17 February 2019
St. James United Church of Christ
17 He came down with them 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. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 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. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Blessed Are the Self-Insufficient
This is one of those passages that makes you want to get up and do a little dance, right? I mean, woah, we are healed! Unclean spirits: out! Poor? Blessed! Hungry? Blessed! Hated? Blessed, and Hallelujah! I mean, who could live in a better world, right? Like, shake it out!
“All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out of him and healed all of them.”
Except for me.
If power had come out of him and healed me, the voice inside me that says, “Wait a minute,” wouldn’t be there anymore. I wouldn’t experience this passage as another struggle between the person who got up and left the church some forty years ago and the person who can’t bear to stay away.
Forty years ago I left the church because passages like this don’t line up with reality. All of them were healed? Oh, come on: look around — or look inside.
I was brought to church as a child wearing clothes that made me feel like someone I was supposed to be rather than whoever I was, and most of my early experiences in church seemed to underline the difference between who I was and who I was supposed to be. I keep looking for a text that says, “Blessed are you who feel bad about yourselves for not being who you’re supposed to be.”
The relentless all-of-them-were-healed myopics of the church to which I was brought in someone else’s clothes did not line up with the unhealed condition I saw everywhere, even in church, where people like me were given to believe that our unhealed condition was probably the consequence of giving thoughts like these a place on earth. So one day I got up and left, like millions of people in my generation. Most of us: we left because the church was saying things that just weren’t true.
The Gospel of Luke is supposed to be the more-true version of this story. Luke starts by saying, My account of these events — these incredible events — is based on the testimony of eye witnesses who saw what really happened during the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee. Matthew told you that Jesus delivered these comments from a mountain because he wanted to connect Jesus with Moses, but the truth is that Jesus came down from the mountain to a level place.
The scholar Ronald J. Allen points out that Hebrew prophets often used the word “level” to describe places of idolatry, suffering, hunger, and disgrace. So Luke brings Jesus down from the protected place where one consorts with God to the real world where the rest of us live.
What really happened, Luke says, is that Jesus came to a real-world location where hungry, sick, rejected people from Jerusalem, Bethany, Emmaus, Reston, and McLean were waiting for him, because they wanted to be healed, “and power came out of him and healed all of them.”
And I’m like: so much for the more-true version.
Are we supposed to just look past the unhealed people, the way we look past everybody else who doesn’t fit our vision of the rightness of the world? Beggars, cripples, dissidents, queers?
What if we are those people?
“They had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.”
I’m troubled with an unclean spirit. The Psalm appointed for today describes that spirit as “sitting in the scoffer’s seat.” Wait a minute, something in me says. I scoff because it’s safer than pushing forward. I’m a pretty big guy. I have long arms, so if I pushed in there really close I could probably reach past everybody else. But wait a minute: what if I get in really close and reach past all those other people who are touching him and being changed, healed, blessed, and I lay my hand on Jesus and feel…nothing, or just feel that, like, he’s kind of sweaty?
What becomes of me then? I mean, I’ve done it! I’ve come all the way from Capernaum, on foot — it took me like three days, and I had to quit my job, and my girlfriend’s having drinks with Tony right now, or Biff, but I did it! I came all the way — or I came all the way back, after forty years! And after sitting at the back of the sanctuary week after week, month after month, I finally got up and pushed through and I touched him!
And I’m still not the person I’m supposed to be. That’s the terrifying prospect. Wait a minute. At that point do I pretend that I’m like all those blessed people — throw up my hands and Praise God! Hallelujah! Or do I leave?
Or, most terrifyingly, do I tell the truth about myself? Do I say, “Wait, it didn’t work for me! I wanted it to work for me — I dared to say I wanted it to work — but it didn’t.”
Where’s the text that blesses the unhealed?
There’s the dilemma of contemporary Christianity: I want the language to mean what it says, and I’m not sure it does.
If we take this story at face value for a moment, we might say the people who came to hear that sermon were changed already just by coming. They came from far away — Tyre and Sidon aren’t even Jewish places — because they had heard strange things. For example, they had heard that these three guys brought their crippled friend to hear Jesus preach in Capernaum, and there were so many people jammed into and around the house that they couldn’t get in, so they climbed up onto the roof, with their crippled friend like tied to his mat, and they pulled up the tiles and then lowered their friend down on ropes into the room where Jesus was. It says that, in both Mark and Luke. Did they make that up? Or did those guys actually rip a hole in the roof and dangle their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus? Strange things.
We know the body and the spirit have influence over each other that isn’t entirely explicable. Perhaps the world those people lived in had not yet been totally surrendered to the paradigm of explicability, where only what can be explained can be the truth. And so, maybe, yeah, they touched him and power went out of him and healed them all.
But we don’t live in that world.
When I got up and left the church, I took the Bible with me, so I could learn the text in order to refute it, I said, but it wasn’t just that. I read the whole book in 273 days. Then I went back and re-read parts that were particularly puzzling or engaging: Genesis, Exodus, the shocking book of Job, and finally the Gospels, which were the strangest familiar things I had ever sought to examine. I read them over and over for two or three years, and then one day I realized that they no longer made me think about the difference between who I was and who I was supposed to be.
Maybe that’s what it means to be blessed.
The Revised Common Lectionary gives us this story during the season of Epiphany, when we’re supposed to see examples of God’s self being made manifest to people.
Blessed are you who are poor: it is the poor who have come— how is God made manifest to them? Blessed are you who are hungry: it is the hungry who have come — how is God made manifest to them? Blessed are you who weep: it is the weeping who have come — how is God made manifest to them? Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. How is God made manifest to the excluded, the reviled, the defamed?
The scholar Ronald Allen suggests that the word ‘blessed’ here means “being aware in the present of participating in the movement towards the Realm.” It doesn’t mean freedom from struggle but rather knowing that your struggle is temporary, “and that ‘your reward is great in heaven,’ meaning that God will gather the faithful into the Realm.” With a capital R.
The capital letter raises my hackles. Capitalization is the technique church people use to absolve their discourse of explicability. The capital letter suggests that ‘blessed’ means someday all your sickness, shame, and hunger will be replaced by all the good things you currently lack — same game, different teams, no real change.
That’s an even better reason to walk out. Reward in heaven is a pay-off, tit for tat, and that’s this realm, where we live now. That’s people, not God. If being blessed means getting paid later, like after the government shutdown ends, then we should leave. If the church wants us to think God’s like that — if that’s our epiphany — then we should leave, because that kind of God would not be worth our lives.
In Luke’s day, the reward-in-heaven attitude was a survival mechanism: the whole story of who the Jews were as a people was overthrown by the reality in which they lived. The holy city and the holy temple, which was considered the only place on earth where people and God could dwell together — those places were occupied by extortionists whose power in this realm was unassailable by lowly Jews. Apocalyptic change was the only way out of that world.
But we don’t live in that world. Christianity dwells in the social center now, not on the margins. And when the dominant culture talks about reward in heaven it’s purpose is to keep the blessing for itself.
So there’s the argument for walking out: Christianity makes makes everyone who isn’t blessed and isn’t healed invisible by insisting everyone is healed, and contemporary Christianity continues to use apocalyptic language which made sense in the time of Luke but no longer serves any purpose other than to keep the under-classes in their place: your life sucks now, but if you just hang in there long enough you’ll get to go to heaven, which is a place where people like you will get to be people like me.
Who yearns to reach out and touch a spirit like that?
The lectionary passage from Jeremiah, which we used in the call to worship at the beginning of the service, looks at blessing in a different way, beginning with curses. Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals — like me — and make mere flesh their strength — like this flesh. Those people are like shrubs in desert, Jeremiah says. They’re so dry and shriveled on their own salt that when relief comes, they don’t even see it.
Conversely: blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They are like trees planted by a stream, whose roots stretch out into the water. When heat comes, those people do not fear. In the midst of drought, they are not anxious, nor do they cease to bear fruit, because their roots stretch into water.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. That is: blessed are you who are self-insufficient, and cannot pretend otherwise, for you will have to reach beyond yourself.
Why is that a blessing? Why can’t I be sufficient to myself? I mean, like, what if I had to call and ask you for a ride to get here today? When we count our blessings at night, how many of us give thanks for being forced to ask a friend for help? Or a stranger? How many of us are afraid that if we ever have to ask, we won’t get any — it might not work for us? Better just to manage on our own. Sit in the back and don’t talk to anybody.
What if self-sufficiency is a false idol, not a virtue? Is that why this yearning doesn’t stop? Is that why I took the Bible with me when I left the church? Is that why we can’t stay away?
In this season when God’s self is supposed to be made manifest, the lectionary gives us a passage from the apostle Paul as well. It’s a section from his first letter to the church in Corinth, which some people had considered leaving. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,” Paul tells them, “we are of all people the most to be pitied.” That’s Paul’s version of apocalyptic pay-off language, for which he’s justly famous.
But I’m discovering that Paul uses a lot of non-pay-off language as well. The thing to know about Jesus, he says in another context, is that he had God’s essence — that’s self-sufficient — but he didn’t regard God’s essence as something to be seized upon or exploited for his advantage; and here Paul uses a strange word that means something like booty, or plunder, or loot. Being of one essence with God is not some kind of loot. Instead of capitalizing on that truth about himself, which is what I would have done, which is what I’ll get to do at a later date under the pay-off paradigm, Jesus chooses to pour that capital out of himself, to pour it out and pour it out until he becomes self-insufficient, like the rest of us in every way but one: he makes a choice that none of us would make.
That’s what God is like, Paul says. That’s epiphany. You want to experience blessing? You want to move toward the Realm, with a capital R? Then live like that. Pour it out and pour it out and pour it out.