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February 17, 2019

“Blessing or Burden”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Jeremiah 17.5-10

Luke 6.17-26

February 17, 2019

The show The Good Place has had my attention recently. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t offer any spoilers, but I will say that it is a compact, 25-minute comedy show that portrays people in the afterlife. This show is not Christian – so the “Good Place” they refer to might be heaven, or just some other place that “good” people go. We all have our own perspectives of the afterlife – maybe golden streets, or angels, or harps, or one giant party. In The Good Place frozen yogurt is abundant.

The second season begins with one of the supporting characters, Tahani, receiving a new home. Tahani is one of the residents of the Good Place. Like everyone who dwells in the Good Place, she is matched with her “soul mate” and given her dream house. You would think that someone living in the Good Place and meeting the love of their life and finally inhabiting their dream home would be happy, but Tahani is far from it. Part of the show focuses on Tahani’s height, and everyone’s intimidation of how tall she is, as well as her own discomfort with being so tall. So, when her soul mate is significantly shorter than she is and her house is so small she has to crouch when she stands up, you can imagine her frustration with the Good Place. Tahani is living (or, after-living, as the case may be) in discomfort. This Good Place was not what she envisioned.

This story raises two questions that we can bring into our conversation about our scripture passages: what do we expect from “the Good Place” or after-life, or heaven, or whatever we would like to call it? Also, are we meant to be comfortable? The scripture passages we read today include some unexpected outcomes and discomfort regarding God’s people. Last week the Gospel reading and the Isaiah passage reminded us that our work is often in the unknown. God calls us to difficult tasks, and we know where we have been, where we are, but we do not know the outcome. The “yet” is what helps us bridge that gap between uncertainty and trusting in God’s future. The disciples and the Israelites knew that their calling would be difficult, yet they also knew God was with them.

The Gospel reading today brings us to that place of yet – the current and the future.[1] Jesus talks about the realm of God – which is both here and now, and in the future. God’s realm is not complete. So, Jesus tells us that those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated now will be blessed. Those who are rich, laughing, and speak well, will be in big trouble.

The Beatitudes, as they are commonly known, is also found in Matthew. It is often called the “Sermon on the Mount” but here in Luke it is sometimes referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain.” This is because often the thought is that Jesus stood on this hill or mountain to preach to the masses. Yet, as I learned when I visited the Church of the Beatitudes in Israel, Jesus most likely did not preach on a mount. By the church, where it is thought that Jesus probably preached, is a small hill with a spot where it levels off a bit. Many people believe he preached in this little flat area, with the hill being used for acoustics. This would make sense in this passage where he “spoke at their level.” Yet, it is also a metaphor that Jesus was speaking in a manner that everyone could understand.[2] One of the millions of great things about Jesus is that he was able to relate to and speak with people in a way that they could comprehend. Sometimes he was a bit over their heads, especially with the parables, but he wanted to express his message, and used the best medium he could at the time.

The crowd could hear him, but maybe they didn’t want to. Jesus is giving a difficult lesson. Those who are reviled, those who are marginalized, those who are deemed as less in the world will be blessed. Those who are comfortable, those who are “successful” in the eyes of the world, will be cursed. Jesus turns the expectations of the world upside down. Those who live comfortably with privilege will not be blessed. We might be uncomfortable because we may find ourselves somewhere in the list of woes. Peter Marty wrote, in a recent editorial about privilege: “Blessing does not constitute privileged status; it confers responsibility.”[3] Sometimes our culture equates privilege with blessings from God. Yet, privilege means that we have a responsibility to be aware of that privilege and share with others. The author of the Gospel of Luke was known for showing preference to the poor and the hungry and the marginalized. Yet, what does this mean for people who are not? What does this do to our view of God’s realm. Like Tahani, our “Good Place” may not look like this – we may have other expectations, and Jesus blows it out of the water.

Blessings do not always look like we imagine. Vicar Samuel Wells from London tells a story about a man he knew that dealt with depression and anxiety, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder. This man felt plagued by his need to pay close attention to details others told him to ignore. For example, Wells explains that this man was nervous about a garage he passed daily on his way to work. He was convinced something illegal was going on and would spiral into anxiety, often calling his family members with concerns. He saw his mental health status deteriorating. Yet, he was extremely diligent at work. That same attention to detail that could send him into a spiral, also made him someone that was applauded by his colleagues. In a feedback review his peers talked about how important it was that he could be so diligent. As Wells writes: “For the first time that he could remember, somebody – in fact, almost everybody consulted – saw him as a blessing and not a burden.”[4] The man had to seek how to handle his anxiety in the world, but his compulsive attention to detail was maneuvered well in work. A woe in one scenario was a blessing in another.

The Jeremiah passage also contains some blessings and woes, boiling it down to relying on God. The people of Jeremiah’s time had been exiled. The prophet was speaking to the people – a people who were living in the between times, not at home, not yet sure what happened next. As George H. Martin points out, there are a variety of ways God’s people can live in exile, including being exiled from job opportunities, from family, from home, from wellness.[5] We can experience exile even today in a variety of ways. The concept of being exiled from a homeland may be unfamiliar to most of us, but the human emotion of uncertainty or hopelessness is certainly not lost on many.

The prophet gives a metaphor of two trees – one that is thriving, and one that is dying. The one experiencing woe is dry and isolated in the desert. The tree that is blessed is thriving by water. I find it interesting that the metaphor of the tree is used, even as scientists continue to learn more and more about trees. A recent book by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Life of Trees describes how trees are complicated creatures. Trees can communicate via their root systems, exchanging information about food and sunlight and soil and water. They adapt to help one another thrive. Trees live in community.[6] What a metaphor for faith life. We are rooted together, reaching up to God. When we live in isolation from others and God, we are withering in the desert. When we are surrounded by God and community, we can thrive.

God does comfort, but also causes discomfort. Sometimes we find ourselves in exile. Sometimes the Good Place is not what we expect. We want to be blessed, but to find God’s favor, but we have to trust in God. We have to put aside that which separates us from God and from one another and focus on the One who created us. We have to live into the discomfort, relying on God. May we find comfort in the discomfort, and may we expect the unexpected in God’s realm. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gay L. Byron, “Luke 6.17-26” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 361.

[2] Peter Eaton, “Luke 6.17-26” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 359.

[3] Peter W. Marty, “Privileged Illusion” in The Christian Century, February 13, 2019, Vol. 136, No. 4, p. 3

[4] Samuel Wells, “When Nothing is Wasted,” The Christian Century, January 20, 2019, Vol. 136, No. 3, p. 29.

[5] George H. Martin, “Jeremiah 17.5-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 340.

[6] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, (Greystone Books, 2016).