February 17, 2019
The fellowship of the broken-hearted – J. Barry Vaughn – Feb. 17, 2019
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh…. But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….”
Today’s gospel reading is Luke’s version of what we commonly know as the Sermon on the Mount. The name “Sermon on the Mount” comes from Matthew, because Matthew begins by telling us that Jesus “went up the mountain” before he began to speak. Luke, on the other hand, says that Jesus “came down… and stood on a level place”.
There are other differences. Matthew remembered Jesus as having said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit“, instead of Luke’s more direct words, “Blessed are the poor”. Also, Matthew omits the “woes” that conclude Luke’s version: “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….”
It’s good that Matthew and Luke remembered this sermon differently because it furnishes Ph.D. students with material for their dissertations and gives New Testament scholars something to debate and write papers and articles about. If Matthew and Luke had told the story the same way, that would have had a fairly serious negative effect on the market for New Testament scholars. Some folks might be out of work!
At heart I think that Matthew and Luke’s versions of the sermon on the mount or sermon on the plain are saying the same thing. However, I’m glad that Luke included the “woes” that Matthew omitted. They sharpen and focus Jesus’ message.
“Blessed are the poor, those who hunger, those who weep…” Jesus stands the world’s wisdom on its head. If you would find blessedness or happiness look not to the rich, powerful, and famous; look instead to the poor, the hungry, and the sorrowful.
Are we to take these words literally? If we were to walk down the streets of any great city we would see dozens of homeless persons, and very few of them would tell us that they felt blessed.
Several years ago public television broadcast a program on black poverty. The narrator, Henry Louis Gates, professor of African American studies at Harvard, told about his daily walk to work through Harvard Square and of the homeless persons he encounters there every day. He interviewed one of them for the program. The man he interviewed was intelligent and articulate and could have easily had a job. When Gates asked him why he didn’t have a job, the man replied that the only job you could get without experience and references would be working at a place such as McDonald’s and he wasn’t about to take a job such as that. Gates then said, “I felt as though I were talking to someone from Mars”. Gates related that his own father had worked from 6.30 am to 4.30 pm every day at a sawmill. The family then gathered for dinner and after dinner his father went off and worked a second job. Thus, this black family living in rural West Virginia had sent two sons to college: one became an oral surgeon and the other a professor at Harvard.
Blessedness isn’t something that comes automatically to anyone, poor or rich, hungry or well-fed, sorrowful or joyful. Jesus said that the poor are blessed because they are more likely to have a sense of their need of God. Money, status, and power can act as shields or walls between God and us. To borrow a term from medicine, money, status, and power can “mask our symptoms”, the symptoms in every human heart that show us our profound brokenness and our deep need of God. It is when we accept and embrace our poverty, sadness, emptiness that we realize the blessedness of which Jesus spoke.
An organization that has made use of this idea in a remarkable way is Alcoholics Anonymous. AA “and other Twelve-Step groups are founded on [this] truth: Human beings connect with each other most healingly, most healthily, not on the basis of common strengths, but in the very reality of their shared weaknesses. Among those who accept their imperfection there seems to be a special sense of likeness or oneness in their very mutual flawedness…” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 198) AA is, if you will, the fellowship of the broken-hearted.
In Michael Malone’s novel, Handling Sin, its central character, Raleigh Hayes, journeys from believing in the illusion of his own strength to knowing his need of God and others. Raleigh Hayes grew up in the Episcopal Church but one day found himself unable to say the General Confession. “…the word confession implied an admission of fault, and … Raleigh with good reason considered himself (comparatively) unflawed. Try as he might during church services, he honestly could not think of any manifold sins and wickednesses that he needed to repent. He… did not see why… he should have provoked God’s wrath and indignation when there were so many really provoking people… out there getting off scot free…” (p. 250) Raleigh is not aware of his own brokenness and his own need of God. It takes a series of disasters to bring Raleigh to the point at which he is ready to join the fellow-ship of the broken-hearted. Raleigh’s life, however, is not that different from any of our lives. Life doesn’t let any of us go before it has broken our hearts. The only question is, will we let broken-heartedness teach us of our need of God and of others?
The great feature of AA and other recovery groups is that they are full of people who have realized their need of God, realized that they must turn their lives over to God or die. We might paraphrase the beatitudes in Luke’s sermon on the plain in this way: “Blessed are those who know their need of God”. That’s one of the reasons that we should come to church: to be reminded of our need of God. Like AA, the church is the fellowship of the broken-hearted, and it is into that fellowship that Jesus invites us when he tells us that it the poor, hungry, and sorrowful who are blessed. None of us are without poverty, hunger, sorrow, and brokenness, but our brokenness becomes blessedness when it opens our eyes to our need of God and one another.
I want to make one more point about today’s gospel reading:
We live in a culture defined by winning and losing. We cheer the winners of the Super Bowl and the World Series, the victors in the race for the White House or the governors’ mansions, and at best we extend sympathy to the losers and say, “Better luck next time.”
To some degree, our obsession with victory may be a legacy from ancient times. The concept of philotimia was at the heart of the Hellenistic world. Philiotimia means “the love of honor.” “Honor” meant noble birth, physical strength, military victory, and so on.
But Christianity reversed the values of the Roman world. In Philippians, Paul says, “In humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2)
Nothing was more shameful in Roman culture than crucifixion, and yet, the cross became the supreme symbol of Christianity.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is the ultimate rebuke to the Hellenistic culture of love of honor:
Blessed are the poor . . . blessed are the hungry . . . blessed are those who weep . . . blessed are those who are hated and despised . . .
In short, blessed are the losers.
Henry Kissinger said that academic battles are so fierce because the rewards are so small. I’m afraid that church battles are similar: The smaller the reward; the fiercer the battle. The secular values of winning at all costs, being the best no matter who you have to step on, and so forth, have infected churches. I see too many struggles here at Christ Church where people behave as though they have to win regardless of the cost to others.
That is unacceptable and un-Christian. It is perfectly fine for us to have disagreements and even conflicts, but it is never all right for us to seek victory in spite of all the so-called “collateral damage” that we cause. And by “collateral damage” I mean damage to the reputation of others, hurt feelings, broken friendships, and so on. Our only goal when we disagree and conflict with each other should be the well-being of this church and the spread of God’s kingdom. The questions we must ask ourselves is this: Will our behavior make this church and the world a better place? Is our behavior consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
We must reject the culture of winning at all costs and instead embrace the values of the One who washed the feet of his friends, healed lepers, blessed the poor, the hungry, the outcasts, and ultimately embraced the cross. Only then will we share the blessings that Jesus promised: to be part of the kingdom of God, to be full of God’s joy, to laugh with grateful hearts, and to be great in heaven. Amen.