Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
On the eastern plains of Colorado on I-76 from Big Springs Nebraska to Denver the earth stretches out over a wide horizon. Before seeing any water, you always know if and where there is a river from miles away, an irregular line of trees gives it away. Mostly they are cottonwood trees which can grow three times the size of a Chicago three-flat. They thrive there despite less than 15 inches of annual rainfall because as Jeremiah described, ‘they are trees planted by water, sending out roots by the stream. They do not fear when heat comes, and their leaves stay green; even in the year of drought they are not anxious, and do not cease to flourish and grow’ (Jeremiah 17:8).
Jesus told the people how to thrive like those trees in the sermon on the plain in our Gospel today. In a riddle of words that don’t seem to compute Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.’ Did you just say word of God, word of life? What’s Jesus up to? Where did he get this? What’s he saying? You won’t find a teaching like this in the Hebrew bible nor in the literature of ancient Greece. Jesus’ sermon on the plain is the first time in Jewish religious literature that the poor are called the blessed (Hengel, Property) [p.76]. In Jesus day, ‘The blessed ones,’ referred to Greek gods who, according to legend, possessed a life beyond all cares, labors, and death—the very opposite of the earth’s poor.
As Martin Luther loved to say, ‘what does this mean?’ Should we who are rich, full, happy, or popular wallow in guilt or get defensive? Should we romanticize poverty? Avoid happiness? Thanks be to God. No. For proof, just look at Jesus in today’s gospel. He is alleviating suffering in every way possible. No. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive to Christians. Jesus, in fact, dispenses healing, abundance, liberation, and joy everywhere he goes. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once clarified, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will” (“Song and Deliverance,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 1991).
Notice too, Jesus’s sermon isn’t sorting people into categories of good and bad. Every blessing and every woe apply to every person. As if to say: this is the human pattern. This is where we all live. This is how world works. “We invite blessing every time we find ourselves empty and yearning for God, and we invite woe every time we retreat into smug and thoughtless self-satisfaction. When I am “full” of anything but God, God “empties” me. Not as punishment, but as grace. Not as condemnation, but as loving reorientation. When I am bereft, vulnerable, and empty in the world’s eyes, God blesses me with the fullness of divine mercy and kindness….in the divine economy, we are, all of us, on one level. Blessed and woeful. Saint and sinner.” (Debi Thomas, “Leveled,” Journey with Jesus, 2/06/22) Beautiful and broken sharing the world together.
We are “like trees planted beside streams of water” (Psalm 1:3). Rather than posturing and pretending to be a storehouse of blessing, God calls us and the church to be a channel of blessing. Even though great wealth might pass through, a channel remains poor. Even the mightiest river must constantly empty out. St. Paul wrote, “though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. [Jesus] humbled himself…to the point of death, even to death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8).
This is gospel medicine. This is how we put down roots that find water in a thirsty land. Not by an act of will, nor by an acquired skill, this is not a self-help program. It is power perfected in weakness (1 Cor. 12:9). It costs nothing and yet requires everything. How well might Jesus’ advice work when applied to your life—or to mine? There’s an old saying, ‘if it won’t preach beside a hospital bed or in a nursing home then it is not the gospel.’ Does Jesus sermon preach in even the most desperate of human predicaments? How might we apply Jesus’ sermon to the perennial problem of addiction, for example? I suspect each of us doesn’t need to reach very far into our family tree or search very long among friends and colleagues to encounter stories of addiction. Lives cut short, families rent apart, dreams lost, people hurt. My own extended family is haunted by stories of addiction.
When Grandpa Louis came to visit, he let me drive his truck. That was quite a thrill for a nine-year-old, but nothing out of the ordinary for a retired farmer like him who learned to handle heavy equipment from childhood. On his 53rd birthday the whole family climbed in the car to picnic on top of Buckhorn Mountain. The scenery was inspiring. The conversation was warm. Two weeks later he died a massive heart attack in a janitor’s closet where he worked. My grandpa was an alcoholic.
And I didn’t know Uncle Roger very well but, I remember, he gave me my first beer. I was five or six. Two sips later my whole face froze in an expression of bitterness at that awful taste. It may be what prevented me from drinking until college. Uncle Roger was the baby in a family of eleven boys and girls. He was the last one to work the family farm before it was sold but the first one to die. He was 49. My Uncle Roger was an alcoholic.
There are many ways for addiction to seize us, beyond drugs or alcohol. There are people like Doris (not her real name) who leads an active and successful life. She’s popular and an effective businesswoman. Happy on the outside, secretly she hates herself because she cannot control her weight. She is addicted to eating. Then there is Jim, a man of moderation in all things except his work. Addicted to his own sense of responsibility and need to perform. He is recovering from a heart attack and his family hopes he will slow down. He doubts that he can.
Addiction forges an unbreakable vice which only gets tighter and tighter until it breaks us. The harder we try the worse it gets. Yet it is possible to recover. There is hope even after rock bottom. Once we have exhausted our strength and are empty that we can be filled. We don’t have to be like my Grandpa Louis or my uncle Roger. We can get help. Part of the genius of AA is knowing that God does not care what name you call them—just call them. Call on your higher power to draw life and strength from the river of God’s grace to flourish and be blessed again like a tree.
Jesus’ sermon conjures an image of a life that does not seem at first to compute. We only glimpse it before it evaporates faster than spit on an Arizona sidewalk. The preacher, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.” (Thomas)
“This is not prosperity theology. This is not “blessing” as health, wealth, and happiness. This is a teaching so costly, most of us will do anything to domesticate it. Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Why? Because you have everything to look forward to. Because the Kingdom of God is yours. Because Jesus came, and comes still, to fill the empty-handed with good things. May the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing.” (Thomas) The psalmist said, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).