“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” Anytime, O Lord, let there be laughter anytime, for there has been much more of weeping than laughing in these last two years. Even now, even now as covid retreats we bury men and women in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, as well as those in their 70’s and 80’s and 90’s and we grieve. We even grieve for those newly dead whom we did not know well, but whose deaths leave deep sorrow in their wake for spouses and teen-aged children and dear friends.
We know, of course, that grief is not the only consequence of covid to be suffered. Poverty and hunger have strengthened their hold not only on our own locale but globally as crops languish in the fields for want of harvesters, or sit rotting in trailers outside of ports, or have risen so high in price to be unaffordable even for middle-class families. And the good Lord knows that it seems to be open season on faith these days whether you worship in the Middle East or eastern Montana. There is much cause for sorrow and yet we know, as Americans, that we have less cause for sorrow than the citizens of many another part of the world.
Nonetheless, like one of those old cartoons with rainclouds over the head of the character, we wallow a bit in loss and insecurity. No one has much of a bead on this disease, or seemingly anything else that plagues us, and so, the raincloud. The prophet Jeramiah and St. Paul alike spoke, at least initially, to people who thought they had it all together. The world was their oyster, and in part they seemed to think that way because they thought they had this God thing all figured out. They were among the chosen, the highly favored, the righteous ones. But in no time at all the citizens of Jerusalem found themselves conquered by Assyria and the congregation in Corinth undone by stupid ego trips. In both cases they sought to use God for their good, like He is some sort of cosmic vending machine, distributing goodies to those who know which buttons to push or who have the most quarters.
That is not how God works. The earliest Christian confession and, to this day, the one that is the most honest, is this, Jesus is Lord. The consequent of that assertion is that we ourselves are not Lords, and that means that there is, for us, precious little in the way of control of events. Just like those Jerusalemites that drove Jeremiah bats and the Corinthian Christians that enraged St. Paul, we eventually learn that God is in control, whether we like it or not.
The same people who seek control not just of their own lives but also of the cosmos are also the ones who deny the existence of God because bad things happen. Children starve, they snarl online and in journals, and a good God would not allow this. First, the thinking seems to be if human beings cannot control everything they control nothing. So, no one in this party ever looks at human agency to see why children go hungry. If you do not believe in the reality of human sin, then you do not look at addicted parents, the consequences of war, the theft of food aid to sustain the weapon purchases of rogue armies, mental health issues, drought, soil degradation, inflation, criminality, the underground economy and any number of things that can lead to diminished food stocks and hungry children in a household or a country. Funny thing, too, if folks don’t look at the stupid human tricks behind hunger then they also do not see the means by which they can help end it. Quite the move, that allows us to deny not only our responsibility as human beings for such wickedness but also removes from us the moral need to make things better. Second, God determines what is good, and given we cannot see the vastness of His works we have no way to judge why He acts in one place but not apparently in another.
This morning’s Gospel reading is a reminder that while we do not understand anything like the fulness of God’s mind and work, still we know He does work on our behalf and that of God’s creation. Jesus does not begin with the obvious blessings of full stomachs and warm bodies, beloved family members and good times. How easy is it to bless God for His goodness when all is going well and we are happy and satisfied. No, Jesus begins by blessing those who mourn, who hunger, who have not the means to purchase or otherwise obtain what they and their families need. His blessings are not thanksgivings for that which is already given, but hope for that which will be given in the future. And that hope is spelled out for people for whom suffering is a constant way of life.
Part of what is going on here is that Jesus, having by now called all twelve of His disciples to their work, has begun their lessons. They quickly learn that their mission field will not be those who believe that they have received what blessings they have because they are inherently better than others because of their family or their heritage or their wealth.
Rather, their ministry, like His, will be to the sick, the possessed, and even to the Gentiles, considered unclean by virtue of their faiths, their lifestyles, their differences from Israel. Remember, the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus – jobs, families, homes, even familiar countryside. If the disciples had any hope of recouping what they lost and more from the wealthy and the well-connected by following Jesus, they should have lost it here where Jesus came down from the mountain and drew them with Him into a large crowd of people who had desperate need of God’s blessings and little hope for them.
Yet it was these hope-starved and blessings-deprived people that Jesus blessed, telling them that what they lacked now would someday be given to them in fullest measure. In the short-term, Jesus validated His teachings and His blessing by healing those who were sick and freeing those who were possessed. Jesus blessed in particular those who would suffer for their faith in Him and for their ministries. This was a lesson pointed at His new disciples. Like the prophets of old, Jesus told them they would be hated and excluded and called vile names and called disciples not of the Son of God but of the devil. How is that for a job description? But He also taught them that they were not to count this as loss but as gain, for the same was done to the prophets of old.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus does not stop with the blessings. He adds curses to His lessons, particularly curses for those who were rich, well-fed, and happy. Contrary to what some think, Jesus did not curse those who were rich and happy just because they were rich and happy. Jesus was not some Marxist revolutionary fomenting a revolution. The obverse is true as well; Jesus wasn’t a captain of industry. What He did when He cursed the rich and the satisfied was remind them that a single-minded focus on the goods of this world did not allow them to attend to the goods of the kingdom of heaven. Wealth and self-satisfaction can separate us from God and from His Church. It is easier for those with little to nothing to see that kingdom and long for it for God is all they have.
Over the course of the last six weeks Scripture has revealed to us in increasingly greater detail Who the holy Child born in a stable in Bethlehem lit by the light of a singular star is. We’re operating under the full light of the sun now, and our vision of Who Jesus is and what he does is becoming clearer and larger. And seeing more of Who Jesus is, we see ourselves better, too.
It’s not a flattering picture, but it is also not a picture that shows us there is no hope. Hope arises naturally when we look at our lives and see not what we have done for ourselves but what God has done for us. When we acknowledge that Jesus is our Lord and we are not His, then we free ourselves to see His goodness in every corner of our lives. We still see sin and we still see evil and we still see misery, but we see humanity’s part in that and God’s part in making right what we make wrong. Small blessings like spring flowers pushing through the snow and large blessings like an end to a pandemic are all signs that we are loved by God and He is always with us. Like anything else God has given us, our blessings are meant to be shared, and the greatest of all blessings to be shared is this: that Jesus Christ died to free us from sin and death.