Friday, January 29, 2010

By the Grace of God Go I

(Read Luke 6: 17-26 and Jeremiah 17: 5-10)

Today’s Gospel reading, sometimes referred to as the Sermon on the Plain, is a passage that I wrestle with. I am not as comfortable with a Jesus who is warning and condemning people. We expect to hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you…” but it seems contrary to his nature to hear, “Woe to you…” (Plus, I worry that I'm in the "Woe to you" faction.) In fact, I know people who ignore this passage in Luke, and instead, use a similar passage in Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew’s version is filled only with blessings, and no curses.

In an honest attempt to understand Jesus’ warnings, I studied the passage more carefully. Woe to the rich; woe to those who are full; woe to those who are laughing; woe to those when people speak well of them. The more I thought about it, I still could not understand why Jesus would curse the people who have what we all want and what he intends to give. For example, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And then a few lines later, Jesus says, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” Does he want us full or does he want us hungry?

Another example, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” But then he says, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” Does he want us to laugh or to weep? It would seem that Jesus wants us to laugh, but then he goes on to condemn people already laughing. What are we to make of this?

A surface reading of this passage will not do. This is not a direct condemnation of people who are wealthy or have full stomachs or are in a good mood or are liked by others. It’s not wrong to be likable, happy, satisfied, even overflowing. So let’s go deeper.

In Luke, chapter 6, a great multitude has come to hear Jesus preach, to have their diseases healed, and their spirits cleansed. They are coming in need to him. This is often how we come to God, when we are in need. It’s when we need something that we come knocking. It’s when something is wrong or we’re desperate that we do our best crying out for help. It’s when we’ve been drive to our knees that we pray.

Jesus is overjoyed when we come to him in our need. More than happy to open the door when we come knocking and answer our cries for help and our prayers. What distresses Jesus is when we don’t need him at all. Or at least we think we don’t. When we don’t rely on him. When we go elsewhere to get our needs met.

Imagine the scene of Luke 6: Jesus standing amongst the crowd on a level place, not a mountain as in the Gospel of Matthew. People everywhere are trying to touch him because they knew that he can help them. And he does help them. It says, “All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” He healed everyone who came!

And so Jesus looks around at the scene, and he notices who is among the people following him and who is not there. The only ones who have come to find him are the ones who need something that they can’t find anywhere else. So he says, Blessed are you who are poor because you came to me, and I can help you enter into the kingdom of God. He says, Blessed are you who are hungry now because you came to me, and I can help you. I can fill you up so that you will never be hungry again for I am the bread of life. Blessed are you who weep now because you came to me, and I will make you laugh. When you follow my path and my way, you will receive the promise of abundant and eternal life here and now. Here we have Jesus crying out in a prophetic voice telling all who will listen that God is on the side of the poor, the needy, the sorrow-filled and the rejected. God will come to their rescue.

But you see, those unfortunate people who are already rich, already filled, already laughing, already respected, they didn’t come to see Jesus because they didn’t need him. They were self-reliant. They were going off on their own path, and if they were thinking anything spiritual at all, it certainly wasn’t that they needed a Savior.

And so Jesus warns those people and so does the Prophet Jeremiah, who says, “Thus says the Lord, Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17: 5).

I have a friend named Leigh, and she is one of those people whose house is always clean, whose car is always washed, whose nails are always polished, and who finishes in the top 5% of her company in sales every quarter. In addition to that, she works out five times a week, seems to have a great relationship with her husband, and spends time with her son every day. I get exhausted just being around Leigh. I don’t know how she does it. And when I talk to her, she always says she’s doing good and is happy. No real problems to speak of.

But every once in awhile, Leigh’s veneer gets a crack in it, and underneath, closer to her heart, I see a lonely and scared person who doesn’t really trust other people to be there for her. That’s why she has to work so hard. She feels like its all up to her. Her life looks pretty perfect from the outside, but inside, she feels a ton of pressure to make her life what it is, and she’s tired. It is in these times, when the crack in her façade gives me a glimpse of the real person underneath that I feel closest to Leigh. And it’s at these times when she and I are able to have meaningful conversations about faith and friendship and love.

We are not meant to rely solely on our own strength and our own efforts to make it in this world. We are meant to rely on God and on one another. We are fragile beings and this life can be incredibley demanding. If we only rely on our own strength, we will end up feeling scared and overwhelmed. But when we rely on God’s Spirit to work in us and through us, we tap into a power that is much greater than any one of us, and God’s Spirit empowers us to live boldly and to accomplish great things. We also need to rely on one another. We need each other’s encouragement. We need someone to stand beside us or shovel with us when the load is too great.

St. Augustine said, “You must be empty of that which fills you that you may be filled with that of which you are empty.” And what that means in this circumstance is that we have to get rid of the idea that its only up to us; we have to let go of our prideful attempts to control our lives when things don’t seem to be working out; we have to stop going against the grain when all we’re accomplishing is getting splinters.

Let’s take a moment and all breathe out that which fills us. Take a deep breath and exhale. Give up control. Give up expectations and agendas. Let go. And then, inhale. Let the Spirit of Life fill you with whatever the Spirit of Life wants to fill you with. Inhale hope. Inhale help. Inhale the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. We have to risk being emptied of all that we have been relying on so that God can fill us with all that we really need.

Let us not turn away from the Lord for those who turn away dry up. “They shall be like a shrub in the desert.” Without God’s help, we don’t have what we need to sustain us.

But, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots to the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green. In the year of draught it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Those who trust in the Lord are not anxious or afraid. They know that whatever needs to happen will happen if only they remain faithful and they come to Jesus in their time of need.

I’d like to invite you now to pray with me: “God, we are in need, and we are coming to you for help. Fill our souls. Make your Spirit our power that we might thrive like a tree planted by water. Amen."

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