What does it mean to be blessed? In Hebrew, the language of Jesus’ faith tradition, one of the words for blessing is “Barackah,” meaning to receive God’s favor, inheritance, joy, and fulfillment. In the biblical world, blessing is a relational term, grounded in the care a parent has for a child, an elder has for a younger person, a more powerful person has for a less powerful person, a ruler for a subject. Blessing is a grace given, whether or not we have yet earned it.
In the course of our lifetimes, everyone needs a blessing, the unconditional care of a parent, mentor, spiritual friend, or companion. We need to know that we are loved and that someone is willing to sacrifice for our well-being. To live without a blessing is to have a spiritual void that we often try to fill through power, money, control, or addictive behavior.
In today’s scripture, Jesus has been on the mountaintop, praying, seeking to discern his vocation and choose those who will be his closest followers. As he returns to sea level, Jesus shares the heart of his message with his disciples and a gathered crowd.
This Sermon on the Plain, similar in tone to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount sets out Jesus’ spiritual and ethical vision for his followers and for us.
The spiritual journey begins with blessing, and what a list of blessings Jesus gives us. If these are blessings, we would choose – at first glance – to be cursed!
Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the disliked, and defamed. None of us would choose these blessings. But perhaps there is something deeper at work here.
Commentators wrestle with these Beatitudes – are they purely spiritual states or are they also economic and relational states? Matthew adds to Luke’s blessings, “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” but Luke simply says blessed are the “poor” and “hungry.”
There is a holy restlessness in either case – whether we speak of economics and social standing or spirituality. To be poor or poor in spirit is to know that you need the graces of others; you can’t do it alone; you need the kindness of strangers and the grace of God. To be hungry is to crave the next meal as if your life depended on it and go as far as begging to ensure that your child is fed. To be hungry for righteousness is to recognize the distance between where we are and where God wants us to be. Ironically, it is the saints and not the felons who confess the distance between God’s ideals and their moral and spiritual condition. Saints make no excuses; they know that they are standin’ in the need of prayer and that their goodness depends not on their efforts but on the sustaining, empowering, and protecting grace of God.
These words of Jesus are about relationship and downward mobility, the willingness to sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest and personal gain; and the recognition that no one can go it alone.
The self-made person is the person most pitied in the Bible. The Bible reminds us that even though we are creative, inventive, and have achieved great things, we can never say “I did this by myself.” We are here because somebody loved us; we have faith because of a loving parent, church school teacher, faithful friend, or pastor, who showed us what it means to follow Jesus. Most of us succeeded because somebody saw something in us and then showed us that we could be someone greater than we could have imagined. For me, it was two pastors when I was in college, who welcomed a long-haired kid back to church, saw a theologian and pastor in me and gave me chances to teach and preach.
Jesus is also inviting us to downward mobility. Woe unto the rich and carefree – they’ve gained the world but lost their souls, so Jesus says. Isn’t it interesting that some of the most generous people are the poorest economically, some are even homeless? The poor widow drops her only coins in the offering basket, the hungry family shares with its neighbors, the unemployed worker stops to help you when your car breaks down and asks nothing in return.
In Jesus’ world, everyone has enough, because everyone knows that relationship is everything, and that as you do unto your neighbor you are serving God.
For us, downward mobility is a challenge. We take Tommy Lee Jones seriously when he asks, “will you outlive your money?” I am nervous when I see the roller coaster stock market of the past several months and its impact on my pensions. Yet, I am privileged because I have pensions to worry about and savings accounts, while many Americans struggle financially and go without medical care because of limited incomes. My wealth stands next to the hunger pangs of a Sudanese or Yemenese child and insecurity of the 70,000,000 refugees, and having a guilty conscience is a good thing when others are dying of starvation.
Downward mobility is the challenge. Initially, Jesus calls us to live more simply, to be good stewards of our resources and give generously to help persons in need. More than that Jesus reminds us that we need one another: we need to vow that no one in this church will go without a medical prescription, a meal, a ride to doctor’s appointment, or a warm home. And, we need – if we are to follow Jesus – to let that circle include strangers, foreigners, and persons without homes and sufficient nutrition.
We can’t make it alone, we need others; and we may be the answer to someone’s prayer, whether a child at Angel’s Place or a person experiencing homelessness in Hyannis. These are Jesus’ face, Jesus’ heart, and Jesus’ presence. Surely as you have done to one of these, you have served our Savior.