“Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the hated.” To quote one commentator, “Really?” E. Elizabeth Johnson explains: “To be blessed is to have a special place in God’s heart, not merely to be happy.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, p. 239) Jesus’ strange, upside down kind of blessing. promises a reversal of fortunes: nourishing food for the hungry, laughter for tired hearts an inheritance of security for the vulnerable. It all sounds pretty good up until this point. But that’s not it. There’s more. With the blessings come the woes. “Woe to you… who are rich, full, laughing and who enjoy a good reputation…” Is Jesus really cursing those with savings accounts, and plentiful tables, happy hearts and nice resumes?
To quote E. Elizabeth Johnson again: “If you want anything to do with Jesus or the God who sent him, Luke says, you had better go and find the poor, the hungry, the captives, the blind and the outcast, and join Jesus, as Jesus cares for them. The way we know who Jesus is, is to go where Jesus is…” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, p. 239)
On the 3rd Saturday morning of the month, church folks go to the food shelf at Community Emergency Services to pack up and deliver groceries for residents of St. Paul’s home, a low income apartment building in the Phillips neighborhood. I join the group on the third Saturday regularly with our daughter Eliza. I do it to help, of course. But I also go because it is a formational experience for both of us. Our time there helps form, and reform me, and my view of the world, according to Jesus’ viewpoint and Jesus’ priorities. It cracks open the shell of my protected and privileged life and acquaints me with people in very different circumstances. It addresses my ignorance – not ignorance of facts and figures but an ignorance of the heart, of a spiritual kind. What does it really mean to be hungry in our society of excess? What is life like when you are poor?
It seems to me that Jesus’ woes are not a threat of punishment but a warning that God does not “bless” the status quo of inequity. The education achievement gap. The racial jobs gap. The astonishing percentage of carbon emissions for which we in the US are responsible. The working Americans who do not make a living wage, and must rely on SNAP (food stamps) to feed their families. After this week, these families will be missing more meals because our congress allowed SNAP benefits to be cut five percent on Nov 1. More cuts may be coming depending on what happens with the farm bill.
Even Jesus’ woes offer a complicated sort of blessing. The real problem with the wealth, comfort and privilege that many of us enjoy is that it is established on false pretenses. It is built on the foundation of others’ suffering. Jesus promises that this edifice cannot stand. And that is, actually, good news. He promises that God is provoking radical change that may unsettle those of us who benefit from the current state of affairs. But, ultimately, Jesus promises that we will all be blessed by this upheaval, because we will all be freed from the ways of oppression.
It is difficult to live as disciples of Jesus, welcoming God’s upside down blessing for ourselves and our world. We need companions and role models on this journey. Saints with a capital “S” inspire and challenge us. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dorothy Day. Ghandi. Mother Teresa. But truth be told, though we admire these great people, most of us can’t really emulate them. We also need saints with a small s, ordinary everyday people– saints who yell at their kids and don’t have time to clean the bathroom saints who are filled with self-doubt and selfishness saints who struggle to overcome addictions and disorders saints weighed down by grief and gripped by fear.
I carry around my own eclectic band of small s saints. A white haired lady named Elfrieda who taught me to walk up creeks and sleep under the stars. A cranky high school history teacher who never gave answers to memorize, only questions to ponder. My parents. Now that I am a parent, I get it. Any number people in the churches I have served who have faced loss or hardship with integrity and grace.
God knows these ordinary saints aren’t perfect. That isn’t the point. The point is: they are blessed, they are holy, they are faithful, not all on their own, but because God’s light shines through them. God’s mercy upholds, strengthens and heals them. And God’s yearning for transformation inhabits them. Let’s take a few minutes for quiet reflection. Who are your saints with a small “s”? Who has shed light on your path of faith? Who has shown you how to live into God’s blessing, how to be faithful in daily, ordinary, and imperfect ways?