luke has a short list of blessings, and an opposite list of corresponding “woes”.
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
Those are some pretty strong statements! And I’m not sure about you, but my first reaction, is to figure out how I can fit myself into one of those blessed categories, and not find myself feeling guilty because I seem to fit into one, or maybe two, or maybe even three of those “woe” categories.
I justify things by saying, “well, I might not be poor, but I definitely have days, even weeks sometimes where I feel pretty poor in spirit.”
Or, though I may not be in a time of grief right now, I have surely mourned in my life.
Or, I know in light of MLK day, I don’t even come close to Dr. King’s work, but I do strive to be a peacemaker in this world. Surely, surely I am blessed.
On my better days, I don’t let my desperation and fear get in the way so quickly. And I remember, that in fact, Luke is talking about those who are economically poor, who are physically hungry. Actually both gospels use language that is typically reserved in the Bible for those who are considered outcasts in society. And I realize, that perhaps I do fall into those woed categories, into the groups that are being warned by Jesus’ words.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize. Placing myself in a category wasn’t helpful. Nor was it instructive. If I decided I was blessed, then I rest in a false assurance that things are ok in this world. And yet I see they are not.
Before I moved to Columbus, I worked in Boston for a non-profit that helped people who were coming home from prison. While I was there I saw time and again the world deny people a chance at life because of their “status” of criminal. A client at Span, I’ll call him Juan, is a good example of someone who had everything stacked against him if we use the world’s rules as our yardstick. He was a middle-aged gay man, who was from Cuba and did not have legal status as a US resident. He was a former inmate, and he was very open about his health status, he had been infected HIV for over ten years. Because of his immigration status, he could not receive certain forms of public assistance, because of his criminal status he had trouble getting suitable housing and employment, because of his health status, he had trouble building new relationships. And yet he was one of the brightest spirits at Span, offering hours of his time to cook meals for his fellow members, and offering support to those who were fresh out from behind the walls. But the world would not have him.
When I know Juan and his story, it helps me confess I might really be being “woed”– but then I ask myself what I’m supposed to do with that? Is Jesus instructing me to give up everything to be poor so I can be called blessed by God? Was Jesus’ sermon supposed to urge people to give up their money, go hungry and learn to weep daily? Surely not.
If you look closely, the words do not instruct us to do anything;
Jesus is simply proclaiming a truth.
He does not romanticize the realities of poverty and hunger and grief by blessing those things, and then say go and do likewise.
Jesus is blessing the PEOPLE who already find themselves in those places. He is blessing those who find themselves in groups that our world does not deem worthy.
Jesus is making a claim about who God is. God is creating a new measure of love and acceptance. Regardless of what the world says about those who are poor, and meek and hungry. Regardless of what the world says about those who find themselves to be outcasts because they have a particular disease, struggle with mental health, wear the label of criminal, don’t have the right sexuality, or aren’t beautiful enough, thin enough, educated enough. The list goes on and on.
Once I realized how anxious this passage made me, and stopped trying to fit into one of the blessings, I realized this text isn’t about me. It’s not even about us, as a people really. It’s about God. When we stop hearing this text as one that divides us, and hear it instead as a declaration of God’s nature, we’ll begin to listen to the beginning of this famous sermon as good news – no matter where you think you fit! Because the message is about who God is, who God claims, and what God does with the rules of this world.
Throughout his life, Jesus tossed aside the norms of society that kept people in their places, and he claimed those who no one else would. This passage is a kind of ultimate summary of his ministry and a testament to God’s nature.
So what does that mean for those of us listening? Again regardless of what category you seem to fit. What does this mean to us?
I was actually watching a pretty random YouTube video of Cornell West yesterday. Cornell West is a preacher, scholar, and prophet in our world, and for those of you who don’t know him, he’s very animated and unconventional. He was sitting on a random bench outside and someone was taping him, and he talked about knowledge. He talked about what knowledge, true knowledge does to a person. He said that knowledge comes through vision, you see it, experience it, and when you do, it doesn’t simply inform you, but in his words “forms and transforms you into courageous world changers."
Jesus in this sermon, is giving us a knowledge that does that for us. If we can see that the text is not about us, then we can hear the good news and be transformed, so that we begin to hear it in the world. It’s those moments when you watch the news and you feel it in your gut. We you’re in line behind someone at the grocery store who cannot pay for their groceries and they have to put something back. When you watch someone who, for whatever reason, struggles to connect with other people in the world. Those are the moments, those moments of vision, when you feel it in your gut or your heart, when you don’t know how to respond or what to do, but you know things are not right. That’s when you are transformed by God’s radical claim for those the world rejects.
If we believe that this, this is God’s nature, then we are to participate in that work and ministry that Jesus demonstrated for us. When we allow this text, and those moments in life to touch us, we become transformed into people who then offer blessings to those God has already claimed as blessed.
Summit already has a beautiful history of this. Before I even arrived here, I was told a foundational story about the identity of this congregation. I had the opportunity to hear some of Summit’s history from Bishop Sprague, one of the pastors who participated in the merger of Summit in the 1970’s. Within a month of Summit’s new union, they had a knock on the door. There was a group of LGBT students seeking refuge. They told the church they did not have a safe place to go, could they seek sanctuary here? And the church said yes. This church said yes thirty plus years ago before churches around the country were even beginning to think about saying yes.
Today Summit works with so many groups that might otherwise find it challenging to do their work in this world. The pilgrims, work in Weinland Park, thinking about biking as a major piece of transportation in our struggling planet. And we know Summit is on the verge of new and exciting things as we continue to grow and thrive as a community!
So I have one final comment for us we think about this work and ministry and continue our journey forward. Let us never forget what Jesus already knew. He completes his list of blessings and woes in both gospels, with a blessing for those who are laughed at because they believe these claims are true, and he knows they will seem foolish to the world.
Living these truths is not an easy task. And if you make these claims, then you will challenge ideas and rules of our society that will make probably both you and the world uncomfortable. But we’ve done it before! And Summit is doing it now. May we find the courage, the kindness and the vision – to continue to be transformed by this radical nature of God’s love, so that we might transform the community’s eyes and the world’s eyes, to see all of God’s people as truly Blessed. Amen.