First United Methodist Church
November 6, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Take a Blessing and Be Cleansed!
Do you remember studying for a vocabulary test? Or perhaps you remember helping your children or grandchildren prepare for one? Usually you not only have to know how to define it, but you also have to use it in a sentence as well.
Imagine being handed one of those lists today. How many words would you recognize? Would you be able to define them or use them in a sentence?
I know that at some point in my life, I learned a lot of vocabulary words, and I probably knew the definitions for a short period of time. And if I wanted to impress people, I could probably even insert them in conversations once in awhile. But over the years words such as clamor and exquisite seemed a little too fancy for ordinary conversations, and I’m not sure that I ever used sublime or tremulous beyond my own vocabulary test. Over the years, because I didn’t use the words regularly, I forgot all about them.
Reading scripture can sometimes be like learning and remembering difficult vocabulary words. Unless we engage with scripture regularly, we may forget what the words mean. The more familiar we become with the Word, or the more we use it, the more it becomes a part of our embodied faith. Let’s pray…
Lord of Wisdom, may we truly hear your word and bear the fruit of its power. Open the eyes of our hearts, that we may discern the hope to which we are called. Set free the spirit striving within us, that we may share the riches of your powerful love with the world. Mark us with the seal of your Holy Spirit, that we may walk the path of blessedness with the saints who came before us. Amen.
The first scripture we read today is one of those texts that we rarely encounter, with words that are easily forgotten, but I think we can glean a message for our own situation if we spend a little time with it today.
Haggai is an interesting prophet. Unlike the professional cultic prophets that prevailed before the Babylonian exile, whose false optimism harmed the nation of Israel, Haggai presented a message of hope grounded in the hard reality of a destroyed land. Judah had suffered major devastation during the Babylonian invasion and was still recovering 60 years later when Haggai was encouraging the people to work hard to rebuild the Temple.
In this particular passage, Haggai addresses some of the people who were critical and dissatisfied with the progress of the work on the Temple. Apparently, some of the older members of the community did not have much good to say about the new structure they saw emerging. Although sixty years had passed, they could still remember what the Temple looked like before it was destroyed. Haggai addressed their cynicism and disappointment directly, “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” He affirmed their concerns that the Temple did not look like much yet. But at the same time that he silenced their complaints, he challenged them to have confidence in what God was about to do.
It was no accident that the prophet addressed the people on this particular day – the seventh day of the eight day autumn festival, the Feast of Booths, or Sukkot. This feast day celebrates the harvest and God’s sustaining care.
The Feast of Booths not only celebrates the harvest, but also Israel’s release from bondage in Egypt and Solomon’s bringing the ark of the covenant into the Temple. The very occasion of the festival is a message of continuity beyond destruction, hope and thanksgiving, even in the midst of despair. Haggai’s word on this occasion was a challenge to accept the present for the sake of the future in the midst of a celebration that centered around the constancy and generosity of the Lord.
For Jews today, the celebration of Sukkot testifies to the ongoing care of God for the world and all its people in an age of great skepticism and disbelief. For Christians, Easter serves as our festival day, but we can look at our Celebration of All Saints Day as an occasion to remember God’s constancy and generosity as manifested through the commitment and perseverance of the saints of the church through the ages.
Before the exile, the Temple played an important, though much more limited role for the people of Israel. It was primarily the sanctuary for the king and his household. After the people’s return from exile, the Temple became the center of social and economic activity in a way never seen during the days of the kings. Judah’s population was sparse – many of the Israelites did not return but instead remained in Babylon, Egypt and Palestine; therefore, even though the Temple would be rebuilt, and the Lord would be honored by it, the realm, or Kingdom of God, would never again be limited to that single structure.
When we look at our own situation, we also need to be open to what God is doing with us while we wait for the resolution of our legal proceedings regarding the building. We have faced many challenges that were beyond our ability to control. Like the Israelites, we can do a lot of in-fighting – and remain broken – or we can realize that God has a new plan for us. Our challenge is to figure out how we fit into that plan, rather than tearing ourselves apart.
We will rebuild, but we cannot allow ourselves to become distracted by the details that are involved in making it happen. As Haggai says, “’Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘For I am with you.”
Which is, I think, exactly what Jesus is trying to tell people in our Luke passage, in a roundabout way. When Jesus speaks, he speaks directly to his disciples, and he sets a standard for which every disciple should strive.
Even though Jesus seemingly blesses the poor and condemns the rich in this passage, I’m convinced that Jesus wasn’t really trying to condemn anyone when he preached this sermon to his disciples. We can easily misinterpret it that way. But this is a scripture that pushes you a little. It’s not about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. It is about making sacrifices and giving up control in the acceptance of God’s love. Being “blessed” is not a reward for being poor or being rich or even for good behavior, but an offer, or an invitation, to improve our circumstances through an internal change that makes us whole.
Although it seems that the rich have a lot of adjustments to make and the poor are favored in this particular passage, sometimes it can be pretty daunting to be blessed, no matter where you stand on the economic scale. A blessing is a gift, freely given, but once received, requires a change. The promised change may seem more palatable to the poor, but one of the reasons Jesus offers warnings to those who are already seemingly blessed – the rich, the full, the content - is that people who are comfortable don’t always welcome the invitation to change.
Consider this: Saint Brigid is the beloved Celtic saint and leader of the early church in Ireland. One day a man with leprosy came to her. Knowing the saint’s reputation for hospitality, the man says to Brigid, “For God’s sake, Brigid, give me a cow.”
Although Brigid was normally lavish with her generosity, she tells the man to leave her alone because he is always making these kinds of requests. But he persists, so Brigid asks the man how it might be if they prayed that God would heal him of his leprosy.
“No,” the man tells her, “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid, in her turn, persists with him, urging him to “take a blessing and be cleansed.” The man acknowledges he is indeed in much pain; he gives in and accepts the blessing and the gift of healing it brings. So great is his gratitude to Brigid—and to God—that he vows his devotion to Brigid and pledges to be her servant and woodsman.
As this man with leprosy recognized, a blessing requires something of us. It does not leave us unchanged. To become genuinely dependent on God, one must let go of whatever it is that makes us comfortable and open our hearts to the vision of wholeness that God desires for us and for the world.
Jesus took the time to teach the people who followed him, so that they might expand their vision of who God is and who they were in relationship to God. Jesus affirmed that God loved them. And then Jesus challenged them to live in response to that love by loving others. Living in response to the Good News of God’s love is not always easy. It can demand that we make changes in our lives and the way we think about and deal with other people. Offering grace and forgiveness to someone who has hurt us can be hard! Thinking about others and their needs ahead of our own wants can be downright counter cultural – especially when all of the messages we hear tell us to look out for ourselves first!
As Christians, we are challenged to think about how we can help make and create positive change. Change requires commitment and commitment requires sacrifice. Sometimes this includes how we care for the earth, how we care for ourselves, how we care for the good news of God’s love for us, as well as how we care for the resources that are in our sphere of influence.
Jesus desires more than anything else that the rich and the poor will feast at the same table, his heavenly table where the Saints gather, and all will live in peace with one another. When Jesus makes the statement, “Blessed are you who are poor,” his desire is that we all will “take a blessing and be cleansed,” that we will accept the challenge to change, and that we all will reside together in the Kingdom of God. Let us pray…
Gracious and loving God, we have heard the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation. May our hearts be sealed in love through the power of the Holy Spirit. Please break through and open doors to new hopes, dreams and possibilities for our church and in our own lives and we will surrender and faithfully follow Christ into your new and unknown future. May your will be done, and may we be a people who are redeemed and fitted for the realm of God. Amen.