Dishonest, greedy politicians. Drug addiction. Gun violence. Russian collusion. Racist public policies. Perpetual war. Poverty. Haitian protests. Homelessness. Immorality. Inequality. White Christian Nationalism. Child abuse. Climate Change. Bigotry. Mental illness. School shootings. Sexism. Suicide. Sick religion.
Billy Joel once sang: “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”
In other words, this is the way it is, and this is the way it has always been. This is reality. As Walter Cronkite used to sign off after talking about
Watergate, Vietnam, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and the murder of John Lennon: “That is the way it is.” In other words: This is the real world.
Which raises a very important question: What is reality? And who gets to define reality. Who gets to say what is real in a world where, in the words of Plato, there is obviously “more shadow than truth?”
The world is forever telling hopeful, progressive Christians like myself to “get real.” “Bleeding heart preachers like you are out of touch with the real world.” “Things are not getting any better.” “He’s never going to change.” “She is not going to ever be able to take care of herself.” “Preacher, you are wasting your time.”
“You know, I think faith in God is fine and all, belief in a higher power of love and justice is okay, but sometimes you just got to get real.” “You say what now? That selfless, inclusive love can change the world? That love wins?” “Preacher, it’s like you are living in another world.” “You need to come off of all that progressive idealistic thinking and hoping and believing and face the facts!”
The world is forever telling people like me: “Wake up ‘cause you must be dreaming.” “Open your eyes man.” “Hello?!” “Get your heads out of the clouds, and get real.”
All of which begs my prior question: “What is real? What on earth is reality?” “What are the real facts of life?” And “Who gets to say what is real?” Who gets to define reality?” “Who gets to name the facts of life?” “Who is ultimately in charge of this world in which we live?” “Who gets to say the reason we are all here and the direction the world is heading?”
Do we really come into this place Sunday after Sunday to escape from the real world? After all, we do call it a “sanctuary.” When we enter this sacred space where all are welcomed, accepted and loved equally and unconditionally, are we entering into some sort of never-never land? What are we really doing here in this hour with all of our singing and hoping and praying and preaching and eating and drinking from this table?
Maybe it would help us to listen again to one of Jesus’ very first sermons. Now, you might think that Jesus would use his first sermon to tell us what to do. For isn’t that the purpose of a sermon? To learn what we must do in order to live a better life? You come to this sanctuary every Sunday to get some advice on how to survive out there in the real world.” Right?
But this doesn’t seem to be the purpose of this sermon in Luke. Jesus is not telling people what to do out there in the real world. Instead, Jesus is defining the real world. Jesus is telling the crowd what’s what. “Here are the facts” says Jesus. “This is the way life is.” “This is the real world.”
Jesus begins his sermon by pointing out the people in the world who are blessed. Jesus doesn’t tell people what they must do in order to be blessed; rather, he simply announces that certain people in this world are blessed. The entire first half of Jesus’ sermon is simply a list of facts. He’s simply stating the facts of life. He’s telling us the way things really are in the real world. In one of his very first sermons, Jesus is defining reality.
And it was as obvious to his first hearers as it is as obvious to us today, that according to Jesus, the way things really are in the real world is nowhere close to the way we thought they were. In a few simple statements, Jesus turns the whole world completely upside down. If you thought God was in the business of damning the sinner and rewarding the saint, Jesus says: “You better think again!”
Blessed are the poor—the same people whom we overlook, disregard, despise and consider failures, worthless. Blessed are the mothers who can barely take care of themselves, much less their children. Blessed are the fathers who are doped up and locked up and all together messed up.
Blessed are the hungry—the same hungry people who we know must be lazy or inept. Blessed are the ones who we think are always looking for a hand-out instead of a hand-up. Blessed are the unwaged and unemployed who we believe are solely responsible for most of their misery.
Blessed are those who weep—the same whiners and complainers who are always acting like they’ve had it worse than everyone else. Blessed are those who think they are the only ones in the world with problems. Blessed are those self-centered crybabies who believe the whole world should stop and join their little pity party.
Jesus says, that reality is, the God’s honest truth is, that God blesses those in the world whom we tend to curse.
I expect it was a shock for all the good, church-going, Bible-believing people of that day when Jesus completely shattered their old image of God and the world by introducing them to a brand new world. A brand new way of seeing things. A brand new reality. A new creation.
Perhaps this is why Jesus begins his sermon by healing everyone who came forth and touched him. The mass healings were a sign that a new world, a brand new reality, was breaking into the old world where those on the bottom are brought to the top. In this new reality, those who are poor and those who are weeping are put at the center of what God is up to in our world.
No, in defining reality in this sermon Jesus does not tell us to go out and do anything. However, by implication, Jesus’ words lead all of us to think of some things that we need to do, to think of some places that we need to go, to think of some people that we need to see.
But we do not do these things or go to these places or see these people because Christ commands us to in his first sermon. We do not visit the nursing homes or the hospitals, we do not feed the hungry, we do not help a stranger clean-up her house, we do not give generously to the mission and ministry of the church because Jesus tells us to.
We do these things and go to these places and give of ourselves, because of the way we now know the world to be.
We rebuke dishonest, immoral, and greedy politicians who hurt the poor so we can get in line with what’s what. We stand against racism and all kinds of bigotry to get real. We detest division and seek unity to get in step with the facts of life.
We deplore the worship of guns and all apathy towards war and all violence to get grounded in the truth.
We welcome and include children, we fight mental illness, and all sorts of addiction, we support healthcare for all, and we are good stewards of this earth, not merely because we believe Jesus leads us to do those things, but because we want our feet planted deep in the real world, in the new reality that Christ has revealed to us. We love our neighbors as ourselves, because we believe God’s got the whole world in God’s hands.
William Willimon tells the story of nurse who works with seriously ill cardiac patients. Most of her patients were born with defective hearts. She assists in the surgery and the care of people whose hearts have all but given out. Many of her patients do not make it through the very delicate and risky surgery. And most of the ones who do pull through the surgery have a very difficult time in recovery. They are prone to infection and a host of complications. It can be a depressing and very draining job.
As her pastor, one day Willimon asked her, “How do you do it? How do you keep going?”
Without hesitation the nurse replied: “Walks in the park.” She then explained, “I take an hour off for lunch every day and go for a stroll in the nearby park. And there I see people everywhere who are happy and healthy. I see children laughing and playing, and I see older people sitting on benches enjoying being with one another. I am thereby reminded that this is how things are meant to be. This is the real world. And this is what keeps me going day after day in hospital.”
Are her walks in the park an escape from reality? Some trip into never-never land? No, they are for her, a realistic engagement with the reality of the way things are supposed to be. And these engagements keep her going in an oftentimes shadowy world where it is easy to forget what’s what.
That is, of course, one of the main reasons we come to this place Sunday after Sunday—to be reminded of what’s what, to get a grip, to capture a vision, to receive a picture of reality now that God through Jesus Christ has reached out to us. We come to this place, to this sanctuary, not to escape from reality, but to get real.
We come as shameful, sinful human beings who are unable at times to look ourselves in the mirror, and we receive grace and forgiveness.
We come feeling loathed and despised and lonely, and we find acceptance and love.
We come broken and sick and tired and weak, and we are given healing and wholeness.
We come with pain and grief and despair, and we are offered assurance and hope.
We come floundering and meandering, and we receive a purpose.
We come to this place failing and fading and dying, and we are gifted with life abundant and eternal.
That, my friends, is the way it is.
This is reality now that God through Jesus Christ has come into our world. May we all have the grace this day and every day to get real, to live in this reality and to share this reality with all people.
O God, grant us the grace to see the world as it really is, the world as you intend it to be, the world you are working to create for us. Keep revealing to us your intent for the world and for our lives. Then, help us to live in the light of that vision. Help us to align our lives with the true shape of reality, this day and always. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.