Harrowing Of Hell
November 6, 2016

I have tended my own garden much too long

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel sang:

“Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on,”  “Blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers,”  “Blessed are the penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers” and ending with the poignant statement, “I have tended my own garden. Much too long.” I have tended my own garden much too long. That could be the title for today’s sermon. There are times when that statement is certainly true for me and perhaps it rings true for you as well. Tending our own gardens looks like building bigger barns as the parable says, blindly seeking only our own material wealth, or hurting others in order to get ahead. It’s the opposite of God’s kingdom.

Tending our own gardens is a metaphor for manicuring the kingdoms of our own making instead of God’s. But that isn’t the life we seek. That isn’t the vocation to which we are called as Christ’s beloved. We are called to something much greater and entrusted with the vision of that Kingdom. To step out of our own gardens and into God’s Kingdom is our challenge and our blessing.  That’s what we are going to talk about today.

We are going to talk about Jesus’ invitation to step out of our gardens and into God’s kingdom. And Jesus does that inviting through the familiar, although somewhat confusing, pattern of decreeing blessings and woes. Jesus’ “Blessings and Woes” greatly invert or turn upside down the earthly kingdom’s assumptions and open the Kingdom of God to everyone. That is the radical message found in these words from Jesus known to us collectively as The Beatitudes. Beatitude means supreme blessedness, benediction, grace; it’s the invitation and the hook to step outside our own gardens, which we’ve tended much too long, and to determinedly step into God’s garden, into God’s Kingdom.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s back up and set the scene. Jesus had gone up a mountain to pray where he remained all night. Jesus habitually goes off to the mountains to pray, usually alone, but this time it seems his followers are there too. The text doesn’t tell us how many are there, but I imagine a decent sized crowd is on that mountain praying with Jesus. We know this because the next morning, he chose twelve people out of that crowd following him around from place to place. He chose The Twelve and named those his disciples. We come in today with the next scene in which Jesus and the Twelve go down the mountain to a level plain where people had congregated from all over the place from Judea and Jerusalem.

They came all the way from the coastal regions of Tyre and Sidon. This lively mixture of people from far flung locations all gathered around Jesus and the Twelve on this big open field. Some came to be healed, but others came to watch the spectacle to see what this man Jesus was all about. Others came to protest, to defame Jesus as a liar and a fraud. Imagine this big open field filled with this diverse crowd. The scene feels chaotic and charged.

Jesus is healing people from physical disease, curing those troubled by unclean spirits, and eventually the whole crowd starts closing in on Jesus and The Twelve, just trying to get close enough to touch him. They saw people being healed on all sides, the power was visibly going out from Jesus and everyone wanted a piece of that miracle. Everyone wanted a piece of Jesus.

It is in the midst of this chaotic crowd, in the midst of this frenzy, that Jesus turns to the Twelve and teaches them through the words of the Beatitudes. There was no easing into the job for the twelve disciples with this kind of first day. Jesus stops in the middle of everything and 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.” Then, he shifts gears, possibly pointing to specific sections of the crowd and says, “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.” And he ends with The Golden Rule, probably one of the best known lines in all of scripture: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

These Beatitudes in Luke’s gospel are poetic and beautiful, well known to us and familiar. But do we really know what they mean? I promise we are going to get to those “woes,” so don’t be nervous, but stick with me as we first talk about what the Beatitudes are NOT. The Beatitudes are not instructions or how-to’s on blessedness. The Beatitudes are not conditions or a list of circumstances especially pleasing to God or good for humans.

This text has been misinterpreted in just this way leading some to wonder: why would I want to be Christian? If blessedness requires poverty, hunger, and sadness, why would anyone choose to be a follower of Jesus. Would you? But that’s not what Jesus is saying. To use that as an out is to miss the point. If that’s NOT what Jesus is saying here, then what is he saying? To begin with the blessed’s, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is available –  even to those whose life circumstances are beyond all human hope!

Remember the context, Jesus is standing in the midst of all those people who have just been healed, people who had come from all over to be healed, from Judea and Jerusalem, from Tyre and Sidon. The Twelve heard this list of “Blessed be”s and looked around at the poor, the sick, the lame who had just been healed. They see those for whom unclean spirits had been cast out, restored to their right mind and thus rejoined to community.

Jesus is saying EVEN THESE are worthy of God’s kingdom. “The rule of the heavens comes down upon their lives through their contact with Jesus. And then they too are blessed – healed of body, mind, or spirit – in the hand of God” (Willard). The Kingdom Among Us has touched them and healed them through Jesus and now they too are blessed. The unblessables are in fact blessed. Who are our “unblessables” today? Take a moment to think of your own. Fill in the blank as if this were being written today Blessed are ____________________. Those who don’t vote like I do. Blessed are the addicted, the stupid, the homeless.   Blessed are the water protectors at Standing Rock and the police in riot gear. Even these are worthy of God’s blessing. God’s rule and righteousness is freely available to all of humanity through reliance on Jesus himself, wherever we happen to be on our spiritual journey. The “sat upon, spat upon, ratted on” are worthy of God’s abundant provision from the heavens. Even these, the people in our society regarded as most hopeless, most unlovable. They too are invited into God’s kingdom through the healing of Jesus.

So what about the comfortable – like most of us here today? What about the rich, the full, the happy? Do those “woes” worry you a bit? Do you feel as if Jesus is condemning your success, your accomplishments, your state of worldly contentedness? Let’s discuss. Jesus is NOT saying that one human condition is a guarantee of God’s approval, salvation, or blessing over any other. But Jesus IS SAYING that our priorities have the capacity to get in the way. When we place security, wealth, or status above God, THEN we ought to listen up when Jesus says, “Woe to you…” It is entirely possible to be blessed while also being well fed, happy, and successful, as long as God comes first. It isn’t the human condition of being well off that is a “woe,” it’s the rejection of the grace of God that is a “woe.” Woe to you who have tended your gardens for too long, much too long. Blessed are you – all of you – who step out of yourselves and into God’s kingdom which will always be much larger, more broad, and exponentially more loving than the kingdoms of our own making.

My wish for you is the next time you hear these words of Jesus, The next time you come across the Beatitudes, you picture this scene: Jesus – standing in the middle of a field, surrounded by chaos and emotion, with power still flowing from his person, and the crowd pressing in just to touch him, Jesus radically inverts our presumptions and throws wide open the gates to God’s Kingdom. Blessed are you.

Sermon Reflection Questions:

  1. Fill in the blanks: Blessed are the _______________________, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  2. What is your “woe”? What is standing between you and God’s Kingdom?
  3. How and in what ways do you understand or hear the Beatitudes differently now?