Sermon of the Week
Woe is a Potent Word
Keywords: Treasure, Blessings, Woe, Beatitudes, Sermon on the Plain, Where You Sit, Kazi Mannan
A rather bizarre thing happened this week
as I was reading and preparing for today’s sermon.
I came across a great little story that, apparently,
The Russian Rabbis used to tell.
It goes something like this:
In Krakov there lived a man named Isaac, son of Yekel.
Yekel was a very poor man whose family was often hungry.
One night in a dream, he saw the distant city of Prague,
and as he dreamt
he noticed that there was a certain bridge with a treasure buried beneath it.
The dream was so vivid that he could not forget it,
and that became even more true
when it kept recurring
every night for two weeks.
It bugged him.
Finally, in order to get rid of the dream,
he decided to walk from Krakov to Prague to see for himself.
After several days, he arrived in Prague,
found the bridge and went underneath to locate the treasure.
Well, suddenly a soldier grabbed him and started questioning him.
Who are you?
What are you doing prowling under the bridge?
Being an innocent man, Isaac, Son of Yekel told the truth.
“I am looking for a treasure I had dreamt was underneath the bridge.”
The soldier roared with laughter.
“You stupid man!
Don’t you know that you cannot trust what you see in dreams?
Why, for the last two weeks,
I myself dreamt that far away in Krakov
in the house of a Jew named Isaac, son of Yekel,
there is as treasure buried underneath the stove in his kitchen.
But wouldn’t it be the most idiotic thing in the world
if I were to go all the way there to look for it?
One could waste a lifetime looking for treasure that does not exist.”
Still laughing, the soldier gave Isaac a kick and let him go.
So Isaac, son of Yekel, walked back to Krakov,
to his own home,
where he moved the stove in his kitchen,
found the treasure buried there
and lived to a ripe old age as a rich man.
Great little story,
cited in a sermon that the Rev Sarah Jackson Shelton
once preached on this text.[i]
What was fascinating was when I dug a little deeper
and I saw the reference she cited when sharing that story.
Turns out that the story came from something that Belden Lane wrote.
Beldon was a professor at Saint Louis University
and a mentor for me when I was seeking to become a pastor.
(More than that, Beldon’s daughter Kate was a friend of mine.
We graduated high school the same year together.)
(Belden C. Lane, Christian Century, Dec. 16, 1981)
Sometimes searching through these amazingly rich stories from the bible
lead to revelations like that:
people you miss, you know
that you’d forgotten that you miss…
experiences from your past that shape and make you who you are today.
Stories that come to mind when you hear a story
and think about it deeply.
Those connections and experiences are important,
and they’re particular.
My stories are different from your stories,
and they can impact quite a bit how we read a story, and what it means to us.
This reading from Luke today is a good example
that we might use to explore that phenomenon.
Scholars call this the “Sermon on the Plain,”
because, as you heard, it starts by saying that,
Jesus came down and stood on a level place.
Just a few verses before, Jesus had removed himself
from all the crowds and the commotion
and went UP the mountain to get away,
to pray, to center himself.
Jesus did this, from time to time.
It was his way to be like that tree planted by the water
that Susan read about in Jeremiah:
to connect to God and to get strength for his ministry.
Up on that mountain, according to Luke,
Jesus sets twelve of his disciples apart to be his apostles.
and then he heads back down…
into the maelstrom, back into the everyday
down to a level place.
And when he got there, the crowds were still there.
“A great multitude,” says Luke,
from relatively close places
like Judah and Jerusalem,
and from as far away as modern-day Lebanon,
the coast of Tyre and Sidon,
where there were a lot fewer followers of the God of Abraham and Moses
and a lot more gentiles, people from other traditions and cultures.
Luke is pretty clear about this point: the work God is doing in Jesus
is meant to be for the whole known world,
for the hungry and the hurting and the troubled all over.
The word about Jesus certainly was spreading.
All these different kinds of people,
they were all there, seeking something from this rabbi–
to hear him, and to find healing,
which Jesus and his disciples set out to do.
After that, according to Luke,
Jesus starts teaching them
as he talks with his disciples about the Kingdom of God:
statements of blessing, words of woe.
What are some of the things you think about
when you think of this story?
That depends on your life, your history, your experience.
If you’ve spent a lot of time exploring scripture,
you might find a certain familiarity with Jesus’ sermon.
That’s because it is quite close, in some ways,
to another beloved passage in the Gospel of Matthew, (Matthew 5:1-12)
which even has a similar name: the Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew’s version, you get all of these blessings, and a few more.
We only get four here in Luke, but there we find nine,
and some that are beloved are only in Matthew:
Blessed are the Peacemakers
Blessed are the Meek
Blessed are the pure in heart, the merciful…
That’s Matthew’s version of this story.
If you’ve spent a lot of time THERE
you might find richness in recalling that story about Jesus.
You might think about the peacemakers in your life,
the meek and humble and merciful people you know.
There’s a lot to learn and love in Matthew’s version.
But you might also ask yourself:
why are the blessings all just a little bit different here in Luke…
Matthew says Blessed are the Poor “in spirit,” after all,
where our reading from Luke today
makes it much more personal, much more direct, more material:
Blessed are YOU who are poor.
Blessing the Poor, and blessing the poor in spirit:
that’s a subtle but important difference, is it not?
Matthew offers Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
But Luke: Blessed are YOU who are hungry, now….
What do we make of that difference?
Is it more comforting, more powerful,
more challenging to think about
God blessing the “poor in spirit,”
or God blessing “the poor”?
That might depend on where we sit,
on my ability to access a bank account, to buy food to eat tonight
in a country where 40 million Americans are food insecure
including more than 12 million children.
On whether we’ve ever experienced true hunger, painful poverty.
That differs, based on who we are.
I’ve been lucky never ever to have wondered where my next meal is coming from.
That fact alone makes me different from many people on this planet.
On the other hand, some of us here may have known that worry.
Where you sit matters, as we read these stories.
Luke’s Jesus doesn’t mince words, really.
His concern is for the material and physical needs of the hurting and the suffering.
So much so, that he pairs each of the four blessings he offers
with four statements of woe.
Woe is such a potent, powerful word.
It’s far more than “bummer for you, buddy.”
“Greatly unfortunate,” “What heartbreak it is”
“Melancholy and despondency and gloom”
All of which makes for a bummer of a sermon.
Woe is me.
If it’s at all ok to use humor to lessen the impact of such a powerful thing…
What do you make of the Woe?
That also depends, I guess, on where you sit,
how you’ve lived your life,
where your heart and your values are.
I kept reading this passage
and thinking about a scene in the Princess Bride:
a wonderful movie from my childhood, about pirates and true love
Rodents of Unusual Size and giants and sword-fighting.
There’s a dream that the princess keeps having
about an angry old woman who keeps interrupting her formal public appearances
Boo! She shouts
Boo!. Rubbish. Filth. Slime. Muck. Putrescence.
The old woman is challenging the princess for having given up on true love,
for having abandoned her beloved Wesley,
which she hasn’t,
as she is there in her finery–
beautiful gown, expensive jewelry, perfect hair,
next to the prince she is going to marry instead.
I could have sworn, in my mind’s eye
that the old woman shouted WOE to the princess
WOE to you, Princess Buttercup. Woe.
I made that up, apparently, when I went back to look for it.
But maybe I did that
because I can imagine someone shouting that to me
as I dream about this Sermon on the Plain,
and the reality
of poverty and wealth,
on having food to eat, or not,
on balancing security for me and my family, on legacy and future,
and on the very real warning Jesus shares for not being attuned
to the very real movement of God in the world,
where the poor and the hungry and the weeping matter.
So, I bring that image to this story. That’s part of my history.
Woe is a potent word.
And the prospect of woe, which is really what this is, might be a powerful motivator.
All of the EFFECTS of these woe statements are in future tense, did you notice…
which gives a bit of a clue as to what is going on here,
how we might faithfully lean into this challenging word from our Lord.
Jesus envisions a world where the vision of Isaiah will come true:
where everyone will have enough
where the hungry will be filled with good things
where the proud and haughty have their hearts
so motivated by God that they joyfully respond with generous gratitude.
You see this, in the teachings of Jesus,
where he talks about this time and time again.
He preached parables about how hard it was
for people who loved their things more than people
to get this movement Jesus was here to inaugurate.
He warned people that the wealth we accumulate
can’t go with us when our mortal life is over.
He talks about a God who is like a master
who paid laborers a living wage,
and who challenges those-whom-God-entrusts-with-wealth
to invest it, so that it grows – invest it people, in the stuff of the Kingdom–
rather than burying it into the ground, where it is of no use.
Jesus talked about these things all the time.
And, for those with ears to hear, the rich who heard
became partners with Jesus,
along with the disciples
along with other followers of Jesus who weren’t rich.
Jesus visited the homes of wealthy people, and invited them to join him.
and some of them did.
Paul would depend on some wealthy patrons for resources and protection.
and for feeding the hungry, helping the widows, caring for orphans.
Use the blessings you have to serve, to promote the common good
for you too have a place in the Body of Christ.
And together we became the church:
People who follow God so that we can share the blessings of God far and wide.
So Isaac, son of Yekel, had a dream about a treasure,
went out in search for it,
found a man mocking him for it,
but heard that the treasure wasn’t where he thought it was.
It had been at home, under his stove, the whole time.
And he went back and moved his stove and voila, there it was.
There are so many things to do with a story like that.
And I wonder, what did he do with his good fortune.
What was the blessing in this story?
Was it that the poor person became rich?
That he now had food and clothes and safety and security?
I had to go look. It wasn’t in the original story from Belden that I read.
Apparently, Isaac, son of Yekel, went out and returned to God what he had found.
Some say he helped build a synagogue.
Others say he fed the orphans.
But all of the other versions that I could find show
Isaac giving back from his new abundance so that others could have life.[ii]
That wasn’t a life of woe for him, but a way for him to participate in God’s blessing.
One more story to share with you this morning:
A more modern story of the same idea.
I was going to use this video last week
but the winter weather and the water main break led me to cut it.
My friend Kara shared this with me,
in a regular series of notes she offers about modern-day examples
of the Kingdom of God.
This is a news story about Kazi Mannan,
a restaurant owner and entrepreneur,
who is seeking to be part of God’s blessing:
I’m trying to worship our creator through food… says the owner.
That’s not woe. That’s life. That’s blessing.
That’s true joy.
May we find our place in these stories,
these beautiful, life-giving, powerful, challenging, potent stories,
that can help us orient our hearts on what truly matters,
and, having found our place,
may we live out a life of blessing
so that the poor and the hungry and the hurting and the mourning
can find comfort, can find peace, can find hope.
Thanks be to God for this wonderful calling
to be part of Jesus’ ministry.
[ii] For example, see http://creative.sulekha.com/double-dream-jewish-folktale_75076_blog
Image: Prague Bridge, Winter found at pixabay under creative commons license, no attribution required. Found on February 17, 2019, at https://pixabay.com/en/snow-bridge-winter-snowy-river-1749769/