Epiphany VI — February 15, 2004
Grace Church, Utica
Today’s Gospel lesson is one that is comforting, but also disturbing. It is a mixture of blessings and admonitions. What is particularly bothersome is that the conditions and situations that are blessed, don’t really seem blessed at all; those that carry warnings, are very enticing. This is something Jesus frequently does in Luke's gospel. It seems as if Jesus is setting out to do what one famous preacher described as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” The word “blessed” can quite appropriately be translated as “happy.” The word “woe” is used as a warning. There is a sense of doom about it. Jesus seems to be saying, “you who are really in hard places are blessed.” And, “you who are comfortable are doomed.” And let’s face it, this isn’t particularly good news for those of us who have a tendency to seek comfort and entertainment in our lives. Is poverty a prerequisite to being happy? God forbid, is being well-fed a sign of doom?
There is a story about a person who felt each of the messages in this gospel in a very personal way. It’s about a man who belonged to a congregation in the United States that did a number of shot-term mission projects in Latin America. In this particular instance, the mission work involved the funding and building of a medical clinic in a very poor community. The people of this community had no access to medical care— not even the most basic emergency services. There wasn't even a place to buy aspirin. A few years earlier, one visitor to the community reported, “if a sick child doesn't get well because it is loved and prayed for, then that child doesn't get well.” It was this observation that motivated the leadership of the parish to build the clinic.
So, money was raised, parishioners volunteered their time and talent to make the trip, and the clinic was built. For the first time ever, this village had a basic resource for health care. Lives were saved and changed; and it was done in the name of Christ.
A family that lived in the village decided to thank the people who had come there to build the clinic. They decided to have a meal in their honor. This family was very poor. Their home consisted of three non-mortared walls of cinder blocks. The roof was corrugated metal, laying on poles, held down by rocks. The kitchen was outside and consisted of a hearth with a grate and a clay oven. There were no chairs, no table. The plates were metal.
In contrast, the food was glorious. There was chicken and rice, beans, well seasoned avocados, a fresh salsa, tropical fruits, and sugared pastries. There were fresh, hot, hand-made tortillas. And there was Coke and even a bottle of rum to celebrate.
During the meal this parishioner from the United States realized that the cost of the food was equal to more than six weeks of income for the people hosting the party. His first thought was to give the hosts the money as soon as the meal was finished; but as he thought about it, he realized that this would be very patronizing and would dishonor the hosts. The next thought was to give the money to the village priest so that later on he could slip the money to them. But again, upon reflection, he could only conclude that action would also be insulting. Finally, he decided to simply enjoy the meal with profound appreciation and gratitude.
Later, in reflecting on this experience, he said, “It was the greatest honor I have ever received. That family spent six weeks of income to thank and honor me. No one else has ever come close to that. I realized that these people were the richest family I had ever known. They are so rich that they could spend six weeks of income on a banquet to honor people that they would never see again in this world. I only spent about a month's worth of income to celebrate our daughter’s wedding— a marriage that has given me grandchildren who are the dearest things in my life. How poor and stingy I am. My hosts, on the other hand, are rich and generous.”
In Christ, God is like those poor people of that Latin American village. Jesus, Lord of all, makes himself poor, even to accepting the worst kind of death, in order to generously shower us with love and forgiveness. What do we make of this? How do we respond?
First, we must accept that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s wisdom seems foolish and contradictory to most of us. God freely and unconditionally gave us love and forgiveness in a lavish fashion— not because we did something for him. In fact God's giving of love and forgiveness coincides with a horrible offense against God, in Jesus’ death on the cross. How different from the way most of us are. We try to reward those who do us great service, often in the cheapest way possible. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we tend to seek bargains in our expressions of gratitude.
Secondly, There is no way we can repay God for this gift of unconditional love. There is also no way that we can earn or deserve it. It defies logic. But, it seems to be God’s nature to love the worst, most notorious and evil sinner in history as much as the most sacrificial saint.
Finally, since we can't really understand it and really can't deserve God's love, we are called to sit quietly and enjoy it--- to accept it, humbly and graciously. It’s only as we accept that we are absolutely, unconditionally, loved by God and then live in that love, that we can begin to gain some understanding of Jesus’ teaching and then begin to live with some of the freedom of those rich, but poor people. Then, and only then, can the paradoxical, seemingly contradictory teachings of Jesus begin to make sense to us. Then and only then can we truly be blessed.
© James M. Jensen