by David Baer, February 17, 2019
Text: Luke 6:17-26
Everybody loves a Cinderella story! It’s always been that way, as far as I can tell. Many years ago there was a TV show called “Queen for a Day,” where a number of women shared their hard-luck stories with a studio audience, talking about all the awful things that had happened to them. The audience would applaud more loudly for the saddest stories, and the woman whose story the audience liked best would be crowned, celebrated, and showered with gifts and prizes. The show was about reversing circumstances, turning frowns around. The winners had their world tipped upside-down, if only temporarily. In more recent years, we’ve had shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” It’s less morbid in the way it’s presented, but the premise is the same. We like to see humble folk lifted up, tragedies turned around, the Cinderella story.
It’s not hard to guess why that is. Those of us who struggle with chronic illnesses, bad jobs, debt payments, and rocky relationships take comfort from these fantasies, where someone gets swept away from all their troubles. There was a movie about a cop and a waitress who split a winning lottery ticket, starring Nick Cage and Bridget Fonda, whose title says it all: “It Could Happen to You.” If a miraculous intervention could take away our troubles, then maybe they aren’t as real as they seem.
You do have to be careful what you wish for, though. Frank Norris’ classic novel McTeague tells the story of a dentist and his wife who win the lottery, but the sudden riches they’ve come into only make their underlying selfishness and brutality all the more dangerous, with tragic consequences. Because in the end, everybody loves a Cinderella story, but nobody wants to be Cinderella. Money and prizes can’t mend the deep brokenness we carry inside of us. We want a miracle to tip our world upside down, but we want to keep ourselves wrong-side up. We want to stay in control, to call the shots, while everyone and everything around us changes to suit us.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus comes to announce a reversal of fortunes. It’s a funny kind of sermon he gives. Jesus doesn’t really tell us to go and do anything. He doesn’t give us a program for self-improvement. He tells some people that they are blessed, fortunate, and some other people that they are unfortunate, and he leaves us to work out for ourselves what it means. In the background of Jesus’ words is God’s coming kingdom, the new reality that upends the world we know, that shatters our priorities, dismisses what we value, and lifts up what we have ignored.
I think it’s actually easier for us to understand what Jesus is saying if we listen to the “Woes” before the beatitudes. If we open our ears to the “Woes,” we can feel God tipping our inside world and inviting us to be transformed and made ready for God’s kingdom.
First of all, let’s throw out the word “woe,” at least for today. It sounds like a curse, like you want bad things to happen to someone, and I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus means. The word Jesus uses is ouai, which means “alas.” It’s what you say when you pity someone, not when you’re angry at them or want them to suffer harm. “What a pity for you who are rich: you think that your wealth can buy every good thing, but you’re missing out on the best thing of all. What a pity for you who are full, fat and happy: you haven’t saved room for God’s rich fullness. What a pity for you who laugh now, finding comfort and delight in the way things are: God’s kingdom will upend your world, and you’ll grieve for what you lose. What a pity for you who want praise and admiration: you’ll be led off of God’s way.” Jesus pities us when we settle for anything less than God’s kingdom. He pities us when we think we can hold our brokenness together, if only we put on a good face and keep a stiff upper lip. He pities us—and I put myself in this group—when we consume the world’s resources without a thought for the world’s poor. He pities us when we care more about avoiding conflict than putting things right. He pities us because we’re missing out on something beautiful and wonderful that God is doing.
What is God doing? That’s where we need to listen to the beatitudes. Jesus speaks this message to his disciples: “You may be poor, but you’re blessed! You have a share in God’s kingdom! You may be hungry, but you’re blessed! God’s Table is set for you! You may feel down now, but you’re blessed! You’ll find lasting happiness and peace! You may be put upon and abused now, but you’re blessed! The way that leads to life is narrow and difficult, but it’s life and blessing that you’ll find at the end of it.”
How can this be? Isn’t it better to be rich than poor? Isn’t it better to be full than hungry, to be happy rather than sad? God’s kingdom turns the world and our expectations upside down. God’s blessing is for all... but especially and first for the poor. And not the poor in spirit, either. In this story, it’s the poor—those who lack wealth—that are blessed. And in the same way, God’s blessing is especially and first for the hungry, the grieving, and the oppressed. God’s kingdom is the place where the last become first and the first become last.
This is good news for Jesus’ first followers. It’s good news for a poor, hungry, outcast band of expectant disciples. He’s not offering them a lottery ticket or a prize, a magical escape from their troubles. He’s not with them to whisk them away into another world. Jesus is there to experience poverty, hunger, grief, and oppression alongside them. And it’s this journey of God to be with us and to share our brokenness that tips the world upside down, that blesses the poor, the hungry, the grief-stricken, and the oppressed.
This is good news for us, too. Jesus calls us blessed when we’ve lost everything. He calls us blessed when we hunger and ache for food, for peace, for wholeness. He calls us blessed when we’re in the darkest, saddest moments of our lives. And if you’re not poor or hungry or homeless or downcast, you probably don’t have to look to hard to find someone who is. Jesus pities us when we’re so caught up in our own stuff—pretending that everything is OK, or dreaming of an escape—that we turn away from those God chooses to bless with the kingdom. But the scriptures tell us that God blesses Jesus precisely because he emptied himself to help bear the burdens of needy people (Philippians 2:6-11).
There was this series of novels about the “end times” that came out a while back, the Left Behind series, written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. They’re fiction, obviously, but they set out a particular vision of what Christian faith looks like, and what it means to be the church. They offer what they claim is a Biblical vision of the future in which believers are raptured away into heaven, with everyone else “left behind” to face the tribulations that come with the end of the world. In their version of the story, blessing means escaping judgment and suffering, leaving it to fall on other people. I can’t help but think that taking seriously this vision of escape, of winning the cosmic lottery, would mean that the things that trouble the world just don’t matter very much. Pollution, climate change, justice for workers, hunger, and homelessness—all these problems will soon be “left behind.” Violence and war in the Mideast are signs that the rapture is imminent, and should be celebrated. Those who are “in the know,” who adhere to the right creed don’t need to worry about hurt and brokenness in the world—they already have their consolation. I suspect Jesus might say, “What a pity.”
Let me tell you about a different way to be church, that some folks in Boston practice. It’s called Common Cathedral, and it meets in the open air on Sunday mornings on Boston Common.1 About 70 to 80 souls gather every week, mostly homeless, some of whom are also addicts or suffer from mental illness. They pray together, hear the scripture and preaching, and they take communion. One woman, Sarah, who divides her time between Common Cathedral and her suburban church community, says this about her open-air church: “‘If Jesus were here, walking on earth, that’s where he would be.’ She acknowledges that for some people there isn’t much we can do but be with them in fellowship and prayer.”2
What a blessing it is to know that God doesn’t leave us behind. What a blessing it is to have Jesus tell us that God is first and especially present with those who have nothing, who are at the end of their rope. And what a blessing it is when the church learns to put itself where God’s goodness and grace are especially present. Amen.
https://commoncathedral.org/background/, Retrieved 2/17/19.
Carolyn S. Ellis, "Common Cathedral: A Church with No Strings Attached." retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20110725055656/http://www.thewitness.org/archive/julyaug2001/ellis.html, 2/17/19.