Maybe you remember (or maybe you don’t remember) that a couple of weeks ago we talked about this man Luke who wrote our words for today. We said that he had never known Jesus personally, or seen him or heard him speak, or had a conversation with him. So he tells us very clearly in the first words of his story that what he is doing is compiling the stories that others – eyewitnesses - have told him. And I shared with you my picture of Luke sitting at his writing table as he is writing his story of Jesus – with the gospel of Mark at one elbow, and referring to that as he writes, and copying from Mark. And at his other elbow he has this document that we call Q and he’s referring to that as he writes, also, and copying from that, along with some other sources. As he compiles his story of Jesus.
The words we have read today, that we often call the Beatitudes come directly from this document that we call Q. You remember how people followed Jesus wherever he went. They were eager to hear what he had to say and to be cured by him when they were ill. Huge crowds of them appeared whenever he was a wide open space like the lake shore, or in in a certain village, and they stood outside the home he was in, clogging the doorways, straining to catch a glimpse of him and hear snatches of what he said. We think what happened is that some people or one person, who were part of that crowd wrote down, on the spot, what he said, and compiled his sayings into this document called Q. Now you remember that we don’t have a copy of Q. Luke had it, but over the 2000 years since then it has been lost. But now very fine scholars have reconstructed it, and translated it, and that’s what appears in your bulletin for today. It’s about as good as we’re going to get, straight from the pen of somebody who heard Jesus in person. And here’s what Jesus says.
He says, “Blessed are the poor and the hungry and those who are crying.” He says it’s a blessing when people hate you and exclude you and tell lies about you because of him. He even says we should be happy when that happens, and jump for joy. He tells us to love our enemies and to pay back good when people do us evil, and pray for the people who abuse us, and he says we should give to everyone who begs from us. He says that if somebody steals our coat we should give them our shirt as well. And he says we should treat people the way we would want to be treated, and not the way they treat us. He says it’s not nearly enough to like the people who like us and who talk nicely to us and do nice things for us. He tells us to love those who have hurt us and have done and said unkind things to us. He says we should lend money to people who we know are not going to pay us back. He tells us not to judge other people and he instructs us to forgive when that’s very, very hard. That’s tough stuff. Every bit of it is tough stuff.
He warns those who are rich now, and those who are happy now, and well thought of now, because the day will come when they will be poor and hungry and sad and shunned.
It’s striking. In fact it’s unbelievable. Intelligent, thoughtful, successful leaders in business and leaders in politics would laugh to read such words. Parents would tell their children just the opposite. We tell our children to get a good job and work hard and make good money and invest it well and be smart with their money. Some of us teach our kids to fight back and defend themselves and every parent wants her children to be popular and well-liked by their classmates. None of us sees much advantage to being poor, or hungry or sad, and if somebody steals something from us we do everything we can to get it back. We’ve been known to take people to court when they’ve treated us badly. And forgiving is about the hardest thing we are asked to do as Christians. For a great many people it’s unthinkable.
But this is the Upside Down Kingdom of God we’re talking about here, where everything is the opposite of what we would expect. Where what seems big is really small and what seems small is really big, and where the most unlikely people are the heroes. Where the poor are the lucky ones and the hungry are full of good things, and where people actually love their enemies. And where those who have been deeply hurt learn to forgive.
And Jesus is telling us very clearly that if we want to be his followers, we have to have a drastic change in our thinking. The popular notions in our society, the way things usually work, are not for us if we want to be his followers. Following Jesus requires a drastic reordering of our priorities and a serious change in the ways we think and how we make decisions. The way we ordinarily do things won’t work in the kingdom of God. The way our normal thought patterns run won’t do for Jesus.
But I want to push back at Jesus a little. I know of a doctor, Glenn Geelhoed, a surgeon. He travels in Asia, South America and Africa, and he conducts medical clinics and does surgeries all over the world. He has one rule – that he never does surgery for a person who can pay him. And a couple of years ago now he and his medical team were in Sudan when the village where they were was attacked and burned. In the confusion and panic, Dr. Geelhoed was separated from the others. His team members hid out for several hours as the bullets were flying all around them. They all managed to escape and he later made his way to safety in Kenya and back to the States. And the last I heard he was off to the Philippines (which is also not a very safe place) to do surgery there – for people who can’t pay. And I want to say to Jesus, “How can you call that good? That a doctor who goes all over the world doing good in the riskiest places should have to run for his life from people who burn down his village? How can you say that he is blessed? Or how can you say that the people he treats are blessed if they are so sick and live in such impoverished, dangerous places?”
As you know, I live in Grand Rapids, near a very busy intersection, and there are often people standing on the corner when cars stop for a red light. There is often a man standing there, with a sign, telling us he’s a veteran and has three small children and asking for help. And one woman I often see. She’s obviously pregnant and she has a sign that tells us that she’s homeless and looking for some help – standing out there in this very brutally cold weather. And I want to say to Jesus, “How can you call that a happy story? What is so blessed about that? What is so blessed about being poor and homeless and having to stand on the street in the bitter cold? How anything about that picture be called good?” And you can add stories from your own lives and you can have your own conversations with Jesus about this.
Now you know that I do not speak for Jesus. He speaks eloquently for himself, and I speak very hesitantly here. But maybe Jesus is saying to me, “Paula, do you think you’re God? Do you think you can understand everything about God and about the kingdom of God? Do you suppose there might be some things that could true even if you don’t understand them? Do you suppose that maybe your problem is that you are so healthy and so rich and so happy that you can’t see the truth of what Jesus says? And would you leave all that to God, please?”
Now I tell you this story. I’ve been a pastor for a long time in many places so you won’t be able to guess who these people are. But their story is very powerful.
Once upon a time there was a pretty small church. The people were warm and generous and good hearted. They were also seriously divided. Over the issues of how they wanted to worship God. They used words like “contemporary” and “traditional” and pretty much everybody in the congregation had very strong feelings one way or the other. They took sides. For several years they took sides. You could even tell who was on which side by where they sat on Sunday morning in the sanctuary. Hard, harsh, angry words were said. A lot of hard, harsh, angry words were said. Feelings were hurt. The division was deep and painful and many had left the church. One day a woman named Doris invited me to her home and we sat together for a bit. She had been a member of that church most of her life and her children had been baptized there and her parents had died there. She cried and told me how hurt she had been and how deeply wounded she felt. We prayed for a bit. And over time, she thought and prayed and talked it all over with God and after a while some healing started to happen in her. And then one day I witnessed one of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen. I sat with Doris again, and this time another woman was with us – somebody who had been on the other “side” of the conflict and who had said and done things that were hurtful to Doris. We talked and held hands and prayed together, the three of us, around her kitchen table. And felt forgiveness around the table, and some healing from some very painful hurts.
And if you wonder how in the world that could happen, look at this table. Start with this Table, and Jesus’ pain for you. Think about his forgiveness of those who had accused him and abused and eventually killed him. And recall for yourself how God has forgiven you. And slowly, over time and in companionship with the Holy Spirit, let forgiveness seep into your heart and change your life.