All Blessings and All Woes for All Saints
A sermon on Luke 6:20-31
(an audio recording of this sermon is available here.)
I have some questions that I want you to consider. You don’t have to raise your hand, just answer honestly in your own heart:
Have you ever been in a situation of financial struggle? Maybe it looked like taking hand-me-down clothes instead of back-to-school shopping, or driving on bald tires because you couldn’t afford to replace them, or filling your gas tank with your credit card even though you knew you could only make the minimum payment when the bill came due.
If so, hear Christ’s promise: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Next question: have you ever had more than you need? Have you bought things on impulse – things you had not planned on buying, but they caught your fancy and, why not? – it won’t break the bank. Have you taken a vacation to a place you always wanted to visit without having to pinch every penny to be able to afford it? Has your monthly budget included disposable income – assets to do what you want with after bills, and savings, and charity are taken care of?
If so, hear Christ’s challenge: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
Have you ever been hungry? Have you reached the last week of the month with a sparse refrigerator and no way to fill it? Or had to visit a food pantry so that you could make dinner? Or lived with an eating disorder that twisted your mind into hungering after emptiness?
If so, hear Christ’s promise: “Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.”
Have you ever been full? Have you every said “no” to that second slice of pie because you can’t eat another mouthful. Have you ever worn elastic-waist pants to Thanksgiving dinner because you know you will need the room? Have you ever thrown away food that just never got eaten because there were so many other things to eat?
If so, hear Christ’s challenge: “Woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry.”
And have you ever wept? Has grief, or stress, or pain, or loss, ever shook your body with sobs?
If so, hear Christ’s promise: “Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh.”
And HAVE you ever laughed? Has joy-filled news, or a slightly-naughty joke, or the giggle of a baby ever pulled a peel of laughter from your throat?
If so, hear Christ’s challenge: “Woe to you who are laughing, for you will mourn and weep.”
Just two more questions: Has your willingness to confess your faith in Christ ever made you an object of ridicule? Have you been shut out of groups or opportunities, or even had your name dragged through the mud because you wouldn’t compromise your commitment to Christ?
If so, hear Christ’s promise: “Rejoice, and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven!”
But, have you ever been essentially inoffensive? Has your chosen community found no reason to take issue with anything you say, or anything you stand for? Have you gotten along just fine without ever rocking the boat?
If so, hear Christ’s challenge: “Woe to you, for that is what the prior generations did to the false prophets.”
I didn’t ask you to tell me your answers to those questions, but I will tell you mine: Yes.
Yes to poverty, hunger, weeping, and scorn. And yes to riches, fullness, laughter, and approval. I have needed each of these promises from Jesus at times in my life, and I have also needed each of these challenges. I would guess that everyone of you can hear at least some of the blessings AND some of the woes from Jesus’s sermon as applying to your lives. At the very least, I expect all of us have wept, and all of us have laughed. Perhaps in this very sanctuary.
And if that’s true, then the point of Jesus’s two contrasting lists is not to divide his followers into two opposing sides one that is suffering, but promised good things, and the other that is comfortable, but promised bad things. I think Jesus’s point is to teach us that we are all on both sides.
Sometimes we face the painful struggles of life and are desperately hungry for God’s reassurance that the pain is not all there is… that God’s will for us is blessing.
And sometimes we find ourselves insulated from struggle, and perhaps tempted to think that we are doing just fine on our own and don’t really need God very much. And when we find ourselves in that false sense of security, we need the warning that, as one commentator suggests, “the things we assume are advantages are actually… the things that kill our souls.” Because they deceive us into thinking that they are what we need.
We need the challenge just as much as we need the blessing. It is only when we hear BOTH that we can hear the words that come NEXT in Jesus’ sermon as anything other than condemnation:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you."
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt."
“Give to EVERYONE who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again."
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
If we hear those words only as a standard of self-sacrificing love by which our worthiness will be judged, then they sound like a continuation of the woes… a confirmation that we cannot possibly meet God’s demands of us. But, we must remember that, for someone, WE are the enemy they are commanded to love. We are the ones who have caused harm – whether knowingly or not – whom others are called to pray for and to bless.
And – yes – it is utterly disorienting to hear Jesus challenge our individualistic possessiveness by requiring us to give to all who ask of us?! But he’s also calling our neighbor to that same profound generosity. He is calling the whole community to a transformed way of being in which we don’t HAVE to be possessive about the things we think of as “ours” because our needs will always be met.
Jesus is not challenging his followers to check-off items on some performative bucket list for martyrs.… Rather, he is calling us all to participate in a transformed community. Jesus is calling us to be a community of people who are all both saints AND sinners – none of us doing things perfectly, but all of us experiencing God’s blessing in a way that changes us, by opening our eyes to our common humanity.
Recognizing the ways that we all experience pain, and wanting God’s blessing not just for ourselves, but also for those whom we’ve been taught to see as “other”, even as enemy. And then recognizing that this means we cannot be satisfied in protecting our own comfort – our own wealth, and fullness, and enjoyment, and inclusion – when anyone else is left out.
Jesus’ challenge to “love our enemies” and to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” are so familiar that we can easily stop hearing them – but these are radically reorienting commands. And we can only hope to try to follow them by first understanding how deeply we need them.
We need others to practice these commands on us.
AND we need to practice them. Because the practice of this soul-deep, reaching-out, seeing the other as just as important as we are generous way of living will change us.
For this whole month of November we will be exploring the theme of “The Difference Generosity Makes” as our fall stewardship focus. We will hear temple talks from members and friends of this community about the way that our generosity in supporting various ministries of the church makes a difference in their lives.
I hope we will ALSO remember that the practice of generosity – not just financial generosity but also generosity of the heart, generosity in how we see our neighbors and our enemies – makes a difference in our own lives as well.
Biblical scholar Matt Skinner says of this passage that “Jesus calls us, each of us, to a new existence in which God’s generosity benefits the downtrodden. That generosity creates a culture formed and sustained by the mercy of God. Woe to those who are missing opportunities to experience tangibly the giving and receiving of that mercy.”
All of our lives are a combination of blessing and woes, of struggles and of comforts. That is the essential human experience that we hold in common with every other living person, and with all those who have gone before.
And so, Christ’s invitation on this All Saints day is to see in our common humanity a chance to both give and receive mercy.
Thanks be to God.
 Matt Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256