Blessings and Woes – Br. David Vryhof
A sermon preached at Christ Church, Pensacola, FL
Consider with me these three scenes from the Gospel of Luke:
Scene One: A small village in the hill country of Judea. Mary, a young girl from the town of Nazareth in Galilee who is expecting a child, enters the home of her elderly relative Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah the priest, who is also preparing to give birth, in spite of her advanced age. The young girl is greeted with gladness by the older woman and welcomed with a blessing. In the joy of their meeting, Mary bursts forth with a song of praise to God, in which she exclaims with joy that God has come to help of his servant Israel, that “he has shown strength with his arm” by “scatter(ing) the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” by “bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lift(ing) up the lowly,” by “fill(ing) the hungry with good things and send(ing) the rich away empty.”1 God is breaking into the world, she declares, with the intention of turning the world upside-down.
Scene Two: The village of Nazareth, some thirty years later. A man enters the synagogue in the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He is shown to the place reserved for the teacher and handed the scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah. He accepts the scroll and deliberately opens it to the 61st chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, where he reads these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”2
He quietly rolls up the scroll and returns it to the attendant. He looks into the expectant eyes of the congregation and declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” God is breaking into the world, he is saying, with the intention of turning the world upside-down.
Scene Three: A level place near the slope of a mountain. This same man stands before a crowd of people who have followed him to this lonely site. He stands before them and in a loud voice proclaims:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven…
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
God is breaking into the world, he is saying, with the intention of turning the world upside-down.
And so begins the account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and the inauguration of what he calls the “kingdom of God,” a new way of living and of relating to others that he proclaims to all who will listen. This kingdom is unlike any kingdom the world has ever known:
In this kingdom the first are last and the last are first.
In this kingdom the proud and self-sufficient are cast down, and the poor and lowly are lifted up.
In this kingdom, the least become the greatest and the greatest become the servants of all.
In this kingdom the poor are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.
What is valued by the world means nothing in this kingdom; and that which is scorned by the world is highly valued.
This kingdom has now arrived, he declares, and the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the poor, the imprisoned, the diseased and the oppressed is no longer a hope but is “an agenda for the followers of Jesus.”3
Sometimes I tremble at passages like these, don’t you? We who live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, who enjoy a privileged status in the world by reason of our birth, who have used more than our share of the resources of the world to provide ourselves with a most comfortable living, what shall we make of these words of Jesus? We who claim as our identity the name “Christian” and who profess to love and follow this prophet of the upside-down kingdom, what shall we say about these words? I cannot help but think that we have not taken them seriously enough; that we have not done enough to ensure that the poor have had good news preached to them, that the hungry and the naked have been fed and clothed, that the stranger has been welcomed and the sick and imprisoned ones have been visited (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
Dorothy Day, a staunch advocate of the poor and founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once remarked:
“There are days when I want to stop all those poor people giving their coins to the church, and tell them to march on the offices of the archdiocese – tell all those people inside those offices to move out of their plush rooms and share the lives of the hungry and the hurt. Would Jesus sit in some big, fancy, air-conditioned room near the banks and the department stores where the rich store their millions and spend their millions? Would he let himself be driven in big, black limousines, while thousands and thousands of people who believe in him and his Church are at the edge of starvation? Would he tolerate big mansions and fancy estates and luxurious traveling, while people come to church bare-footed and ragged and hungry and sick, children all over the world? In my mind, there is only one answer to questions like these: No!
“I’m afraid that going to church puts many of us to sleep. We become so pleased with ourselves – our virtue, for attending Mass – that we forget about how others are living, who don’t have the kind of lives we have.”4
If Dorothy Day makes us uncomfortable, I suspect that Jesus would have made us uncomfortable as well.
What are we to do? What must be our agenda? How are we to live?
Here is the first thing: we must heed the cries of the poor; we must attend and respond to their expressed needs. How can we hope to enter this kingdom unless we commit ourselves to listen and to act on behalf of those who are desperately poor in our nation and our world? How can we say we are followers of Jesus if we ignore the cries of those who have stumbled and fallen in life’s race?
A few years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story. Why? Because deep down we know this one thing: What matters in life is more than winning for ourselves. What truly matters in this life is helping others win, even if it means slowing down and changing our course.5
Can there be any doubt that Jesus would tell those of us who are charging ahead in life, pressing forward to win the “prize” of success and recognition and wealth and privilege, to pay attention to those who have fallen, to be willing to turn around in order to help them, to sacrifice our own agendas and goals to assist them in meeting theirs? We can begin by listening to the concerns of the poor, by paying attention to their needs and concerns, by responding to their pleas for help.
Here is a second thing: we can examine the way we live, the things we value, the money and resources we expend on ourselves. We can give serious thought to how we live.
Theodore Roszak’s words, written in 1972, challenge us:
“Any discussion of world poverty that does not come round to demanding a radical change in our habits of consumption and waste, our tastes, our profligate standard of living, our values generally, is hypocrisy. There are no technical answers to ethical questions.”6
William Law, the 18th century cleric and spiritual writer, challenged his hearers to pattern their lives according to the gospel values of Jesus rather than the values of the world. He once wrote these words:
“To abound in wealth, to have fine houses and rich clothes, to be beautiful in our persons, to have titles of dignity, to be above our fellow-creatures, to overcome our enemies with power, to subdue all that oppose us, to set ourselves in as much splendor as we can, to live highly and magnificently, to eat and drink and delight ourselves in the most costly manner, these are the great, the honorable, the desirable things to which the spirit of the world turns the eyes of all people. And many a man is afraid of standing still, and not engaging in the pursuit of these things, lest the same world should take him as a fool.7
As difficult as it is to “stand still” and not engage in the pursuit of those things the world considers valuable, as difficult as it is to change our patterns of consumption and simplify our lifestyles, we must consider it a vital and necessary part of our calling. We cannot hope that the poor of the world will be lifted up and the hungry of the world will be satisfied while we continue to consume vast amounts of the world’s resources to support our often superfluous and extravagant lifestyles.
It is as if we are on a moving walkway. If we do nothing, we will simply be carried along by the materialism and consumerism of our culture. And if we do nothing, nothing will change. We have to be willing to turn around, to walk against the flow of the culture, to push back against the assumptions and values of a nation and culture that refuses to see that its actions are having and will continue to have severe consequences for the entire world.
Finally, we must be wise stewards of our resources. Those of us who are wealthy in the world would do well to heed the words of Andrew Carnegie, when he said:
“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent on him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called to administer for his poorer brethren…”8
Jesus did not act in the way others expected him to act. He did not say the things they expected to hear. The kingdom he proclaimed challenged the conventional wisdom of his day and continues to challenge ours.
How can we, then, his followers, live as the world lives, act as the world acts, strive for the things the world tells us to strive for, at the expense of our poorer brothers and sisters here and throughout the world? To faithfully represent his “upside-down kingdom” and to proclaim its “good news,” we must embrace the values and priorities of the kingdom he taught and modeled for us.
May God give us the desire and the strength to do this.
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[…]  From a sermon by Br David Vryhof, SSJE, https://www.ssje.org/2007/02/11/blessings-and-woes/ […]
Br. David, your sermon is supurb. Indeed, Christianity is an “upside down” religion. Nothing is as the world expects. Jesus came to us in the most humble of circumstances. Although he was “King of Kings and Lord of lords” he did not sit as the kings of the world, on a throne, supping with the finest of foods and drinks. He identified with the poor, the weak, the lowly, the hungry, the misunderstood, the sinner. He told his listeners that the last shall be first and the first last. He was ridiculed, misjudged, and, finally killed for us and our salvation. But, of course, the difference between Christianity and the the other world religions is his resurrection. His is the empty tomb!
I am filled with joy in that my place of worship, a rather small congregation, is constantly reaching out to others. When the huge tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, we received hundreds of thousands of dollars to distribute to the victims. My pastor appointed a committee for this purpose. It has been given over a period of two or three years, and was just recently depleted. So many were helped.
Another identity of my fellow worshipers is that everyone is welcomed. We have dozens of black people who feel just as much at home there as we whites do. We need to continually improve our relations with one another. Now there is the mammoth flooding in Texas. Many from our area have gone there to help, not just our fellow Anglicans, but so many from all walks of life. May God have mercy on all of them. How they need our prayers!
Thanks again for this great significant homily. May God bless you and your brothers.
I have always wondered who wrote the words to the Magnificat, and it has a precedence in the Old Testament. Just curious.
Thank you for your sermon to address and calm my questions. It’s easy to wonder if I’ve lost my way or if the church has. At my family’s last church, I was dissed by the priest for being too intense, and the one we now go to is largely self-referential. When I asked if our college care packages would be sent to anyone who didn’t grow up there, I just got a blank stare. So I attend for their excellence in children and youth programs and try to walk the line between authenticity and polite rabble rousing.
All the while, I just see a big disconnect in contemporary US Christianity to the mission of offering hope to those in need, forgiveness and healing for those whose choices we don’t favor, and living lives of integrity, truth and transparency in the eyes of those on the outside. Yes, churches such as the People’s Church (ELCA) in Bemidji, MN are out there, but in the rare, off my radar minority. So I continue with my own priorities, largely feeling woefully inadequate, but also catching myself at times for feeling smug and incredibly grateful and blessed at others.
“If we do nothing, we will simply be carried along by the materialism and consumerism of our culture. And if we do nothing, nothing will change. We have to be willing to turn around, to walk against the flow of the culture, to push back against the assumptions and values of a nation and culture that refuses to see that its actions are having and will continue to have severe consequences for the entire world.”
It is fine to ask for material blessings for ourselves and for others and for the living (those who are already here and ask for peace and joy and blessings for those who are not here with us yet or have passed away).
What is more important for a sustainable future is to ask the people to have a maximum of one child and to not coerce, harass or brow-beat people into having more children. I have observed that first hand at a church nearby (walking distance) towards an audience that came from a part of the world that suffers from over crowding and over population. It is important to ask for material well being and environmental well being of a people because happiness and comfort and wealth is linked to virtue (thankfully). Non wealth and the non peace and loss of freedom it entails often leads to non virtue.
I’m a cradle Lutheran, have attended other churches but think of myself as an Episcopalian. Now, however, I am a member of People’s Church (ELCA) in Bemidji, MN. And am blessed to be a small part of that ministry. It doesn’t resemble any church you will ever see. The building was originally sold by a Methodist congregation (too small and not handicap accessable). Thanks to Pastor Bob Kelly, the changes began. His vision was to serve the homeless and hungry. A ramp was added to accommadate wheel chairs and walkers; the sanctuary and sacristy were remodeled to provide a caretaker bedroom and storage area for beds and blankets; the alter was replaced with a small round table and pews were replaced with chairs so that everything could be moved to provide sleeping space. Today People’s Church is a fully functioning shelter for men (upstairs) and women and children (downstairs) 365 nights a year; a warm and safe place to sleep and to have breakfast and supper. Unlike many other shelters, people under the influence are not turned away as long as they don’t create any problems. Sunday gathering starts with an Agape meal at noon, followed by song and worship. Prayers for ‘our people’ include those who are currently in jail for various offenses that spring from homelessness, addictions, public behaviour, etc, those who have died and those who are elsewhere. It’s messy and often doesn’t work. And however hard we try ‘our people’ still die in the streets of Bemidji. We hold a service of mourning every year on All Saint’s Eve under the old railroad bridge where the Mississippi flows into Lake Bemidji. It’s cold down there, and not easy to get too. But so many have died in and around that lake, it’s an appropriate place for prayers and tears. People’s Church is on Facebook.
Yesterday I took the filter out of the pump of our automatic washing machine. I became distraught when I could not re-install the filter without a leak occurring. I will take the thing apart today and put it back together. In time, we will be able to call a repair person to work on this machine, or we can replace it. Most families in Canada and the United States have one of these wonderful machines. We have access to the supply of fresh water that permits us to connect this machine. I don’t think it is a bad thing that we can wear clean clothes. We also have an automatic dryer. I am very thankful that we have both of these wonderful machines.
That I became distraught when I could not make our washing machine work without leakage is a very first-world concern. I think I have such poorly aligned priorities. That being said I will repair our washing machine today.
I think it will be wonderful when all can have clean clothes when they need them and clean water for washing drinking and cooking. I think it will be wonderful when everyone can have enough to eat. It will be wonderful when everyone has adequate shelter. It will be wonderful when people know that the cause want of shelter, want of food and the want of everyone on the face of the earth for love, faith and fairness is because we favour ourselves over others. When is the time when that will end? Right now is that time it can happen. When we hear the call of our faith these things will happen when we love God with all our heart and soul and love others as ourselves as Christ commands.
After reading your sermon David I feel like the “Snow-covered dung” Martin Luther has been credited with as describing a Christian. Whether Luther said that or not, it’s still by God’s grace that I have been justified by the blood of Jesus. We are seen as pure through God’s eyes because Jesus has covered our sins like new fallen snow.
You are right on in that we have become comfortable in our faith and really don’t give enough thought about the tragedies of world secularism and consumerism. We have become just like the chief priests and scribes that Jesus opposed so often. So concerned with our own well being that we have little concern for others, especially the poor and destitute, people who can not further our standing in the world. I am ashamed of myself, that I claim to be a follower of Jesus and His teachings, yet fail to give my all to Him. Thank you for “slapping me up side the head” and opening my eyes and hopefully my heart.
“and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called to administer for his poorer brethren…” This kind of stewardship is patronizing. Make it internationally illegal for one country to exploit the resources of another for their own profit more than 50%. Shake down to international standards the top 30% of the industrialized world’s population as we have done with the bottom 70%. Outlaw endowments over 1 million $ that privilege one part of our society over another. We could do this. It is not a utopian dream. It would be the beginning of kingdom stewardship where we all look after one another rather than the guilded giving scraps under the table to those ‘in need’. Thank you for your wisdom Br. David but your vision doesn’t stretch far enough Margo
i agree 99%—the 1% i disagree with has to do with the economics applied in the sermon because they are self-contradictory. We couldn’t be the wealthiest nation at the same time that we have used more than our fair share or resources, because it’s the use of resources that either creates or destroys wealth. Proper use of resources creates wealth and adds to saving, improper use destroys savings. A more accurate argument, in my opinion, is to say we ought to be giving away more of our wealth.
Hello, I am a member of the Fellowship of St. John, and come to the monastery on retreat twice a year. In deep silence, these difficult questions about “What is a Chrstian” ? After over 20 years out of the church it occurs to me that people are fleeing the Christian Church, because all they have heard since the days of Jimmy Swaggert, etc. is “Fundamentalism”– spewing hatred, and even our current Pope, has criticized CATHOLICS for focusing too much on abortion and anti-homosexuality. While I am overjoyed at the positive changes that the EPiscopal Church has dramatically made in my life, I realize there is a generation of people who ONLY think about Rush Limbaugh, and the “Christian Right”
Its time to take action, and to show a DIFFERENT SIDE of Christianity.
Hallelujah, Brother David! And not on your home turf, but in Florida. May it ripple out strongly, weakening the foundations of our current system and refocusing our hearts.
I cannot help but agree.
I, as well as Maureen, hesitate to use the word “Christian” to describe myself during these days of rabid fundamentalism.
And, as Mino suggests, the choices are indeed heartbreaking. I wonder if I made a grave mistake in raising my children to have Christian values when the world makes a mockery of them.
While I have the desire, I do not know how long I will have the strength to do what God asks of each of us to do. I am grateful for those of you at SSJE (and around the world) who might carry on.
Martin Luther King gave us a set of wonderful images in the thermometer and the thermostat. The thermometer tests the current circumstances. The thermostat changes the temperature. Most Episcopalians that I have known are very good thermometers and bend scripture and their values to reflect what is culturally acceptable. Few if any have the courage to touch the thermostat. Margo
There are times I hesitate to use the word “Christian” to describe myself. While I follow Jesus’ word and worship at a church every Sunday, I cannot align myself with the more vocal but less tolerant who so define themselves.
Many “progressives” deride Christianity as a power that seeks war, takes care of those in power, and demands that each of us pays our way. They also are astounded at the intolerance of the more vocal Christians.
How do we bring the term back to affiliation with those who have less, who use less, who care more, who help the marginalized?
Thank you so much for these wonderful and inspiring words. I struggle so often with the choices you pose. Sometimes it breaks my heart. It is so clear, and so hard. How does God want me to fit in to this picture and model for my children? You have inspired me to take a step, to turn one more time to approach coming round right. I have learned that conversion is an ongoing process.
I was going to argue with you, saying that the wealthy provide the resources for all of the church and outreach programs that we have. However, after reading your sermon, I realize it may be a case of turning ones heart in the direction of generosity rather than engaging in an all or nothing argument. If everyone gave, even just a little in good faith, there would be enough and no people starving in our streets. This requires a commitment to give something by everyone, not just hoping for a lot by a few. “To whom much has been given, much is required,” can include everyone in the American culture. Let us give out of our generosity, each according to his/her ability. Glory be to God.