On the day my mother died, we crammed into her ugly poky hospital room. She had been sick for years, and in and out of hospital, but none of us had understood that she was so close to death. We were given just a few hours to prepare. So there we were: shocked, dismayed, terrified; and totally, totally heart stricken.
As I sat and watched my mother gasping for breath, I felt overwhelmed by grief and rage and pain. I thought of all the things we hadn’t done and now never would; all the things we should have talked about and now never could; all the ways it was too late to love one another, or to say sorry, or to say goodbye. I had no idea how I could continue without her; no idea how I would go home, go to sleep, get up, and keep on keeping on after her death.
Without a doubt, it was the worst day of my life.
But it was also much more than that. Because in that ugly poky hospital room, filled with terrified anxious grief-stricken people, there was something else. There with us, and growing stronger all day, I felt the pulsing heart of love. Love filled the room and pushed at the walls and shot flashes and sparks under the door and down the corridor. Despite our grief, despite our fear, the whole room was abundantly alive with love. I look back on that day, nearly twenty years ago now, and I still remember it as having an extraordinary orange glow of comfort and assurance; and I know:
Without a doubt, it was the day I felt closest to God.
* * * * *
Blessed are the wealthy; blessed are the healthy; blessed are the happy; blessed are the respectable, say the false preachers and every media outlet in the country. But Jesus says, ‘No.’ Instead, says Jesus, the poor are blessed; the hungry are blessed; the grieving are blessed; the rejected are blessed. But the wealthy, healthy, happy and respectable? Well, they’re heading for trouble.
Those of us who are currently comfortable tend to find these words intolerable. We ignore them or play them down, or we swap them for Matthew’s spiritually gussied-up version. Or we hear these words, feel guilty, and try to justify our status and wealth. Very, very few of us trust these words, relinquish our safety nets, and become poor for the sake of experiencing the fullness of the gospel.
But that’s the invitation: To experience the fullness of the gospel; to know the extraordinary healing and freedom of God’s love. Jesus offers his teaching, his healing and his freedom to everyone in the crowd … but the comfortable too often say ‘No.’
No, I will trust in my wealth to insulate and save me.
No, I will not question the ways I am captive to culture.
No, I will not look at the poverty and pain upon which my privilege depends.
No, I will not acknowledge my own emptiness and suffering, and the ways I sedate myself with social media, or alcohol, or relentless activity; nor will I allow anyone to speak into my life.
No, I will not turn our economy upside down. I worked hard for my money, I earned my comforts. God’s jubilee justice is great in theory, but really quite unworkable and nothing to do with me.
As long as we say ‘No’ and stand back from the crowd, Jesus’ words ring true. We are heading for trouble. This trouble coming our way is neither punishment nor curse. Instead, when we swallow the lie that prosperity and happiness are signs of God’s favour, when we dismiss our own pain, then we are turning away from the joy and the freedom which flow from God’s presence, and the healing experienced in love. Loneliness and distress are the natural consequences of privilege, because privilege insulates us from our need of God.
Jesus longs to teach and heal every person in the crowd; God longs to pour life in all its fullness into every one of us. But unless we align ourselves with those who know their need; unless we crowd around Jesus and reach out to him; unless we acknowledge our vulnerability and emptiness, then God’s abundant love and life will have nowhere to go.
For it takes capacity to receive God’s grace, a capacity which is only possible when we acknowledge our brokenness, our emptiness, our doubt and our pain. Suffering, poverty, hunger, shame, grief, marginalisation: they are not blessings in and of themselves. They are blessings because they create capacity for Christ’s superabundant presence: the spirit which comforts and disturbs, teaches and heals, liberates and loves.
In my own life, I have known this presence at deathbeds, and during crises, and at food banks. I have seen Christ at work among the marginal and rejected; I have felt Christ’s company when I sit with people on the dunghill of their lives. But with the wealthy, the successful, the relentlessly happy and the certain, I have rarely sensed this presence. God is not sought there; there is no room.
This week, a young man was killed on the highway. Many of you knew him and his family; many of you are no doubt asking, “Why did this happen? And where was God?” I suggest to you that these are not the most useful questions. Terrible things happen to good and ordinary people; we see this throughout the Bible, and in our own lives.
Instead, I suggest you simply tell God all about your grief, anger, bewilderment and doubt. You might pick a fight with God; you might weep; you might question life, the universe and everything. Do all this and more, but as you do, make sure you join the rest of us crowding around Jesus in our brokenness and pain, because that is where he meets us and heals us all: in the crowd, and in our pain. As he says, Blessings on those who weep today—those who do not shy away from their grief but enter into it—for you’ll soon be laughing again! It’s the ones who will not weep who are heading for trouble.
To the rest of you, I ask, How do health, wealth, happiness and respectability shield you from God’s overflowing generosity and love? When have you suffered? Where are your wounds? How are you hiding them, denying them, covering them up, protecting them? And will you invite Christ Jesus into those painful, dark and shameful places, and open yourself to his healing? Jesus wants nothing more than to heal and restore you: will you let him? Ω