Blessings and Whoas, or On the Other Hand....

Scripture can be found here

I don’t know whether any of you are watching “Victoria”…? Of course, you’re watching, probably all of you! But just in case, for those who are not, it’s a PBS series, under the “Masterpiece” umbrella, and it is all about the queen of England for whom the “Victorian” era was named.

History has assured us that Victoria and Albert had a wonderfully loving relationship, but they, too, had their issues. One particular issue keeps popping up between them. Albert becomes increasingly alarmed as the series progresses by what he sees as Victoria’s need for the love of her people. She seems at times willing to abandon policy, principle, even, her own safety, in the name of being reassured of that love. When she feels that her people do love her, she is rooted. She is grounded, she is calm.

In the most recent episode, the pair travel to Ireland (Victoria was the first British monarch to set foot in Ireland since the middle ages). Relations between the Irish and their monarch are tense—the terrible so-called “Potato Famine” is ended, but in its place is a rising tide dissatisfaction on the part of the Irish people with England and their English queen. Overwhelmingly poor, they see Britain as an entity that has only dominated them and used them to amass wealth for those who are already wealthy.

Victoria makes a public appearance in Dublin. She very much wants to do the right thing. She publicly apologizes, in the presence of the Roman Catholic Cardinal, for staying away for so long. As head of the Church of England, she says that she is honored that, in her meeting with the Cardinal, the two religions meet: Catholics and Protestants. She expresses hope that they can move forward in peace.

The event is successful, in that Victoria has reached out, in that those people in attendance see her as sincere, and in that she has symbolically affirmed that she is queen of all without regard to religious affiliation.

But symbols are not bread; there’s the rub. And Albert—who has been a strong voice on behalf of the poor throughout the series—remains convinced that Victoria has settled for a feel-good moment, which actually changes nothing for the vast majority of the Irish people. They are still devastatingly poor.

Blessed are you poor, Jesus tells us, for yours is the kingdom of God. And I can just imagine how that sounds to those who are financially on the edge—or worse, who have fallen off the edge completely—coming from an unimaginably wealthy monarch (not to mention, from a preacher who clearly hasn’t missed any meals). Blessed are the poor. And not only that, but woe betide the rich, because they have already received their consolation.

What does this mean? Is Jesus truly dismissing any possibility for those other than the poor—or the hungry, or the weeping, or the hated—to be blessed?

Here's the context of our passage. Just a few verses earlier in chapter 6, Jesus climbed a mountain to spend a night away from the crowds, and to pray. When morning comes, he has called together the core group of his disciples—the ones he calls “apostles,” a word that means, “delegates,” or “messengers,” or “those who will be sent out.” (And, even though there are no women named among the apostles here, there were some. Mary Magdalene, for one, known from ancient times as “apostola apostolorum,” apostle to the apostles.)

So, Jesus has named his A-team, and then our passage begins. They go down from that mountain to a level place, to a plain, and there’s a great crowd of them—apostles, other disciples, and the people who are now just, basically, following Jesus wherever goes. And—this is important—they are from Jerusalem and Judea, but also, from Tyre and Sidon. This means—it’s an interfaith crowd. Jesus is preaching to his fellow Jews and also to those who are not part of the covenant of Abraham—those the gospel calls Gentiles.

And listen to this again: “They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”

This is an incredibly important moment in Jesus’ fledgling ministry. He is living out that important agenda he outlined for us in chapter 4… freedom, healing, and hope (Luke 4:18-19). And he is doing so in a completely inclusive way. All are welcome. No barriers are set up—barriers of race or ethnicity, of religious affiliation or creed, of age or gender. No barriers of any kind. Jesus says, in word and in action, all are welcome. All can reach out and touch him, despite the fact they may not be his religion, despite the fact that they may be ill and therefore outcast, despite the fact that he is now a known Holy Man, and for that reason is usually considered untouchable, unapproachable. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, has access to Jesus’s healing touch.

This is the context into which Jesus speaks these challenging words.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

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. 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. ~ Luke 6:20-22

I wonder whether we can truly appreciate these words anew, afresh. The stance of inclusion—of real and radical welcome—has been an underdog position pretty much since the first people thought the sun or the moon or the thunder or the trees might be something to worship. Human beings, from time before time, have sought to ease their anxieties by forming groups that are over and against other groups—groups which, by their very definition, exist in order to exclude people, people who become their scapegoats or their enemies. Historian and philosopher René Girard outlines this in his “Mimetic Theory.” He claims that,

early in human evolution, we learned to control internal conflict by projecting our violence outside the community onto a scapegoat. It was so effective that we have continued to use scapegoating to control violence ever since. The successful use of a scapegoat depends on the community’s belief that they have found the cause and cure of their troubles in this “enemy”. Once the enemy is destroyed or expelled, a community does experience a sense of relief and calm is restored. But the calm is temporary since the scapegoat was not really the cause or the cure of the conflict [to begin with].

And then, tension builds, and the cycle begins again. We seem to have a deep need for an enemy, someone to look down upon, someone to be suspicious of, someone who is not-us, someone to “other.” And here is Jesus, telling those who have typically been on the receiving end of this kind of “other-ing,” people who have been told—again, from time immemorial—that they are on the outs—and he is saying, “God sees you. God loves you. In fact, you are deeply blessed.”

Of course, this puts those woes (which I really like to think of as “WHOAs!”) in a different light, doesn’t it? Because, if inclusiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ message, excluding anyone is wrong; and if scapegoating is wrong, then scapegoating anyone is wrong. So what’s Jesus getting at, when he turns his Whoas on the rich, the fully satisfied, the ones who are having a grand old time and who have great reputations? Is he really excluding them from God’s blessing? By his own inclusive logic, he can’t be. So what else is going on?

This is one of those days when I am so grateful for the richness of all the texts we are offered for the week—not only the gospel lesson, but also the words of the Psalmist, and the prophet Jeremiah. Both of these texts use the same image—the image of the tree.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,

whose trust is the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,

sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,

and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,

and it does not cease to bear fruit. ~Jeremiah 17:7-8

Jesus’ good news is for everyone, and yet, at the same time, he wants us to be aware—acutely aware—of where we are planted. Where are you planted? Where am I? Where are we, as a community?

A few years ago I had a very uncomfortable realization that I was pretty firmly planted in the need to be right. About everything. And once I had realized this, I wondered, “How could I become aware of this and maybe change it?” And eventually I saw a cartoon, a very simple image of a person hunched over a computer. From outside the frame, someone asks, “When are you coming to bed?” The computer huncher replies, “I can’t. This is important.” Their partner asks, “What?” To which they reply, “Someone is wrong on the internet.”

Look, I haven’t fixed myself. I’m still Pedantic Patty deep down, and that still comes out too often for me to be comfortable about it. But at least now, when I do start to reply to a comment made by a stranger, that cartoon flickers through my consciousness, and I realize, that I don’t have to do that any more.

Victoria seems rooted in the need to be loved; at least her husband Albert thinks so. Is that the healthiest place to be—understandable as that human desire is?

Jeremiah suggests we need to be rooted in trust in God. Notice, the word is not “faith.” We are not asked to believe perfectly according to Jeremiah’s definition at every moment. But if we have trust in God—trust in the goodness of God’s creation of us, in the grace made available to us at every moment, in the love in which we were made and for which we were made… we are like trees with an ever-available supply of fresh, life-giving water. At our best, we know that is where we are already rooted. At our worst, well, I’ll just speak for myself. I need to make sure no one is wrong today on the Internet.

When Jesus lays these Whoa!s on the rich, the fully satisfied, the ones who are laughing, and the ones who are universally loved, I do not believe he is excluding them from God’s blessing. I believe he is challenging them to wonder where they are planted. If they are planted in the security their wealth gives them, or the last great meal they had, or the fact that life is fun fun fun… well, there could come a time when Daddy takes the T-bird away. And then where are they?

Where are you planted? Where am I? Jesus’ vision of good news for the poor, healing for the suffering, and release for the captives is the ultimate statement that God’s realm includes—and prizes—those who, from the misty times before history, have been scapegoated. We still see it all around us: Jews, people of color, gay, lesbian, and trans people, refugees—they are still being told there is no place for them, there is no welcome. But Jesus says that all are welcome—he plants himself in that vision, he stakes his life on it. Can we root ourselves with him? Can we plant ourselves that trust in God that makes us realize we are enough, and we don’t need a scapegoat any more? Can we believe that, in God’s love, the living water is available to all?

Thanks be to God. Amen.