20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Today, we gather to remember the saints in our life. So often we think of saints as those people of the past who seem to have been especially blessed by God that they were then a blessing to those around them. That with so many gifts and talents, their influence continues to leak into these future days long after they’ve gone. But, you know, it took a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago to remind me that today is not “Some Saint’s Sunday” but rather is, in fact, “All Saints Sunday.” Which means today we don’t simply remember and celebrate those blessed folks who have gifted us with their grace and their wisdom and who have since past away. No, today, we celebrate and remember even those saints still living, those whose hearts continue to beat out light that scatters around us and guides our lives for the better.
The problem with this is that so often we can get mixed up around what it means to be blessed. Just the other day, a friend, who had recently given birth, said that her family had been really blessed because of all the meals people brought over to them. Or last Sunday, at the Grandparents for Education breakfast, when the name of winner for the TV drawing was announced, you could hear this subtle groan from the people. There was this sense that this man had already been blessed with so much in his life. Why did he get even more? It seems like to be considered blessed is to have enough in this life. Enough food. Enough shelter. Enough love. Enough…well, you get the point. Any time something good happens to us, we seem to call it being blessed. Which is why I honestly struggle to pray before a meal. Did God bless me with this meal? What about those who don’t have a meal this night? Did God not bless them with a meal?
So often the people we label as blessed or as saints are those who have done good to us and to the world or those who seems to have been given so much in this world that they must have done something to deserve it. Take for example the Roman Catholic tradition of becoming a saint. In order to receive that halo around your head, one most show proof of a good and pious life, confirmed by evidence of at least three miracles after death. Needless to say, I’m not going to hold my breath on my chances at that, and I wouldn’t recommend that you do either.
The problem with these categories of what it means to be blessed is that they are entirely different from Jesus’ categories of blessedness. In fact, Jesus’ understanding of who is blessed turns our understanding upside down. You just heard it from the man himself in the gospel reading from Luke. Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are you…who are poor. For yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep now. Blessed are you when people hate you.”
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He turns to those we traditionally view as blessed, and delivers a hard word – “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you whose bellies are full now, because you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing, for you will weep and mourn. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for they used to speak well of the false prophets too.”
And then, like someone who’s been tossed around by a big ocean wave, those listening to Jesus suddenly didn’t know which way was up. Everything had been turned upside down and inside out. Blessed are those without any food on the table. And woe to the one whose stomach is full. Blessed are those who have lost their job. And woe to those who fired them. Blessed are those who weep over the death of a loved one and woe to those who sit in a full house of relatives, laughing.
Everything is backwards. Jesus might as well be saying, “Blessed are the losers, and woe to those of you who win.” Or perhaps a little more personally, blessed are the Mayo Spartans and Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms. And woe to the Owatonna Huskies.
What I love and hate about this passage is that it seems to be yet another of Jesus’ equations of sacredness that when mapped out, doesn’t make any sense to our human minds. For example, you have heard Jesus say, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It is a great and wonderful phrase. It comforts those who are afflicted by being last in life, and it afflicts those who are comfortable being first in life. But when you think it through, if the first will be last and the last will be first, then what happens when the last are the new firsts and suddenly they have to be last again? It starts to get confusing.
It is the same way with Jesus’ sermon on blessedness. If Jesus says blessed are the poor, for they will inherit the kingdom of God, but then Jesus says woe to those who are rich for they will become poor…won’t the rich then be in the category of the poor who will inherit the kingdom? Or if Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled,” but then Jesus says, “Woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry.” Won’t the hungry who are being filled eventually become those who are full, who Jesus warns? And won’t those who are full become those who are hungry, who are blessed?
It’s very confusing because after awhile you don’t know who is first and who is last; who is blessed and who is warned. When you think about it, Jesus’ blessing and Jesus’ warning eventually falls on all those who are listening. Which is maybe exactly Jesus’ point. Perhaps Jesus is diluting and dissolving any categories that we might divide us as a community. In fact, what Jesus seems to be doing is leveling the playing field. He lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty. Everyone is being turned upside down and right side up. But truth be told, he is only doing with his words what he has already just done with this feet.
Listen to the verses just before our reading:
Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
Jesus’ words match the landscape. He brought them to a level place. A place filled with people from Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus is bringing all people to the same level.
In a world where so much of life seems to be about what you can achieve on your own and how successful you were or could be. In a country where anti-depressant prescriptions have sky-rocketed and poverty only seems to be growing. In a life that can seem an awful lot like one big game of king of the hill, for Jesus to gather together everyone on a level place by lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty is is like being given an entirely new understanding by which to live. It is to ignite above all of our heads a ring of light that can only mean one thing: blessed. Sainted. No matter what.
When we think of saints we often think of those who have been good to us or good to this church. And that’s true. But when Jesus gives us a snap shot of all the saints, he uses a much wider lens. “Jesus’ (sermon) invites us to stretch our imaginations concerning the saints, those persons who are blessed by God. The “saints” include not only those spiritual superstars who attain exceptional virtue. The saints include people who are vulnerable, those society routinely forgets about – or worse, takes advantage of.” (On Scripture)
Which means, that according to Jesus, there is halo above the head of the 28 year-old man standing outside on the sidewalk, smoking and leaning on his cane, who I barely even looked at this past week. There is a halo over the head of the man with disabilities who grunted uncontrollably down the aisles of Wal-Mart, leaving most of us uncomfortable and unsure of what to do.
On a day like today, when we speak the names of those who have died in the last year, and when we light candles for our loved ones, it is not hard to see how level the playing field really is. Rich or poor, hungry or filled up, loved or hated, death will greet us all. Some day, someone will light a candle for us. It’s a level playing field, folks. The difference is that Jesus invites us to live that way not just today, but tomorrow too.
So when you walk around Target or when you stop at the gas station, when you go to work, or when you walk to lunch, can you see that ring of light hovering just a couple of inches above the heads of the people you meet. It’s there. The question is, can you see it? Because if you can see theirs, they just might able to see yours as well. AMEN