Sunday, February 2, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
(CN — stories of domestic abuse and alcoholism, migration-related violence)
Francisca was blessed. She lived in a small house just outside a village in Honduras that she and her husband had moved to when they married. The house had no electricity or running water; so, every day, multiple times a day, Francisca trekked out to a nearby stream with her buckets and hauled water back to the house. It was back-breaking work. Most of the food they ate depended on what they were able to grow in their small garden. It was a hard life. But Francisca gave thanks to God because she knew she was blessed.
They were too poor to afford shoes, so Francisca went everywhere barefoot. Her husband was frustrated with their lives, frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Honduras, frustrated with the violence that reached even their small village; and he chose to take out his frustrations on Francisca. The beatings were worst when he drank. And when he started drinking even more heavily, Francisca knew that she needed to leave. It wasn’t safe to stay in that house anymore. It wasn’t safe to stay in her village either; it wasn’t really safe to be a woman living on her own in Honduras at all.
So Francisca made a bold decision. Like many others before her – and many after her – she made the difficult decision to head north. She decided she would try to reach the United States and seek asylum there. It was a dangerous journey. Francisca had to cross Guatemala and then the entire length of Mexico in order to get to the US border. A good deal of that journey was on foot and the rest was aboard a freight train that migrants had come to call La Bestia – The Beast – because of how dangerous it was to ride. She was beaten many times and robbed at least twice before she finally made it to the Texas border, where she was immediately arrested by Border Patrol. And Francisca was blessed.
Most of us gathered here, when we imagine what it means to be “blessed,” probably don’t immediately think of someone like Francisca. On the contrary, when many of us think about people who are undocumented or asylum seekers or refugees, “blessed” is probably pretty far from the first word that comes to mind. We are probably more likely to see them – at best – as victims to be pitied, or – at worst – as dangerous strangers to be feared. So how could they be blessed?
When we speak of blessing, we often speak of tangible, good things in our lives. We count our blessings. We might count ourselves blessed to have a nice house to live in and a reliable vehicle. We might count ourselves blessed to have our health or to be saved from some kind of illness or catastrophe. We might count ourselves blessed to be surrounded by friends and family who love us. And, indeed, these are all good, God-given blessings.
But that’s not the kind of blessing that Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading for today. Jesus lists many groups of people who he says are “blessed.” And most of them are as surprising to us as Francisca. Blessed are the poor in spirit – or just “the poor,” as Luke writes it. Blessed are those who mourn and grieve. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. Blessed are those who are persecuted! You could easily imagine others who might show up on this list: blessed are those who are beaten and abused and robbed; blessed are those who are forced to flee their homes; blessed are those who are too poor to afford shoes. Blessed are the Franciscas of the world.
What does Jesus mean by this list of blessings? How can it be that those who are persecuted and reviled, hungry or poor in spirit, can be blessed? I think we get a clue to understanding this in our second reading, from 1 Corinthians. Paul continues the passage we began reading last week about how God’s foolishness completely subverts what humans might think of as wisdom. And, starting in verse 27, Paul writes:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.1 Corinthians 1:27-28
God chooses what is foolish. God chooses what is weak and low and despised in the world. God chooses the poor and hungry, the persecuted, the outcast, the abused. These are the ones to whom God chooses to be most present. And I think that this is what lies at the heart of the blessing that Jesus is talking about. The blessing that these ones receive has nothing to do with tangible good or happiness. Instead, this blessing is all about the presence and love of God.
Without a doubt, this was true for Francisca. When I met her four years ago, in January 2016, she was living in a little colonia on the outskirts of Laredo, TX. She crossed the US border with almost nothing to her name but the clothes on her back. And she was waiting – and may still be waiting – for the courts to decide whether to grant her asylum and allow her to stay in safety. In the meanwhile, she lived in a tiny house with simple furnishings that a local church had provided. And she was so, so profoundly grateful just to have shoes on her feet.
I was with a group of other students on a borderlands immersion, and Francisca welcomed us all to crowd into her little house. She insisted on serving us all Coke and cookies, and then for almost two hours she told us her story – and told us how she was blessed.
.And I wish I could describe to you the way it felt to be there in that house. It was sacred space. Every word, every breath, the very air itself was absolutely soaked with the Spirit. It was almost like how you can feel it in the air when it’s going to rain – you just knew that God was there. Francisca had a deeper connection with God than I think I have experienced in my life. And I’m pretty sure that every last one of us left her presence thinking the exact same thing:
Wow. Francisca is blessed.
Now to be clear, to say that those who have suffered poverty and injustice and hunger are blessed is not to say that this suffering in and of itself is blessing. It is not. Francisca is not blessed because she suffered violence and danger. God does not desire that anyone should suffer. And, also, to say that people who are poor and mournful and downtrodden and oppressed are blessed is not to say at all that those of us who are not actively suffering are not blessed. Because, of course, God’s love and presence and grace are totally for us too.
Rather, it is true to say that God’s heart is most drawn to those whom this world neglects and despises. God is drawn to the weak and the lowly and the unloved – no matter who they might be. The Catholic author Richard Rohr offers up a really beautiful image for this; he says, “It is at the bottom where we find [God’s] grace; for, like water, grace seeks the lowest places and there it pools up.” Grace pools like water in the low places of the world. It is at the bottom, in the lowest places, where we will find God most present. And that is blessing indeed.
And as Christians, we are called to go looking for God in those places – to wade into the low places of the world ourselves. In our first reading, we read the words of Micah 6:8, a verse that is probably familiar to many of you:
God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?Micah 6:8
We are called to follow God into the places of the world most in need of justice and kindness – and to join in the work that God is already doing there. And if we ever hope to walk humbly with our God, well, we’ll know exactly where to find Them.
So I invite you to reflect on where the low places might be in our community and in our world. Where can we find the places that are in deep need of kindness and justice and peace? Who are the Franciscas that you know? And how might each one of us begin wading into those deep pools where God’s grace and blessing gather?