Blessings & Curses

2022 Black History Month Sermon Series Lifting Up the Lives of Black Presbyterians
Preached February 13, 2022
United Presbyterian Church, Peoria, IL

Scripture: Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26
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For our Time With Young Disciples we introduced Katherine Johnson to the congregation by reading the children’s book One Step Further: My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission by Katherine G. Johnson, Joylette Hylick, Katherine G. Moore and Charnelle Pinkney Barlow (Illustrator)

(NOTE: This was the first Sunday back in the sanctuary after the 2nd pandemic shutdown that began on December 26, 2021)

Today we celebrate the life and work of Ruling Elder Katherine Johnson – a woman, as the story said, who basically rewrote the rules (or ignored them) both in her workplace AND in her church where she served as a member of the Finance Committee and as Treasurer at a time when women were not welcomed into those roles.  We give thanks for her example among us.

I sometimes wish that when I read scripture, I’d find a real clear “how to” manual – a checklist – a timeline – that would explain EXACTLY to me what I need to do and HOW I need to do it. I want Jesus, the Prophets, Mary, anybody to tell me how to bring an end to the woe I see in the world. Well, I think we may have heard it today. I believe in this brief passage :we heard a pretty good description of the how and with whom God expects us to show up.

If you felt a little conflicted, you’re in good company! What are we to think about the “woes” that come to the ones who are pretty well satisfied – the ones who find it relatively easy to laugh and enjoy life – the ones who receive promotions and praise. Jesus could be talking about us! What are we to think when we hear Jesus talk about all those blessings when at the same time, it seems like he means that they are meant for others?

Why don’t we start by thinking about the context of this text. This is inside baseball. In fact, this is Jesus’ version of spring training. He is speaking directly to the people who are at the beginning of their discipleship journey – just starting to learn what it means to follow him. Jesus wants to make sure that the people who have decided to give everything up to throw down with him understand what this discipleship project is all about.

The other thing we need to think about is the vocabulary Jesus uses. The word “Blessed” (in Greek: makarios) isn’t a word that describes a general state of happiness or bliss for all people in all places at all times. Jesus chose a strong theological term that makes a clear connection between those who would follow him and the righteousness of God. For Jesus, “Blessed are you” means “You are blessed because your situation is God’s priority.”

As one biblical scholar put it, Jesus is not presenting some theoretical definition of discipleship or sainthood. He is not listing the qualifications to “get into heaven.” He is describing for all who would follow what it means to become faithful and effective representatives of God’s reign here and now. For those who had given up home, employment, and family to follow him, these were the words of encouragement they needed to sustain them on a long and difficult journey where they were asked again and again to give themselves away for the sake of others. They would carry these powerful words to lift up the hearts of those who found themselves struggling to find a way to live under the oppression of empire poverty, as people rejected by those who worked to maintain the status quo.

It’s also important to understand that the woes aren’t meant as curses. Here Jesus is simply following after the tradition of the prophets – Amos, for example, who declared: “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion! Alas those who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils but are not grieved over the ruin of their people. They shall be the first to go into exile.” These woes are meant to be heard in the same way that the prophets of Israel had always spoken. God wasn’t cursing them – God was trying to call attention to where the people needed to change. These are words of judgment, specifically spoken for God’s people, or in Jesus’ case – for those who had already decided to follow him – not for some other people.

The disciples’ choice to take up Jesus’ work, including the sacrifices they had made already places them in direct solidarity with the people Jesus called them to serve. And the blessings Jesus described are what Jeremiah means when he said… listening to the Lord, following the laws of God makes us like trees planted by the water…

To be ultra clear: the essence of the call Jesus places on the lives of those who follow him is not about suffering for the sake of suffering… that’s has never been what god expects. AND, followers of Jesus have to come to terms with the very real truth that sacrifice and suffering often come with discipleship. We’re often asked to go where we don’t want to go… do what we’d rather not do…And the challenge for the disciples of Jesus then AND now is to see what the prophets had been trying to proclaim from the beginning: that our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us are inextricably linked.

Being followers of Jesus requires a radical shift in our point of view about the people around us. Jesus is clear in his words and in his actions that there is no salvation for anyone, no shalom, no peace – apart from the salvation, shalom, peace of the least among us. If the poor are in trouble, we are all in trouble. If there are sick who need healing, none of us is fully healed. If there is pain and suffering, then we all feel the pain. This is what Dr. King meant when he preached:

“We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.  We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

The kind of kingdom of heaven that Jesus describes the kind of network of mutuality that Dr. King taught and preached – it is more than a king-dom. he is talking about KIN-dom way that calls us to a new understanding – a new way of living that truly embraces the reality of our connectedness to one another.

If we take nothing else away from Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, blessings aren’t our rewards for any particular behavior – if you are poor or if you become poor, you don’t win some grand heavenly board game. Similarly, Jesus isn’t threatening that if we don’t toe the line, our lives will be full of woe. He is simply saying that IF we have more than we need now – if we are well-fed, well-resourced, laughing, and enjoying the benefits of a good reputation – we have our blessing and shouldn’t expect more. He doesn’t promise the end of all pain for all time – he simply says – if you have resources to deal with your pain, then give thanks – you are already blessed.

Likewise The woes aren’t pointing to punishments, but rather speak to the deep sense of discomfort we might feel when we turn our focus away from ourselves and toward those who need resources we already have, those who struggle in places where we can easily go, those who lack the basic necessities for life when we have an abundance in our homes. The woes describe what it might feel like when we begin that hard and essential work to ensure that God’s KIN-dom comes more strongly into being.

We have so many opportunities right outside these doors. If we are to take seriously what Jesus taught his disciples, then we will have to acknowledge that God’s KIN-dom requires us to live, to work, to plan, to teach, to move in the world as though the lives of other people are more important to us than our own.

What would it take for us to come alongside these neighbors, to understand them as part of the faith church family, to affirm that the cold and damp that causes unbearable arthritic pain for a Vietnam war veteran who sleeps under the bridge impacts all of us, too? What would it take for us to begin to deeply engage with children at Northmoor who receive our backpacks, our snack packs, our mittens and gloves, but who go home without assurance that they will have dinner or breakfast the next day? We won’t be able to solve homelessness. We can’t fix systemic poverty on our own, But we can do our part right here, What sacrifices are we willing to make to bring an end to suffering that is happening just down the road?

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