|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
February 17, 2019
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
What It Means to be Blessed: Epiphany 6C
I often get asked how people should read and interpret the Bible. And in particular, some of the more strange or difficult passages that seem so unsettling or harsh. And my answer is that, if you’re looking for the key to unlock the meaning of Scripture, I suggest trying the first 11 verses of Matthew 5, commonly known as the Beatitudes. The little litany is like the Rosetta Stone for Scripture, the tool that helps make all the other passages comprehensible. The Beatitudes are the basic grammar we need to become fluent in the language of the Kingdom of God.
Well, we heard the Beatitudes this morning, but you no doubt noticed that it was Luke’s version, not Matthew’s. If Matthew’s Beatitudes are something we turn to again and again for hope and guidance, Luke’s version is probably one of the parts of the Bible we read past quickly, either because we are uncomfortable with a judgy-sounding Jesus, or else because, somewhere within us, we suspect which side of Jesus’ coin we live on. A number of years ago, a parishioner of mine in Rhode Island named Hugh, about whom I knew next to nothing except that he was quite wealthy, called me out of the blue and asked to go to lunch. When he picked me up, only seconds after I climbed in the car, Hugh said, “So, I’ve recently been reading the Bible for the first time in my life, and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t turn out well for me.” He shared that he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was trying to taking stock of his life. As we talked, I realized how brave and faithful Hugh was, because he was willing to admit that when Jesus talked about “the rich,” he was probably talking about him.
Nearly ten years later, I still think often of Hugh (may he rest in peace) and remember what we talked about, because we talked a lot about this passage from Luke and what it means to be blessed. Hugh had noticed that Jesus doesn’t seem to associate that word with conditions we understand to be reflective of blessing. We don’t typically think of street corner panhandlers or folks in line for a hot meal at Austin Street as being blessed, yet that’s what Jesus says. And in response, we can either do some exegetical jujitsu to convince ourselves that Jesus doesn’t really mean what he says, or else, we can just take him at his word, and admit that maybe, just maybe, we have too small an understanding of what it means to be blessed. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed will be the poor,” or “blessed will be the hungry.” He says “blessed are.” Jesus looks at people who we often gaze at with pity and sees them as blessed now, today, in this moment. Which likely means that our categories of what constitutes blessing are not the same as Jesus’.
Despite the modern popularity of prosperity-gospel preachers, the great majority of Christian teaching through history has rejected the idea that greater material wealth equals greater blessing by God. We can and should be grateful for whatever we have, yet wealth is not how God rewards us for better lives or better prayers. And yet, even though we might consciously dismiss that idea, somehow that concept still seems to seep into the way we see and understand the world. I typically look at the poor and hungry, and I pity them. And when someone says the word “blessed,” I usually picture things that our culture has conditioned me to hold in highest regard: the things that make my life pleasant and comfortable. Which again means that my categories of what constitute blessing may not be the same as Jesus’.
Now, we need to distinguish between the poverty of a faithful disciple from the poverty of someone who has been kept that way by systemic oppression or political corruption. Acknowledging the blessedness of the poor does not mean we should resign ourselves to the suffering of the most desperately poor in our world. But if we are willing to take Jesus at his word, it forces us to come to terms with our too-small vision of what it means to be blessed. Which is why, when we look carefully at Scripture, we see just how much time and energy God spends on expanding our notion of what blessing is about and who it is for. We think it’s something we earn through our hard work, but God says we should be careful about assuming we deserve our blessings (Matt 5:45). We think it’s about providing for our comfort and ease, but God says our blessings are bestowed so that we may a blessing to others (Gen 26:4). We think blessing is best exemplified by those who have the most, but God says blessing is mostly about our relationship with him (Psalm 146:5, Jer 17:7). And we tend to fixate on the blessings of this life, but God reminds us that our existence is eternal, and those who covet good things now may actually forfeit the much greater things in the life to come (Matt 6:19-21).
It’s easy to assume that the only things that matter are the things we can see and measure and comprehend, which is why we doubt how people living on the margins of our society could actually be singled out by God as blessed. But as Christians, we don’t believe that what we see is all there is, because we believe there is a mystical and divine reality imbued in everything God has made. We believe there are layers to existence, some of which we see, and some we can only detect in the rarest and holiest of moments. We don’t believe that all we see is all there is, so why would we believe that about who is blessed and who is not?
When Jesus pronounces the poor blessed, he is pointing us to look at their lives and see in them the possibility that they are closer to the Kingdom of God than all those boasting so proudly on social media of their #blessed lives. He is telling us to look at them, not simply as pitiful people deserving our sympathy, but as people who have something to teach us about the way of Jesus. St. Augustine wrote that God gave us people to love and things to use, and he defined sin as the human propensity to conflate the two, loving things and using people. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, are not easy victims of such temptation, and so they model lives of holy vulnerability and extravagant generosity. For example, we know that the poorest 20% of Americans give away three times the percentage of their income that the wealthiest 20% do.