The 6th Sunday after Epiphany | Joanna Benskin | 13 February 2022 | Psalm 1 | Luke 6:17-26

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who plants the righteous by streams of water and blesses the poor.

Good morning, friends! Welcome to the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, in the season of light and visions. Today we read Psalm 1, a beautiful image of flourishing in God. And we read the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, a radical revelation of God’s solidarity with the poor and the outcast. There’s some tension between them, so we’re going to work with that today because I think we need both of these visions.

I think these two scriptures are like two light sources slanting down on the landscape from different angles. Together they make for some confusing shadows, but they also make our path brighter once we’ve gotten oriented.

The tension, the confusing shadow, comes because in the Psalm, it seems like good people are going to prosper and do well in every aspect of life, but in the Gospel, it really sounds like God is on the side of the folks who are not doing well—folks who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated.

So, let’s start with the Psalm. (And we get a very similar passage in Jeremiah.) The core image here is righteous people as trees planted by streams of water. The righteous people have strong roots, and everything they need to flourish and flower and fruit is right there next to them. The righteous people trust in God, and they delight in learning and doing what’s right, and they don’t get tangled up in sketchy schemes, and they surround themselves with other folks who are on the same path.

And this contrasts with the wicked people in the Psalm, who will eventually fail. They’re chaff—the husks of grain that float away in the wind. They don’t have those roots in the river of God’s abundance like the righteous people do.

This Psalm is such a beautiful vision of how people can flourish in God. This vision feeds me spiritually. Back in seminary in California, there was a park I could walk to just up the hill, and there were redwood trees by a little stream. So I’d sit there and read this Psalm by the water under the tall, tall trees. And reading this Psalm in that place helped me grow strong roots in prayer. It helped me to shape my life toward flourishing in God.

The stream in the Psalm resonates with so much—water as an image of God’s Spirit, God’s transformation, God’s abundance. In the beginning of creation, God’s Spirit hovers over the waters. The Israelites cross the Red Sea when God liberates them, and we’re reborn in the waters of baptism. The prophet Isaiah sings about drawing water with rejoicing from springs of salvation, and Jesus promises living water. And here in our Psalm, the righteous people get to drink up that divine water with their roots, and they break out into full leaf and fruit.

It’s beautiful. These images are so powerful and so lifegiving that I keep coming back to them. Psalm 1 is a light that I follow again and again.

But it’s also a light that casts a shadow. And when we read it in this time and place, that shadow is shaped by our own assumptions about success and wealth and poverty and merit. Here in the US in the 21st century, we’ve been deeply formed to believe that rich people are rich because they deserve it, and poor people are poor because they made bad choices. Someone pointed out to me a few years ago how unusual this belief is, if you look at other places and other time periods, most people don’t think this. But whether or not we believe it’s true, it probably still frames our thinking.  

So the shadow side, the thing this Psalm does not actually say, but we might wrongly hear, is that prosperous people have their wealth and position because they’re righteous and they deserve it, and people who don’t succeed in life are in that situation because they did something wrong.

And that’s where we need a light shining in from another direction to help us see through those shadowy patches. Our Gospel today is the start of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you.” And on the other hand, “Woe to you who are rich.”

Jesus preaches a kingdom that turns the world upside-down, and this preaching today is our clearest vision yet of what that’s like. If we remember back to the Christmas story, things started to go this way from the beginning, when Mary’s soul magnified a God who lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty from their thrones, when the Savior of the world was born in a stable, and when the good news first came to lowly shepherds in their fields.  

And here, Jesus preaches that the poor, the hungry, and the hated are the ones who are truly blessed. God sees these folks, and God is with them.

And we’ll see this throughout the Gospel—poor people sick people and children and women and foreigners and anyone else that the folks in power ignore and shove away turn out to be the people closest to the kingdom Jesus preaches. Jesus’ vision is a world upside-down and backwards. The last shall be first. Blessed are the poor.  

God is with folks who suffer from poverty or hunger or the world’s hatred people in a particularly close way because of who they are and what they’ve suffered. Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are both the poor and the rich equally,” even if we might prefer that. He says “Blessed are the poor.”

So God is with the folks who come to our food pantry in a way that God isn’t with people who have plenty to eat all the time. God is with trans kids who get put out of their homes in a way that God isn’t with people who experience love and safety every day. And if that makes you uncomfortable, that is normal and ok. This is what liberation theology calls the “preferential option for the poor.”

And despite some discomfort with where this leaves me as a fairly comfortable person, I do find a liberating and lifegiving vision in this Gospel. It’s good news that Jesus is here to lift up folks who have been crushed down. It’s good news that people who suffer in life are never abandoned, because God is with them and God is working to bring them laughter and deliverance. Blessed are the poor. It’s a light.

But this Gospel’s warm, bright light casts a shadow too. Some Christians have read this to mean that if the poor are so blessed, there’s no reason to ease suffering in this world. Some have read this and thought that it means the poor have some kind of spiritual consolation prize that makes up for everything unfair that happens to them, and so the inequalities of the world are really fine to stay like they are. Some people have even used these verses to tell oppressed people to stay where they are and not make any trouble, because they’re spiritually blessed. And Jesus did not say any of that, but it’s a shadow these words have cast in our world.

And so we need the Psalm shining from the other side with a vision where the righteous flourish in every way. The righteous people in Psalm 1 aren’t blessed in a separate spiritual realm—everything they do prospers.

And the Psalm invites us to wonder: What would it be like if all of us, all of everyone, could get our roots into the stream and grow leaves that do not wither and fruit in due season? It’s a vision of human flourishing that also critiques the realities of this world, where often people suffer who don’t deserve it, and often people succeed who shouldn’t. The Psalm gives us a vision of God’s dream for people to flourish in every way, of a world where God’s beloved children don’t have to be poor or hungry or hated.

So we can see how these two lights shine into each other’s shadows. But that play of light and shadow is still hard to reconcile into one image. How are both things true? The righteous will prosper. Woe to you who are rich. The wicked will fail. Blessed are the poor. There’s a tension.

And maybe it would help to frame both of these visions as partial and conditional, rather than universal truths.

Maybe when we read this Gospel, we could say that as long as any of us are poor and hungry and weeping and hated, God is with those among us in a special way, because that’s what people who are poor and weeping and hungry and hated need.

And maybe when we read the Psalm, we could say that we sometimes do see righteousness flourish and wickedness fail this way, and we hope for a future world where that’s always true. Sometimes we see a really good person come into their own—we see their gifts bear fruit, and we see them so happy, and they have plenty of what they need and plenty to share. And sometimes we do see harmful plans collapsing in on themselves. Maybe the Psalm gives us a vision of what sometimes happens in the world we know, and a glimmer of hope that someday, somewhere, it’s what will always happen.

If we put both visions that way, as only a part of the picture, then maybe there’s room for both of them to be true. But even then, I can’t quite make the tension go away. I can’t quite make the crisscrossing shadows from our two lights resolve into a clear image.

So for now, I think we get to live with this tension. We can look to a vision where all people who try to live with integrity and love will flourish in every possible way. And we also find God’s special blessing among folks who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated, and in the parts of ourselves that are. Both of these lights can guide us.

When we follow the light of Psalm 1, we can embrace a vision of God’s flourishing for ourselves and for all. We can catch a glimpse of what it’s like to be planted by the river of God’s plenty, to grow strong, to bear fruit, to have enough and more than enough. Even if this doesn’t always happen as a reward for righteousness, we can draw nourishment and joy from the possibility of that tree planted by streams of water.

This vision of the righteous flourishing is especially healing and necessary for those of us who were taught early in our lives of faith that following Jesus has to be painful. Some of us learned to be suspicious of ease and joy; we thought that being righteous nearly always meant self-denial. And sometimes it does, for sure; sometimes doing what’s right is tough, and we have to make really hard choices. But this vision of the righteous flourishing and prospering helps us to learn that our happiness is part of God’s hope for us too.

This vision helps us to know that it’s sometimes alright to choose joy, choose comfort, choose abundance. Our God wants to see us flourishing like a tree planted by streams of water. And when we are able to discern what a pathway of righteous flourishing looks like for us and move toward that kind of life, it is a holy and good and joyful thing.

 At the same time, we can follow the light of the Gospel by looking for God’s blessing amid suffering.

Even when we’re the farthest away from flourishing, we can know that God is with us. And when folks who are poor or hungry or grieving or hated tell us what they know about God, we can listen to them as blessed prophets who see God in ways that comfortable people don’t. When we follow the light of this Gospel, we know that God is with people who seem to have failed. We know that hardship doesn’t mean someone is far from God—that God comes close to folks who are poor or hungry or weeping or hated.  

So in this season of visions, I pray that God gives us the grace to find a righteous path among all the lights and shadows we see. I pray that we’ll notice God’s light and God’s blessing in hardship. I pray that we will follow that light to move a step or two toward a world where no one has to be poor, no one lacks food, no one mourns alone, no one is hated. I pray that we will be nourished by a vision of hope for us and for all. And I pray that more and more, day by day, we will flourish like trees planted by streams of water. Amen.   

A 17th-century embroidered Tree of Life (accessed through the Met Museum’s online collections).