In the name of the God of grace. Amen.
The gospel reading this morning makes me think about the old story of the man clapping on the corner. Every day he would awaken, and then go and stand on the corner and clap. <CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, CLAP> People would pass – some startled into awareness, some staring, but most just lost in their own lives, unaware… <CLAP, CLAP, CLAP>
Finally, another person stopped and questioned the man. “What are you doing?”
“I’m clapping,” said the man.
“Well, I can see that,” the other responded, “but why? Why do you stand here day after day, clapping incessantly?”
The man said, “I’m clapping to prevent a herd of wild elephants from destroying the city.”
The other, clearly frustrated, responded, “There aren’t wild elephants within thousands of miles of here!”
The man answered, “It’s working! You’re welcome.”
The words we hear in the Gospel today are familiar to most of us:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“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."
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
"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.”
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
If we only ever listened to the first part, the part about blessing – they can come across as comforting words. And even then, we can’t listen all that critically. I’ll admit, I’ve preached on this text in the past and basically glossed over the “woes”. In a world that very often feels woeful, it sometimes feels like there’s little sense in driving that point home.
At first glance, this teaching from Jesus can feel sort of divisive. He’s dividing the “blessed”, or as one translation I read put it, “the blissful”, from the ones of woe. And what’s more, he’s doing it on what seems like arbitrary means.
Perhaps it’s because my modern American perception is so steeped in the illusion of meritocracy, but it just doesn’t seem fair. I’m fine with the blessing. Yes, let’s lift up the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the excluded. Yes! Give them the comfort they lack. But must we afflict the comfortable as well?
We fall off the rails in this teaching from Jesus when we see it as a recipe book – an instruction guide for blessing and cursing. Jesus, the one who so often taught in parables and needed the Holy Spirit to help those first followers grasp what he was saying – this isn’t one who should be read word for word with no space for interpretation.
That’s not to say that we’re off the hook for our call to care for the less fortunate, or that our own pursuits of fortunes couldn’t impede our own deeper journey into faith. But I feel like that misses an underlying truth that Jesus is sharing about God here.
In the midst of our vulnerability, it’s important to remember that our security doesn’t come from our action. It doesn’t come from our wealth or our acquisition. Our security comes from God.
Another way of hearing this words would be: just because you’re poor or hungry or weeping or hated – that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve fallen out of God’s grace. And by the same token, just because you’re rich or full or laughing or respected – that doesn’t mean you’ve “won” the game of life. And all that certainly doesn’t guarantee you God’s favor.
So what can we do to be beloved by God? What can we do to earn God’s favor? Nothing. God’s love comes by grace, not by merit. And I don’t mean that as an attack on humanity. This isn’t a “woe is me, I am a worm and no man” theology. This is a theology of goodness. This is an assurance that even in our failings, God is with us and for us. And even in our failed understandings of success, God is with us and for us. It’s not about checking the right boxes – it’s about coming to understand that the boxes aren’t the point. God’s grace is the point.
We can stand on the street corners clapping, but that – nor any other action of ours – isn’t our salvation. We are saved by God’s grace. We are redeemed by Christ. Not by our bank accounts, not by our volunteerism, not by our goodness or badness or anything in between. We are counted as blessed – as beloved – because that’s how God sees us. That’s who God made us to be. We didn’t make that true, God did.
I’d like to close by sharing with you a prayer by Walter Bruggemann. He is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and a theologian, and this prayer is from his book, Prayers for a Privileged People. It’s called, “Ourselves at the Center”.
We are your people,
Your people who make futures for ourselves,
get the job done
and move on.
In our self-confidence, we expect little
beyond our productivity;
we wait little for
that which lies beyond us,
and then settle with ourselves
at the center.
And you, you in the midst of our privilege,
You utter large, deep oaths
beyond our imagined futures.
You say – fear not, I am with you.
You say – nothing shall separate us.
You say – something of a new heaven and new earth.
You say – you are mine; I have called you by name.
You say – my faithfulness will show concretely
and will abide.
And we find our privilege eroded by your purpose,
our competence shaken by your future,
our entitlement unsettled by your other children.
Give us grace to hear your promises.
Give us freedom to trust your promises.
Give us patience to wait and
humility to yield our dreamed future
to your larger purpose.
We pray in the name of Jesus who
is your deep yes over our lives.