Curses and Blessings

Sermon for Sunday, February 17, 2019 || Epiphany 6C || Luke 6:17-26

Imagine with me an entry from the journal of Caleb of Jerusalem, a fictional bystander in today’s Gospel story.

The pen shakes in my hand as I begin to write. The hairs on the back of my neck are still standing up. My heart is still pounding in my chest. Today I was healed. I was healed and I didn’t even know I was sick.

This is what happened. I was returning to Jerusalem from a business trip in Sepphoris. I recently purchased a new quarry in that region, and I needed to oversee operations for a few days. My business is booming even though I only have one customer—the Romans procure my stone like the land might run out it tomorrow.

I was returning to Jerusalem from Sepphoris when my caravan got caught up in a huge crowd of people. I lashed out with my whip trying to clear a path, but to no avail. So I stopped fighting the current of people and turned my mount eastward with the flow. The crowd was making for a smaller group of people picking their way down the mountainside. My curiosity whetted, I spurred my mount toward them. One man seemed to be getting the most attention as the mass of people pressed in. He moved through the crowd touching them one by one.

Then he began to speak. I was still too far away to catch his first words. I came closer and asked a boy who this man was. “Jesus, a prophet and healer of great power.” What’s this Jesus talking about? “Blessings, sir, blessings for us all!”

I basked in the catalogue of my blessings: my booming company, my cozy relationship with my client, the large breakfast I ate at my cliff-top apartment, my stocked treasury, my standing in the business –

I stopped counting, realizing Jesus had paused. The crowd leaned in, expecting more. And he looked right at me. I felt my stomach turn. I tried to hold his gaze, but it was like standing too close to a fire. I looked away, but I could feel his eyes still on me, searching me, scorching me. He spoke again: “But woe,” he said, “to you who are rich for you have received your consolation.” Woe to you who are full now. Woe to you when all speak well of you. Each phrase scalded me like oil that leaps from a frying pan. No, he can’t mean me. I follow the law, I lead a good life—and God has blessed me with an abundance of…

But in a place deeper than my mind a small voice, barely audible, whispered, “He is talking to you.”

I slid from my saddle and pressed the reins into the boy’s hands. In a haze, I took a weak-kneed step forward, then another and another. Jesus was now talking about love and forgiveness, even for the most unlikely people. I continued my slow walk towards him, pushing through pockets of people. I noticed a welt on a woman’s wrist and wondered if I had made the cut with my whip when I was fighting against the crowd on the road. The woman looked at me, concern written on her face, and put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. I steadied myself on her arm. I took another step forward, and the woman continued to walk with me.

Jesus finished speaking and looked at me again. And again I felt the heat rise in my face. I took a final step, stumbled, and my knees came down in the sharp gravel. Jesus caught me and pulled me to my feet. The woman, his companions, and the great crowd hovered in the obscurity outside our connection. I felt like my entire world, my whole being, all my life was made for this one moment. “What do you seek?” he asked.

I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. My mind raced. “What do you seek,” Jesus said again, “Don’t think, just answer.”

I opened my mouth again, and this time words spilled from my lips. “I have all I’ve ever wanted, I thought I was blessed, but everything you said was a curse to me. Lord, please give me your blessing.”

I looked into his eyes, which held the fire of his conviction. His mouth spread into a grin and he chuckled. “Good answer,” he said, “but you need to be careful what you ask for. True, you are blessed by the standards of this world. But my kingdom is not of this world. If you truly desire my blessing, know that it will continue to feel like a curse to you, at least for a time. I will bless you by opening your eyes to all the ways your privileged status denies opportunity to others. I will bless you by making you painfully aware of how your full life contributes to the empty lives of others. I will bless you with the desire and the ability to repent, to change your heart and life.”

I pulled myself from his grip and shuffled backwards. I was just heading home from a business trip. I joined this crowd on a whim. I wasn’t ready for this. But something had drawn me to him, some inner longing for a truth beyond the one around which I had built my life. The feeling of being made for this moment held me there, and Jesus stepped to me.

“Know that I love you,” he said. “I show my love for you, by making you aware of how I love those you’ve never noticed before. And know that because I love you, you can change. This day your healing has begun. Now, what are you going to do?”

I opened my lips, no sound came out. “What are you going to do,” he said again, “Don’t think, just answer.”

“I will follow you, Lord. But I don’t know how.”

He let go of me and turned to the woman with the welt on her wrist. “Live with the affliction of my blessing,” he called back to me. “Live with the sting of my love, and together we will change your heart and this world.”

I waited for him to finish speaking with the woman, and then we supported each other back to the road. She bid me farewell, and I noticed the welt was gone. I returned to Jerusalem wondering what had just happened. I hadn’t been expecting my life to change, and now I have a choice. Will I let it? As I close this journal entry, I think about what tomorrow brings. Which set of blessings will I embrace? The presumed blessing of static comfort or the true blessing dynamic affliction? I think I’ll be making that same choice everyday for the rest of my life. But everyday, Jesus will be with me. I believe that. I will see the fire in his eyes convicting me. And I will remember that he continues to heal me so that I may be a healing presence in this world.

I wrote the original version of this story way back in 2007, but revisiting it this time it took on an entirely new life and message, as I changed the focus and rewrote over half of it. I am so glad I finally got to preach this story.

Banner art: Detail from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Gustave Dore

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