Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA
Here we are again, at these often heard but challenging words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.
People always say, you know, that those violent passages in the Bible are tough, or that the strange genealogies and obscure histories from the Old Testament are hard to understand… But I don’t know if anything is tougher, or any piece of scripture more offensive to us than this one. Nothing will make these words of Jesus easy.
There, on a stretch of level ground, with a great crowd of both foreigners and locals, all kinds of needy human beings all around him, Jesus says: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated. Wow.
Sometimes preachers, in my uncomfortable position, will start by saying something about that word: “Blessed.” It shows up in Jeremiah today, and in our Psalm too, there translated as “Happy.” So “Happy are the poor” is another possible way to render it. Lucky are they, would be another way to say it. Even fortunate are those…
The important thing about this word, especially if we think of it as lucky is that no one calls someone lucky when they’ve earned something. Someone goes to work, earns some money, goes to the store, buys some food. Would you say lucky or fortunate are they? Probably not.
Take my father as a longer example: he took a job working as a probation officer right out of college, a job he didn’t exactly love. Crawled his way up the ladder, made a management level position. But he did it all knowing full well that a pretty decent pension was coming his way. Some now would say, ah, what a lucky retirement he has. But he saw an opportunity, he was prudent. He sacrificed his creative dreams and passions for his kids, and for a good retirement package for himself and my mother.
Of people like my Dad in this story, we don’t say they are blessed. We instead say they worked hard, right? This is important. And I invite you to keep this in mind about this word, “blessed.” It implies that those who are happy, blessed, or fortunate are not responsible for their blessings. They didn’t make them, they didn’t earn them. You could say they were showered with their blessings, like rain.
So, it’s no coincidence that we hear about trees today. Trees do not choose themselves where they are planted. In the wild it is the wind or animals that take the seeds of trees to their earthy destinations or gardeners and landscapers who plant them in the suburbs.
Once trees are rooted they do not get up and walk away. So, lucky are those trees that are planted in climates that suit them, with enough water around to give them life!
Just so, that’s why Jeremiah writes this: “Lucky” are they who trust in God. They are like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. That tree will not fear when heat comes, and its leaves stay green; in a drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
In the same way, the Psalmist writes this: “Fortunate” are they who meditate on the ways of God. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
Now Jesus knows about these pieces of Scripture. They are in the mind of Luke the Gospel writer too. Jesus is saying a very similar thing. But as Jesus in Luke will do, he makes things very intense. And very much so about money, and matters of this world.
Jesus says woe to the rich, the full, the laughing and the well-spoken of.
Why? Why say something so counterintuitive, so backward? He does this because these people are like trees who think they can make their own water. This is exactly like what Jeremiah writes: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.”
Riches and full-bellies and laughter and the acclaim of the world—these things all fade. They are fickle and fleeting. Cursed are the trees who think they can make it rain. Cursed are they who rely on themselves only.
So, you can see then, maybe, why Jesus says blessed are the poor, the hungry, the hated. For they know, in their hearts and their bodies, Jesus tells us that they know that it is only God who can truly sustain life. Both Jeremiah and the Psalmist imagine God as a never-ending stream of water. A Spring of life giving water that makes our leaves green and strong. And helps us produce fruit.
Now, don’t get too stuck in these metaphors. We’re a congregation of people, not a forest of trees. And we need more than water and sunshine to live. I can get up and move around. I can go seek out what I need to live, just like my Dad did.
But, no, Jesus disagrees. The poor and the hungry and the hated—they know something I do not know. Jesus says they are fortunate. They are blessed. Because they will be filled. They will laugh. They will be in the same boat as the good prophets of old. And when they are restored, they will have no illusions about from whom their Springs of Life are flowing.
You know what, actually, I take it back—after all, we are trees. But we’re not a lot of little trees. Instead, we are branches of a great big tree. A great big tree, which is a great big Church, something we often call the Body of Christ. The roots of this tree go down as deep as eternity. They dig down to the life giving waters of God. It is the Water of Baptism that forever flows up into our branches and into our leaves and our lives.
Many of us came to that baptism water as fragile and helpless little children. Others have come to it later in life, but—as Jesus is trying to show in his blessings and woes today—either way we all come to God fragile and helpless and in need.
It is God who is the creator of our world, the author of reality and our very being. And in the water of baptism, God’s great care for us is opened up, our place in the Great Tree of Life is revealed.
If the day comes when you yourself are poor, or hated, or weeping Jesus says to you have hope, because the place we have among the fruitful boughs of God’s tree, we are there eternally. Nothing breaks those branches. That is our trust. That is what we hope for when we speak of the resurrection of Christ, as St. Paul puts it today.
We are not made part of this Tree when we die, but as soon as we are born we are already, forever a part of it. And our roots will always be watered with the streams of God’s promises, God’s mercy, and God’s presence. Jesus, today, in this very famous passage from the Gospel of Luke, guides us to never allow either the successes or the stresses of life to uproot our trust.