February 17, 2019, The 6th Sunday after the Epiphany Year C, Luke 6:17-26
#Blessed is a popular way that people tag their social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to let people know just how wonderfully blessed they feel their lives are or at least how much they want everyone else to believe that their lives are blessed. For those unfamiliar, how it works is that people will go into their social media account and share a picture or a sentence or two about something that has happened in their life and they will add #Blessed to let you know just how great this experience of theirs is and just how blessed by God they feel as a result of it. For the past several years #Blessed has been one of the more popular hashtags on the various social media platforms.
Back in 2014 in her NY Times article entitled “They Feel ‘Blessed,’” Jessica Bennett shared some of the ways that #Blessed had recently appeared in her social media feeds as posted by her friends and those she followed on those platforms.
A friend was admitted to grad school. #Blessed to be there.
A yoga instructor was leading a retreat at a spa in the Caribbean. #Blessed to be teaching in paradise.
A new mother outfitted her daughter in a tiny designer dress. #Blessed it finally fits after a year of waiting.
A colleague had fifty-seven Facebook wall posts in honor of her birthday. #Blessed for all the love.
And I’m sure that’s just a fraction of what she saw and that those of us who use social media have seen by way of blessing in our friends posts over time. Job promotion. #Blessed. Wonderful husband, wife, or fiancé. #Blessed. Great seats for Hamilton. #Blessed. Dinner at an expensive NYC restaurant. #Blessed. Whole happy family together for a Sunday afternoon of apple picking. #Blessed.
Jessica Bennett writes about this way of expressing blessing in one’s life, “There’s nothing quite like invoking holiness as a way to brag about your life. But calling something ‘blessed’ has become the go-to term for those wanting to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/fashion/blessed-becomes-popular-word-hashtag-social-media.html)
This phenomenon and its negative impact on social media participants who feel inferior to others in light of how blessed it seems so many other people in our society are, led to an NPR piece by Jasmine Garsd last year that questioned, “#Blessed: Is Everyone Happier Than You On Social Media?” (https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/636016812/-blessed-is-everyone-happier-than-you-on-social-media)
This competition over who is leading the more blessed life indicates how we as human beings tend to think about blessings as limited commodities bestowed upon us by God as a result of our personal efforts to earn them. We think they are related to our success and achievement in living a good life that God approves of. This is in line with what is called the prosperity gospel where the thinking goes that if good things happen to us, it is a direct result of us doing things that are pleasing to God. This way of thinking has much in common with some strains of Judaism in Jesus’ day that believed that God blessed you with health, wealth, and power if you pleased God. Of course, they believed that the opposite was true as well. If you were poor, diseased, and oppressed it was because you weren’t living as God wanted so you were being punished.
Then comes Jesus and turns their world and this way of thinking upside down in a shocking way as we see in our gospel reading today. It isn’t often that we read Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. We are likely more familiar with the version in Matthew’s gospel. Likely because Matthew’s spiritualized version is a bit more comfortable for us to sit with. After all, Luke’s “blessed are the poor” seems much less acceptable to our ears than Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s version seems to grant God’s favor to those on the opposite end of the spectrum than our human way of thinking believes is a fair method for designating those vying for God’s favor and blessing. This way we find in Luke would seem to leave a lot more of us out in the cold and without God’s favor because we don’t fit the narrow definition of who the blessed are anymore. And that can leave us anxious or uncomfortable because we no longer meet what we perceive as fair criteria to identify ourselves as #Blessed anymore.
We see here that Luke and Matthew take two different approaches to the Beatitudes. You’ll remember that Matthew’s Beatitudes are part of the Sermon on the Mount in his gospel as Jesus goes up the mountain to share them, evoking memories of Moses giving God’s people the law in the Ten Commandments. While in Luke, Jesus comes down off the mountain to give what is called the less famous Sermon on the Plain. He comes down the mountain to be with and among the great multitude of people gathered there – outsiders from Tyre and Sidon, those with diseases in need of healing, and those possessed by unclean spirits in need of cleansing. Jesus comes down to announce a new world order to them. An order that changes everything for them as God in Jesus comes and meets them where they are at and joins with them in their pain and suffering.
This new order is the same one Mary announced at Jesus’ birth in her Magnificat where she sang of her son being the one to bring down the powerful from their thrones, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, and to send the rich away empty. It’s also the same world order Jesus announced a few chapters ago and that we heard in worship a few Sundays ago when he preached in his hometown in Nazareth announcing that in him the Prophet Isaiah’s prophecy had come to fruition as he had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind. In Luke’s gospel Jesus announces just how different the kingdom of God will look when compared to what we think we know of how God works or would like God to work according to our perceived sense of fairness.
Our sense of fairness isn’t the same as God’s as we see in the reading though. As liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes of it, “God has a preferred love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves, but in God, in the gratuitousness and universality of God’s agapeic love.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, “Song and Deliverance,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991) 131.)
This same preference of God is true for those who are hungry, who weep, and who are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed, as all these go against God’s will for God’s people too. And those experiencing woe – the rich, the full, the laughing, and those who are spoken well of? On the surface these things don’t actually seem so bad to us. We might even be inclined to post #Blessed on social media when we experience such things in our lives. However, the problem comes when these things become our focus and separate us from God and God’s will for humanity. In his Beatitudes Jesus calls us away from our focus on such things because that focus will only bring us woe. And instead he calls us to focus on him and enjoy his alternative way of blessing. He calls us to embrace God’s topsy turvy vision for the world and lean into it by following him in this way. Because with this vision God breaks down our understandings of how we think things should be and how we think we have to live by announcing the coming of a new reality and way of life for us all. A way of freedom for each and every one of us, not just a select chosen blessed few.
Too often we try to fit God I not our narrow understanding of how we think the way of God’s blessing should work in the world. A way where we think we can identify those who are blessed by the level of success, health, and happiness they rack up in life. Jesus blows this understanding out of the water in our gospel reading though. Because here he tells us that when we try to box God in with this understanding of who is in and who is out on the blessed list, we will find that God upends the box to reveal that the box alone cannot contain all of God’s mercy, love, and grace. Instead, with Jesus ushering in this new age of God’s kingdom the way of blessing becomes less a competition for a limited number of spots on the blessed list and more a wide welcome for all to embrace their identity as one of God’s beloved on account of the Son of Man who sees us all as blessed simply because we belong to him and are followers of his way. Amen.