2/17/2019: When Jesus says “woe” to us

The view from the Mount of the Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, taken by me in January 2019

Throughout the month of January, I traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean: to Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Greece, visiting sites important to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This trip was a dream of mine, and I am still processing much of what I saw: the Church of the Nativity in the midst of a walled-in Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Jordan River, the Dome of the Rock, and Ancient Corinth, just to name a few.

The church at the Mount of the Beatitudes

As people often are during pilgrimages, I was surprised to find that the holiness I sought was often found in the places between the sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt I learned the most about God from the people I encountered, for both the joy and pain I witnessed in my experiences with them: vendors who gave directions, strangers who helped us navigate buses and trains, teenage Israeli soldiers with machine guns on their arms, Bedouin children who sold tea in Petra, Palestinians who told us their stories of heartbreak and loss, and also of love of homeland, a longing for peace, and resiliency.

It is these images that I carried in my heart and mind as a I approached the texts for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, though the stories of my travels do not enter this sermon. While Luke’s Beatitudes take place on a level place and not on a mountain, as in Matthew, I thought of the beauty and serenity of the modern-day Mount of the Beatitudes, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, and how the quiet prayerfulness of this place belies its proximity to state-sanctioned violence and poverty and hunger – suffering from which I was immune because of my blue American passport.

And I wondered: what does it mean to be a Christian today, and what does it mean to be an American Christian? And who would I be in the crowd Jesus addresses in this passage from Luke: one to whom he says “blessed”? Or “woe”?

These questions became the bedrock for my sermon at Resurrection Lutheran Church on February 17th. You can find both the text for that morning and my sermon text below.

Luke 6:17-26

He 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. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“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.

Sermon Text

How you’re reading a text is important for writing a sermon. Whether you read the text with a critical, scholarly eye, or as poetry, or as a piece of history, or prayerfully, how you’re reading matters: it changes the entire way you approach your sermon. And this week, when I read the Beatitudes in Luke, these passages of “blessed are” and “woe to”, I read the passage using my imagination, and it shaped the entire way I understood this text.

I used my imagination in reading this passage through a practice called “sacred imagination,” which was first written about by St. Ignatius. He said that we could read the Gospels by imagining ourselves as someone in the text that Jesus is interacting with, and that as we did this, we should imagine the sights and sounds and smells and facial expressions of the things around us.

And so, on my first reading of our Gospel text this morning, I imagined myself as one of the people in the crowd that Jesus addressed, and I first thought of myself listening intently to his words. I thought of the comfort of those words: 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.

It is a promise of abundance when we see scarcity; it is a promise of redemption for our pain. It is a rallying cry for hope in a hopeless situation. They are such beautiful words.

But, as I read on, I found myself disconcerted by Jesus’s words: woe to you who are rich, you have received your consolation; woe to you who are full, you will be hungry; woe to you who are laughing, you will weep.

If the first four promises are for abundance and redemption, then what are these? If the first four promises comfort a weary soul, what are we to make of the woes? I didn’t know, and my practice of sacred imagination left me doubting.

My thoughts drew me out of the text, and I couldn’t help but think of a time earlier this month when I was in the Magnificent Mile. For our guests from Rosemount and other out-of-towners, the Magnificent Mile is a stretch of Chicago filled with high-end, designer stores and nice restaurants. I was there with my father-in-law and my spouse and our friend; we had just brunch and were on our way to an escape room game. It was a fun morning.

But, on our way there, I was struck by the fact that there were so many homeless Chicagoans, begging for money on the sidewalk. It was a jarring image: to see someone who could not afford shelter, on a day when the high was 11 degrees, next to stores like the Banana Republic and Nike and Brooks Brothers. People in designer clothing walked by people in great need, without so much as a glance.

And I didn’t give any money to the people I saw begging for money in the Chicago cold. I walked by them, too.

This, of course, is not the first time I have seen people asking for money in Chicago. I live in Hyde Park, down on the South Side. Every Sunday, to get here to Lakeview, I take the Red Line from Garfield all the way up to Belmont – nearly the entire stretch of the Red Line. And every Sunday, I encounter people who need money so badly – for whatever reason – that they ask strangers for it. And sometimes, I might reach into my pocket; but many times, I divert my eyes, hoping that I might avoid their gaze and their question.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

And I have to ask myself – does Jesus say woe to me?

It’s easy for me to say, oh, well, I’m not rich. My spouse and I are both graduate students – we live off of our scholarships and fellowships, we don’t make a lot of money in these few years of our lives.

But the truth is, we have everything we need. We don’t have to worry about not having shelter or knowing where our next meal will come from. We even have enough money to have a dog and a Netflix account. We are, by no means, in the 1% in this country, but we have pretty comfortable lives.

Maybe you are in the same boat as me. Maybe you aren’t rich the way that Americans sometimes think of the word – you aren’t Bill Gates, but you’re not hungry. Maybe you’re not scared of being homeless soon. Maybe you are rich compared to some people in this city, and certainly to many people in the world.

It’s easy to know if my neighbors think I’m rich; it’s harder to know whether Jesus would. Maybe Jesus would consider me rich; maybe Jesus would consider you rich. I don’t know, but even the idea that Jesus would say “woe to me” gave me pause. What does it mean if Jesus says “woe to me”? The word “gospel” means good news. And where is the good news for those of us who aren’t hungry and weeping this morning?

But I read this passage again – because that’s what you do in sacred imagination – and it revealed new things to me as I read it. It helped me to imagine of the passage in a new light.

I noticed especially the beginning of this passage, which describes Jesus coming off of a mountain in solitary prayer to be with all the people who had gathered to see him. He meets them on a level field, where no one is elevated above the other. They are equals there.

And I noticed that these people come from all walks of life: apparently, there are rich and poor people, because that’s who Jesus addresses later, but they’re also people from very disparate places: from Judea in the north, Jerusalem in the dry South, Tyre and Sidon in the far north of modern-day Syria. And many of them were ill, suffering perhaps from chronic or acute illnesses, from mental health problems, from emotional pain. The passage doesn’t say what they suffered from specifically, only that they suffered from diseases and unclean spirits, but we can use our imaginations.

But more than anything, I noticed the order of the passage. First, Jesus comes down to them – exactly where they are. He meets them where they need him.

Then, Jesus heals all of them, with no questions asked. The passage doesn’t tell us that he divvied them up between rich and poor, from the north or from the south, citizen or non-citizen, insured or uninsured. He just meets them, sees their need for healing, and he heals them.

And then, and only then, after everyone is healed by the power that pours out from Jesus, does he begin to teach them. He builds a relationship with everyone in this crowd so that when we begins his words of comfort and of admonition, they might land.

And this gave me hope. It made me imagine those “woes” a little differently.

Originally, as I read this passage, I imagined Jesus saying the woes in anger; I imagined each woe a condemnation from which I could not escape. But as I read and imagined, I began to see Jesus’s face soften, his tone gentler, sadder.

And it makes me think about our city of Chicago again. About how sad it is that we live in such a great city – a beautiful, dynamic, vibrant, and historic city – a great city in which not everyone can access the greatness here. A great city of neighborhoods, but a city where different neighborhoods are treated very differently; a great city in which people beg on the train for food.

And I realized this is why Jesus says “woe” to us: because it is sad for us all. It is certainly sad for the people who have to beg on public transit. But I think it’s sad for the rest of us, too.

And I’ll speak for myself here. When I see someone on the train, begging for money, and I do my best to divert my eyes – to avoid eye contact, I feel like a little bit of my soul is in jeopardy. Not because it’s because it’s being condemned by God, but because I am relinquishing one of the most fundamental parts of my humanity, my empathy, every time I do it. And for what? For a dollar?

I could be in relationship with the people who ask for money on the sidewalk or the train, instead of diverting my eyes. But the inequality that I am accustomed to, the kind that allows me to look away when someone is asking for help, is a sign of a deeply broken relationship. The fact that I have enough food in my home while others have none is a sign of a society with broken relationships built into it. And a city where neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Lakeview are treated one way, and neighborhoods like Chatam and Pilsen are treated another is a sign of a society built on broken relationship. And it is sad for all of us, and I think Jesus is saddened by this state of affairs in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Chicago.

And as I thought about the sadness that Jesus has for us, for our broken relationships and our comfort with inequality, I realized that this is exactly where the good news can be found in this passage for those of us who live pretty comfortable lives.

Because Jesus still has a relationship with us.

Even as he is sad for us, he heals us. Even as he admonishes us to not feel comfortable with our full pantries when others have empty shelves, he is reaching out to us and meeting us where we are – on that level place.

One of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a pastor who resisted the Nazi regime during World War II, and he struggled greatly with questions about modernity. And he once wrote, “It is becoming clear every day that the most important question besetting our church is this: how can we live the Christian life in the modern world?”

And I wish that I had an easy answer for you, and I wish that Pastor Kelly had an easy answer for us all. I wish someone could tell me the best way to live a Christian life in the modern world, a world where we are so comfortable with inequality, and so at home in broken relationships.

But there are no easy answers to this question. And we, as Christians in twenty-first century, will always struggle with this question.

But I do know that Christ has compassion on us as we grapple with who we are and where we are in the world. And Jesus meets us where we are, and heals us, and walks with us every step on this difficult path.

This is our baptismal promise: that Jesus is with us as stumble along, figuring out what it means to be a Christian in the modern world. And when we fall short of that call, Jesus is sad with us and for us but never leaves us alone.

And this is what we celebrate in a few minutes, as we together witness the baptism of Lucy. We will see God’s promise being made to her that, wherever she might go in life, whatever she might face or struggle with, God will be with her in it, and that God will always be ready to give her grace freely and abundantly. It is the same promise made to each of us in our baptism.

And so, whether we receive blessings or woes today from Jesus, we can know that Jesus is with us always – not condemning us but accompanying us.

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