St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, February 17, 2019
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
First Lesson: Jeremiah 17:5-10
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Gospel: Luke 6:17-26
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
Blessed. That’s a loaded word, isn’t it?
This may be surprising to hear from a priest, but I have to admit that I cringe a little bit when I hear someone use the word blessed- not because I don’t believe that God blesses us with all the gifts we’ve been given but because it can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that God has rewarded us with what we’ve been given. There’s a big difference between a gift and a reward. So, it’s important that we’re careful with how we use the word “blessed.” It can easily be interpreted as a way of saying that God favors certain people over others, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
A few years ago, I came across an article in The New York Times written by a young woman from North Carolina who had been recently diagnosed with stage-four cancer. The author’s name was Kate Bowler, and the title of her article was “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me.”
In the article, she wrote about the experience of receiving the life-changing news of her illness. Describing her initial reaction, she wrote, “I did the things you might expect of someone whose world has suddenly become very small. I sank to my knees and cried. I called my husband at our home nearby. I waited until he arrived so we could wrap our arms around each other and say the things that must be said. ‘I have loved you forever. I am so grateful for our life together. Please take care of our son.’Then he walked me from my office to the hospital to start what was left of my new life.”
As I continued reading Kate Bowler’s article, I was captivated by her willingness to share such a personal story with so many people and her brutal honesty about a belief among many Christians that, according to the author, “tries to solve the riddle of human suffering,” a belief about God that tries to provide an answer for some of life’s most difficult questions, such as:
“Why did this happen to me?”
“What did I do to deserve this?”
“Why do bad things happen to good people?”
These are questions that all of us have asked ourselves at one time or another, usually prompted by some form of tragedy in our lives or in the lives of our closest friends and family.
The belief that I’m talking about is the “prosperity gospel.”
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “prosperity gospel,” it’s probably because it’s a relatively new term, used to describe a particular way of thinking about God and God’s relationship with us. It suggests that, if you abide by certain rules and live your life a certain way, God will send blessings upon you and reward you with good health and good fortune.
It also suggests that if something bad happens to you, such as being diagnosed with a terminal disease, it happened because you didn’t have enough faith in God. It suggests that God didn’t prevent you from getting the disease because you didn’t do the things you were supposed to do. You didn’t pray long enough. You didn’t say the right prayers. You didn’t believe hard enough.
Followers of the “prosperity gospel” use it as a way to explain why good things happen to some people and bad things happen to others. Of course, there are a lot of serious problems with this way of thinking, but perhaps the most troubling problem is that it actually contradicts what Jesus teaches us in the Gospels about who is blessed by God.
In our lesson this morning from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to his disciples:
“Blessed are you who are poor…”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now…”
“Blessed are you who weep now…”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are you who have everything figured out in your lives.” He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you who have perfect faith in God.” And he doesn’t say, “Blessed are you who do everything right.”
He also doesn’t say, “Blessed are you who have been given good health and good fortune.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hurting and in pain. The Kingdom of God belongs to you.”
Luke’s version of the Beatitudes reminds us that even in the midst of our most epic failures and our most tragic moments, even when it feels like we’ve been abandoned by God and left to suffer on our own, there’s never a moment when we aren’t being showered by God’s grace and mercy. There’s never a moment when we aren’t being held in the loving hands of our Creator.
The “prosperity gospel” teaches that God’s grace is conditional. According to Kate Bowler, it “has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule,which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder.” “At some point,” she writes, “we must say to ourselves, ‘I’m going to need to let go.’”
As reassuring as it may seem at times, the “prosperity gospel” doesn’t provide us with explanations or answers, and it doesn’t provide us with the security that we so desire. Rather, it provides us with the delusion of believing that we can form God into our own image instead of allowing the image of God to form us.
Jesus, on the other hand, teaches us that God’s grace is unconditional. There’s nothing we can do or say that can separate us from the love of God. There’s also nothing we can do or say to earn God’s favor or to be rewarded by God. God sends blessings upon all of us. All we have to do is open our eyes each day, and we can see God at work in our lives. When bad things do happen (and they will), we know that God is there to walk beside us and to lift us up through it all. God is never the source of our pain. God is always the source of our healing. Amen.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.