Year C, Epiphany 6
Our Gospel reading for today is part of the Sermon on the Plain, which is similar to a more familiar passage in the Gospel of Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus is speaking to a large group of people about what it is to be blessed. He has come down the mountain to be with the crowd and share a message of both blessing and woe. Typically the readings for every Sunday are picked in such a way that there will be connections between them. Sometimes these connections are rather muddy. Sometimes, like today, they are quite clear. The Old Testament reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel all talk about what it is to be blessed. Unfortunately the concept of blessing has become quite misunderstood in popular culture. You see it all over the place on social media (facebook, twitter, Instagram). People talk about their most recent accomplishment and end with #blessed. What they should really be writing is #lucky because blessing has nothing to do with personal accomplishments, fame or fortune.
The way the Bible describes blessed is far different than the way most people use the word. Jeremiah wrote, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…” The Psalm tells us that the people who are blessed are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord. The Gospel reading takes it a few steps further from our common understanding, “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated…” Let’s start with Jeremiah…
Jeremiah is best known as the weeping prophet in that he was often predicting destruction. He faced persecution and at one point, was actually dropped in a big well and left to die. He knew what it was to suffer, to face hardship. The imagery Jeremiah used in the text for the day is of foliage. He wrote that those who trusted in mortals (themselves or others) as opposed to God were cursed. They were like shrubs in the desert. Those who were blessed were those who trusted in God. They were like a tree in the desert. At first glance, you might think, well both of these are in deserts and probably struggle in the same ways. But if you look at the text more closely, you will see that the shrub is in a parched place in an uninhabited salt land. The tree is planted by water. Its roots can reach toward that source of water.
Plants often depend on rain and dew to keep them alive. We all know that we have to water plants to keep them alive. I have tried the not watering route and that really doesn’t work. Even desert plants require some kind of water. However, the desert tree planted by water is not as dependent on the weather. Even if the water is not right next to it, its roots can still reach toward that water for sustenance. Sometimes you might see a grouping of trees or plants in the desert with no visible water. That usually means there is a hidden stream that these plants are drinking from.
Jeremiah pointed out that these desert trees still encountered scorching heat and drought, but they had this alternate source of water keeping them alive. It was their deep roots reaching out to the water that nourished them and kept them safe. So it is with people. We all face adverse situations in life. Bad things happen to all of us. Some of those bad things are avoidable, but much is not. Jeremiah never said that blessed people didn’t face hardships. Of course they do. The difference, is that those who are blessed, those who trust in the Lord do not let those bad things determine whether or not they are blessed. The blessing is not exterior—it is deep within the soul.
Often times, when things are going well for me, I get this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that things might turn bad at any minute. I get so anxious about the bad thing that might happen, that I have a hard time enjoying the good things that are happening. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then I get so anxious, I get almost greedy with my good fortune and I cling to it for fear of losing it. Yet what I have learned is that as long as I depend on good things happening to feel blessed, well I am always going to be in that state of anxious grasping for good things. I know I am not alone in this.
Yet, what if…what if we could find contentment not in what is happening to us or around us, but in the source of all peace and joy…God. That doesn’t mean you will never be sad or discouraged, but it does mean that deep within you will reside this inner peace. We have all known that person who seems to carry that serenity and joy. We think…how did they get like that? What is their secret? It’s not a secret. These people have found their source of life. They have tapped into that inner stream so that the drought will not parch them. Those are the people who know what it is to be blessed.
Blessing is not about prestige, money, success or even health. To be blessed is to be in relationship with God. We are all blessed. God wants to have that relationship with all of us. In case I have not convinced you about what blessing really means, let’s consider out Gospel reading. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those hated…Why would Jesus say those people are blessed if blessing is supposed to be a gift of fortune or happiness? Yet Jesus called them blessed because despite their hardships, they were still loved by God. In God’s eyes, they were equal to all the people around them who acted as though they were superior.
In those days (and today as well) people often associated prosperity and health with one’s goodness or sinfulness. If you were good, good things happened. The more God loved you, the better you were treated. So not only were you suffering because you were hungry or treated unfairly, you were suffering because you thought it meant that God didn’t love you.
Most likely, the crowd Jesus was talking to were full of people who were suffering. These weren’t the important people of the community. These were the desperate people. He was assuring them that they were blessed because God loved them. And no human wielding any worldly power could take that away from them. It might have been the first time they had ever heard that. It’s not that hard to imagine. I think we all have those moments when we feel as though we could not possibly deserve God’s love. Imagine being in that moment and being told by God in the flesh, that God does love you and that no matter what happens here on earth, one day you will rejoice.
I learned an interesting thing about trees while preparing this sermon. Most of us learned in school that trees pull in water from their roots and then some of that water is released from the leaves the next day. In the 1990’s, scientists discovered that not only did trees release the water through the leaves, but through their shallow roots, which then watered the ground around them, providing nourishment to the plants around the tree.
The next time something gets you down—I want you to imagine for a moment a stream dwelling within your soul, a stream that never goes dry. In that stream, God’s love flows. It courses through you. Then act like that tree and release some of that light and love to the people around you. The best way to understand what it is to be blessed, is to be a blessing for others, to be that stream that carries God’s love to the people who need it that most.