by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
February 17, 2019
When I was my first year of college at the University of Wyoming, I took freshman English. A lot of you know what that’s like. It’s not exactly the most interesting class ever. It’s more like an extension of high school English and a way for your school to measure and increase your preparedness for the more advanced classes, especially those that require a lot of reading and writing.
My freshman English class wasn’t bad. We had a hip young grad student instructor with long hair who didn’t shy away from the occasional f-bomb. We thought he was cool. He emphasized writing skills, which I thought I had.
Until one day when he asked me to stay after class.
He looked me in the eye and said, You’re from some rich town in Connecticut, right?
I said, Yyyyyeah.
He asked, Well, then what’s your problem?
I answered, What do you mean?
You’re a decent writer, he said, piercing me with his eyes, but your papers are full of spelling errors. Didn’t they teach you how to spell in that fancy high school of yours?
I hesitated, not used to this kind of directness, and answered, I guess I’ve never really cared about spelling or tried very hard at it.
He said, Yeah, I can tell. They probably didn’t want to curb your precious creativity. Taken aback, I was speechless.
Then he said, Pete, don’t waste what you’ve been given. And don’t take it for granted. I’ll tell you what: If your next paper has even one spelling error on it, I’m going to give you and F.
I had some thinking to do. What was he trying to tell me? And was it just about succeeding in English class or something more important?
Jesus made it very clear that his primary mission was to his Jewish sisters and brothers and especially to those who were poor and outcast. Because he was so compassionate, he could not help but to also minister to the wealthy, the powerful, the influential, and those outside of the Jewish faith and family.
Today, in our reading from Luke, he speaks to everyone.
Over in Matthew, the Beatitudes, that lovely list of those who are blessed, is really nice to read. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the peacemakers. In Jesus’ vision, the world will be very different and God will embrace and lift up those who suffer and those who make faithful choices.
Here in Luke, whose author is much more interested in social justice, the Beatitudes have a sharper edge. It’s not, Blessed are the poor in spirit. It’s, Blessed are the poor. Period! Before we even get there, we know what coming. If the poor are to be blessed, what about the rich?
And then he says it: Woe to you who are rich.
Jesus, what are you doing? What do you mean, woe? Aren’t you supposed to be positive and nice?
As CS Lewis writes in, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, about Aslan, the Christ-figure who is also a lion: ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good!
In other words, when it comes to Jesus, especially here in Luke, we’re going to hear some things that will make us feel uncomfortable, maybe even very uncomfortable. Hopefully, though, those same words and actions will help us to understand goodness on a deeper level and embrace it and live it out.
How are you at being confronted with your own flaws and limitations? Your excesses and your blind spots?
I’m terrible at it, but I don’t feel that bad because everyone is terrible at it. We deny our flaws; we ignore our blind spots; we lash out at the messenger who reveals our excesses; we beat ourselves up after hearing about our limitations.
Of course, none of those reactions are healthy or faithful or helpful in any way!
What if… What if we were to listen to those who speak the awful truth to us? What if we were so convinced of the good news of God’s love for us that we could hear the bad news about ourselves… and take it in… and do something about it? Turn it into good news?
What would Jesus say to us in our own time, not to punish us, not to whack us with criticism, but to wake us up and get us to live in a new way?
Would he say something provocative about slavery and Jim Crow and ongoing systemic racism?
Would he say something about the fact that we have not come to terms with what our nation did and continues to do to Native Americans?
Would he come up with some catchy saying or parable about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer (which is what’s happening)?
Would he make a pointed comment or a dark joke about climate change or rising sea levels?
His mom started it, you know, at least here in the Gospel of Luke, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she was also pregnant with a lot of revolutionary ideas, ideas that make me, for one, really uncomfortable.
And that’s the point.
Can we allow scripture to challenge us? To do more than just reinforce our already firmly held beliefs or make us feel comforted in our own goodness? Can we allow the Bible to disorient us so that we may motivated to seek a new direction in the way of Christ?
Most or all of us here this morning genuinely want the poor and homeless and excluded of this world to be comfortable, to have enough food, to have health care, to feel welcome in church, to have a meaningful job. But are we willing to let the supposedly nice (but as it turns out not so nice) Jesus prod us into action? Push us into a place of activism so that our neighbors actually do feel at home, find fulfilling work, and feel so overjoyed with their lives that they can throw their heads back and laugh?
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. What is our role in making that vision, that prayer, a reality?
Please know that I do not come from a place of having figured this out. Please know that, when I read those words, I gasp in disappointment in myself. Not in you.
What’s our pathway forward?
I think it lies in our ability to think beyond our own situation in life, beyond thinking about ourselves as separate beings. What if we were to think about this passage as a vision for the human community? In other words, instead of poor and rich, powerful and weak, included and excluded, happy and sad, we thought about all of us together. Everyone in our family, church, community, region, state, nation, and world?
What if we were so aligned in spirit with our neighbors — our neighbors here in this room and our neighbors everywhere, that we could actually hear these blessings and woes as good news for them and for us?
If the woes in this passage make us squirm, let that squirming lead us to a place of honesty about ourselves and our systems and our world. Let it lead to a change of mind and of heart. Let that discomfort with Jesus’ words lead to a holy discomfort with the situation we’ve created.
And then, then let’s smile at the future we can co-create with God, with each other, with our neighbors. Let’s leave the woe behind us and embrace a future where all of us are blessed and all of us are laughing with joy.