Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

What the Cubs Taught Me About Blessing and Woe – Luke 6-17-31

Luke 6:17-31

[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "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; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. "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. "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.


This proved to be an interesting week to prepare a message. I want to honor our celebration of All Saints Day, along with its assigned lessons from Daniel about apocalyptic beasts as well as the Jesus’ words of blessing and woe known as the Beatitudes. But there are other things going on in our world worth exploring, including the absurdity of the Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years, as well as the even more absurd imminent US Presidential election. On top of all that, before Pastor Mark left for vacation he let me know that a sermon on stewardship would be appreciated in light of next week’s designation as “Building Fund Commitment Sunday.”

That means I’m trying to tie up the topics of death, apocalyptic beasts, blessing and woe, politics, and giving money to the church. 

Just as I was starting to lose hope I would find a common thread, I was reminded once again of the work of Dr. Brené Brown. This is probably a familiar name to many of you, as her research on topics of vulnerability, imperfection, worthiness, and courage have impacted many arenas of our culture, including previous teachings here at Cross of Grace.

I’m particularly drawn to her work explaining the extent to which we try to avoid pain and suffering, which has the unintended consequence of shutting ourselves off from risks which otherwise would allow ourselves to experience joy and love. Her research has demonstrated that we close ourselves off from relationships, questions, and challenges because our self-esteem is so low that we feel unworthy of relationship, not smart enough to handle the questions, and too weak to endure the challenges. Brené Brown uses the language of “numbness” to describe this reality.

I’m drawn to, and convicted by, that idea because that’s largely the type of person I fear I have become. Numb. 

I have encountered enough negative life experiences to make me closed off to emotional and physical risk. On some core level of my being I convinced myself that the joys in life are not worth the pain in life. I so despise and want to avoid the low lows that I’ve experienced in my life that I try desperately to stay level, even knowing full well that staying level makes me numb and closes me off from potentially feeling much joy.

Here’s one basic example; I grew up a huge Chicago Cubs fan, due primarily to the gift I received as a little boy of a Cubs hat. My dad had brought it home for me from one his business trips. Once I had the hat, I was a fan. My sports acuity was forged during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when Ryne Sandburg, Mark Grace, Andre Dawson, and Sammy Sosa wore the Cubs uniform. It also helped that one set of my grandparents lived in Mesa, Arizona, where the Cubs hold their Spring Training. I remember walking around the ballpark in Mesa, asking random cubs players to sign my baseball. My other grandfather even bought me my own Cubs jersey with my name stitched on the back.

I remember where I was on October 14, 2003 – the day the Cubs were five outs away from winning the National League pennant, before a fan interfered with a potential out (Steve Bartman) and the Cubs went off the rails. I was sitting in my apartment in Valparaiso, eating a Quiznos sub, when the infamous play happened. I was alone, so I didn’t feel too bad for the words that came out of my mouth that evening. I cried. I thought, “It’s not worth it.” All the hope and energy I had riding on the Cubs winning the pennant and making it to the World Series, it wasn’t worth the pain I felt at experiencing their loss. I moved back to Ohio the next month and put my Cubs jersey in a box of childhood mementos in my parents basement. 

I stopped caring about the Cubs. They weren’t worth the pain. 

I was aware of the hype surrounding the Cubs this year, but I didn’t watch a single Cubs game until the World Series. Even watching the games I really didn’t care who won. 

Some people would say that not letting one’s emotions get tied up in sports allegiances is actually very healthy; but what it meant for me was that when Anthony Rizzo caught that game-ending out and the team erupted onto the field with joy that had been pent up for 108 years, I barely managed a smile. It was a moment I had wanted since I was a little boy, but I had become so emotionally divested in the team that their historic victory barely registered for me. 

I dug out that personalized jersey on Thursday morning from that box of mementos which had made its way to my basement when my parents moved out of their Ohio home. It had been in that box for 13 years, almost to the day. 

I put it on in an attempt to rediscover some of the joy that I’d previously felt for the Cubs. It didn’t work. I felt like a hypocrite all day. I felt unworthy. In an attempt to protect myself from any further harm I had abandoned the Cubs when they let me down. I simply could not be a part of any of their joy.

This is just one example of the countless times in my life when I’ve closed doors to entire parts of my life as a result of choosing numbness over the possibility of joy or pain. I do it with friendships, jobs, my relatives, and also the very way that I think of myself. I do it so often it’s second-nature. It sucks. I avoid caring in order to protect myself from harm, even if it means losing out on pure joy.

My wife knows this about me. She knows my history with depression. She understands that I’m so scared of pain that I’m prone to withdrawing completely, closing the familiar pain of loneliness over the stinging pain of disappointment. My wife knows this about me but she never stops challenging me to be vulnerable. 

And then there’s my kids, who have a profound way of tapping into my most extreme emotions. No one except my kids have ever been able to make me feel so scared, so angry, or so ecstatically joyful. No one except my kids have ever made me feel so vulnerable. 

If you’re anything like me, if you’re anything like the masses of people Brené Brown has researched and learned from, then you too might be uncomfortable with being vulnerable.

As hard as it is to live this out in my life, I’ve never doubted its truth. It is absolutely true that vulnerability is the path to authentic joy (and, yes, pain as well). God’s truth as revealed through Jesus Christ is only Good News to those who are vulnerable. Joy in Christ is worth the pain we endure when we take up his cross and follow him.

I added the three verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel text to show you who Jesus’ original audience was. They are people who suffer from disease and unclean spirits. They are completely vulnerable before Jesus; they are willing to bear their imperfections before Jesus; and they are healed by his power. 

It is in this context that Jesus directs his words, “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.”

Their vulnerability before God allows them to receive God’s blessing. So too, our vulnerability before God and others opens us up to blessings from God and from others. 

A vulnerable person exposes the other cheek after being struck.

A vulnerable person gives the shirt off his or her back after having their coat taken from them.

A vulnerable person is generous in sharing financial and emotional resources with someone in need.

A vulnerable person is completely dependent on God, and therefore in solidarity with those who are in need.

So too, a vulnerable person is able to look death in the face and declare the most audacious of claims, that the fate awaiting each and every one of us is not death, but eternal life.

And maybe that’s why this gospel text is assigned to All Saints Day. After all, what makes us feel more vulnerable than thinking about death?

We go to great lengths to try to avoid thinking about death because there is simply nothing so utterly low and meaningless and depressing as death. And yet, Jesus’ final beatitude (not spoken but symbolized on the cross and in the empty tomb) is the total depravity of his death juxtaposed with the resounding joy of resurrection three days later. Blessed are the dead, for they will inherit eternal life.

I can’t explain to you what all this should mean for your life. But for me it is a resounding call to live a life of honesty and openness to pain and joy. It is a call to put myself out there in the world where acts of irresponsible generosity, over-the-top compassion, raw honesty, and utter vulnerability open myself up to others and God.

It means investing in God’s work in this world, both within the walls of the church as well as within the interior emotional spaces of all God’s people, which can be some of the riskiest and most rewarding work I could ever hope to engage in.

At this time of year it also means taking my citizenship seriously not only by voting for the candidates who come the closest to lining up with Christ’s commands to turn the other cheek, give generously to those in need, and stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable and isolated people in our nation. It also means realizing that our citizenship is not only important in November. But every day for citizen of the United States and disciples of Jesus Christ is an opportunity to be advocate politically and personally for the poor, hungry, marginalized, mourning, unwanted, neglected; the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. 

But above all, it means…

  • trusting that God is more powerful than a political party or candidate; 
  • trusting that God is more powerful than the prophetic beasts that haunt our nation or our hearts, 
  • trusting that God is more powerful than the wealth in our bank accounts;
  • trusting that God is more powerful than a Dexter Fowler leadoff home run or an Aroldis Chapman 101 mph fastball; 
  • and trusting that God is more powerful than death itself.

And so, today and every day we give thanks that God promises to meet us in our most raw and honest vulnerability in order to lead us into relationships of blessing and abundance through Christ alone.

Amen

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