Sermons

Blessings and Woes; Rev. Dee Ledger; February 13, 2022

They came from far and wide.  From the coast, from Tyre and Sidon, from the cities of Jerusalem and villages in Judea.  They came to be healed; they were both hopeful and frantic, as resigned and desperate as any who have experienced the relentlessness of human disease, dysfunction, powerlessness, oppression and pain.

This Doctor Jesus, this people’s rabbi, who was he?  What could he say to them that might reverse how they thought about their pain, their fear, and their suffering?

He met them on a level place.  Like the professional person who comes into your hospital room, pulls up a chair and sits in such a way so that they are at eye level with you.  Oh, I know what the commentators say about this message.  How Jesus preached the sermon to the people from a mount, a raised place, like a raised pulpit, so that people would think of him like Moses, another great prophet.  But here, in Luke’s gospel, Dr. Jesus is on level ground; he’s as level with them as any good doctor would be.

We appreciate when people level with us, yes?  When the ground feels uneven, we appreciate the truth when it comes authentically, with care, and with deep compassion for the hardships and difficulties with which most humans struggle, and with understanding for those struggles that are absolutely unique in their particularity.

My son comes to me with a cut finger.  He’s no longer a toddler; I can’t kiss away the boo-boo anymore than I can wave a magic wand.  I need to clean it, to help him understand his brother’s misguided, so-called “accident” with the scissors and some ribbon.  I know the cleaning will hurt him a bit; it will sting at first but then comes the healing.  I do not lie.  I hold his brother accountable for the offense. I tell my hurt son how sharp things tend to cut deeply.  How they begin healing with direct pressure that is uncomfortable and often unwanted.  But I make sure that I hold his finger as I say these things.  I don’t try to wipe away his tears prematurely.  I try to remember times when I struggled to trust, when I was angry with my brother, and when I wanted someone else to hurt as much or more than I did.  I make sure that I am there to wrap the bandaid, pull back when he petulantly says, “I can do it myself!”, and know that it will come off as he worries it back and forth.  When he says it might hurt too much to play basketball the next day, I remember to hold my tongue and my first thoughts that it really isn’t that bad.  Instead, I agree and carefully say that might be so, but he should wait and see.  He might discover that the pain might lessen with his resolve and a bit of rest.  I pray that this is true. And then I comfort his brother who still doesn’t quite understand how or why or what went wrong to cause the “accident.”

Jesus speaks from a level place—not above the people like some outsider who believes he is better, and not like some insider who believes he is the only one in-the-know.  He is, after all, accompanied by the disciples.  The message that he gives is about the way God works, the way God sees, and the way God loves.

Isn’t that the truth of the gospel?  That the way you are feeling now is not the end.  It is temporary and God sees you and meets you in this.  Even now.  That the way you fear and fret and fume are not final, but are the growing pains of something new being born, being reversed, being corrected, and being renewed.   That the way that you feel unloved is not the whole of the matter or the whole of you; there is One who holds you tenderly and dearly and without regard to the prejudices, injustice, and history of human fallibility.  Your worth, your value, is not dependent on how you presently feel, or what someone believed about you, but the One who deemed all Creation good and you are a part of that.

Who would not have wanted to hear and reach for the Doctor that day?  I am reminded of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the African American woman viral immunologist who was absolutely instrumental in developing the Moderna vaccine.  She attended UMBC and at a young age studied health disparities, the very same health disparities that she would see occur again as a scientist grappling with the pandemic.  I thank God for her.  Thank God for her persistence and dedication despite being only 18 percent of persons graduating in her field of STEM, only 2 percent who are black. [1] Thank God that she was willing to combat  the understandable distrust in the black community of the vaccine given the systemic racism that has plagued America and made African Americans subjects against their will and permission.  But Corbett comes to us on a level place and says to the crowds:  “the onus is on scientists, physicians and vaccine developers to prove they are trustworthy. What I say to people, firstly, is that I empathize and then, secondly, is that I’m going to do my part in laying those bricks…And I think that if everyone on our side, as physicians and scientists, went about it that way, then the trust would start to be rebuilt.”[2]

Jesus brings healing by acknowledging the people’s pain:  Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who grieve and are depressed…Blessed are you who are hated, reviled, and excluded.

There is One who sees.  There is One who knows.  There is One is working even now to reverse this mess, redeem and repair the breach.

Most of us can hold on to hope if we know that the pain we see and the pain we feel is temporary.  If we know that we do not stand alone in the mess, in the cuts, strikes, and slings of misfortune.  The first consolation is always that God sees, hears, and stands there in the mess.  The second is that this injustice, this pain, this disease, this wrong does not get the final say.  Because God is love, because God brings justice, because God yearns for the healing of human pain, freedom from oppression, from unclean spirits and the like.  A reversal, Jesus says, is on the way for those who are suffering emotionally, spiritually, economically, physically, and socially.

But the good Doctor also speaks to those who are self-satisfied and those whose success has been purchased on the misery or microaggressions of others.  Those who are full, rich, and laughing at the expense of others; those who are unaware of the ways in which their moving forward caused someone or something to move backward, those who speak from high places without acknowledging the painful policies, dishonest politicking, harmful policing, or blatant disempowerment that lay people low and keep many from rising.

And so it is that Jesus uses the “woes” to shake up his listeners because he knows that, in any mixed crowd, there are people who require a skilled doctor to help them to see what they have difficulty seeing.  He knows that grace can be discomfiting even as it heals. And he applies some direct pressure to the wound so that the bleeding will stop.

Jesus also asked his listeners a question that day within his sermon.  Oh, maybe it didn’t have a question-mark, but I suspect they heard it nonetheless.

“Who are you?” he asks.  Are you someone who needs to hear comfort and blessing?  Or do you hear a word of caution in the woes he pronounces?  We are a people who yearn to hear blessing more than woe, but even cautions can become grace for the person who listens with an open, reflective stance.

When I do a search of quotes—like the ones that I use in our Sunday bulletins—I am often struck by how often compilations of such quotes—such as those on BrainyQuote and the like disproportionately feature male quotes to female quotes.  It is as if few women had anything to say for the first couple thousand years.  Yet, we know why, right?  It wasn’t that they didn’t have anything to say; it was that those in power didn’t think women had anything worthy to say and so, their thoughts and words were less likely to be remembered, written down, or passed on.  So, to counter this—perhaps it may seem a small thing—I try to find underrepresented folks who have something to say about a theme, a question, or an idea, in theology and in life, something I might easily overlook or presume scarcity where there is hidden abundance. I do this weekly as part of worship preparation, a small thing that keeps my eyes wide open to the underrepresented.

You can do this too, friends.  Whatever your endeavor, whatever your profession, occupation, or hobby, make it your mission and business to learn what those under-represented have to say.  Understand the “blessings and woes” from their viewpoint; seek out their unique perspectives and passions.  Make this a discipline, a kind of challenge.  And then take their words to heart and amplify them, knowing that the beloved community demands this kind of openness and understanding.  Make visible what is hidden.  Make what is lesser known, known to another.

In an interview with CBS, Dr. Barney Graham who was Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s mentor and boss at the Vaccine Research Center said this:

“When you recognize somebody has special qualities, you need to do things that can keep those other things out of the way and avoid some of the dismissiveness that often happens not only to minority people but to women.”  This, from a member white, male doctor with power and privilege used strategically and well.[3]  Thank God for that.

If there is an unspoken question in the Beatitudes as heard by those on the unlevel ground of economic and social circumstance, it might not be, “Who are you?” but, “What must I do to be saved?”  In Revolution and Beatitudes of Black Liberation: A video essay, activist Stacey Walker says this:

“They may go so far as to put a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard, or change their profile picture to an all black background. But while these acts of solidarity are appreciated, allyship calls for more.

Real friends of the Movement must seek to understand their privilege and use it to protect Black bodies and advance the aims of this freedom struggle.

Real friends of the Movement must train their ears to hear the dog whistles that Black people know all too well. They must push back against this rhetoric and call it out for what it truly is: the witchcraft of politics; code words that keep them from saying the bad part out loud.

Real friends invest in the Movement, and they support our leaders not in private, but publicly; they support them out loud. They amplify our voices and take our stories into spaces we can’t access, into places we have yet to reach.”[4]

The question, he says, that we have belatedly begun to ask is this:  “What must I do to be saved?”

Jesus, I think, would agree.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] “According to the National Center of Education Statistics, only 18% of all students graduate with a STEM degree, among 2% are black. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-19-vaccine-development-kizzmekia-corbett/

[2] https://www.cbs58.com/news/these-black-women-are-on-the-frontlines-of-the-fight-against-covid-19

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-19-vaccine-development-kizzmekia-corbett/

[4] Watch https://littlevillagemag.com/stacey-walker-beatitudes-of-black-liberation/