Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “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. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 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. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
What do we do with this text? Is Jesus saying that God only blesses those who are destitute and curses the rest of us? That God only blesses those who have nothing to eat and curses all of us who had breakfast this morning? That God only blesses those with no place to sleep and curses us because we have our own beds?
Look at the “woes” in Luke’s beatitudes: Rich, Full, Joyful, Respected! Aren’t these what we are all striving for? If we achieve these, aren’t we considered successful?
I think Jesus is telling us that God’s measures of success are significantly different than ours. Even sometimes in the church.
Here’s what I mean. We talk about successful congregations as those with increasing numbers of people and dollars. And then, being envious, we spend considerable time and energy figuring out the secret to their success. In the ELCA, based only on those numbers, congregations that hold steady in members and worship attendance over the last five years are referred to as “stagnant.” And those whose numbers are more than five percent lower are “in decline.” These are not terms associated with “success.” Even in the church, we assume bigger equals more successful, so our effort and energy go into the numbers of attendees, members, and dollars received. Good, tangible, measurable numbers.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you believe that God measures success the same way we do. But is a spreadsheet the best way to measure God’s reign? Is God’s vision for creation counted in such detached terms?
Let’s face it; bigger is the culturally accepted measure of success for pretty much everything. Sales, clients, market shares, bank accounts, properties, listeners, viewers, revenue streams, billable hours, and yes, even church members. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to nestle into Jesus’ life, ministry, or teaching quite as comfortably as I would like. Look at this text, among so many others that reveal God works differently than we do. Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the long-awaited reign of God. Which is fine except it doesn’t fit with what we think success ought to be.
God’s reign is revealed when people are loved. God is successful when grace and mercy and compassion are shown. That’s why all the blessings and woes in this text are followed by the “love your enemies” stuff, the “turn the other cheek” stuff, the “give away your stuff” stuff. Success in the kingdom of God is different. It’s totally different view of reality. It starts in a different place and points in an entirely different direction.
What groups of people tend to get looked down upon, that we might call unsuccessful? Homeless, unemployed, poor, uneducated, can’t speak English? Those are the people who, when God is successful, are lifted up as equal to the wealthy, the CEOs, the PhDs, the powerful, the famous.
Jesus’ point is that this is how God measures success, and it clashes with our assumptions of success in the world.
I have a friend who I’ve come to realize reveals God’s success to me. He’d probably argue with me if he knew I thought that because he’s an avowed atheist with absolutely no use for God at all. Yet, he isn’t my friend because I’m good or smart or believe the same as him. He’s my friend because even though he knows a lot of my weaknesses and the pieces of me that are broken, he still values me and respects me. Not because of what I can do, but because of who I am. He calls me successful, not because of my work or my ability to change the world, but because of me.
There’s such a difference between the way he thinks of success and the way most of us—sometimes even the church—think of success. Most of what we consider to be our successes in life have to do with our accomplishments: work promotions, educational degrees, income, the size of our homes, number of first-place trophies. But God sees way beyond than that. God sees all the way down to the broken pieces of our lives, our failures, the things we are ashamed of, all the parts of who we are that—if known—would make others think less of us. And then, sitting with us in the middle of all of that, God says, I’m so proud of you. I love you so much. You are one of my best success stories.
On All Saints Sunday we celebrate the people through whom we get a glimpse of God’s measure of success. The people who have known us and nonetheless have loved us. The people who somehow, and in some way, by their lives have shown us a glimpse of God’s love, grace, and compassion. Who’ve shown us that we matter, that we are worthwhile, that we are successful because we are who we are.
Who has shown you God’s version of success? Who has shown you that you are loved by God, and therefore are God’s successes. Think a minute. Picture them, be ready to name them. Then all together, we will name those saints out loud. Ready?
. . . . . .
On All Saints Sunday, we recognize that God does view success differently. And it clashes with our assumptions about success. Yet we just named a whole bunch of people who have revealed God’s perspective, God’s love in the world. We are grateful for these saints, especially those who’ve gone before us. We can also be grateful for those who are revealing the success of God’s love today. And we need to be aware that God will continue to find ways to be successful in the world, and do so through us.