Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Last weekend, David and I experienced something incredible, thanks to the relentless generosity of my sister. We took a hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley in Northern California at sunrise. This experience was nothing less than awe – some. Breathtaking. As we began our descent into a clearing within the grounds of a vineyard and began to float closer and closer to the ground, we passed over a block of vines that were being tended to by workers. As I watched them do their vinocultural work, I noticed something that struck me to the core. Here I was, living what was my very best life at that exact moment, a life with not a care in the world it seemed, while right below the hot air balloon’s basket, were a group of about a dozen migrant farm workers, laboring on a chilly winter morning to tend to vines which would grow the grapes this vineyard would use to make their fancy wine – likely costing much more money than these workers would ever expect to have as disposable income in their lifetimes. We were so close to the ground at this point that I felt like they were looking right at my face as we passed over their heads. I was struck by the sheer inequality of the moment – I had not worked for this opportunity to fly high above the ground in a hot air balloon, but rather it had been gifted to me by the generosity and love of someone. The gift came with no strings attached at all, a gift full of grace and love alone. This gift lifted me high above the people who were toiling on the ground below, and that image hit me in my very privileged gut – an image I have yet to shake from my memory of that very special day.
After our trip, I began to read todays Gospel to prepare for this sermon. Blessed are you who…
Are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed because of Christ
And woe to you who…
Are spoken of highly
We’ve heard some of these words before – or something pretty similar – found in the gospel of Matthew in the more famous Sermon on the Mount. Today’s gospel is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. The Plain – a level place where all who heard Jesus teach were standing as equals – no advantages or disadvantages on being able to see or hear the words Jesus taught. While the Sermon on the Mount focuses only on the “blessed are they who”, Luke’s version of this event describes the flip side – for there is often a flip side to who we are and what our lives are really like in their totality.
Blessings…boy to we Christians love this word! We are blessed when things go well for us – a new job, a renewed friendship, even stumbling across a sale on a great pair of shoes gets labeled as a blessing! We thank God for blessing us with another year on our birthdays and God certainly blesses us when we find a $20 bill in our jacket pocket that we haven’t checked since the last cold snap. So does that mean that we are doing something right? Living our best lives at that very moment? And if that is true, then isn’t the opposite also true? When we don’t find ourselves so “blessed” – are we doing something wrong and somehow deserve our woes?
That’s just not how God works – handing out random blessings and woes to each person on the planet sounds like some kind of god that I’m not interested in having a relationship with. In fact, that seems rather cruel and without any sort of God-like intention at all. This passage from our Gospel reading today speaks nothing of what God supposedly hands out to us in the way of blessings and woes, but rather speaks about our current lived condition. Sometimes life is easier and sometimes life is harder. And while some things are completely outside of our control, there are many ways that we use our privilege to keep our privilege for ourselves, even at the expense of others.
Let me be very clear….God does not say to give up your money, or your food, or to stop laughing and become a person who is ridiculed by others. Whew! Instead we are called to use our access to these points of privilege to reach out to those to whom Jesus DESIRES and some may say even prefers – those who live at the margins of our very own communities. The blessings that Jesus names are also for those whose lives are not privileged by birthright, who have been victimized by the very structures from which many of you, and certainly I benefit. These are not intended to be exclusionary to those who are privileged, but rather leveraged by the very people who have them and take them for granted. To stand with those in the margins requires something of us – and it’s something that is easy to tweet about or discuss over dinner – but it’s quite another when it gets right down to it. It requires us to give up some of our power with the intention of giving it to others.
One of the things I love the most about being a part of this faith community here at the Cathedral is the breadth of diversity found in these pews. People from all stations of life made a decision today to come to this sacred place to worship God together in community. What you are wearing, where you slept last night, and how much money you will place in the offering plate is of no consequence to being able to gather together. This is not a place where attaining social status equals a reward of a spot at the altar rail in a few minutes, when we offer ourselves humbly to God and partake of Communion. Instead, all are welcome. This is a place where children make valentine cards to share with the residents at Peterborough Apartments and tie die t-shirts to sell as we approach the Pride celebration. This is a place where dozens of parishioners give of their time to support the students and staff at Campbell Park Elementary School. This is a place that actively looks for ways to support the community and people who have been sidelined and oppressed by systemic racism, classism, and sexism. These very things that Jesus is preaching about on this level place in todays Gospel – is meant to remind us that we are joining with his followers and the rest of the people who were clamoring to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. And friends, we have so much more to do to extend the radical love of Jesus Christ into our communities. This is the REAL emergency that affects us all.
Blessings are not zero sum – there are enough for everyone as long as we don’t see them as something we deserve and must hold on to at all cost – they are ours through God’s grace and often, a whole lot of sheer luck. And holding tight to our privilege, does absolutely nothing to honor the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain – Jesus expects his followers to actively participate in dismantling structures of oppression which bar others from experiencing what we so easily take for granted. Frankly, sitting back and enjoying our blessings without being compelled to want the same for others is not at all who we are called to be as Christ’s followers. To be clear, this is the REAL emergency that affects us all and should call us to action.
You may have seen this picture illustration before. Three kids are standing on crates in front of a privacy fence in 2 side by side scenarios. In the first panel, the three kids are each standing on their own identical crates behind at tall fence, attempting to watch a baseball game being played on the other side. These three kids range in height from pretty tall to super short. The crates are the exact same shape and size, and the perfect size for the tallest child to see over the fence and have a perfect view of the game with room to spare. The next tallest kid wouldn’t be able to see a thing without standing on the crate – their eyes just clear the very top of the fence line so they can see all the action. The third child – the shortest one, stands as tall as he can on his tippy toes, craning his neck to see over the fence, but he is still too short to be able to see a thing.
In the second panel, all three kids are pictures watching the game and cheering along with the action. But in this panel, the crates have been redistributed. The tallest kid is now standing on the ground – he still has a great view of the game as his head clears the top of the fence line without any help from a crate. His crate is now stacked on top of the smallest boy’s crate to give him the height he needs to be able to see over the fence. This small child’s body language is completely different from the first image, where his shoulders were slumped over in apparent disappointment. In the second scenario, his arms are thrown in the air in excitement as he watches the game, just like the other two kids.
Each child uses the crate for the same goal – to be able to see over the fence. With access to the exact same resources, they have radically different levels of success. It’s not until the tallest one shares his crate with the smallest child that the kids finally have equal access to the fun on the other side of the fence.
Jesus names our blessings and our woes, and it turns out we get some of each in our lives. And in our blessings, God sees us and calls us to remember the Good News is for everyone. Don’t let the blessings of your life lead you to believe there will be no woes, and don’t let the woes stop you from finding your blessings. Instead, spend some time considering your blessings and how you can turn them into blessings for others. When we believe we ALL are created in God’s image, we cannot rest until we have done all in our power to see everyone’s humanity. As Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the earliest liberation theologians has said, when we use our blessings to reach out to others, “We opt to be with Jesus, to serve Jesus, to accompany Jesus among the world’s poor in the nonviolent struggle for justice.”