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Luke 6:17-26, from The Common English Bible
I’m not going to lie to you:
Scripture passages like these cause no end of confusion. They make the way of the world, which is to say the way of the people in it, far more cut and dried than it is, way more black and white than we are, entirely too much this or that and altogether binary than the way things actually are.
Sayings like these curses and blessings and woes raise all manner of unrealistic, even false, expectations:
That if we just follow the directions, things will work out. That what does or doesn’t happen to us is a reflection of what we have or haven’t done. That bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people, and that everything happens for a reason. That if we just trust in God everything will be fine—no! Much better than fine.
After all, who wouldn’t want to be like a tree planted by water, so deeply rooted in divine goodness and grace that not even drought—a common biblical metaphor for suffering, wilderness, starvation, and all manner of hard times—could keep it from thriving?
But most of us know things aren’t that simple. Many of us have devoted our lives to making nice and playing by the rules, and still we struggle. The list of horrible things that have happened to wonderful people we know is longer than our arms. Being woke is truly painful, because it means we can no longer ignore the blatant inhumanities and ongoing injustices—things like slavery, white supremacy, institutional racism, and mass incarceration—that have made our country and, to a certain extent, our lives as powerful and privileged as they are.
And if we’re paying any attention at all, it’s hard to deny that many of the rich and powerful people who put their trust in their own strength and smarts, privilege and wealth, weapons and walls, seem to be doing just fine, thank you very much—supported as they are by people who are frightened and misinformed, overly protective of what they think they is theirs and forever planted by livestreams of Fox so-called News.
So why would a couple of prophets, one a guy who was handed a truly horrible job description and another who gave up divine glory to live in solidarity with us, paint these overly simplistic pictures?
Not to curse us or bless us. Not to pass judgment on us but, I think, simply to describe some important truths about how life often works. To encourage us to give up our self-absorbed ways and get with the God program, to sign on to the Jesus movement.
To remind us that we are free to choose how we will move through this world, how we walk through every moment of every day, whether we will love God and our neighbor—or not—whether we will remember that we are created in the divine image and that we are God’s beloved.
To make the point that our choices have consequences. That our choices shape our days and our days shape not only our lives but also the state of this world that God so loves. To help us to see what some of those consequences are.
To encourage us to make the best choices: To put our confidence in the steadfast love and goodness of God rather than our own feeble attempts to protect ourselves from what we fear.
To encourage us to choose inner peace over anxiety, deep roots over shallow ground, open hands over closed fists, connection over isolation, meaning over striving, love and community over hate and division, the path of life abundant instead of the way of death.
To discourage us from settling for only what we can see, and from thinking that everything is up to us. To encourage us to create and live into a future that more closely resembles the way things are meant to be. To assure us that circumstances we did not choose also do not define us or limit us.
Because the Power of Love, the Source of Life, the Bottomless Well of Generosity, the Extravagant Welcome that leaves no one behind is at work in the world.
Because God has other—better—plans for us. Because when we put our trust—our confidence, our hopes, our investments of love and passion, time and energy—in the goodness of God, in the values of God’s realm, in the community and equality, justice and peace we were created for, consequences and circumstances change. We change. Outcomes change. Inequality shrinks. Injustice meets its match. The powerful are brought down from their thrones. Walls, if they are built at all, come down. Strangers become neighbors. The poor and outcast are seen as Christ in our midst. And the future changes. The world changes.
And to give us a glimpse away from the ways of humanity and the injustices of empire and into the promises and realities of the realm of God.
Where the powerful are brought down, the oppressed are lifted up, and there is a common sharing of resources and a great leveling of circumstances. Where those who have made selfish choices that harm others repent of their ways. Where reparations are made for past wrongs that continue to curse the present and limit the future. Where innocent people are not incarcerated or killed because of the color of their skin. Where strangers are welcomed and outcasts are loved. Where the hungry are fed and the despairing are given hope. Where ignorance and oppression are forgiven, enemies are reconciled, and the formerly oppressed are in charge.
Jesus, you see, came down from the mountain where he had gone to pray, came down from the heights that were his natural home, and stood on level ground with the people. He shared his power. He offered healing and hope. He stands with us still, sharing power and love, giving healing and hope—and he invites us to do the same: to surrender—or at least make good use of—our privilege, to facilitate healing and justice and reconciliation, to get with the program, to join the movement, to follow him on the risky road to life abundant.
But I won’t lie to you. I’m not going to pretend that the journey is as cut and dried as Jeremiah would have us believe. Trusting God is not some kind of talisman, a get-out-of-hard times-free card. And, no, the different experiences of the poor and rich in the here and now are not nearly as clear or stark as Jesus makes them out to be.
Sometimes the only guarantee is this: That God’s extravagant love is always with us. That God’s good intentions for us never fail.
Sometimes the good news is as simple as this: We have the freedom to choose our path. Even when the foot of injustice is on our necks, even when we can’t see the light for the never-ending tunnel of tears, even when we’ve been wandering in the desert for years, even when our bodies and minds begin to fail us, we have choices to make:
In whom will we trust? Where will we plant ourselves? Into what kind of soil will we put down roots? How will we respond to oppression, injustice, and disappointment?
Sometimes the good news is as simple as accepting the truth that everything is not up to us, that we are not in control. Sometimes all we have to do to be blessed is to open our hearts and our hands.
Sometimes the good news is as simple as realizing that—what do you know?—there’s a stream of life-giving water right here, right now. Call it grace. Call it love. Call it hope. Call it peace. Call it forgiveness and starting over. Call it community and connection. Call it giving. Call it church. Call it God.
Won’t you come down to the water to pray? Won’t you come down to your limits and trust? Won’t you lie down in God’s arms and rest?