Blessings and curses are not common in the daily usage of our culture, but the concepts and cause effect relationship behind them are very much coming into our awareness again.
Blessing and curse, we often think of them like hoping for a nice day, dont catch a cold or wishing something or someone would get lost. But the issues dealt with in the readings today are life and death serious.
In typical, colourful, blunt language Jeremiah points to the nexus between human action and long term consequence;
"cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness."
And for those whose trust is in the Lord, blessings are envisaged in the form of well watered, lush green growth.
Its powerful imagery, aimed initially as a judgement oracle against Judah, but it has a particular force for us in the grip of drought and for a world, nervously starting to come to terms with the notion of climate change and the collective effect of human activity on the environment.
Jeremiahs words are about peoples behavior. He writes about national issues in a time when Judah is slipping towards oblivion and his central theme is trust in God.
Jeremiah knows there is consequence to action. In much of his dialogue with God there is a painful lament:
"if only the leaders, if only the people, if only we could all listen and respond with trust in Gods ways."
Do you ever have those moments of frustration where you find yourself wishing, "if only". If only I had not made that mistake, hurt that person, if only if had been more clever, had more " I talked recently with a family who had lost their father last year, all too young, with children still at school, "if only" was the sigh at the heart of much that was said.
We look at the news and all too often there is a bomb, people are dead and maimed, people are crying, others angrily vow revenge and the name of God is invoked often on both sides of the dispute. I shake my head thinking, "if only."
I'm sure that you've had your own trials and challenges and perhaps thought the same.
There are so many issues that confront us and make us wish the world was a better place, if we took better care of our world, got on better with our neighbors, "if only".
Then we come up against a reading like todays gospel, where Jesus confronts us with harsh reality of the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the hated. And Jesus says blessed are those, those who we would wish "if only" for.
Jesus says "Happy or blessed are the poor, sad and hungry" and it is a sobering reminder that in the gospel there is a totally different set of values - a stream running deeply here, counter to popular culture and common logic in every age. The strong message running in our culture is "blessed are the rich, glamorous and powerful, blessed are those with the strongest friends and the biggest weapons."
But Jesus says, "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".
This is not the way we normally see the world around us!
Poverty is still terrible, hunger is still a prelude to starving and tears are held in very low esteem. Those who cry are said to have "broken down." The world has many poor still. The World Health Organization estimates there are 40 million more hungry people in the world today than 10 years ago and hundreds of thousands are affected by AIDS in just Africa. Much of our world is a litany of woe.
So, how is that the poor, those starving millions, the thousands of refugees, the dregs of all societies of our world, how is it that this is good, that theirs is the kingdom of God?
How is it that those who weep in pain at the loss of a loved one, the people who feel anguished, those who suffer because all is not right, how will their tearful experience be turned to joy?
This kingdom of God talk by Jesus is upside down to how we learn to see the world, but in these words lies a glimpse of deep truth, if we look patiently.
Real life is full of poor hungry and sad people, and Jesus says to them, "blessed are you".
It's not a list of suggestions on how to have a happy life, or proverbs of wisdom for us to try to follow, Jeremiahs list of blessings and woes fit that model better. "Cursed are those who trust mere mortals, Blessed are those who trust in the Lord," we read; its good sensible religious education! But thats not what Jesus is doing.
Im not poor, but I know I dont feel blessed when money is tight.
I dont think Jesus is talking so much about economics. It simply wouldnt make sense. In fact many would take it as an insult the poor are very obviously NOT BLESSED as we understand it!
Now, a well worn approach to this conundrum is to see this as Gods promise to make up for present suffering in heaven.
But apart for being very cold comfort, its not consistent with Jesus proclamation of the kingdom being at hand now. Even the grammar of the text puts the blessing in the present "Blessed are you poor, the kingdom of God is yours," whereas in the next line the "hungry will be filled." future tense.
There are a couple of important things behind this passage though.
The first of them comes from its context. Jesus and his inner core, the 12 have been up a mountain praying, and they come back down for Jesus to teach a wider group of disciples and a much wider group of people from all over the area. So there are 3 groups in view here.
The 12 have just very recently "left everything and followed" him. Luke begins the report of Jesus teaching, "he looked up at his disciples and said, Blessed are you " I dont believe Jesus was speaking to just the 12, but it does give a particular flavor to realize who is in the immediate foreground of the statement, "Blessed are you poor." Jesus is speaking firstly to those who have sacrificed for the sake of the kingdom, theirs says Jesus will be the kingdom of God.
In our society, just like in Jesus time, poverty is a position of shame and embarrassment, it's a place where you know that you are missing out and it hurts.
So more broadly, Jesus says to those who know that they are missing out, the "kingdom of God is yours", "blessed are you poor" is a statement of the way things are, in God's sight.
I think it's often true that where there is poverty in our own lives, those places where we are inadequate, where we are most vulnerable, that are exactly the places where God blesses us and where we can accept Gods blessing.
We all have our places of pain, our griefs, we all know that there are things wrong with our world and with our lives. Many of us try to put on a brave face most of the time, but Jesus looks at us and says "Blessed are you who weep and are poor." Jesus looks at you and me; what hunger, what poverty and what grief does he see in us?
And the other question to ponder today is what blessings and woes in our world ought to be proclaimed and addressed?
Might we hear, blessed are you who weep for loss of home, land and hope as rising seas threaten to swamp the poor in many Pacific Islands, the poor of Bangladesh. Blessed are you poor who livelihood is parched, whose crops wither.
And woe? Woe to you who are satisfied now, taking from the earths future for your present gain.
These are life and death issues, these are global problems with great human cost. There is much to be seriously considered here, from individual action to global policy. Like Jesus and Jeremiah we need to proclaim to our world that God cares and that we need to respond. God cares for creation; every bird and flower, says Jesus. Paul speaks of all of creation groaning, but are we listening?
Jesus also says "woe to you who laugh now." It's a dig at those who are too comfortable with the way things are, woe to those who have so much that they are blinded to the real needs around them.
These things are bad because they hurt others, because they feed selfishness, because they damage the quality of community and life that God wants for us all.
Woe to those who couldn't care less, is what Jesus might say to us today. Because if you are too busy holding on selfishly to what you have here, you won't have your hands open to grasp the gift and the blessing Jesus offers.
And a prophet of dire warning might well be the word of God for these times.
Like me, you might squirm uncomfortably at such stern pronouncements and wish if only we didnt have to face these things but remember Jesus words;
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
So, may the blessing words of Jeremiah take root in us and more and more in our world, teaching us to be better stewards of Gods gift to us in creation;
"Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes and its leaves shall stay green; in the time of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit."
We sing a prayer in response,
The Hymn 668: Touch the earth lightly.