February 13, 2022
"Blessings and Woes"
Rev. Scott Landis
It is not always easy to listen to the words of Jesus. You may remember his hometown folks thought the same thing. When he expounded, in his first sermon, on words from the prophet Isaiah, the gathered crowd became so upset they tried to run him out of town and throw him off a cliff. That’s controversial preaching. If you read to the end of his sermon for today – often referred to as “The Beatitudes,” you’d find the response was a little different. Rather than outward opposition, the crowds slowly began to peel away – and his disciples (for whom these words were intended) were silent. Like I said, it’s not always easy to listen to the words of Jesus.
Preaching is always a risky endeavor – and became much more complicated when the church insisted on an educated clergy who were hired to expound on the Word of God – week after week. We preachers walk a kind of “tight-rope” as we seek to be true to the text, as well as to speak from our hearts. But we also want to keep our jobs. Those two don’t always go hand in hand. The reaction to Jesus is a case in point. [Pause]
We sometimes approach this Sermon on the Plain (as it is referred to in the gospel of Luke) as judgment differentiating between those who appear to be in a favorable light and those who have gotten it all wrong. But that’s not a completely accurate picture.
We need to understand what Jesus meant by “blessings” and “woes.” His notion of blessings is pretty easy to understand. We all want to be blessed – or appear to be favored by God. And so, we pray to be blessed by God OR we are called upon to offer prayers of blessing upon food, or occasions, programs, or even physical structures. A blessing is thought to be IN-line with God’s grace and A-ligned with God’s desire for our lives. [Pause]
I used to have a clergy colleague back in San Diego who would always say to me upon leaving, “Be Blessed.” At first, I thought that an odd benediction of sorts, but I came to welcome her words as a kind of prayer for me and my life, and my ministry. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we offered those same words to folks as we went on our way, “Be blessed.” You might want to try it and see how good that makes you – and the recipient feel.
Jesus said that a little differently in sermon to his disciples when he invited them to reinterpret their misfortune and see it as a blessing instead. So, when it appears you have “lost it all,” or are “ravenously hungry,” or when you are “weeping uncontrollably,” know that you are blessed. BECAUSE – God sees you need and hears your cry. There you will discover the kingdom, enjoy the Messianic meal, and experience joy the morning.
Furthermore, we should sense God’s blessing even when we are discredited for taking a stand in speaking Truth (capital “T”) to those in power, because this usually means that those who are critical of your stand are uncomfortable in hearing the Truth.
Now, none of this is easy. No one wants to lose everything, or be subject to hunger, or mourn uncontrollably, or even be mocked for their beliefs. Neither does he say that this is God’s desire for humankind. Rather, Jesus simply stated that God notices if that is your situation, and that God blesses those who live with integrity while dealing with life’s challenges. [Pause]
Now the “woes” are a completely different story – but they don’t immediately indicate punishment or curse. No, the word “woe” is more accurately translated as “warning.” A better way to say it is “be careful” or “beware” or “there is danger lurking.” Eugene Peterson translates it as “there’s trouble ahead.”
“There’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have may be all you ever get.
“There’s trouble ahead if you are satisfied with yourself. Your “self” will not satisfy for long.
“There’s trouble ahead if you think life is all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
“There’s trouble ahead if you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests. Your task is to be true, not popular.
I think Jesus’ deeper challenge in this sermon was to get his disciples to wake up – to notice – to become increasingly aware of what was happening all around them. He wanted them to see the world with compassion and to respond. He wanted them to let go of ego and their human proclivity for self-centeredness in order to live in ways that were gracious – and a blessing toward others. To do this they had to open their eyes and their hearts and truly see. And then do something about the injustices that they witnessed. Here’s where it gets dicey.
The community that Jesus sought to form was one in which all would be treated fairly. Where all were well fed. All had the ability to live in suitable housing, make a living wage, and provide for their families. And when that wasn’t OR isn’t happening – to advocate with everything we’ve got on behalf of those who have lost the power – the agency – the voice to advocate for themselves.
This is how we form the beloved community. It is not God’s intent for us to feel bad about everything we “have” but to see with our hearts those who “have less” or “have not” and insist they be given a chance. To use our power to insist justice happens. [Pause]
It’s so easy to look the other way. It’s so easy to come into our beautiful churches, praise God from whom all blessings flow, and completely ignore the homeless person walking along Pi’ilani on the way home and even think to ourselves, “thank God I’m not like him,” rendering him invisible as quickly speed along our way.
That’s when we need to rehear the “woes,” the warning – there’s trouble ahead if or when …. We must do something! Because it is clear from Jesus’ words that:God does not take kindly to half-heartedness.
God does not bless us for maintaining the status quo.
God does not bless us when we bathe in respectability in the eyes of the world.
God does not bless us when we do everything to maintain tradition while ignoring the prophetic voices of those calling us back to God.
God does not bless us when we try to build institutions and empires.
God does not bless us when we are well-off, hearty, full, comfortable, and well-spoken of.
Those are worldly standards of success, but they are not God’s measure of faithful living.
The realm of God exists among those who have nothing but God – and desire nothing but God. This was Jesus’ call – to jar us out of faithful complacency and expand our notion of God’s call and claim on our lives. To force us to notice the blatant injustices all around us and do whatever we can to make our world a better place. [Pause]
The pandemic that, I hope, we are beginning to emerge from has shaken us to the core. Nothing works as it did in the past and we are all in the process of reconstructing our lives in new ways. I don’t believe for one moment that God caused this horrible experience to get our attention. Not at all. But I do believe God can use this experience to wake us up, to reexamine everything, BEFORE we rebuild once more.
Every fiber of our being longs for “the good old days” now defined as pre-2020, pre-Covid, but I wonder if that is in our best interests. I wonder if we might do better as we seek to build a beloved community.
What’s fascinating to me is that we at Keawala’i are a kind of microcosm of all that is occurring in the world around us. We, too, are in the process of waking up to the new, of reexamining, and listening carefully for what God is calling forth – inviting us to consider why we exist as a church in Mākena today. If we do that right, we just may be the ones to rebuild a whole new church for the future that is relevant and meaningful to us and the community in which we exist. [Pause]
Blessings and Woes – let’s keep them in mind as we take a good look at ourselves and our context. Is our desire to look good to those who see us from the outside? Or is it our desire to be a blessing as we serve the risen Lord?