Blessed and not Cursed
This sermon about Luke 6:17-26 shows how Jesus reminds us even in the midst of hardship that we are blessed and not cursed by God.
A church Jesus would attend
Once upon a time a disheveled woman came to a hoity-toity church and sat on the front row. She wore a dirty t-shirt, ripped and filthy jeans, cigarette smells radiating from her skin and clothes. Clearly, she didn’t conform to the unofficial clothing standards. After the service, an elder welcomed her “So, glad you came, sweetie. You might feel more comfortable here if you pray about how you’re supposed to look when you come here.”
The following Sunday, the woman returned and again, sat on the front row – wearing the same sad outfit as the week before. After the service, the annoyed elder went to her and said, “O bless your heart. I thought you were going to pray about how to look when you come to our church.”
“I did,” said the woman. “I prayed and Jesus said, ‘How should I know what to wear there? I’ve never been to that church.’”
To be the kind of church that Jesus would want to go to and the kind of people Jesus would want to hang with, we do well to pay attention to Jesus’ words in our lesson. Blessed are you who are poor…Woe. to you who are rich.”
Sermon on the Level
You might be thinking, “Wait, What?” I thought it was “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” And you are right. That’s how Matthew’s gospel says it. But there are key differences between the way Matthew and Luke relate these teachings of Jesus. Matthew recasts Jesus as a Moses-like figure who delivered God’s word from Mount Sinai. But in Luke, Jesus comes down from a high place to teach on what he calls a level place. You might say Jesus came to level with the people and to speak to them on their level.
This passage is part of what inspires me to preach from here instead of the pulpit. It’s a symbol that I’d rather preach sermons that level with you about real life than level you with platitudes from on high.
It’s the Economy
Luke points out that the audience for this sermon was filled with people who were hurting, filled with diseases. People who were ill at ease, distressed.
In Matthew, Jesus gives a generalized/spiritualized, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But in Luke, he says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Not poor in spirit, but those who are distressed economically.
When Jesus begins his ministry, the first thing he says about his job in this world is to bring good news to the poor. He shaped his priorities around those who are having a rough go in life—the poor, the sick, the oppressed. And in Matthew 25 he talks about when you serve the poor, you serve him. And keeping with these priorities, he launches his most important sermon with the line, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you who are persecuted.”
What does blessed are you who are poor mean?
Maybe it has to do with the ability to be happy, to find that spiritual center when you are not encumbered by so much stuff. Maybe you, like me, have been to developing nations and seen first-hand the effects of desperate poverty and come away astounded by how happy people who have so little can be. I remember a Guatemalan mission trip. We gave children these little mini-sized bags of M&Ms. And every one of them took each M&M out individually to eat it. Not a handful, not three at a time. One. Savoring it. Maybe part of blessed are you who are poor means that you get to experience more of God’s kingdom here on earth. Savoring, appreciating. Being grateful.
Whoa to the rich!
And when he says Woe to you who are rich, he is not dividing the world into poor people good, rich people bad. The woes are warnings. There are stories in the gospels of kind rich people that associated with Jesus. The idea is to warn about how wealth can keep us from experiencing the kingdom here and now. We get so caught up that we just think we don’t have enough. We focus on what we don’t have. We get hoardy and mean and anxious. We trust only in our own ingenuity and skill and have no need of God or others. Whoa to the rich. That is be careful.
Don’t romanticize poverty
Desperate poverty—not knowing where your next meal is coming from–is horrible, no matter how you cut it. I don’t think Jesus was giving rationale to romanticize poverty and give us an excuse not to do everything that we can to help.
What is does blessed mean?
The word blessed comes from a Greek word that has the meaning of one who is honored, valued, adored. Think about people you’d say, “Oh, I’m honored to meet you.” The poor, the mourners, the peacemakers, those who thirst for a better world, those who suffer to make it happen are honored, valued, and adored of God.
You may not look blessed to the outside world, you may not feel blessed, but Jesus declares that you are blessed. God will go with you and help you through whatever hard place you have to go through and help you deal with whatever hard place is within you.
Reversing what they had been taught to believe
When Jesus shared the good news to the poor that they were blessed, it must have come as an absolute shock. Why? Because they had been taught to believe that the blessed were those with material abundance. They learned that if you were faithful, God would reward you. Good things happen to good people. And if you had problems, if you were poor or sick, or had a bad reputation, it meant that you were not blessed, you were cursed.
Jesus constantly battled this kind of thinking. When he healed a man blind from birth, people asked why he was that way. Was it his sin that cause it or the sins of his parents, or other generations? It’s got to be somebody’s fault because God rewards the righteous.
We are still inclined to think that way. At Thanksgiving, we thank God for our blessings. We even list them. For having enough food, a good place to live, family, freedom. These are the things we think of as blessings. But if you listen to someone praying this way and you do not have them, you might be inclined to think that God is against you.
This theology is so prevalent that Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is still one of the best sellers of all time. It’s hard to shake.
If you turn on the television and listen to the polished smiley preachers, you won’t have to look far to find hints of the idea that following God is about getting material prosperity. The preachers feel they have to look the part. There was a story about how many of them wear $2,000 designer sneakers on stage. One guy thought he needed a $10 million dollar jet to prove that God blesses the faithful.
But here we have Jesus, clear as a bell. The poor, the sick, the mistreated are blessed, not cursed. God is for you not against you. Your problems did not come from God. God is there to help you through the difficulties, not the source of them. It’s a theme you hear repeated a lot at Bay Shore Church because Jesus himself kept coming back to this theme.
They don’t look blessed to me
I was a young pastor in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a brutally cold winter, the shelters were full. A man climbed into a trash dumpster for shelter to sleep and he wound up getting crushed to death by the garbage truck. These are the children of God, not disposable trash. So, I got together with six other pastors and our churches took turns housing the homeless in our churches, setting up cots in our basements.
At 2:00 a.m. when most of them were asleep, I remember thinking, “Jesus says these folks are blessed. What does that mean? I walked around the cots in our nice church that now wreaked of too many smells to name including despair. I heard the booming, irregular snores of exhausted people. I thought about how many had substance abuse and mental health issues. About how some had bad luck and some were just out to game the system and how we’d send them back onto the streets after breakfast. “Blessed are you,” Jesus says. But they just didn’t look very blessed to me. I didn’t want to trade places with any of them.
In what sense were they blessed? Is this true? Then I thought well, here they are, in a church, safe tonight. God is working for them through people who care–they are not forgotten. Faith makes people reach out and do something. Not just to give a meal and a warm place to sleep, but to offer relationship, to get to know their stories, not to spit at them and make insinuations about their situation. Moreover, there are some who will join the fight for economic justice, and adequate access to mental health services so we can get to the root issues that are complex and ugly but necessary.
Look for the helpers, there are always helpers
I remember once when there was a national tragedy, Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers, an ordained minister told kids that when something bad happens look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. You can always find goodness even in bad times because there are always helpers.
God has blessed the world with people who care, with the church. God is still present and active. The beatitudes remind us to treat everyone we meet as the honored of God–especially those who may not look or feel blessed at all.
Our church recognizes that God blesses people through our efforts. That’s why we support COA and Precious Lamb preschool for impoverished families. We do sock drives and volunteer to help. We dare not curse what God declares as the honored and valued of God.
None of us is happy with the current homeless situation. It’s easy to let our disgust at the litter and crime and drug abuse, and lack of effective solutions to make us throw up our hands and do nothing. I feel it the same as any of you. Yet we are called to be the helpers. To resist the temptation to see people as trash instead of the honored of God. Because we want to be the kind of church Jesus would go to.