St Thomas’, Glen Carbon—Luke 6:17–26
I once saw a signboard in front of a church that read, “If you feel far from God … guess who moved.” That’s cute and clever, of course, but it also speaks some truth, at least inasmuch as, at any given moment, any given person is probably more likely to feel far away from God than close to God. Sometimes we’re conscious of this distance from God, and might even be able to say why we feel distant. More often, perhaps, its subliminal, operating in the background, like an app that slows down your computer or smart phone just enough to be annoying but not enough to make you want to investigate the reason. Either way, however, it results in something theologians have called “soul-sorrow.” Soul-sorrow is a deep-seated intuitive sense that something is wrong, not just at a personal level, not even just on the level of society, but cosmically. Something is cosmically wrong. It’s not dramatic. It’s not flashy. It’s just persistent, like the experience that some people have of ringing in the ears that just won’t ever go away.
Even Christians, even people of faith, can suffer from soul-sorrow. The evidence of all that is wrong—with the world, with reality itself—is too overwhelming. Too often, though, I suspect that Christians who are afflicted by a particularly acute case of soul-sorrow are forgetting one of the bedrock convictions of our faith—namely, the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. We forget that part of God’s project of saving us from ourselves, saving us from the power of sin and death—part of God’s project was to become one of us, to take our mortal human flesh, to identify with us, to become “in every way as we are, yet without sin.”
A couple of minutes ago, we heard Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. We’re familiar with the Beatitudes as we find them—nine of them, to be precise—in Matthew’s gospel, but, I would suspect, less familiar with the pared-down version that we find in Luke—pared down in the sense that there are only four instead of nine, and also shorter; instead of “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example, it’s just “Blessed are you who are poor.” So, we have “Blessed are your who are poor,” “Blessed are you who are hungry,” “Blessed are you who weep now,” and “Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you and revile you, and spurn your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” (That last one does get a little long, I guess, doesn’t it?) Yet, in this pared-down form that we find in Luke, the Beatitudes beautifully describe the conditions that Jesus himself assumed, the conditions that Jesus took on to himself, for our sake, when he took our flesh, when he became one of us.
Blessed are you who are poor. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus says of himself that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There’s no evidence that either Jesus or his disciples were ever in danger of starvation, but they wandered around and were dependent on the generosity of others for their food and lodging. Think of the occasion when the Pharisees scolded Jesus for his disciples plucking grain from fields along the side of the road; they did that because they needed food, not just to pass the time. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, refers to Jesus as having been “made poor for our sake” (II Cor. 8:9). For whatever fame he achieved, Jesus never enjoyed even modest material prosperity, let alone wealth. He constantly lived on the edge financially, not unlike many among us. The recent government shutdown revealed the extent to which many Americans indeed live paycheck-to-paycheck, and are only a job loss away from homelessness. Jesus knows poverty.
Blessed are you who are hungry. When Jesus uttered these words, he was speaking from personal experience. Right after his baptism, you will recall, Jesus went right out to the Judean wilderness for a very long fasting retreat. The Devil attempted to exploit his hunger by challenging him to turn the stones that lay on the ground in front of him into loaves of bread. I cannot even begin to imagine what it took for Jesus to resist that particular temptation. Now, not many among us may be physically hungry, other than feeling slightly peckish in anticipation of whatever food there is at coffee hour (though some are), but few of us are unable to identify with a “hunger” for prestige and influence, and a temptation to abuse what power we have in order to achieve those things. Jesus knows hunger.
Blessed are you who weep now. A decade ago, as part of my first and so far only trip to the Holy Land, the members of my group were first introduced to the city of Jerusalem from atop one of the hills that lie to the north and to the east of the city. It was a spectacular and intensely moving sight. And it was from one of these hills, most likely, that Jesus wept over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says according to Matthew’s account, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And in John’s gospel, we read of his appearance in the village of Bethany after receiving word of the illness of his dear friend Lazarus, but by the time he gets there, Lazarus had died. As he encounters Lazarus’ sister Mary, still overcome by her own grief, Jesus himself joined her in her weeping. Jesus wept.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you and revile you, and spurn your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Here we cannot help but be reminded of several passages from the prophet Isaiah—and if you’re like me, passages from Isaiah as set to music by George Frederick Handel: “He was despised and rejected, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.” As Holy Week comes around each year, and we subject ourselves to the liturgical recapitulation of our Lord’s passion, an experience that sits somewhere on the range between uncomfortable and painful, we see him mocked by the soldiers who crowned him with thorns and robed him in purple. We hear his searing words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knows hatred and exclusion.
The fact is, wherever we can go in our soul-sorrow, Jesus has been there, and is, in fact, there with us. Poverty, hunger, weeping, scorn—Jesus is familiar with this territory.
Many Christian homes are decorated somewhere with a cross on the wall. It used to be—this isn’t so much as case anymore—it used to be that you could tell a Catholic home from a Protestant home by whether it was just a plain cross, or a crucifix, one with the suffering Jesus still attached to it. There’s actually a third alternative as well—an image of a crowned Jesus wearing the vestments of priest, as it were, reigning from the cross. All three of the representations of the cross have something to commend themselves. But when I’m with someone who’s feeling deep soul-sorrow, or when I’m in that place myself, there’s no replacement for a crucifix. I want to know who’s with me in my pain at that moment, because I know he’s the one who knows the way out.
It’s one thing to suffer—whether by means of material deprivation, or hunger, or grief, or loss of reputation. But, as followers of Jesus, we have an opportunity to suffer in an added dimension. We have an opportunity to make our suffering not meaningless, but redemptive. We have an invitation to suffer “in Christ,” with Christ, our lives bound to him and his to ours. This is, in fact, what the Eucharist is all about, but that’s a different sermon! Suffice to say that, as we offer this Eucharist, we do so in solidarity with Jesus, laying our soul-sorrow at the foot of the cross. And precisely there, at the foot of the cross, so we find the grace to redeem our suffering by conforming it to the suffering of Jesus. How much closer to God could we get? Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.