Blessing or Curse?

The night that followed my mother's funeral, I was seated with my siblings and their families in our parents' den. Our conversation was a little bit unusual in that we found that each of us, even the in-laws and the grandchildren, began to say, "I know that I was her favorite because."

My brother was the first to remember how she would look at his art work and declare, "The world is just waiting for you, Jim." I remembered how no matter what I had done, she would remark, "Sarah, you are as good as gold!" On and on we went until we had each shared how we were treasured in her sight. It was a wonderful celebration of my mother's ability to take each of us, our frailties and our strengths, and to find ways to interact with us so that we felt her unconditional acceptance. And it was true, not a one of us was her favorite, for we were all her favorite. Or another way to say it: Individually and collectively, we felt her personal blessing.

Having grown up with this sense of being blessed, I am particularly sensitive to the many who have never received a vote of confidence or heard an encouraging word or have ever experienced an overriding sense of well-being from their families. I leave conversations heart broken wherein I am told that parents declared to their own children that they were "abominations to the Lord," or where neglect or physical abuse occurred.

This is one of the reasons why I have loved the church these many years, for the church, at least to me, was the one place that was set apart to be redemptive, especially to those of us who were wounded in some way. Admittedly, some congregations do better with this charge than others, but the church's original challenge was to be the place where we would not just acknowledge God's imprints on our souls but where we could also celebrate the divine image within. It is the place where spiritual parents could step in where earthly parents failed and bridge the gap for healing and restoration of personhood.

Now the Old Testament is full of stories wherein the search for blessing is the focus of an epic. There is the story of Jacob stealing his birthright blessing from his brother Esau. There is the story wherein Jacob refused to stop wrestling with an angel until he could receive a blessing. There is the story of Joseph and his brothers' jealousy that Joseph was given their father's blessing. These stories, and others like them, continue on until we reach the pages of the New Testament in which we meet Jesus who imparts blessing to all.

In our text for today, we find that Jesus has been up on the mountain to pray. He selects his disciples and then comes down to be with the multitudes that have gathered. The writer clearly states specific geographic regions that are represented: Judea, Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon. It is a clear message to us that whatever Jesus is prepared to teach is for all people, the Jews and the Gentiles.

The audience includes the sick, the troubled and other persons of special concerns. As is usual in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' healing actions and his words are closely interrelated. It is our reminder that the good news that Jesus brings wraps words and actions all up together. (John McClure, New Proclamation) While Jesus does not know these people intimately, he does recognize their personal condition in life and the deep expectations that they bring with them. The gospel writer informs us, as well, that they come hoping to be touched by Jesus - to receive just a little bit of his power so that they might be healed. They come, it seems to me, looking for a blessing. The crowd waits for Jesus to speak. They wait in anticipation of being told the divine agenda.

So Jesus begins with a short list of ways we can be blessed. This state of blessedness is characterized by abounding joy. It is happiness that is so complete that it cannot be contained. It is an awareness that bubbles up inside of us and overflows so that all notice our sense of elation. It is an extension of the happiness that we receive from our salvation. Jesus, however, does not include anything within his list that we would normally think of that would bring us such extreme joy. In fact, he completely contradicts the ideas and values of a materialistic, sensual society which equates happiness with house, car, and bank account. (Malcolm Tolbert, The Broadman Bible Commentary) It is our introduction to the topsy-turvy world Christ presents as an alternative to the status quo.

He carefully constructs four symmetrical comparisons of blessings and woes, and they are the opposite of what we would anticipate. For he says:

Blessed are the poor...but woe to the rich.
Blessed are the hungry...but woe to those who are full.
Blessed are the weeping...but woe to those that are laughing.
Blessed are the rejected...but woe to those who are accepted.

As Jesus presents his thoughts to those gathered, it becomes apparent that he is not interested in keeping things the same. Rather, his purpose was to usher in a world that would literally be reversed. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon say of this:

Christians begin our ethics not with anxious, self-serving questions about what we ought to do as individuals to make history come out right, because in Christ, God has already made history come out right. The "sermon on the plain" is the inauguration manifesto of how the world looks now that God in Christ has taken matters in hand.

In other words, these blessings and woes announce that God, in Jesus Christ, already sees the world in a strikingly different way than we do. The "real world," for all those who are in Christ, is one in which most of the major status roles in life are utterly reversed.

Remarkably, there is no contingency plan. There are no urgings or exhortations to behave in certain ways so as to earn these blessings and avoid the curses. In fact, there is no call to action at all. Rather, Jesus is just pronouncing the facts. He is painting for us a picture of what the Kingdom of God is. He is not making suggestions about how to be happy or giving warnings on how to keep from being miserable. Jesus is making defining statements of the way life is inside and outside the reign of God. It is a reversal of fortunes for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the full and the empty. (Craddock, Interpretation: Luke)

Interestingly, these curses and blessings are anchored in the present as well as the future. "Blessed are you poor, for yours is already the Kingdom of God" (v 20) and "Woe to you that are rich, for you have already received your consolation" (v 24). Both of these are realized. They are firmly cemented in the present and are not promises for the future. However, in the other blessings and woes, "now" is contrasted with "you shall," which clearly indicates future fulfillment. This joining of the present and the future reminds us that with Jesus, we are already beginning to experience the Kingdom of God here in our everyday lives and will ultimately have it fulfilled in the future. Our task, then, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is "to be what in the reality of God (we) are already." (John S. McClure, New Proclamation) To me this means that we are to be people who out of recognition of our own blessedness, impart blessing to others, thus creating the Kingdom of God here on earth. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

At the funeral of a prominent church member, I had an encounter that reminded me of this present, vibrant reality of the Kingdom of God and our individual participation in it. I had been so focused on the details of the service and bringing the family in that I had not taken a lot of time to consider who might be present in the congregation. So as I looked out at the many faces of Alabama giants of Baptist life, I was filled with anxiety. While most were heroes in my estimation, there was one of which I was gravely uncertain.

For when I returned to Alabama from Southern Seminary some 20 years earlier, I had worked with a pastor whose friendship was dear and tender. He mentored me and nurtured my abilities. As our time together continued, however, the struggles in the Southern Baptist Convention began to be mirrored in our relationship. He wanted to deny the changes and refused to educate the congregation that we served together. I, on the other hand, thought it wiser to include church leadership who were prime for communication and information. Our differences escalated. Often they became personal confrontations rather than professional ones. So great became the tension that when I left my position, we were bitter and angry with one another and suspicious of each other's loyalty. This was the person who was seated in the congregation for the funeral.

So at the end of the funeral, I proceeded to the back of the sanctuary, as is our custom to offer comfort to the mourners as they leave memorial services. I hoped, I prayed that he would go out the other door. But, no, he came out mine. He immediately went into the mode of evaluator. He made suggestions as to what in the service could have moved quicker or been rearranged and then made a global statement that had something to do with, on the whole, I had done a fairly good job!

I recognized his pause in conversation as my cue to respond, to say something in return. My mind went in all sorts of directions. Was this finally my chance to tell him off, to let him know that I had grown beyond the need for his evaluation and approval? Was this one of those self-actualizing moments in which I could really stand up for myself and clearly define not just my own personhood, but his as well?

I surprised myself with the quickness with which I responded. For I simply looked up at him and said, "You know, you were a really good teacher." The surprise on his face was followed with tears in his eyes. And when I saw that, I got a glimpse of the power of giving a blessing that characterizes the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

A couple of years ago on a Communion Sunday, I charged the congregation with something to think about as the deacons passed the elements to those seated in the pew. Now I am never quite sure what congregants do with their thoughts when we have communion. It is one of those times that I have to trust them to have holy and sacred moments within their own spirits! But after the service, I received confirmation that this was indeed the case.

A guest approached me and said that the service had been powerfully meaningful. Always curious as to what this means, I decided to ask for an explanation. The guest told me about a devastating divorce that had been followed with a desire to be more authentic in his personal life. The guest was now attending our church with his partner and his 10-year-old daughter. While he had reclaimed most of his life, the one thing that had been consistently denied was communion because no one had ever given this person an invitation, a blessing, permission to return to the table.

On that Communion Sunday, however, our guest heard an invitation, a calling to come, taste and see how good the Lord is. And he took the elements gratefully for the first time in years. This is the blessing that comes from the Kingdom of God at work.

The Russian Rabbis tell a story that goes like this:

In Krakov there lived a man named Isaac, son of Yekel, a very poor man whose family was often hungry. One night in a dream, he saw the distant city of Prague, noticing there a certain bridge with a treasure buried beneath it. The dream was so vivid that he could not forget it, especially when it kept recurring every night for two weeks. Finally, in order to get rid of the dream, he decided to walk from Krakov to Prague to see for himself.

After several days, he arrived in Prague, found the bridge and went underneath to locate the treasure. Suddenly, a soldier grabbed him and started questioning him. What was he doing prowling under the bridge? Being an innocent man, he told the truth. He was looking for a treasure he had dreamed was underneath the bridge.

The soldier roared with laughter. "You stupid Jew! Don't you know that you cannot trust what you see in dreams? Why, for the last two weeks, I myself dreamed that far away in Krakov in the house of a Jew named Isaac, son of Yekel, there is as treasure buried underneath the stove in his kitchen. But wouldn't it be the most idiotic thing in the world if I were to go all the way there to look for it? One could waste a lifetime looking for treasure that does not exist." Still laughing, the soldier gave Isaac a kick and let him go.

So Isaac, son of Yekel, walked back to Krakov, to his own home, where he moved the stove in his kitchen, found the treasure buried there and lived to a ripe old age as a rich man. (Belden C. Lane, Christian Century, Dec. 16, 1981)

My friends, the Kingdom of God is as close as the treasure under your stove. It is a blessing that is not dependent upon anyone else's judgment. It is a blessing that God willingly offers to every one of us; and as the body of Christ, we are to impart it to one another. All we have to do is receive it.

So I wonder, are you ready to receive this blessing? Are you ready to begin to experience the treasures of the Kingdom of God?

Our desire, O God, is to receive and give the blessing of your Kingdom. Give us the courage to accept your blessing and the wisdom to bless others. Amen.