The Third Century Roman philosopher, Celsus, spent much time criticizing Christian concepts which were emerging and spreading like wildfire across the Mediterranean world, and said contemptuously of the faith, “It attracts the sick, the fools, the lepers and the sinners.”
When my wife was in the cabinet of Minnesota Governor Jesse the Body Ventura, Jesse made a public statement that Christianity was for the weak. I agree with both statements!
The late Morton Kelsey, a writer and Episcopal priest wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth was the most democratic, down to earth of all the religious leaders the world has known. He offered a way for common people to encounter and experience God…simple people and beginners can have a genuine encounter with God in Jesus. It is a matter of learning how to respond to the love of such a God which Jesus offers us. His way was not just for the intellectuals or the full time professionals (that would be us) or the particularly pious. It was for everyone, particularly those who do not think they have a chance and those whom life has beaten down.” It is true, no matter how beaten down we are, how depressed, how without hope, how absolutely uninspired or common we are, through Jesus, the one both fully God and fully human being, who knew human joy, love, hope, loss and pain…even the excruciating pain of death on a cross, we can have access to the living God, the creator of the universe.
No self-respecting Greek or Roman or Persian priest in those days would ever describe the Gods they worshipped like the God we Christians worship—a God who not only pays no attention to how important, how rich, how attractive or how much we have achieved, but who gives special access and attention to those whom the world despises. Marcus Borg writes about the 3 A’s of our western society that are so prized. Achievement, Affluence and Appearance. In Jesus God has offered a way for us weak and very flawed human beings to encounter and experience God. We don’t need to possess the three A’s that the world so prizes. You don’t have to be a priest, professor of theology, or bishop to encounter God. In Jesus Christ, God comes to us. Jesus is called Emmanuel, God with us.
In Matthew’s gospel, what the Church has named the Beatitudes are delivered by Jesus in “The Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus in that version of the Beatitudes, is physically above the people, preaching down to them. In Luke’s version Jesus comes “down to a level place,” to be with a great multitude of people, many of whom were sick of body or spirit or both. It was so fitting that today we sang the old and familiar hymn, “Oh Master Let me Walk with thee.” Because in Luke’s version of these blessings, Jesus takes the initiative and walks with the people. In this Jesus reveals the nature of a God who, as the 139th Psalm says, will not give up on us, no matter what. “Lord, you have searched me out and known me.” And even if we flee, we read in that Psalm, “Where can I go then from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.” In coming to the people, reaching out, letting them touch him, God is encountered in the flesh! The people sensed what was afoot and wanted to touch Jesus, believing that simply by being close to him they would be made more whole.
Matthew’s Beatitudes deal with those struggling spiritually. In Matthew we read, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Luke we read, “blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Where Matthew says “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Luke says “blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Jesus was preaching to people who were actually hungry, actually abjectly poor, as well as to those who had power, money and influence. Theologians have spoken of the “gospel preference for the poor” which is found all throughout Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament. We hear today from Luke “woe to you who are rich! That is a shot across most of our bows. I have often thought that some of the saddest of all the Biblical characters are people just like most of us—those who are wealthy by the world’s standards (though almost no one will admit to being wealthy). Think of the rich young man who comes to Jesus and tells him that he has followed all the rules and wants to know what more he can do. Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. The rich young man goes away downcast, having come to the realization that it is unthinkable for him even to consider the command Jesus makes. “Where your treasure is, there will you heart be also” comes to mind.
But we make a mistake if we think these Beatitudes and the teachings of Jesus about the Kingdom of God are meant to glorify physical poverty. There is just a sober reminder that those of us who have so much in this world can become inordinately attached to these things.
The Jewish Rabbis over the centuries have written commentary on the scriptures which are called Midrash. We Christians also have many commentaries, and if I were writing a commentary on the story of the rich young man, I would have this alternative ending. The rich young man immediately responds to Jesus with great excitement. “I’ll do it! Right now I go and sell all I have to give the money to the poor!” And Jesus will smile and say, “that’s wonderful, but 10% will do. Just wanted to know whether your things own you, or whether you know that all you have comes from God.”
Luke’s gospel was a scandal to the people in the Greco-Roman world. The rich and powerful despised the poor and took pains to preserve the gulf between them—perhaps not unlike today’s America where the gap between the rich and the poor is the largest ever, and the rich often hide behind the walls of gated communities and avoid the poor altogether. The social teachings in Luke make it clear that both the rich and the poor are in the same spiritual boat. Go home and read the Gospel of Luke from beginning to end. You will discover the vision of a community in which rich and poor alike are spiritual equals, a challenge to vigorously address the economic inequalities simply because we are all children of God, and that we are loved equally by the One who made us.
God always seems to find a way to reach us, to be close to us, to touch our hearts. In my parish in Minnesota there was a profoundly disabled child. Chester was 8. He could not speak, he could not hear, he could not feed himself and he could not even sit up. He had to be brought to church in a modified wheel chair. But Chester’s parents made sure he was always there. Sometimes he would make sounds that would prompt his parents to take him out of church even though they said no one ever indicated that they should. After the service, Chester’s parents always brought him for a blessing. One Sunday, only weeks after my father had died, and I was so very sad, Chester came for a blessing. But as I leaned down toward him to bless him, as I always did, he reached up and held my face in his small hands. He made a sound that I had never heard before, a sound that soothed and comforted me, and I knew, knew beyond all knowing, that God had chosen Chester to bless me. “Blessed are you who weep now…for you will laugh…and Chester laughed…he held my face in his hands and laughed…and I cried…that’s how it must have been for the people into whom Jesus waded that day. People like me so desperately wanting to know that they were loved, accepted, that their tears would some day again be dried and that laughter would return seeking the one who could assure us of that love.
My daughter is a seminarian who recently had to be hospitalized for an illness she contracted overseas. Her five year old son, my grandson, Will, went to see her in the hospital, and his grandmother gave him some water from St. Bridgit’s well in Ireland. Will, looking quite solemn, poured out some of the water from the holy well on his hands, and made the sign of the cross three times on his momma’s forehead with the water, and intoned in a very grown up voice, “God, bless this woman!”
Dear Ones, our God is like that. If we lack the courage or the will to reach out to touch the Christ like the people in today’s gospel did, the God whom Christ came to reveal will find a way to touch us. The Christian mystic and saint, Catherine of Sienna wrote this poem in the 14th century. For me, it expresses the nature of our relationship with the Holy One. “I won’t take no for an answer, God began to say to me, when he opened his arms each night, wanting to dance.”
Yes, our God is wholly unlike anything the world has ever seen before. This is a God who might just choose one of us, flawed as we are, or a child, or one the world has rejected, as it rejected Jesus, to do the work of the Kingdom of God. Strange as it seems, that is how’s God works in this world. So let us dance!