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In the Bible, mountains are the places where we seek contact with God. Mt. Sinai is where Moses receives the “Ten Commandments,” Mt. Moriah is where Abraham is stopped by the voice of God before he sacrifices Isaac, Mt. Hermon is where Jesus has an interaction with the Divine so powerful that it transforms him into shimmering light. Mountains, in Bible language, are where we go to encounter God. It is telling, then, that Luke places this sermon from Jesus on a level place, where he brings God to us, bearing his “God-talk” amongst the people, trying to teach us what God is really like through this sermon “on the plain,” as it is often called.
When Jesus puts forth these blessings, he is asking for us to think about God differently, to have different theology or “God talk” and, in doing so, to see the world differently. It’s not something we take to very easily, we humans. Jesus’ God and the God we have constructed are very different, and we resist the kind of grace, the kind of wasteful Love that Jesus teaches us is the essence of divinity. It’s one reason Jesus uses parable and story to spread the Gospel, for the good news comes to us slant. It has to because, like one of those “magic eye” posters, we can be staring right at it and miss it. It’s only when let go of our ideas about God long enough to actually experience God that we can see the kin-dom that Jesus preaches. If God is Love, as our Bible also attests to so often, and Love is rarely a respecter of laws or borders, then we must learn to see like Love sees, to act like Love acts. Yet we so rarely do, we humans. There is no system we have created on earth that is ruled by Love, which is why we have to pray “on earth as it is in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer.
Maybe there’s a reason that Luke takes Matthew’s “sermon on the mount” and brings it down to the level places, evoking imagery from Isaiah, making the rough places smooth and leveling out the journey with some teaching that can help us understand what God is really up to in our world. But here’s a warning – be careful – God’s vision, what Jesus calls the kin-dom, turns our world upside down, changing all our values and norms and expectations. Jesus calls these world turning ideas “blessings.”
And when the Sermon on the Plain issues it’s blessings, it follows up with a series of woes. Woe is an expression of grief like, “woe is me.” But who says “woe is me” anymore, unless you’re trying to be silly? What it means for the purposes of this passage is something more like, “trouble ahead!” or “Look out!”
Now, that may not seem like a welcome or even appropriate thing to put after a blessing, but sometimes it is the very thing that needs to follow. We tend to think of life in terms of “either-ors,” as one side or the other, when most things we encounter are on a spectrum rather than a polarity. Beyond that, whether something is a blessing or a warning might depend on your point of view, or your perspective. We all know the stories of people who have won the lottery only to have that immediate and unearned wealth tear their lives apart. (Of course we’re all still willing to take that chance, right?) I am reminded of a story told in many ways, but I’ve heard it as a Taoist tale, told like this:
A farmer gets a horse, which soon runs away. A neighbor says, “That’s bad news.” The farmer replies, “Good news, bad news, who can say?” The horse comes back and brings another horse with him. A neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer replies, “Good news, bad news, who can say?” The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg. “So sorry for your bad news,” says the concerned neighbor. “Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer replies. In a week or so, the emperor’s men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared. “Good news, bad news, who can say?”
Often things that seem initially like blessings can seem later like woes. Sometimes things than seem bad can turn out great. The truth is that these blessings and woes are more like dance partners than they are magnetic poles. Good news and bad news are interwoven, like a tapestry in our lives, not separate lanes of traffic flowing purely in one direction or the other. This sermon of Jesus is not a chance to offer us an either-or list, for we are all, at one time or another, recipients of blessing and woe. We must look deeper than that, for if you ask me, the lists that Jesus presents us with are reversed in our society. The things he calls blessings are curses and the things he warns about we celebrate and praise. But it isn’t that simple, for we often praise the wrong things and ignore that which is worthy of our attention. Jesus’ promise is the rainbow at the end of the storm, though that is a qualified blessing when the rain is pelting your face and the winds are knocking you over. And then his warning comes to those who might be so comfortable and confident that they don’t even hear it, for God is at work on us all – all the time.
It can be tempting to sentimentalize the Beatitudes, to domesticate them as a soft dream of an ideal way of life, where pain is over and sorrow banished. What they actually do, however, is issue a fundamental challenge, a challenge to our own eyes, to the way that we see the world and how we make meaning. On what, these blessings ask us, do we set our own happiness? Is it totally on earthly things, or solely on the spiritual side of life? Do we invest ourselves only in things that bring short-term contentment, or do we commit to a larger sense of reality, on the vision that grows past our own lives, not next year but seven generations from now? The woe to be found comes directly from the blessings, declarations of God’s love that will, in the very example of Jesus, turn things on their heads. And here’s one thing I know for sure — turning the world upside down may not be what we expect it to be at all. It might be difficult to accept. It might be challenging. It might actually cost you something.
The more I think about it, the more that I think that the coming of the kin-dom of God is, for us today, like the ending of racism and white supremacy. By this I mean that there are people who profess to love the ideals of the kin-dom, who embrace the declarations of the Beatitudes and the life and mission of Jesus…to a point. We have no one I know of clamoring to build a monument with the Beatitudes on it outside the Capitol. We rarely hear “blessed are the poor” from the halls of power. And we never claim the title of “happy” or “blessed” when people revile us for hanging a rainbow flag on our sanctuary in the name of a Jesus who reached out for the outcasts of his day. We certainly don’t seek that kind of confrontation and discomfort, nor rejoice in it when it happens. We like the idea of the kin-dom, we Christians, we appreciate these Beatitudes conceptually, but living out the reality is another thing altogether – especially when doing so might mean we change the way we’ve always done things, or interrupt our comfort zones. We might say, “Your kin-dom come,” but such a call, taken even half-way seriously, really challenges how the world is constructed and, for many of us, that construction works…or at least works enough to keep us placated.
In the same way, we embrace the ideals around the end of racism and white supremacy, but we’re invested in the world it has created. Even for those of us who are well-intentioned and engaged, the spectre of racism sneaks up – it reveals it’s ugly head in places we never anticipate and only then do we see how deeply the roots run, only then do we realize how entrenched it is in our systems, our mechanisms, our social structures. And often we fail to listen to the voices who are trying to tell us how invasive it is, dismissing them as reactive or dramatic.
In order to divest ourselves of the things that really do not build the kin-dom, we will often need to set aside our egos, our pride, our desire to be “right,” or our privilege – even privilege we don’t see at the time. This is precisely what I think that Jesus is getting at when he shifts to this list of woes, trying to help us understand that the kin-dom is worth it, the work and sacrifice today will build a better tomorrow. If we are only invested in our own comfort, then we have already received our reward.
The kin-dom does not ask us to put a new coat of paint on the way of empire, or to use the tools of oppression and tyranny only evoking the name of Jesus before we do it. It demands that we change our values, that we seek to be on the side of the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the stranger, the outcast, the “least of these” which has, in case you didn’t realize this, NOT been the strategy – here in the United States or perhaps anywhere in human history. The kin-dom, these blessings, they come with woes, with warnings that the so-called “good” comes with the so-called “bad.” They go hand-in-hand when you are working to restructure, when you are investing yourself in change, when you are busy turning the world upside down, which takes time and effort and sacrifice and pain and struggle.
It is almost like we have to have entirely new eyes, like our entire reality has to be scrubbed, the understanding of how things work, our value systems, our ethical and moral guidelines all scraped and primed and repainted. And, as anyone who has painted anything can tell you, that is a never-ending process.
Sometimes, friends, as we struggle to enact the kin-dom among us, we do it poorly. We make many mistakes, we can wound and hurt, divide and alienate, and our intent can be very different from our impact. Sometimes the good news can feel a lot like bad news. But I’m here to remind us all this morning that we have a God who makes all things new. Despite our limitations, our short-sightedness, our poor decisions, we have a God who brings a bigger vision, so that in our Good Friday pain, we can remember that Easter comes. May it come soon, and may God turn our eyes so that we can see clearly, and we can continue to work faithfully, taking in all the news that comes our way – good, bad – who can say?