Blessed / Woe
| Luke 6:20-26
||Sun, November 1, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|"A great crowd of his disciples" is gathered around Jesus. Around them stand "a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem and the coast of Tyre and Sidon". See the picture that Luke is portraying. It is a big day. This is the first sermon that Jesus has preached since calling the disciples from their fishing boats and tax offices and street corners. It is the first sermon we have heard since he was run out of the pulpit when his sermon began: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor". Now, says Luke, Jesus "looks up at his disciples". He speaks to his disciples ... and the great multitude listens in: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God". Is mother Mary there … listening to her grown child? Does she remembers the pregnant young girl whose song once filled the house: "God has shown strength with his arm; the Lord has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts … God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (1:51-53)? Listen to that little baby now: "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."
This Jesus offers up such strange logic. Surely he has been around. Surely he knows. The poor are to be pitied. The hungry walk the earth in search of garbage and scraps. The tear-stained faces of misery before him are not blessed by any stretch of the imagination. They are cursed with pain … and with despair. One author suggests that Jesus preaches the 'be-happy attitudes'. He does not. Jesus' voice cannot be tamed. His speech is plain: "Blessed are you who are poor". And with Jesus' 'yes' comes a 'no'. For each 'blessing' that he gives there is a corresponding 'woe': "Blessed are you who are poor … Woe to you who are rich; Blessed are you who are hungry … Woe to you who are full; Blessed are you who weep … Woe to you who are laughing; Blessed are you when people hate you … Woe to you when people speak well of you." Don't let any preacher or Sunday School teacher fool you. There is no sugar-coating that can cover these words for long. Sooner, not later, you will taste their bittersweet flavour on your tongue.
Jesus looks up at his disciples … with a great multitude looking on … and pronounces both blessings and woes. What do the disciples think? What do the great multitudes imagine? I have been pondering these things while I have been away from you at Columbia Theological Seminary these past two weeks …
Standing outside the 'World of Coca-Cola' in downtown Atlanta you see a grand cathedral to 'Coke'. Inside you are indoctrinated into the cult of 'Coke'. Watching a wide screen hi-tech video of people all over the world drinking the healing tonic you listen to the chanting incantation repeated like a mantra: "Life … Life … Life". Walking through the inner sanctum you receive the sacrament from a magical everflowing 'fountain of life'. Outside and across the street there is a permanent line of African American men … always one hundred and fifty or more … waiting. Waiting for the small van from the small church that drives up to the corner and dispenses bag lunches until all the food is gone. Then more men wait until the van returns again. And Jesus says to his disciples: "Blessed are you who are hungry … Woe to you who are full."
All over Atlanta there are churches. Lots of churches. Big churches ... even huge churches. Beautiful churches. One on nearly every corner … or so it seems to a boy from BC. Yet walking into Atlanta's most famous church you are stunned by its drabness. Somehow you expected more from Ebenezer Baptist church than this run-down sanctuary. How could so much have come out of something so ordinary? On Sunday you are surprised to realize how much its folk are like you folk. This is no poverty-stricken neighbourhood. It is a middle-class world. These have always been African Americans on the rise, escaping the cycles of poverty, making it in the world. Ebenezer Baptist looks like any other church. But it is not. It was here that young Martin Luther King preached his first and his last sermon. It was here that 'Mama' King was assassinated at the organ as she played the hymns one Sunday morning. It was here that a whole community was, and is, formed beneath the stained glass window high above the pulpit that portrays Jesus in Gethsemane: "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done."(22:42). The same Jesus who says to his disciples: "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man". The same Jesus who says to his church: "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
In class I meet fourteen peers. Grant is from Idaho … in the homeland of the 'Aryan Nations'. Lynn is a minister in Brentwood, California … the home of celebrities. There is Bill from Long Island and Walt from Augusta and Louise from Memphis. Diana's progressive, urban church in Palo Alto is light years away from John's historic, rural church in Slate Ridge, Maryland. Emily's 2,000 member church in Tampa, Florida dwarfs Mike's little congregation in Churchville, Virginia. From Dave who serves a Mennonite church in State College, Pennsylvania to Mike whose ministry is a nation-wide church consulting firm based in Irvine, California we share a passionate conviction. We are convinced that the church must come to terms with a radically new cultural reality. That is what has called us to gather in Atlanta. When Mike in Bartlett, Tennessee and Jan in Topeka, Kansas and Chris in Sharon, Pennyslvania saw the invitation cross their desk, like me, they knew that they had to respond. The Seminary invited us to imagine "the creation of a new and more faithful church … a church that is in a missionary situation in the very culture it helped to create". For two weeks we wrestle with the huge challenges that face our beloved churches. We listen to one another and learn with one another and care for one another. We weep for a people who cling to the past and for churches that try to recapture the glory of a bygone era. We become a community of disciples. And it begins to dawn on us that there is no way out … no way back. We are leaving behind the safety and security to which he have become accustomed. We do not know where this will all lead. We are sent home … dispersed across the continent … barely prepared for what lies ahead. All around us there are churches that parade their successes and strategies and programs and numbers. "Then Jesus looks up at his disciples and says: Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh … woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep".
Even in Atlanta home is close at hand. Email travels fast. Word is passed that the United Church has issued an apology for its role in Indian Residential Schools. The Moderator offers words that so many have wanted to hear for so long: "To those individuals who were physically, sexually and mentally abused as students of the Indian Residential Schools in which the United Church of Canada was involved, I offer you our most sincere apology." Just a few words. Hardly enough to atone for so much damage. Yet, with a few words the church lets go of its attempt to remain in control … to manage its destiny … to defend its assets. With those few words the church names its sin, its poverty of virtue, its need of salvation. With those words the church of Jesus Christ places itself beneath, not above, those whom it has wronged … with them it now hears Jesus say: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation."
To be baptised into the band of disciples is to enter into the world of Jesus' blessings and woes. To eat this bread and drink this cup is to join the company of saints who live under the Reign of God. It is an upside-down world … a Kingdom unfamiliar to the great multitude of people who watch our life together with fascination … wondering, perhaps, if this upside-down world is also for them. To many - perhaps most - Jesus just doesn't make sense in the 'real world'. But his disciples hear something else. When Jesus speaks they hear 'common sense'. Last Sunday morning in Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia an African-American grandmother got up to speak. Her message was titled: "Why Oakhurst is important to me". Oakhurst is one of the few bi-racial churches in all of America. It numbers about this many folk. Half white. Half black. In the choir. On the staff. In the pews. Now, let me assure you, I have heard and read a lot of words these past two weeks. But ten words of hers stand out above all the rest: "Worship at Oakhurst is the sanest part of my week".
Let's be clear about this. There is no getting around it. Jesus' preaching sounds insane … until you stand and wait on a street corner for a bag of food. Jesus sounds insane … until you stand for freedom from a pulpit or an organ bench. Jesus sounds crazy … until you put at risk your ministry in the church or your reputation at work or your standing in the family. Jesus sounds foolish … until you, or your church, is humbled and brought low. But then … then my friends … then Jesus' blessed voice is the sanest voice you can ever hope to hear … then it is as clear as clear can be that a life that follows his suffering path is the wisest life we can ever hope to lead.