Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
February 13, 2022
In my house, we love to read.
Reading has always been one of my hobbies – I can remember sitting sideways in a wingback chair in my living room as a child, curled in the sun like a cat, getting lost for hours in a book. I have less time for deep reading like that these days, and I miss it. It was a great relief and delight to see Maddie become a proficient reader over the past couple of years – for her to begin to carry books to the breakfast table, unable to tear herself away.
Books transport us; they ignite our imaginations, enable us to see the world and our place in it differently. During the pandemic, books provided the perfect escape – allowing us to encounter and explore other cultures and travel to far-off places from the comfort of our living rooms. Reading has taken me to Nigeria and South Africa and Italy, to 16th century England, even to Mars! Through books, we understand first-hand what it might be like to live through plague, poverty, war, a zombie apocalypse. Books helped open my eyes to the experiences of first and second generation immigrants, the struggles and triumphs of people whose lives are very different than my own.
And reading isn’t just an enjoyable pastime. Research has proven that reading makes us better people – more compassionate, more empathetic, and altruistic. Readers are better able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to imagine how other people might be feeling, what others are thinking, and act accordingly. Readers understand others and themselves better – reading builds emotional intelligence and intuition.
And this truth about reading makes me think about how we read scripture, and how it changes us for the better. Are you an observer, on the outside looking in, or do you try to find yourself in the story? I wonder where you found yourself in this passage from Luke, as Jesus shares these blessings.
It’s a bit of a puzzling passage, isn’t it? Troubling, even. Because it doesn’t sound so good for folks who are comfortable, who are content and pleased with their lives and in good standing with their communities. I don’t know about you, but more often than not, that’s where I find myself. With the ones he says “woe” to. Not whoa… woe, as in woe is you. Woe you who are rich, who are full, who laugh.
In this passage, Jesus turns our understanding of blessing upside down.
Because the people he says God blesses, well, they’re not the ones we expect! Blessed are the poor, the hungry, grieving, the reviled.
This is particularly challenging for us as North American Christians, because we probably hear people talk about blessing with some frequency. People claim to be blessed all the time. But a quick search on social media of the #Blessed will show you that our culture does not see blessings the way that Christ does. #blessed reveals photos of smiling families, beautiful homes, designer sneakers, exotic beaches. #blessed reveals the extent to which a lot of American Christian have bought into the prosperity gospel – the idea that abundance, good health, wealth, and power are a sign of God’s favor and blessing.
Kate Bowler is a Professor at Duke Divinity School, who studies the prosperity gospel and is living with cancer. Shortly after she learned she has stage four colon cancer, she wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes connecting her research to her life, grappling with her diagnosis in light of the prosperity gospel. She writes: “The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say ‘yes.’ It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.”
But we know this is not how God operates. Good people, faithful people get sick. Faith does not prevent suffering. It doesn’t guarantee long life. Bowler says friends, family, and colleagues struggled to make sense of her devastating diagnosis. “There has to be a reason,” she writes, “because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else…The most I can say about why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that bodies are delicate and prone to error. As a Christian, I can say that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully here, and so we get sick and die…”
In our reading this morning, we hear Jesus preaching to a crowd of people, and a lot of them were sick. Scripture tells us the crowds that followed him were people seeking healing, trying to touch him to receive the power that emanated from his being. In the midst of this crowd of hurting people, he offers a promise of blessing. Blessing to the poor, the hungry, grieving, the reviled. I take this to mean that precisely when we feel most isolated, troubled, and alone; when grief sucks the color from life or pain threatens to split us in two, God is most present to, and most concerned for us…in and through the care of our community.
Rick Ufford-Chase, peace activist and former co-moderator of the PCUSA, says he struggled with this passage until he realized that “blessed” can also be translated as “greatly honored.” God honors those who suffer, are poor, and marginalized, and we who seek to follow Christ must do the same.
We see this in the life and work of Jesus, who came to serve and teach and heal the poor people of Galilee, far from the halls of power. He walked with peasants and prostitutes, people struggling to get by in an occupied land. And everywhere he went, crowds of sick and suffering people followed him, seeking his presence and power. With these blessings and woes, Rick says, “Jesus was making it clear that his notion of community was a total re-orientation – a conscious move to bring those on the margins into the center of community life.”
In our Bible study this week, and in trying to find ourselves in this passage, we realized that the states of being Jesus describes aren’t permanent. We could be blessed one day and woe-begone the next! Grief gives way to joy, and then reemerges. Our hearts are big enough to hold both hope and pain at once. Wealth can be lost, and with inflation these days it feels like is quickly eroded by rising prices. So he might also be helping us see the impermanence and fragility of our existence, even as he calls us to center those who are most in need in our communities of faith and practice. With these blessings and woes, Jesus is building our empathy, our compassion for one another.
Yesterday morning, a group of us gathered in the fellowship hall. Jack Nesbitt has been hard at work, building cedar stands for a story walk that will be installed on our property. A Story Walk is a path that displays a book, page by page, for people to read as they walk. You can find one at the Ivy Bookshop, and at Lake Roland, and many other places if you’re not sure what I’m talking about. For our work day yesterday, Jack and Pat set up wood stain and sealant, paintbrushes and dropcloths. And folks came to pitch in: to sand, stain, and seal the posts and stands. Bill Curtis, Maddie, and I mapped out the walk, driving stakes into the ground where we hope the kiosks will go. It’s exciting, because it feels like our dream is so much closer to becoming reality.
The idea grew out of our concern for learning loss during the pandemic, kids falling behind in reading and literacy during the year of virtual school. One-on-one tutoring through our partner school wasn’t possible last year, but we felt if we could provide an engaging way for students and their families to read – by donating books, offering a little free library, and soon a story walk – with seasonal and other beloved books displayed page by page around the property – it would be a good thing. Good for Faith, and good for our neighbors – after all, reading’s not just an essential skill for academic success. We know it builds compassion, empathy, and altruism. It makes us better humans. And if that isn’t a blessing, I don’t know what is. Thanks be to God.
 Bowler, Kate, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me,” The New York Times, 2/13/16, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html
 Ufford-Chase, Rick, qtd. In a facebook post from the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice, 2/8/21,