a sermon on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]
Psalm 1 and Luke 6:17-26
The Smith Spring Trail in the Guadalupe Mountains of western Texas takes you on a short stretch through the Chihuahuan Desert, a vast and desolate dry area that can only grow the spiniest and prickliest plants. Because there are no trees there, no signs of human civilization—you can see for miles and miles over the rocky and barren terrain. It is all cactus and thorn for as far as the eye can see. All in all it is a 3-mile loop through desert except for one brief portion where you suddenly turn out of the wide and unforgiving landscape into a lush, almost tropical forest. That is the site of the Smith Spring, a small valley at the base of one mountain where, inexplicably, a stream of water breaks from beneath the rock and trickles down to form a small pool before cascading down the slope into a creekbed. It is a constant source of water, flowing year round.
You cannot believe how clear the water is—you feel as if you could reach down and scoop up some up with your dusty hand to slake your thirst. The vegetation noticeably changes. There are now large trees with big, drooping leaves. A ring of lacy, light-green ferns rims the edge of the pool. You look up and notice you are standing in total shade. Just a few dozen yards away, however, the desert stretches out before you.
Before my family happened upon Smith Spring this summer I had never encountered an oasis, or how just a small bit of water could make such a difference in life. It is a scene that illustrates perfectly what the composer of Psalm 1 is trying to describe. He imagines two natural landscapes like the desert and the oasis and explains their differences in stark terms: those whose delight is in the law of the Lord, who meditate on God’s teaching day and night are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season. They are like the velvet ferns and mosses that ring the pool of Smith Spring, which find their sustenance in the water’s nearness. But it is not so with the wicked. They are like the dry and broken limbs of the desert, like chaff that easily blows away in the wind.
Here we are asked to view a clear contrast between the righteous and the wicked, and it all comes down to how closely they are growing to the law of the Lord. Those who are connected to the things God desires and the things God loves thrive and prosper. Those who do not, those who plant themselves elsewhere, who root their live within themselves alone, will not be able to stand upright. One is blessed, the other is not. Our translation uses the word “happy” instead of blessed, but the original Hebrew conveys more of a sense of fortune than it does an emotion. Fortune, blessing, is to those who don’t consult the wicked, who don’t look to sinners for advice. But who anchor their roots in the life-giving ways of God.
It’s the first psalm of the Bible, the one that sets the tone for all the rest and teaches us right up front that God’s Word is a trusted and life-giving foundation. It’s helpful to know right up front what makes for a blessed life and what doesn’t. Sitting in my son’s kindergarten classroom for a conference this week with all the educational decorations on the wall, the rules and consequences, expectations for behavior, I could see it was clear that contrasting right from wrong is was something to teach in the very beginning.
All too often, however, we end up framing blessing and fortune in other ways. We end up thinking that blessings has to do with doing well financially. We label blessed those who are prosperous and socially successful, who have fame and power, and those who are poor or in unfortunate circumstances have been cast aside. We lift up the affluent and powerful as examples to follow because of the affluence and power we desire. We praise them for their hard work and their brilliance. And the poor—well, we often to think that somehow, somewhere, they are responsible for their ill fortune. Blessing has been bestowed on the billionaires. Damnation on the destitute.
In the church this has come to be known as the prosperity gospel, a harmful belief that financial blessings and even good health will come upon those who do God’s will and work and pray hard enough at it. The prosperity gospel gets me to focus more on what I could reach for, what I could attain, rather than where my roots are planted. This was a common way of thinking even in the ancient world. Those who were poor or in some kind of misfortune were assumed to have fallen out of favor with God.
Into this kind of world comes Jesus, the Son of God who announces the arrival of God’s kingdom. He has already said he comes to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He has assembled a rag tag group of followers from all walks of common life. And now, amidst a huge multitude of people Jesus comes and stands on a level place to begin healing them and teaching them. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus does something similar, but there he’s on a mountain. Luke remembers this sermon happening on a flat area, as if the landscape itself is accentuating how he is one with them, and how they are all really equal to each other.
And in the midst of this huge crowd filled with all kinds of lost and hurting people Jesus says the most peculiar thing. He says “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…Blessed are you who weep now…Blessed are you when people hate you.”
It’s the total opposite from what almost everyone would expect. All of the things that people likely thought were curses, Jesus suddenly calls blessings. All of the things we still think are curses—things we try at all costs to avoid, parts of our lives we don’t want anyone to see, people we try to redline out of nice neighborhoods and push to the other side of the tracks—Jesus calls blessings. And when he continues, it gets a little more personal, “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now…Woe to you who are laughing now…Woe to you when all speak well of you.”
I read an article recently about how many preachers are exhausted these days because of the extremely divided nature of our country. I wouldn’t really put myself in that category, but I do know because of the highly charged political environment these days, preachers and religious leaders have to very carefully craft their message so as not to rile up one side or the other. It seems every little message or remark can get interpreted by one side or the other as an offensive stance. One of my colleagues here in Richmond describes preaching these days as walking a tightrope, carefully measuring every little word and phrase for neutrality.
Here Jesus walks no tightrope, he measures no words, he makes no room for neutrality. He is explicit and bold and in doing so his words completely reorient our understanding of who is blessed, who is fortunate, and who is not. And it flies in the face of the prosperity gospel and our own adoring perspectives on the rich of the world who offer joy rides into space and host world leaders in their private mansions. I look at Jesus’ list and find myself offended because I fall in the list of “woes.” Relatively speaking, I am very rich, and I love it when people speak well of me. I take note of how many people watch us each week on-line and all the likes on my social media posts—especially if I have a good Wordle score. You betta recognize!
During my seminary internship in Cairo, Egypt, I worked closely with many refugees from southern Sudan, Darfur, and the Horn of Africa. These were people whose lives had been utterly disrupted by violent armies who had slaughtered their loved ones and burned their villages. They came to Egypt as the only means of escape hoping they might find a safe life elsewhere, knowing they could never return. They had very little in terms of physical property. Most were mourning and also in need of physical and mental health care. I’m always a bit nervous when I speak of those who are labelled poor because everyone deserves more than being known and seen for what they have or don’t have. It is easy to romanticize poverty, too, but I learned that year that being poor is no one’s dream. It is heartbreaking not to be able to provide food for your children. Even as we celebrate the fact our congregation raised $4000 last Christmas to help Afghan refugees resettle in the Richmond area, we know it can be demeaning to exist by relying on handouts. Those who work closely with Moments of Hope, a charity our congregation will support this month through the making of 500 sack lunches, could tell you better than I can that the causes of poverty are complex. There is no part of Jesus’ words here that is lifting up poverty as a happy state or something to be desired. Jesus does not want anyone to be a refugee or hungry or grieving.
And yet we do learn from our refugee friends, from those we reach out to in need, how fortunate they are in one key way, just as I have learned how fortunate the widow is mourning her husband’s death, and how fortunate the high school kid who is excluded and made fun of because of their faith or church attendance. That is, the poor have few places to put their roots but in the promises of God. Those who mourn, who’ve been racked by grief or disaster, have nowhere to turn but to the consolation from heaven because their heart is aching and empty and nothing on earth seems to help. The person who is left out of prosperity because of their skin color, for example, knows a lot more than I do how to depend on God. Ask Daniela Jacobs, Principal of Fox Elementary School, and her community of children and teachers if they believe they alone can rebuild their school and their careers.
Blessed are they! Fortunate are they! They are more apt than most others to be like trees planted by streams of water because that’s where the sustenance is reliable. And the rich and popular and powerful and ones who have it made—who are often the white, the male, the well-educated—we just so happen to be just in the right place rarely to have to depend on anyone outside of ourselves. When power is on your side and you have general control over your circumstances, why would you ever seek help outside of yourself? Woe to us! We learn too late the truth of the old Chinese Christian proverb: the only thing the human soul cannot endure is extreme prosperity.
And yet this Jesus. This very Jesus with his stern warnings for you and for me still wants people on level place, it seems, the rich and the poor, the mourning and the rejoicing. This Son of God comes to walk alongside the wicked and sit with the sinner. And so he does go to a mountain one day with his message in a giant transplanting effort so that all may be deeply rooted again and again in the mercy of God. It’s a lonely, forsaken mountain where nothing but a rugged cross sticks out of the ground. And thorns. Those too. The prickliest kind. And right there as he dies he shows us all what it truly means to throw all your trust in with God’s Word, to be nourished in things like forgiveness, mercy, hope, and love. He goes where we could never grow to show God claims it all and God conquers all.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be blessed. I want to be planted by streams of water where my roots can grow and thrive. He does that again today, my friends. To all of us. In his body and blood he gathers us all again to a level place. He gathers us all—rich and poor—to a level place with the hopes we will go from here, some of us humbled, some of us lifted up, to make the world more loving and more level.
Thanks be to God.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.