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.”
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“At least I’m not like THOSE people.” I’ve said it. I’ve thought it. I’ve meant it.
I can be pretty proud of myself at times. I believe it when I read a news article about my most recent professional accomplishment. When people tell me I’m a great principal, I love that feeling. After meeting our family and chatting with our almost graduated from high school daughter, and compliments about her are given to us as parents, we can get pretty puffed up with pride. When I do something kind for someone else and hear how I have helped them, I can feel pretty darn good about myself. Let’s just go with this…I don’t suffer from a self-image problem or deal with debilitating insecurities.
But today’s lesson from Luke is all about the humility with which we are to approach our life in Christ. The Pharisee does one heck of a job of pumping up and list his accomplishments to an all-knowing and all-seeing God. It’s like he is looking for God to thank him with a big “Atta Boy!” for living a righteous life. And in comparison, the tax-collector, that lowest of the lows in society at the time comes before God with a humble heart and asks for mercy without even raising his eyes toward heaven. Jesus then shares that little nugget at the end about the humbled being exalted, essentially admonishing the bragger and do-gooder for forgetting that God’s gifts come without any strings attached.
To be exalted is to be elevated in status and that is exactly what Jesus tells us to will happen when we live our life in deference to the gifts of grace and mercy. The Pharisee approaches God as if to collect what he deserves…but let’s face the truth here. We can never do enough good and follow enough rules to ever deserve God’s mercy. That’s the coolest and most humbling part of all – all we have to do is ask. And it is done. That’s it.
But make sure you want the elevated status in God’s eyes, rather than search for it in the eyes of others. With a somewhat high profile job in my community which provides a service, people tend to tell me things about myself that I could easily believe if I allowed what others’ think about me to influence my status. I could believe that I have almost magical leadership powers if their interpretations of my leadership are correct. I could also believe the opposite on my worst day as a principal if I let the feelings of others determine my worth. So I try to find a balance – I am my worst critic for sure – but in God’s eyes, I am his creation and therefore must turn to him to be given the gift of grace and mercy.
Today’s parable is a cautionary tale to be wary of puffing up oneself to others and especially to God. He knows all that we are and all that we are not without our need to list off the accomplishments and/or failures. No matter how we are feeling about our worth to ourselves or our family/friends/community, approach God with an open heart to the gift of justification through our humility. And we will be exalted through him.
Lord, we are not worthy to accept your gift of your one and only Son. Yet we know that you intended that gift just for us. Help us to stay humble in our good works and remind ourselves we are deserving of your grace and mercy. For our exaltation is for you and for your alone. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
18 Then Jesustold them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Big themes in our Gospel for this week! Here are the ones I teased out during my reflection:
- Jesus needs us to pray.
- Persistence works.
- Justice from humans = flawed/imperfect. Justice from God? Perfect.
- Keep working on faith.
The use of parables in Luke’s Gospel is a successful way to get me to think. I love to tell stories myself as well as hear others’ stories too – and parables make it easier for me to relate to God’s teachings. And this parable starts off strongly with, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s not written in the form of a question either – not we “should” pray, or “ought to” pray…but rather that we NEED to pray. And then the implication of patience is stated when Jesus tells them not to “lose heart.” That reminds me of the story of how long and how hard St. Augustine’s mother prayed for him to find a relationship with God. I bet she was frustrated with the seemingly lack of answer to that prayer, but she kept praying without ceasing. A great life lesson as she must have wrestled with faithfulness as she begged God to be able to reach in her son’s heart and see him turn to the Lord.
Persistence is easy to have when we want it. I have been known to shop for hours looking for the perfect shoes. THAT is persistence! When I want someone to change their minds about something, I can be pretty persistent in making the case for change. Toddlers have persistence down pat at quite an early age, don’t they? So why do we give up so easily when it comes to prayer and building our relationship with Christ? Why do we walk away from the chance to have the intimacy of a relationship with God through our conversation and quiet listening time? Why don’t we make the time for this important part of our walk with Christ?
The judge in this story is a self-proclaimed jerk and non-believer who basically rules in favor of the widow to get her off his back. Whether that justice was deserved or not seemed to be a non-issue in the story (although widows in this day had very little influence at all). We do that too – make decisions like this judge to mollify others whether they are right decisions or not. Maybe if the judge had been faithful to God the story could have been a different one because he would have relied upon discernment that comes from faith in God to help him with this and his many other cases. But he held out as long as he could while she kept coming back for her justice. Our God is much more generous and merciful than that. He sent his Son to die for our sins; that is the kind of justice we can never deserve. And though it may feel as if the world is unfair and God isn’t listening to us, when we think about his gracious gifts to us it explains how we can find the strength in our times of greatest challenge. In fact, without his grace, we wouldn’t be nearly as successful as we are now! And PS…his timing is perfect and way better than what we think it should be in the long run, right?
But the last line of this week’s passage is the real question, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Gosh, I sure hope so. And that starts with me. Will he find faith in me if he comes tomorrow? Will he see evidence of our love in the world we live in, building communities of faithfulness that are pleasing to him? Are we doing enough to spread God’s love in all we do and say? Are we leaving the judging up to him and him alone? Is our praying persistent enough to keep our hearts and minds on his true love?
Lord, you are the great Judge. You are merciful and full of grace and compassion. Look generously on us as we strive for faith and justice and give us a heart that yearns for you. For you are the one who knows what we need before we know for ourselves and your timing and answers to prayers is perfect. Help us to be relentless in turning back to you each and every day. Your saving grace is ours. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Have you ever looked around you and seen people who clearly have more faith than you? You know, those people who just radiate peace and that all knowing look of “No worries, God’s got this!” We have all been a witness to our friends or family who have handled a significant health crisis who made it seem easy and reported all the miracles God had worked in their lives along with the way? Their faith waves in my face as if to mock me and make me sometimes say, “If only my faith was as big as hers!” If only….
So reading this passage not only brings me back to the question of how much faith is enough faith, but also makes me feel a bit bad about the obvious jealousy which can be my default. The last line of this passage really spoke to me today, and I read it as faith enough is all the faith I need to do what I know to do as a follower of Christ. This was a good wrap up to this reading, as the first line was a hook that made me want to read more….as if there is a recipe to follow or a heavenly flowchart of “if this, then that” steps to get me to enough. It’s also a pretty passive statement, as if Jesus’ job was to do faith TO us.
So first, I say that it is no one’s job to deepen my faith….no one but me. I can’t complain that the sermon isn’t reaching me, the Bible was too far from my reach, the poor live too far away for me to really reach out to them or that it’s inconvenient to spend time in study, piety and action as a Christian. I have been a passive person of faith for too long – and I have no one to blame it on. All I can do now is re-commit every day to living a life of faith, a deep commitment to following God’s will. I think of it like a carrot growing in the garden vs a bush with a crazy root ball; the carrot doesn’t spread out and get all tangled up as it grows. It is singularly focused in its genetic make up. I want my faith to be my genetic makeup too, keeping me from all distractions that put a roadblock between me and God’s plan for me.
The second lesson for me from this reading is that the faith I have is enough faith for me. If I follow my walk with Christ and believe his word, then I have enough faith. It’s what I am supposed to do. I have found in the trials and tribulations of life that the faith I have is enough when I need it and under whatever circumstances. And here is another note about that…we must (ok, I must!) stop comparing our faith to others. When we see those giants of faith cross our paths, remember that each of those “giants” has the same insecurities that we all do. And who knows what doubts they wrestle with too? My faith must be my very own. I must cultivate my relationship with Christ and my faith will be enough.
God of grace, I draw near to you. May my faith in you and your love and mercy be a comfort to me in time of trouble and a gift in abundance as you bless me. I pray my faith will continue to be enough. In your name I pray. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
Talk about being at the right place at the right time! Jesus has just left Capernaum where he healed the Centurion’s servant (https://paigehanks.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/not-worthy-just-faithful/) and he walks in the gates of the town of Nain. He runs smack dab into a funeral procession, led by a grieving mother who has lost her husband and now her only son. I can only imagine her grief spilling out of her as she begins to accept this unwanted reality. I love verse 13 in particular; “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.'” I love it because it is just so simple. God then brings her son back from the dead with a simple touch.
In the presence of God, why should we weep? I cannot begin to imagine this mother’s sadness and loss. As a mother, I feel like my heart is constantly walking around outside my body every day, even more so as our daughter is approaching the time to set off on her grown up life of college and long distance from my “controlling” ways as a mom. I know several friends who have lost a child and the pain is simply inexplicable and can cover up every other emotion; paralyzing grief I am sure.
But God’s promise for the world is that there is life eternal. I simply don’t understand what that means in any tangible sense and I spend very little time and energy trying to figure it out. I just know that it brings great comfort in times of challenge and overwhelming sadness. But come on; who wouldn’t want to have our loved one come back from the dead? That is one of the great pitfalls in this story of a great miracle.
God has a plan and we are given the greatest gift of love possible – to live life eternal with our Father in heaven. Grief is for the living and as humans, is part of our human condition. I lost my Mom last year after a swift and ferocious diagnosis of multiple primary cancers. Mom was young, professional and worldly and it didn’t make sense for this to happen to a person at the top of her game of life. We all reacted differently to the shock and pain, but for me, it gave me a challenge that was like a river of faith. I don’t know why and it certainly didn’t match other family members’ responses to the situation. And boy do I wish she was still here to talk to and guide me as a mom and our daughter as her beloved Kiki.
She wasn’t raised from the dead to come back to be with us, nor did I expect that to happen. I even got my feathers ruffled a few times when folks said to me, trying to be helpful I am sure, that they were praying for a miracle and that she could beat this disease. We knew better…the situation was grave right from the start. So instead of spending time hoping for Jesus to walk right up to us and heal her, I thought a better way to approach this was to embrace life eternal and that precious gift of perfect healing. loving mom and providing peace and compassion as she lived through dying.
We can’t pray hard enough, do enough good in the world or do just the right thing to invoke the miracles. They come when God’s plan matches our desires. And although I would give just about anything for a few minutes with my healthy Mom, I was so very grateful that her incredibly debilitating pain ended much more quickly than anyone thought or believed. Her healing didn’t bring her back to the human life but brought her into the presence of our Savior.
So we wept for our loss of her presence, just as the mother who met Jesus was doing. This is normal for folks who love and all of us experience loss of this sort. Jesus feels sorry for us too, but now that he gave his life for us, he can call upon us to look forward in anticipation to the great gift of our resurrection. Maybe that is the miracle that is enough…we know what this grieving Mother did not know, that we have life eternal as our promise of perfect healing now. I want to ready at the right place and the right time for that.
Saving Father, we are so very grateful for the gift of your Son, sent to save us from our sins and give us the promise of life eternal. Comfort us as we grieve and teach us to trust your saving love for us. Help us walk in faith and to accept your gift of mercy. We thank you for loving us and protecting us. In your Holy Name we pray. AMEN.