Blessings and Woes

As promised on Monday, today I feel compelled to write something coherent about Luke’s version of the beatitudes from Matthew.  As one compares the two sets of teachings, two things come immediately into focus.  First, as I noted on Monday, Luke is much more focused on the nitty gritty, real life stuff.  Second, while Matthew is focused solely on the the “Blessed are you…”s, Luke deals with both the blessing and its opposite woe.

Blessed are you who are poor | Woe to you who are rich
Blessed are you who are hungry | Woe to you who are full
Blessed are you who weep | Woe to you who are laughing
Blessed are you when people hate you | Woe to you when all speak well of you

This parallel structure indicates that Jesus was a really good rhetorical preacher, but it also helps to highlight what Jesus is doing in this scene.  The disciples, to whom Jesus is explicitly speaking, as well as the crowd, which we have to assume is still lingering in the background, would hear these words for Jesus and immediately have their minds taken to the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy.  On the heels of some pretty pointed teaching about the sabbath in Luke 6:1ff, Jesus seems to be reordering the Law by highlighting its root intention.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses sets down a list of blessings for those who “fully obey the LORD and follow all the commandments of God.”  Similarly, Moses lays out a list of curses that will fall upon all those who “do not obey the LORD and carefully follow God’s commandments.”  Over time, these blessings and curses had come to be associated with the letter of the law – be eat working on the sabbath or the very particular way in pots must be washed – but here Jesus is harkening the crowd back to their roots.

It isn’t about the letter of the law, but rather the spirit of the law.  The letter of the law has created a world in which there are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.  The letter of the law, in its current abusive incarnation, has made a class of those who are so rich that they don’t know what to do with themselves, who are so satiated and yet still want more, who look down on those who are less fortunate than themselves and laugh with scorn.  Here, Jesus calls “Horse Hockey” on those who have interpreted the law to their own economic advantage.

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“You may be blessed now,” Jesus intimates, “but if your whole worldview is aimed at filling your barns today, that’s all you’ll ever achieve.  Instead, in the great reversal of the Kingdom, it will be those whose lives were dedicated to others, who found themselves poor and neglected, who were committed to deep relationships who will find themselves blessed.  Oh, and if you think that you can use this teaching to hold other down by some kind of promise of future redemption, you too will find yourself in amongst the woes.”

Blessedness

This might be the first year I’ve made it through the week leading up to Advent 3 without hearing someone call it “Mary Sunday.”  This seems to happen because the candle we light on the Advent wreath for Advent 3 is pink or rose colored, which people associate with girls, and since Mary was a girl, it must be her candle.  Gender stereotypes aside, in congregations in which the color of Advent is purple, this makes little sense as both purple and pink have been the favorite colors of my daughters at times (as have black and teal, and mine was once purple, not bishop “purple” but lavender, but that’s for another post).  The candle of Advent 3 is pink or rose because Advent 3 is traditionally known at Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice,” and the lesson last week, which I should have written about, but didn’t, were focused on joy.  (Are you still with me?  There have been quite a few asides in this paragraph, I’ll try to focus).  As our focus moves to the quick-to-be-overlooked Advent 4, we note that the lessons here point us to Mary’s story.

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While I hope to dive into the Magnificat later this week, today I’m drawn to Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s arrival in our Gospel lesson.  As a more Protestant leaning Episcopal priest, I’m not one to use the Roman rosary or say the Hail Mary very often.  It is, however, a part of colloquial Christianity, and so I’m sure many of you are familiar with Elizabeth’s ecstatic praise of her cousin Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  As I read those words his morning, the idea of blessedness caught my attention.  I wondered what its underlying meaning was.  I opened my still-new-to-me Bible software and went digging.

The Greek word used on both occasions in Luke 1:42 is eulegeo (Strongs #2127).  It is a compound word, combining eu, which means “to be well off” or “to prosper” and logos, which means “word” or “something said.”  Elizabeth’s pronouncement of Mary’s blessedness, then, literally means that a good or prosperous word has been spoken upon her.  Blessedness isn’t something that just happened to Mary, even in her youthful virginity, she wasn’t just magically someone special, but rather, God spoke upon her a good word.  Just as in creation God spoke reality into being, so too, in Jesus’ incarnation, God spoke grace into being by making a girl from backwater Nazareth into the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

Marian myth and legend aside, I find this image of her blessedness to be very helpful because it reminds me that all of it is under God’s control.  It isn’t only some special person who seems to never make mistakes and always loves their neighbor who is blessed, but rather, anyone upon whom God has spoken a good or prosperous word is blessed.  And, you know what?  Every Wednesday and every other Sunday, I have the opportunity, challenge, and responsibility, in the tradition of Gabriel and Elizabeth, to speak, on behalf of God, that blessedness upon my congregation.  Blessed art thou, Mary, and blessed art you, dear reader.

Holy and Blessed

You might recall that last week, we heard the LORD instruct Moses to inform the Hebrews that they “should be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”   You might also remember that I read that commandment from God in a pretty hard-line sort of way. We ought take these words from God seriously, and strive for holiness, while understanding that it is simply impossible to do it on our own.  I doubt that the guys-drinking-scotch-in-a-smoke-filled-room who settled on the Revised Common Lectionary had it in mind, but this Track Two Old Testament lesson for Proper 25, Year A prepares us nicely for the Gospel lesson on the transferred Feast of All Saints’.

This Sunday, we return to the Sermon on the Mount and lesson we heard way back in Epiphany.  Jesus, seeing that a crowd is beginning to gather around him and his message, hits the pause button and invites his closest companions to come up the mountainside for a crash course in the basics of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The lesson appointed for All Saints’ (BCP and RCL) is the opening salvo in that message of hope, grace, and love, and it is, quite simply, as mind-blowingly impossible as last week’s mountaintop conversation between God and Moses.

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This week, instead of focusing on holiness, the message of God is pointed toward blessedness.  Sometimes translated as “happy,” this ideal that Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes is a helpful one as we consider what it means to be included in the list of the saints of God.  We who are called to be holy, with God’s help, are, also by the grace of God, able to find happiness and contentment, to receive blessedness, when we find ourselves poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and hungering for righteousness.  That is, when we are most aware that the world is not as God intended it to be, we are also the most blessed, able to see the world through the eyes of God.  Equally so, when we are merciful, pure in heart, working for peace, and even suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake, we find ourselves blessed.  In our work to fulfill the baptismal covenant (All Saints’ is a proper Baptismal feast, after all), we find the purpose for which we were created.

As with holiness, blessedness is not something we can accomplish on our own, which might be the first and only real lesson we need to learn about sainthood.  It is all grace, which, come to think of it, would work quite well for those who are remembering the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg Door as well.

My Annual Plea for Thomas

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I grew up attending St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  Underneath this grand stained glass window, I cut my teeth on the Book of Common Prayer, made a joyful noise in VBS, learned what it means to pray for one another, fell in love with that one note in “O Holy Night,” and even preached a time or two.  More than anything else, however, this window has remained in my memory.  It shows the risen Lord offering the wounds in his hands to Thomas with is usual symbols of the spear by which he was martyred and the carpenter’s square indicating his profession before joining the 12.

Despite the fact that neither Jesus nor Thomas appear to have eyes in this window, it seems clear that Jesus is looking at Thomas with compassion.  Despite what our common reading of the standard Gospel lesson for Easter 2 might try to tell us, I am convinced that the encounter between Jesus and Thomas is not one of rebuke by Jesus or doubt by Thomas, but of mutual affection and joy.  See, Thomas didn’t want anything more than what the rest of the disciples had received.  He wanted to see Jesus risen from the dead.  He wanted to know that it wasn’t some sick joke.  He needed to have some proof before he could give his life back over to the one in whom he had placed so much hope.  Jesus, for his part, seems more than willing to give Thomas what he needs.

His hope for Thomas is the same hope Jesus has for all of us.  “Don’t continue to be unbelieving, but believe.”  Jesus goes on to assure the many of us who would follow after Thomas and the others, that faith need not come from seeing and touching.  Instead, those who do not have the opportunity to see Jesus face-to-face are even more blessed by their faith.  Even so, we who follow Jesus may not see him physically, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll have the chance to meet him, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.

As you prepare your sermons for Easter 2, dear readers, please don’t wag your finger at Thomas.  Refuse to call him doubting.  Instead, offer him up as the example of all those who had the opportunity to see the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.  Remind your flock that while we don’t have that chance, each of us can meet Jesus in faith and be blessed.

Blessed?

Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the peacemakers…

I have been known to occasionally get fussy about the unthinking appropriation of religious language into common parlance.  For example, the Florida Georgia Line song entitled H.O.L.Y. uses the word that God uses to set apart his saints as an acronym for “high on loving you.”  Because of this, I’ve determined that all comparisons between FGL and Nickelback are moot because FGL is so awful they make Nickelback look like a decent band.  Another word that I’ve tended to want to protect is the oft repeated one in Sunday’s Gospel lesson “blessed.”

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To me, to be blessed is to find favor with God.  So the various #Blessed memes that are out there, usually associating God’s blessing with some sort of material possession or physical ability really make my blood boil.  But then again, so does the choice by most translators to make a similar mistake with the beatitudes: conflating the meaning of blessed and happy.

Despite our years of comfort with “Blessed are the meek,” the Greek word that Matthew chose doesn’t actually mean “blessed.”  Instead, Matthew chose the common word for happy.  “Happy are the meek” seems to make even less sense than blessed are the meek, am I right?  But the more I dug into that word, the more I realized that Matthew might have been onto something.

Having dedicated my life to the service of God in the Episcopal Church, you can imagine I’m a fan of our Book of Common Prayer.  In my now nine years as a priest, I’ve been through the Book from cover to cover more than once, and by far the best thing in there is Burial Office.  It is crawling with great biblical imagery, especially the opening anthem (which could use some gender neutral tweaks, but I digress) that ends with these words from the Revelation of John, “Happy from now on are those who die int he Lord!  So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.”

As God is wont to do, this ordinary word “makarioi“in Greek, “happy” in English is transformed.  It is imbued with grace.  It is made holy, and not in the FGL sense, such that those who are called to live in meekness, as peacemakers, with purity of heart will find not just blessings, but happiness in their circumstances.  God turns this world on its ear, helping those who the world would say are outside of God’s grace and helps them to find joy in even the most difficult of circumstances.   Do you find yourself blessed by God?  If so, you better also find happiness.