Blessings and Warnings

When I was living in Baltimore and working at Project PLASE, a homeless shelter for men living with HIV and AIDS I was surprised and stirred by the common response to the ordinary morning question, “How are you?”
Now, I hear morning greetings in and around Richmond all the time. Nearly every day I hear people ask, “How are you?” And the responses I most often hear are the usual. “I’m okay,” “I’m good,” “everything is fine.”
But nearly all of the men at 201 North Avenue in Baltimore would answer the same question by saying, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Anthony, “How are you?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask William, “How’s it going?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Squeeze, “What’s going on?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
I have to say that it startled me to hear it. I had to pause when these guys who were so sick, who were hardly more that skin and bones, without much of anything in the world beyond what they could fit into a bookbag to call their own, many of them battling addiction, many of them estranged from family, who had to ask me for a bus token each morning because they couldn’t afford to ride the bus on their own… identified and designated themselves “blessed.”
Most of us probably have our own ideas about what it means to be blessed. I am not certain then or now I would begin my definition by describing these guys’ lives as blessed. But they did.
Jesus pronounces blessing in a way that is just as startling.
Jesus comes down the mountain with his twelve disciples and stands on a level place and invites us to hear — you are blessed, you are favored and you are given happiness when you find yourself with empty pockets, an empty belly, emptiness inside that leads to tears, and an empty social calendar and the experience of exclusion because of your love for him.
Blessed are you, Jesus says to the poor. You will be filled and yours is the Kingdom of God. You will laugh. You will leap for joy.
This is not the gospel of Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes where Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says blessed are the poor. And here in Luke, Jesus also pronounces woe.
Jesus invites us to hear that pain and grief are for you who have pockets that are full, bellies that are full, mouths that are full of laughter, and ears that are full of people’s praise for you, but woe to you who are wealthy and filled and carefree now, because you will be hungry, you will grieve, and you will cry because, Jesus says, you have already received what you wanted and what you worked for.
I don’t know about you but this is not the message that I most often hear from the world.
Most often, the message I think we receive is that blessing and happiness can be ours if we just choose it and work hard enough. It can be found somewhere down the strip of Broad street, in the stores of Short Pump, at the outlet malls, on Amazon; it can be experienced with a luxury vacation, the purchase of a new truck, a vacuum that can be programmed to work while we sleep, or whatever else.
How many times must we be disappointed until we learn deep down that the things we purchase won’t and cannot bring us happiness?
Soren Kierkegaard tells that story of walking by a shop window with a sign that read “we press pants.” He ran home to bring back his trousers, walked into the store and laid them on the counter. He said, “I’d like to have these pants pressed please.” “Oh, we don’t do that,” the man at the counter said. “Yes, but your sign says ‘We press pants.’” The man said, “Yes, but we don’t press pants, we print the sign that says ‘we press pants.’”
It’s an illusion. The world advertises that happiness is available through material over-consumption but the truth is it is all an illusion. And so there is a chasm between what the world promises will bring us happiness and the life Jesus invites us into and shows us how to live.
And you guys, what if Jesus is right?
What if equating success with having resources, relaxation, and reputation is hollow? What if Jesus can’t just be an add on to our life, one part of our identity, and someone to call on when we need divine intervention in the few and far between instances when we can’t figure out what’s next on our own?
Jesus calls us to experience the blessing that comes from emptying ourselves, and as we listen to his word it becomes clear that if we’re going to trust Jesus, it’s going to cost us everything. So, we have to ask what the proof would be that we can trust him.
And certainly, Jesus comes down to this level place and speaks these words of blessing and woe having just healed and cured and shown his power, but its Paul who gets to the heart of the issue and tells us what’s really at stake.
Paul says to the church in Corinth and to us: If Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith has been in vain and we are of all people most to be pitied.
If Jesus is not living and standing with God, sending his Spirit to gather us here today to receive his word and his supper, his forgiveness and his mercy, then this hour of your life is a waste, and worse yet, all of your worship and prayer and serving and sharing in his name has been a waste, and worst of all, there is no hope for this weary, broken, divided, violent and hurting world, so somebody declare a National Emergency and an International Call to Hopelessness.
If Jesus is not alive then the death that awaits us all simply quiets all that we are and all that we have been – our work, our memories, our tears and laughter, our energy, and our hope.
And certainly, if Jesus is not Lord of all, his words of blessing and woe make no sense at all. We might as well fill our pockets and our bellies and lives with as much stuff as we can, while we still can.
But in fact, Brothers and Sisters, the good news is that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. His heart which had been slowed and silenced by the cross, beats again and forever. His breath that was stopped by betrayal and hatred, breathes his Holy Spirit into our life again today. His work of healing and forgiveness which was buried under the rock and dirt of the ground is loose in the world to create new life in you and me, in his whole church and in the world.
Because Jesus is alive, sending us his forgiveness and compassionate mercy, these words of blessing and woe become an invitation.
Jesus stands on a level place, not above us but with us to issue these woes as a warning. Jesus doesn’t want any pain to come to you. He doesn’t want grief or hunger for you. His cross shows the lengths to which God would go to bring you and the whole world back to him!
From this perspective we can hear the woes as warnings. “Woe!” Jesus says, “Be careful. Don’t miss out on the blessing of God.” These are words of warning and instruction to people whom God loves.
About 2 years ago, in March of 2017, the youth group went down to Norfolk for a youth event. First Lutheran in Norfolk had invited us down for a lock-in called the Hunger Rumble – over the weekend we had bible study and we did service in the community. And everyone was invited to fast – to actually abstain from eating for a period of about 30 hours in order to get a small glimpse of the experience of hunger. We had a wonderful time and we collected a large amount of food for a local Norfolk food bank.
On the way back I was driving the van and Rob Burger was in the passenger seat. Rob was catching up on some work email, but we were also talking and the radio was on, and all of a sudden Rob looks up. And the surroundings did not look right. Come to find out, we had overshot our exit by about 20 miles. Rob, a good man and a good friend, but also a man of sound decision making and high expectations, looks at me for a response, and as he tells the story, my response was, “Dude, I’m just driving.”
Jesus knows that it is so easy to get off the path of following him. With these woes he cautions against following our own way, of being misdirected by wealth or our own comfort, of being oblivious to our surroundings and the people around us. We have people in the van with us after all, who are looking to us to be carried along the way of discipleship.
These words of Jesus, these woes and warnings to watch what our heart loves, are an invitation to repentance and to come back daily to journeying with him.
Jesus invites us to a level place where we share what we have.
The poor are blessed, and they are a blessing. Anthony and William and Squeeze didn’t just befriend me in Baltimore. They invited me to church at a time when I wasn’t sure the church was something I wanted to be a part of. The people I worked with, all women and men who had been through the experience of homelessness and had gotten their lives together through help, and prayer, and the ministry of the church invited me to their homes where they showed me why they were blessed, because God had given them enough for another day.
We are renewed in the path of Christ when we meet him in the poor. When we realize the ways we are poor ourselves.
Christ blesses those who are empty from the cross. With absolutely nothing left and completely emptied he pours out God’s love on you who are poor and you who are rich, you who are hungry and you who are filled, you who are weeping and you who are laughing, you who are excluded and you who are spoken well of.
So Sisters and Brothers come to the table and receive God’s blessing.