“Blessings and Woes”

This sermon is inspired by Ronald Allen, Professor Emeritus of Preaching, Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis; Ernie Allen, a Nazarene Pastor in Chattanooga; and Rev. Clyde Steckel.

In 2017, the New England Patriot’s won Super Bowl LI by a score of 34-28 over the Falcons. After the game, the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s game jersey went missing. It was supposed to be put on the equipment truck with all the other game-used gear, but someone was able to sneak into the locker room and stole it. The Patriots and their fans went into a panic. Patriots owner Robert Kraft condemned the theft and said that he considered the jersey to be worth as much as a Picasso painting. He asked who in the world would take such a valuable jersey? And whoever it was, did they even know how much pain and suffering they were causing? Then things then got ridiculous. A jersey that anyone can go on line for and buy for around 120 bucks became iconic. Suddenly, this used, grass-stained, sweaty, smelly jersey was valued by the police to be worth $500,000.

Because the game was played in Texas, the Texas Rangers, the NFL, and even the FBI all began a huge joint investigation that spread out over the next few weeks. Hundreds of person hours were spent combing through locker room video tape and investigating leads. Then, the case of Brady’s missing jersey became an international incident because the primary suspect worked for a Mexican media firm, which meant the Mexican government were drawn into the investigation. Ultimately, the jersey was found and was returned to Brady. Case solved.

Amen that Brady got his jersey back. But to think that a stinky jersey, a jersey that anyone can buy for around $120 is suddenly worth $500,000, is to allow the world to warp your thinking. Of course, this happens all the time. The world around us—and we ourselves—puts high values on things that are not actually valuable. And we allow society and people around us to devalue us by others defining our worth. Life’s experiences can play a big part in how we see ourselves when we listen to those who seek to manipulate us and when we accept that which we know cannot be true

In the 12-step community, this is called “stinkin’ thinkin’”—when we give power to others to determine who we are. We all do it. Guilty as charged. But here’s the deal: it’s entirely possible that Jesus himself may have doubted his self-worth. There were times that his own family doubted him and the Pharisees and the scribes—and many others—certainly did their best to manipulate and discredit him. As a flesh and blood man, he must have been affected by this. In the paragraphs preceding the one we heard in Luke, the Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus in a con by testing whether he could actually heal someone, which he did. This made the Pharisees angry. But this experience—and the large crowds—led Jesus to realize that the problems of the world are numerous and that he needed a community of others to work with him. So Jesus went to the mountain to pray. Later, he gathered the twelve disciples who would become his followers and who would go into the world with him.

First, Jesus prayed, then he gathered others, and then they went out into the world in community. Pray, gather, go into the community. When we face problems, we humanoids tend to do things the other way around. When we have a problem, we first try to solve it ourselves, and if that doesn’t work we might call our friends, and only when all else fails might we say a prayer. For Jesus, mission begins in prayer. And now Jesus is with a crowd who had come to him to be healed. He reaches out to those no one else wanted to be around. To those who were hurting and suffering emotionally, socially, financially and spiritually. Jesus reached out to those who were being marginalized and to those who were being shoved to the side, and to those who many thought would be better off hidden away or dead. And by his presence and by his touch he was saying to them that God wants to take away their pain—and ours. That God wants to live inside their heart, inside their life—and inside ours. And that God believed in their pricelessness and in their blessedness.

The word “blessed” originates from the Greek word “makarios.” Some scholars believe that the word “happy” is a closer translation but that would trivialize the message of Luke’s profound Beatitude message. Makarios was first used to describe the Gods. They were blessed and then their loyal followers were called “blessed.” The difference between happiness and blessedness is significant. Here are a couple of my blessings.

This afternoon, Jane and I are going on an overnight retreat with confirmands and mentors to the Audubon Nature Center. At the retreat, we will be focusing on a program called Our Whole Lives, or OWL. The OWL curriculum provides honest, accurate information about safe and healthy sexuality. It dismantles stereotypes and assumptions, builds self-acceptance and self-esteem, fosters healthy relationships, improves decision making, and helps people make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior. This program is a blessing for us to facilitate. Some of the exercises will undoubtedly create some giggling and nervous laughter— and that is completely okay. The relationships that our young people already have with each other and with adults around them will be deepened, and they will have important information about healthy sexuality to take into the rest of their lives.

Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with London, Gabe, Jia and Maeve. It was the first time they’d been together in a long while and watching and listening to them reconnect was a blessing. I watched them laugh and enjoy each other’s company and at times, it was as if I wasn’t even there—and that is exactly the way it should be. Spending time teaching, listening and learning from our young people is a profound blessing for me and it helps me to understand what “blessing” actually is: a holy experience where my connection to God is deepened.

Now, what are your blessings? What Holy experience deepens your connection with God? No need to shout out your answer—unless you want to—but I’m going to ask you to take a minute to reflect on your blessings.

Now, Luke’s Beatitudes says some harsh things about the rich. The woeful, as they are called, can mistake their wealth, their overflowing tables, good times, and elite relationships as God’s highest purposes for them. The passage says, “You who are rich have already received your comfort. You who are well-fed will go hungry. You who laugh will mourn and weep. When everyone speaks well of you, that is how false prophets are treated.”

Did you know that iron pyrite is commonly called “fool’s gold?” Those whose wealth only perpetuates more wealth, whose wealth is ill-gotten, or whose wealth oppresses others are likely to have a reckoning coming. But before we ban the rich to a far away island, or to the place where the text says, “no life can be found,” God’s realm has a different view. The parables of the Sower, the Rich Fool, the story of Zacchaeus and many other stories in Luke and in the book of Acts, describe that what God really wants is for the rich to share their wealth with those who are in need. This becomes an opportunity for both those who are poor in spirit or possessions and for the rich to realize that God seeks to bless everyone by our acceptance of what we hear earlier in Jeremiah: “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my prophet.” And from Psalm 139, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made in your image; your works are wonderful and I know that full well.”

The Good News is that these passages apply to everyone, without exception. Tom Brady’s jersey became a symbol of everything that is wrong with the world but God blesses us through the “stinkin’ thinkin’” about false idols, through the fool’s gold, and through our questioning of our self worth. “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointe