Blessings and Woes
Synopsis: All of creation is connected. The Bible is full of images from creation that reveal our relationship with God. Jeremiah contrasts a desert shrub with a well-watered tree to depict depending on mere mortals versus depending on God. We can, however, turn that image on its head, and use the desert shrub as a powerful image of trusting in God during times of adversity. The blessings and woes in Jesus’ “sermon on the plain,” with their stark contrasts between poor—rich, hungry—full, weeping—laughing, rejected—accepted, teach us that God meets us at the edge of human possibility.
It was a miserably cold and rainy day—on the edge of freezing—when I began working on this sermon. The little space heater was cranked up in my office in a heroic effort to take away the chill. My thoughts wandered to February of last year when our congregation (all of you) gave me the wonderful gift of taking a sabbatical in India. I was traveling to rural villages in short sleeves and sandals, checking out irrigated vegetable crops, hanging out with friends from the time when Ruth and I lived there, and enjoying delicious Indian food. What a blessing!
This week in contrast—cooped up in my office, looking out the window at the cold rain—felt like a woe. Even so, I like the rhythm of four seasons—winter, followed by spring, then summer and fall. These seasonal changes have a curious connection to our seasonal emotions and mimic how we feel in winter, spring, summer, and fall.
Check out the plants. They tell us how things feel outside. Yet, when we take more than a casual look as winter lingers, we notice that their leaf buds are already beginning to swell, anticipating the arrival of spring. They remind us of how our own hearts keep shifting through the different seasons. Pastor Lauren Dow Wegner comments:
God so often uses nature to teach and witness to faith. All of creation is connected in the Creator; the love of God is revealed in all that God has infused with life. So it should not surprise us that images of trees, shrubs, water, and earth appear throughout our scriptures. These images are of God and of God’s relationship with us.
Jeremiah contrasts a withered desert shrub with that of a well-watered tree, relating the shrub with depending on mere mortals and the tree with depending or God. On one level I get the comparison—depending on mortals will not give us the promised resources we anticipate. Yet, as a gardener and a naturalist, that comparison doesn’t quite work for me.
The desert shrub is one tough little hombre who has learned how to flourish in a very tough environment. Drought tolerant plants are an amazing species that have figured out how to capture and utilize every drop of moisture to their advantage. They push their roots way down into the sub-soil to do this. In contrast, that tree by the water lives a rather cushy life and will not survive long if it’s source of water ever dries up.
I’m also ambivalent about Jeremiah’s claim that those who trust in God are blessed like the tree that’s perpetually green and bears abundant fruit. In this depiction, trusting in human strength is fruitless, while trusting in God brings abundant rewards. Lauren Dow Wegner asks:
But what when it [doesn’t]? What about the moments, the months, the years when our trust in God doesn’t feel fruitful but rather leaves us feeling empty and barren, like the desert shrub? Are we just not trusting in God enough?
No! We all go through such desert experiences and it doesn’t mean we’re not trusting in God. We can learn some life-saving lessons from the desert shrub that saves its energy and precious resources by shutting down its respiration system during the brutal heat of the day and draws on deep sources of moisture far under the ground in order to not wither up and die.
Let’s compare our smaller church to that desert shrub and a megachurch to that watered and pampered tree. People who study the life and growth of churches have discovered that smaller churches can be tougher and more resilient than larger churches. Why is this? Can it be that we have learned how to survive on less and have learned some valuable lessons on how to tap into deep relationships and resources that sustain us during tough times?
Jeremiah ends with a provocative statement about our human contradictions. The heart is perverse and beyond help. Who can figure it out? I feel the same way about political shenanigans in places of power but also when confronted with my own wounded, broken places. God probes our hearts and discerns hidden motives, confronting us and eliciting the best out of us.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus teaches the Beatitudes to a large crowd in his Sermon on the Plain. We’re more familiar with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. There are lots of similarities but also significant differences. Biblical scholars think Luke and Matthew were drawing on the same original source when writing about this.
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is significantly longer than Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Another difference is that Luke includes both blessings and woes while Matthew only has blessings. Finally, I’ve always pondered the fact that Luke begins with Jesus saying, “Blessed are you who are poor,” while Matthew’s account reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Is Matthew spiritualizing this saying of Jesus? Most likely not, but he may seek to soften the stark dichotomy of righteous poor and wicked rich as an oversimplification. Poverty can be ugly and breed brokenness and injustice. Still, at the heart of the scriptural poor—rich dichotomy lies the recognition that the poor are often more grateful and those of us who are wealthy easily assume we deserve what we have and forget our dependence on God.
Luke paints in darker colors with four stark parallels of blessings and woes: poor—rich, hungry—full, weeping—laughing, rejected—accepted. Those of us who have studied Luke’s Gospel are not surprised by this considering, among other things, the way Mary’s song sets the stage at the beginning of the Gospel when she talks about the poor being lifted up and the rich being sent away empty.
There are both present and future dimensions to this. God’s upside-down kingdom has arrived in the life and ministry of Jesus. In fact, the violence, domination, greed, and self-aggrandizement that’s so prominent in our present world order is the exact opposite. It’s not even completely realized in the fellowship of those who follow Jesus. Still, it’s here and we can recognize it in our midst with the assurance that this is what God’s future looks like.
So many of the stories in the Gospels involve Jesus’ invitation to all different kinds of people to get on board. He even invited the self-important rich young ruler and the wily tax collector Nicodemus. This is also what evangelism looks like in our day. We invite people to take part in this movement of God’s Spirit making all things new. In his quirky song, You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody, Bob Dylan characterizes this as serving the devil or serving the Lord:
You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks
You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin' in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody's mistress, may be somebody's heir
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody
I want to bring a little more nuance to this because, for all of us, it’s more complicated than a straight-up matter of serving the devil or serving the Lord. We have divided selves that need to be healed. In her book, The Things That Make for Peace, Barbara Gerlach writes:
In those moments of self-giving, inmost desire and outward deed overflow together. Our divided selves are made whole, and we experience God’s blessing.
It’s when we’re pushed to the edge of human possibility by our poverty or our grief, by our thirst for righteousness or our search for peace, by our suffering or our love, that God meets us. In these moments, which are our perfection and our peace, God comes to us as sure as the taste of salt on our tongues.
 Lauren Dow Wegner, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century (January 16, 2019): 19.
 As quoted in Imaging the Word, Vol. 1 (Cleveland: United Church Press,1994), 134.