Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
Not long ago I watched Paul Elie interview the novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78_UKtCYJ_s ) Elie is with Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
I have never been able to connect with Franzen’s fiction, but I do like his essays. In the course of a very interesting interview, Elie asks Franzen if he considers himself to be a Christian. Franzen has written in a couple of essays about his experiences of being part of a church and youth group when he was an adolescent.
I found Franzen’s response interesting. Franzen became, and not for the first time in the interview, uncomfortable looking. Franzen said no he is not a Christian. But, he explained, that early in his career, before his writing was recognized, he was going through personal issues. There is one year in particular that he considers to be the worst year in his life. He felt very alone. He felt needy. He felt disoriented. At that point he began to talk to God. And believe. And hope. He may have even gone to worship a time or two. But, then, life got better. Personal issues resolved. His writing began to be recognized. Success soon found him. Subsequently, he quit talking to God. He just didn’t need to do it anymore.
Franzen does not self-identify as a Christian. I don’t think he is hostile to God or to Christians, but he definitely does not want to be counted among our number.
I do not think that Franzen’s experience is unique. When life gets better, people often forget about God or the Church or Worship. We really don’t need him now, because life is busy and full and we have everything we need. No worries. Or, if there are worries, it is all manageable.
In the gospel lesson today, we hear Jesus pronounce blessings and woes. The blessings sound very similar to the Beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. But, there is no parallel text for the woes in any of the gospels. Only Luke captures these words of Jesus:
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Why would Jesus say these words? And, why would Luke record these words when Matthew, Mark, and John do not?
We are told that when Jesus entered unto this plain, or level place, there was "a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.”
Jesus faced a great throng of people who were in desperate need of what he could offer. Jesus spoke Truth. People need and want to hear Truth even when it is uncomfortable. Jesus forgave people. The experience of forgiveness is different with Jesus. In the temple you have to offer a sacrifice of some kind in order to be forgiven. Jesus forgave with the authority of the Heavenly Father. It was a free gift. Jesus healed people. Jesus had the power
But, then, when you get what you desperately need, what happens? When we can walk straight finally and go back to work, how long is it before we forget about the disability or how we came to be well? When the guilt of our sin is removed by the Word of Jesus, how long is it before we forget just how messed up we were before Jesus forgave us? Do we go right back into the same mess?
The “woes” serve as a warning for those who are willing to hear and remember. When you have money in your pocket and you have regular access to food and when you can laugh because you no longer have pain; don’t forget about God. Don’t forget what God has done to you, for you, with you, through Jesus. Don’t forget, or else your new and improved life is all that you will have. Should you forget God, He may no longer count you as being a part of the kingdom of God. When death comes and we are before Jesus the Judge, he may very well let the goodness of our life stop at our death. No eternal joy for us because we have already had our reward.
Of the four Gospel writers, Luke in particular is concerned that Christians not be deceived by the comforts and security of the good life. Good health and material wealth and the approval of our peers are good things and they are of God. But, they can bring complacency with our faith. When life is good and pleasant and easier, don’t forget that it is God who has given all of this to you in the first place. Remember to always, in every circumstance, to pray, praise, and give thanks to God.
But, for those who are not experiencing the best that life has to offer. Jesus offers promises. They are the blessings that Jesus speaks of. When you are suffering, when you are downtrodden, when you weep, when you are forgotten; God sees you. God will lift you up. Do not become bitter or cynical. Be filled with faith, hope, and love. Trust God. In faith, love and support your neighbor.
Jesus comes for all of us. His cross and resurrection is for all of humanity. His healing and forgiveness is for everyone. We cannot forget this.
All God’s people say…Amen.