First Congregational Church
February 17, 2019
6th Sunday after Epiphany
“While You Are…”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Early on in his career, according to Luke, just as it seemed that Jesus was transitioning from his life as a carpenter to that of a rabbi, healer and Messiah, there were a number of people following Jesus, and one day he appointed twelve of those followers to become his disciples. It was immediately after choosing the disciples that Jesus gave his Blessing and Woes sermon.
Luke 6:17-26 Blessings and Woes
17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Thank you, Robin. There’s definitely some interesting stuff around this passage. Why did Luke point out that Jesus stood on a level place? I, for one, would love to have seen how the power was coming out from Jesus - if it was anything one might actually be able to see. It’s fine that Jesus “bestows” these blessings on people, but since martyrdom awards are not worth what they once were, how does one actually make it through the times of hungering and weeping and rejection and, say, even sheer boredom? And if we’ve already been so blessed, then why bother trying to move forward? At the end of the day, what is left - in terms or striving and pressing on?
I came across a passage in my current nighttime reading book that seemed to paint a picture that may be helpful in seeing how blessings and woes go from the focal point to faithful companions. The book is Cathedral of the Sea, by Ildefonso Falcones - purported to be the new Ken Follett.
The story takes place in fourteenth century Barcelona, and tells the story of Arnau, who is fourteen years old in this particular passage. His father and mother are both gone, and he has to begin fending for himself in the world. It ends up that he is asked to become a bastaix (bash tash’), one who carries freight on and off ships - on their backs. The bastaixios were a revered guild, because they were the ones who also brought stones for the building of the new cathedral in Santa Maria on their days off.
“One bastaix, one stone,” Arnau repeated to himself when the first man and the first stone came past him on their way down the mountain. He and his friend, Ramon, had reached the spot where the stonecutters were cutting the huge blocks. He looked at his companion’s taut, tense face. Arnau smiled, but his fellow bastaix did not respond: the time for jokes and pleasantries was over. Nobody was laughing or talking now; they were all staring at the heap of stones on the ground. They all had the leather thongs fixed tightly round their foreheads; Arnau slipped his over his head.
As Arnau stared at the stones, he could feel his stomach wrench. A bastaix bent over, and two other laborers lifted a block of stone onto his back. The man stood still for a few moments, straightened up, then walked past Arnau on his way back down to the city of Santa Maria. My God, he was three times as strong as Arnau, and yet his legs had almost given way! How was he going to…? “Arnau,” called out the guild alderman. There were still a few other bastaixos waiting. Ramon pushed him forward. “You can do it,” he said.
As three aldermen and one of the stonecutters determined the stone he would carry, Arnau tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry. He was shaking: he had to stop! He moved his hands, then extended his arms backward and forward. He could not allow them to see his fear or trembling!
Seeing two masons approaching with the stone, Arnau went up to them. He bent over and tensed all the muscles in his body. Everyone fell silent. The masons slowly let go of the block and helped him grasp it with his hands. As the weight pressed down on him, he bent still farther over, and his legs started to buckle. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes. “You can do it!” he thought he heard. In fact, nobody had said a word, but everyone had said to themselves when they saw the boy’s legs wobble. “You can do it!” Arnau straightened under the load. A lot of the others gave a sigh of relief. But could he walk? Arnau stood there, his eyes still closed. Could he walk?
He put one foot forward. The weight of the block of stone forced him to push out the other foot, then the first one again…and the other one a second time. If he stopped…if he stopped, the stone would crush him.
Ramon took a deep breath and covered his face with his hand. “You can do it, lad!” one of the others who were waiting shouted. “Go on, brave, heart.” “You can do it!” “For Santa Maria!”
The shouting echoed off the walls of the quarry and accompanied Arnau as he set off on his own down the path to the city. But he was not alone. All the bastaixos who set off after him soon caught up and made sure that they fell in with him for a few minutes, encouraging him and helping him on his way. As soon as another one reached them, the first would continue at his own pace.
Arnau could hardly hear what they said. He could scarcely even think. All his attention was on the foot that had to come from behind, and once he saw it moving forward and touching the ground under him, he concentrated on the other one; one foot after the other, overcoming the pain.
As he crossed the gardens of San Bertran, his feet seemed to take an eternity to appear. By now, all the other basaixos had overtaken him, but eventually, he rested the stone on one of the lower branches of a tree; he knew that if he left it on the ground, he would never be able to raise it again. His legs were stiff as boards.
“If you stop,” Ramon had advised him, “make sure your legs don’t go completely stiff. If they do, you won’t be able to carry on.”
So Arnau, freed from at least part of the weight, continued to move his legs. He took deep breaths. Once, twice, many times. “The Virgin will take part of the weight,” Ramon had told him. My God! If that was true, how much did his stone weigh? He did not dare move his back, even though it hurt terribly. He rested for a good while. Would he be able to continue again? Arnau looked all around him, but he seemed to be completely alone.
Could he do it? He stared up into the sky. He listened to the silence, then with one pull managed to lift the block of stone again. His feet began to move. First one, then the other, one, then the other…
Eventually, he stopped again, this time resting the stone on the ledge of a huge rock. The first basaixos reappeared, on their way back to the quarry. Nobody spoke, merely exchanging glances. Arnau gritted his teeth once more and lifted the stone again. Some of the bastaixos nodded their approval, but none of them halted. “It’s his challenge,” one of them would comment later, when Arnau was out of earshot and he turned to look at the boy’s painful progress. “He has to do it on his own,” another man agreed.
Eventually, Arnau came across the first inhabitants of Barcelona. All his attention was still on his feet, but he was in the city! Sailors, fishermen, women and children, men from the boatyards, and shop’s carpenters all stared in silence at the boy bent double under the stone, his face sweaty and mottled from the effort. They looked at the feet of this youthful bastaix, and he could see nothing else. Everyone was silently willing him on: one foot, then the other, one after the other…
Some of them fell in behind him, still without saying a word. After more than two hours’ effort, Arnau finally arrived at Santa Maria accompanied by a small, silent crowd. Work on the church came to a halt. The workmen stood at the edge of the scaffolding. Carpenters and stonemasons put down their tools.
“Keep going!” a boatman’s son shouted. “You’re there! You’ve made it! Come on, you can do it!”
Shouts of encouragement came from the highest scaffolding. The crowd that had followed Arnau though the city cheered and applauded. All Santa Maria joined in, even the priest. Yet Arnau still stared down at his feet; one, then the other, one, the other…all the way to the area where the stones were stored. As he reached it, apprentices and craftsmen rushed to receive the block the boy had carried.
Only then did Arnau look up. He was still bent double, and his body was shaking all over, but he smiled. People crowded all around to congratulate him. Arnau found it hard to tell who they all were: the only one he recognized was Father Albert. The Father was staring in the direction of Las Moreres cemetery when Arnau followed his gaze. “For you, Papa,” he whispered.”
I’ve often wondered how I could give encouragement to those going through hard times, encouragement that wasn’t sanguine or lip-service. Any one of us can pray, and that is definitely and truly good. But for those going through the darkness, it can feel isolating, lonely and unbearable. Except that is only the feeling and not the truth.
I sometimes hear people wonder why it seems that God is targeting an individual for some unknown and cruel reason. That, too, is not a correct understanding. Even when it seemed that Arnau was completely alone, the others doing their jobs were near, but perhaps not near enough that he could see them with his head bent parallel to the ground. Perhaps that is why Luke mentioned that flat ground where Jesus was standing - so that people would know that God is not looking down on us, but with us, even when it makes little sense.
It's not that it's great to be poor. Or hungry or mourning. But it is that that blessing comes from God, not from wealth or satisfaction or happiness. It’s not that those who are at ease now will be punished later, but that ease is not life, and if that's what you seek, sooner or later you will mourn what you missed. So don't miss it by trying to avoid the very thing you have to go through, because no one else can live our lives for us.
And while any one of us goes through that thing or things that we have to go through, may we be reminded that we can choose how we walk those paths - with integrity to the call, respect toward the task, and giving of the glory to the very God who has seen each of us - throughout all of time - as dearly beloved and worthy of God’s presence as we make our journeys. So let us pray.
Gracious, Eternal God, for you, it is easy to see the goal. And that can be helpful to know when we struggle to see our next step. But for those times when we are bent down to ridicule and insignificance and distractions, we ask for your forgiveness, as well as your guidance to refocus and recommit ourselves to the tasks you have for us. While we prefer not to hear the woes of life, help us to embrace their lessons, just as heartily as we embrace the lessons of blessings. For the fullness of life that you have always seen for each of us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.