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The Threshold of Blessing & Woe -- Luke 6:17-26 (Sixth Sunday After Epiphany)

The Beatitudes in this morning’s Scripture aren’t the Beatitudes that I’m used to hearing. They’re not the ones I grew up with – the ones I learned in Sunday School – you know:

· Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

· Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

· Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Those Beatitudes and their lavish expression of blessing – those are the Beatitudes that we find in the Gospel of Matthew – in the Sermon on the Mount. This morning’s Scripture gives us the Beatitudes as we find them in the Gospel of Luke. They, too, are full of blessing. And, they are full of woe. “Blessed are you who are poor. Woe to you who are rich.”

The Beatitudes as told in Matthew and Luke differ in a number of ways:[1]

· They have different locations. In Matthew, Jesus gives the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. He goes up to a high place, and delivers the blessings from there. In Luke, Jesus gives the Beatitudes on a plain. He starts up on a mountain, with the disciples – but then he brings them all down into a plain – to a level place – where the people pour in.

· Luke’s Beatitudes speak plainly. In Matthew’s version (at least in most English translations), there’s not quite the hard-edge: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Luke: “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are The Poor.”

· Luke’s Beatitudes speak directly to those who are gathered to hear. In Matthew, the Beatitudes are in the third-person. “Blessed are those who hunger.” In Luke, they are in the second person. “Blessed are you – Blessed are you who hunger. Woe to you – woe to you who are full.”

· And of course, in Matthew, there are blessings. In Luke, there are blessings and woes.

Before we wade into those woes, let’s ground ourselves in the story – put our feet on this level place – because the start of this Scripture is breathtaking in its own right. At the very start, Jesus brings the disciples and us down from the mountain onto the plain – he brings us into this level place. It’s an expansive place – and the people flow in. There are the disciples – and then folks from Jerusalem – and Judea – and then Gentiles from the seaside cities of Tyre and Sidon. All the people. And everyone brings with them all of their pain and their hurt. They’ve come to hear and they’ve come for healing[2] – and everyone in the crowd reaches out toward Jesus, trying to touch him. And then look what happens: “Power is coming out of him, and all of them are healed.” All of them are healed.

I’ve never noticed that. When I think of the healing stories in the Gospels, I think of individual stories – the woman who reaches out and grabs the hem of Jesus’ garment; the man who can’t walk whose friends lower him down to Jesus through the roof – and the crowds gather and watch. But here – the crowd gathers – all of them – every kind of person with every type of ailment – and they are all clamoring and reaching out – and power comes out of Jesus, and all of them are healed.

As he begins this teaching of blessing and woe, Jesus brings us into a broad, expansive place – a level place where he welcomes everyone in with all the hurting that they bring. There we all are, together, on a level place – in the fullness of life – every bit of who we are. A place where hurt and healing abound.

And, then, Jesus begins to teach – with blessing and woe: “Blessed are you who are poor.” Sound familiar? Mary sang that in the Magnificat: “You are raising up the lowly, and bring down the proud. You are filling the hungry with good things.” Jesus said as much when he started his ministry: “The Spirit of God is upon me. I’ve come to bring good news to the poor. Release to the captive. Freedom for all who are oppressed.”

Jesus is announcing again what God is doing in the world – the kin_dom of God, the New Creation, the life and liberation of Resurrection. These blessings are declarative statements of fact – what hurts you now, God is healing – even now.

· Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

· Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied, you will be filled.

· Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

· Blessed are you who have been cast out, you are being welcomed in.

And then, Jesus says: And Woe!

· Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.

· Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will know hunger.

· Woe to you who laugh now, for you will know mourning and weeping.

Several writers I read this week suggest that we read that Woe! as “Whoa!” – Whoa! Whoa! Whoa![3] What we translate Woe – W-O-E – in the Greek is an interjection. Stop. Pay attention. Not too far off from WHOA – W-H-O-A! One writer said that “Woe is basically the opposite of ‘Be not afraid.’” Whoa! Stop! Pay attention. There is something to tend here. There is something at stake.

This morning, these blessings and woes come to us at almost the midpoint of Black History Month. In Black History Month, we honor and celebrate the vitality of Black lives – the accomplishments and contributions that Black Americans have made to every field of endeavor. And, in Black History Month – if we live it in its fullness – we also say true things about the systems that work to hold Black folks back; we talk about and commit ourselves to things that need to change.

I don’t know about you, but every once in a while, as Black History Month approaches, I hear that tired old question: “Black History Month? Why don’t we have a White History Month?” Of course, a good anti-racist response to that question is: “Because every month in a sense is white history month, because the domination culture always gets to write the dominant history.” I’ve wondered, though: If we actually had an official White History Month – would we tell the truth?

Would we put aside our Thanksgiving story of new white colonizers gathering at a peaceful table with indigenous people? And would we instead tell the history of the mass displacement of indigenous peoples by white people, the Trail of Tears, the stealing of land, the breaking of treaty upon treaty, the genocide?

When we talk of the promise in the Declaration of Independence that “all people are created equal,” would we tell the history of our Constitution? Of how the Constitution as originally written by white men protected and perpetuated the institution of slavery, and kept generations of people enslaved? Would we talk about how it took a bloody civil war to get the words “equal protection of law” written into the Constitution? Would we tell of the history that followed – the history of white resistance to that promise of the Constitution – through outright violence, Jim Crow, housing segregation, school segregation, mass incarceration, voter suppression – mass resistance by every means possible – in every part of this nation?

If we told the white history of Marin, would we talk about how Black workers were invited into Marin during World War II to join the war effort building ships? Of how they served faithfully – but when the war ended, when everyone got there GI Bill, white folks could use it to buy homes anywhere they wanted, but Black folks couldn’t – because of redlining, and restrictive racist covenants? Would we talk about how all that has resulted in the segregation in Marin County that persists to this day – housing segregation, school segregation, gross racial economic disparities – all here in Marin -- today?

James Baldwin once said: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”[4]

We celebrate Black History Month – so that for at least a month – we are talking about those true things, and not turning away.

We speak of blessing and of woe.

We speak not only of the vitality of Black lives,

but also of the wrong that has been done,

and the systemic change that must now come,

and the truth that if we do dismantle those systems –

the world will not be the same. And neither will we.

Woe. Stop. Pay attention.

When we look to the Woes in Luke’s Beatitudes, Sharon Ringe explains that it’s not that the rich and privileged are being punished for their actions; rather they have enjoyed the benefits [– we have enjoyed the benefits –] and now it’s time to open those benefits to others.”[5]

To put it even more simply: It’s time to share.

Woe to you who are rich, you’re going to need to share the wealth.

Woe to you who are full, you’re going to need to live life

as if every life is as sacred as your own.

Woe to you who laugh while others groan,

you’re going to need to enter into the suffering of others,

and be changed.

Gathering us on the threshold of this level place, Jesus invites us into the kin_dom of God – the new creation – a new world of compassion and mutuality. Jesus brings us all to this level place where all are welcomed – all of us with every bit of who we are and the lives we live. A place where we see each other face to face – where we stand in the presence of the deep hurt of the world and cannot turn away.

As some of you know, during the course of pandemic, I’ve been learning and trying to incorporate mindfulness practices into my prayer life. Paying attention to what’s real. This week, I listened to an interview in which Rev. angel Kyodo Williams described a practice that invites us to enter into – and not walk away from – the suffering of others. In the practice, we’re invited to breath in the suffering of others – to enter into it – to take it in – and then to breathe out our intention for their well-being. In this breathing in and breathing out, we’re invited to create space for compassion and healing and change.[6] Breathing in suffering – breathing out blessing.

In the threshold of this level place – in the presence of each other’s need – in the threshold of blessing and woe, Jesus invites us into new relationships of mutuality. Out of a world driven by inequitable systems and structures – a world fraught with gross imbalances in wealth and power – then and now – crossing on into this mutuality requires a certain amount of relinquishment – of letting go – of sharing. Justo González says it like this: “What is presented here is a hard-hitting gospel. It is good news to the poor and the powerless. It is also good news to the rich and the mighty, but only if they follow a path of radical obedience, which in turn will affect their riches and their power.”[7] Those who have benefitted from disproportionate power will need to let it go. Those who have benefitted from disproportionate wealth and opportunity will need to share.

Go back with me for a moment to last week’s Scripture – to the urgent promise the Apostle Paul desperately needed to convey: Remember, the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus bring us not only life and forgiveness, but the power to change.

And then remember: This morning’s Scripture is a healing story. Jesus comes down from the mountain, and brings us all into this level place. Everyone is welcome there – no one cast out. And everyone comes – the poor and the not so poor – the hurting and the happy – the stranger, the neighbor, the friend. All of us gather, and there we all are in this level place – standing there face to face. We come with every bit of who we are – with all we are created to be, with the ache that is pulsing in our bones, with hope for a better world. We stand there – face to face – breathing in each other’s need. And we reach out to Jesus, reach out for a touch, reach out for a word. And in this level place – at the threshold of blessing and woe – the threshold of a new creation – power flows out of Jesus – and the world is transformed – and all of us are healed.

© 2022 Scott Clark

[1] For background on this text, see Justo L. González, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010); Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “The Gospel of Luke,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008); Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995). [2] Gonzalez, Kindle ed., loc. 1750. [3] See Karoline Lewis, “Woes and Whoas,” on Working Preacher, , and conversation on the Working Preacher podcast. [4] Quoted in Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2019), p.16. [5] See Ringe, pp. 92-94. [6] See Interview with Rev. angel Kyodo williams, “The Other Side of Pandemic,” at . For a description of the steps of the practice, see Pema Chödrön, “How to Practice Tonglen,” [7] González, Kindle loc. 1775.

Photo credit: Tomas Sobek, used with permission via Unsplash


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