Monday, February 12, 2007

Sunday Sermon - February 11, 2007

"This Too Shall Pass"

When I was 13 years old I was impossible to live with.
I was moody, sarcastic, uncooperative and self-centered.
In other words, I was a typical 13-year-old.
I was convinced that I knew exactly how the world worked, and that every minor thing that happened around me or to me would have dire consequences on the rest of my life.
I was an expert at making mountains out of molehills - a skill which I believe all teenagers eventually master, along with the ever popular combination eye-roll/sigh, and the standard "how to respond to your parent's questions using one syllable or less."

By 14 I had perfected the art of slamming my bedroom door while yelling:
"You don't love me and you don't want me to ever be happy!"
The "you" of course was my mother, but my lament was directed towards the entire world.
Each time I was picked-on at school, denied something that I wanted, or flattened by the pain of an unrequited crush, I truly believed in my heart of hearts that I would never be happy again.

There was no such thing as hope on the horizon because there was no horizon.
There was only the here and now. And the here and now just brought more of the same.

Of course, this sense of hopelessness is not limited to overreacting teenagers.
When we're mired down in the muck of life it's nearly impossible for us to see past our own pain. The pain of loss, depression, illness, or poverty. We forget what it felt like to not feel the pain and it's hard for us to project ourselves to a future time when we will no longer feel it.
It's just there. Hanging in front of us like the heavy, stifling hot air of August.
It hurts to breathe, let alone move.

But it is in Christ's words that we find comfort:

Blessed are you who weep now. For you will laugh.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

These are the Beatitudes, from the Latin, beatitudo, meaning "blessings" or "happiness." These blessings were Jesus' way of offering hope to the people of his time who were suffering under the burden of poverty, illness and oppression.
He was showing them that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

The scripture that Terry read for us this morning is from the gospel of Luke.
There is actually a second, distinctly different version of the Beatitudes in the gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew's gospel the passage which contains the Beatitudes is known as the Sermon on the Mount.
In Luke's gospel it is known as the Sermon on the Plain because Jesus speaks these words not on a mountain top, but on the level ground amongst the people.

The difference between Matthew and Luke becomes more obvious when we look at the wording of the Beatitude text itself. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In Luke Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Matthew shows us Jesus speaking amongst his disciples but speaking in the third person. Luke shows us Jesus looking out at the people gathered around him and speaking directly to them.

In Matthew the indication of who is blessed is more metaphorical, more spiritual. "Blessed are the poor in spirit"…"blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," In contrast, Luke uses language that is more direct, more physical, "Blessed are you who are poor," period, "blessed are you who are hungry now" - this is typical of Luke's gospel, as more so than any of the other gospel writers he emphasized Jesus' saving power for those suffering under the yoke of poverty and oppression.

So who got it right? Luke or Matthew?
Maybe they're both right. The gospel authors could be recounting the same sermon but preached at two different times in two different ways.
Jesus wouldn't be the first preacher to recycle a sermon and change it to suit his audience.

But it is more likely the authors are recounting the same event using two different interpretations.
This isn’t a contradiction. Instead it points to a difference between the author's intended purpose for these two Gospels. Matthew was Jewish and his gospel is a distinctly Jewish Gospel. He presents Jesus as the new Moses, the new law giver to the Jewish people. Matthew has Jesus ascend the mountain to dispense God's law just as Moses ascended Mt. Sinai.

Luke on the other hand was a Greek Gentile who wrote for a non-Jewish audience. Luke shows us a picture of Jesus as one who was meant to bring God's message to all people, not just a chosen few. In Luke, Jesus came down from the mountain and mingled with a multitude of people, on their own level.

Regardless of the difference in details, we Christians like the Beatitudes, the "blessed are's."
If we have ever been hungry, poor, consumed by grief or pain, we find solace in the promises of these blessings. Things may be bad but we will prevail. If we can just get through this life, greater rewards await us in the next.

If we haven't personally experienced poverty, hunger, or public rejection, we still find much to love about the Beatitudes. As socially conscious Christians this text speaks to our desire to help those who have experienced such ills. We gladly give our time, our money, our energy to ease the pain of the less fortunate, to act as God's agents by dispensing His Blessings to those in need.

But Luke's version of the Beatitudes does not end with blessings. It ends with Woes.

"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."

It's the woes that we don't know what to do with.
They are aptly named because after reading the promises of the Beatitudes we stumble across these condemnations and say:
"Whoa! This doesn't make sense" or "Whoa! This doesn't apply to me."

What is the purpose of the Woes?
Is it a warning that the Kingdom of God will be opposite-land, where everything that garners rewards here will bring pain and misery there?
If so, we're doomed. If we have more reason to laugh than cry, If we've never gone to bed hungry, if we have friends who speak highly of us, if we have disposable income to spend on restaurants, entertainment, and on an ever increasing amount of stuff to pack into our lives.
We may give our fair share to the less fortunate, but we still have enough left over to be considered rich by Jesus' standards. Are we doomed to experience misery when the Kingdom of God arrives?

I believe the short answer to that question is no.
I don't think Jesus is describing a here-and-now condition versus an after-life condition, where you are either Blessed in poverty or Woed in riches so take your pick now and you better make it a good one.

I believe Jesus' intention was to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable
To instill in us the understanding that both happiness and unhappiness are fleeting.

This is the nature of the human condition.
Sometimes we're up. Sometimes we're down. Sometimes we feel blessed, and other times we are mired in woes. And being blessed doesn't mean that God is rewarding us with the good stuff, any more than being afflicted means we are being punished with the bad stuff.

The Beatitudes and the Woes were not intended to warn us to change our ways or else.
There is nothing about them that suggests Jesus was telling us what we should and shouldn't do. When Jesus gives advice, we know it:

Love your enemies.
Do good to those who hate you.
Pray for those who abuse you.

These clearly are imperatives—love, do, pray…one after the other, with no distinction between rich or poor, hungry or well-fed. It is the same list for everyone, whether we happen to be weeping or laughing.

The Beatitudes are not like that.
Jesus doesn't tell us to do anything. Instead, he describes people in contrasting situations, hoping that we as his listeners will recognize ourselves as being in one group or the other.
And then he makes the same promise to all of us:
the way things are, are not the way they will always be.
If you are in pain you will find relief, and if you are comfortable, appreciate it while you have it.

One of my favorite writers and preachers is the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, and she uses the image of a Ferris wheel to illustrate the perpetual reversal of fortunes that Jesus was describing.

“The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the world’s lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom,
while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars.
It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”

(Home By Another Way, pg. 55)

We are all loved - rich and poor alike,
our current status is not a reflection of God's judgment,
and no condition is permanent.
In Jesus' time this was a revolutionary teaching.
In his time it was believed that those who lived a good comfortable life were blessed by God, and those who experienced a life full of woes were being punished for their lack of faith or lack of adherence to God's law.

Few of us today, at least in the United Church of Christ, believe this.
We feel blessed when good things happen to us but we tend not to see it as a material reward for good behavior, otherwise we'd have to believe that the opposite were true as well.
And I don't think there are many of us here who believe that God sends hurricanes to destroy wickedness, or takes our loved ones away from us because we have not been faithful.

So how do we look at the Beatitudes as being revolutionary in today's world?
There are a number of ways to interpret them.
The poor are blessed because they are not distracted from God by material things.
We get that.
The rich often lead empty lives because they have too much stuff and haven't left room for God.
We get that.
Life is a roller coaster. Sometime you're up, sometimes you're down.
We get that.
How do we see the Beatitudes as being more than the equivalent of that poster with the cat hanging from a tree declaring: "Hang in there baby, Friday's coming"?

Well, if we can't see it as more than that, then maybe we're not really listening to what Jesus is saying.

The problem is, many of us think that this particular message is not intended for us.
We may live comfortable lives but we are spiritually connected to God and our community, so the Woes do not apply to us.
We may be burdened with the pain of loss, grief, or illness, but we're not living on the streets, we're not hungry, we're not an outcast from society, so the Blessings don't apply to us either.

We're stuck in the middle.
Or are we?
Luke's gospel says of the people listening to Jesus "And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them" (Lk. 6:19).
All of them - not just the poor, not just the rich. All of them.

We all need healing in places.
We could all stand to empty our full lives just a little more to allow more room for God, more room for quiet contemplation, more room for blessings.
We could all stand to lessen our focus on the woes that we are suffering in the here and now and look to the horizon to a time when the pain will lessen, and in the process take our first step towards healing.

Jesus did not say that any of this would be easy to do.
For many of us finding time for quiet in our lives is just tacking on yet another thing to our already crowded to-do list.
And when we're in pain it's hard to find the strength to look to the horizon when we feel like we have an 800-lb weight sitting on our chest.

When I was thirteen-years-old I saw the world in two dimensions - the here and the now.
And because of that limited view I could not see the horizon.
I did not understand the concept of hope.
But my pessimism went beyond what is typical for the average teenager.
By fifteen I had descended into a depression so deep I saw no way out, I was convinced that I would not live to see my 16th birthday.

But I did.
I did it by taking one day at a time, and gradually, the pain began to subside.
The horizon came into view and once I moved past it, I knew I had the strength to continue on.

In the Beatitudes, and in the Woes, we find hope.
The strong shall be made weak.
The weak shall be made strong.
The whole shall be made broken.
The broken shall be made whole.
The two are infinitely connected.

As Ernest Hemmingway wrote at the end of "A Farwell to Arms:"
"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many become strong at the broken places"

We learn from our experiences.
We get knocked down, and we learn that we have the resiliency to get up again.
We realize we are happy, and we cherish it because we remember the times when we were not.

The Ferris wheel spins around and around and around,
and before we know it we go from dragging the soles of our feet in the dirt,
to raising our hands in the air.

Blessed be.

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