Blessings and Woes: Teenagers, Tragedy, Trees, & Grace

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The trees outside Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. Blessed are these trees that are barren, for soon they will see spring. 

Jeremiah 7:5-10
Psalm 1
Luke 6:17-26

“I feel broken, I feel defeated. Right now in my mind, it’s not going to be fine.”

These are words spoken to a New York Times reporter, Jack Healy, by a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School three weeks after last year’s shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed seventeen people. Jack had gone down to Florida to interview a group of freshman girls who had been in the first classroom that the shooter had entered: classroom 1216. 

Clare Toeniskoetter, the producer of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, came along and produced the episode that Jack did these interviews for. Since then, Clare says, she hasn’t stopped thinking about those freshman girls. “I thought about them every time there was another mass shooting, I thought about them on election night, and I’ve thought about them pretty much every time I’ve seen a group of teenagers.” 

Clare isn’t alone in being deeply impacted by the students at the Parkland high school. What happened in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day last year is, if a congregation can collectively have a worst nightmare, ours. So many in our congregation, as most of you know well, are educators themselves, parents or grandparents of teenagers, or both.

Ahead of the one year anniversary of the shooting, Clare went back to interview this group of girls, now sophomores. The anniversary of the shooting was Thursday, and on that day, The Daily centered on these girls and what they’ve been through and where they are now, one year later (1).

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). 

When I listened to The Daily, as I do every morning, I had been struggling all week to come up with some answer for today’s Gospel text. The text itself is known as the sermon on the plain, you know, as opposed to the more famous sermon on the mount. If Jesus Christ’s album has a B Side, this is it. 

We’re used to the “blesseds” from the Sermon on the Mount, but the Sermon on the Level Place gives us their shadow sides: the “woes.” I’ve talked before about our tendency to make everything Jesus says into a story about heaven and hell, when in reality, the New Testament is mostly concerned with how we live this side of eternity.

I think the same is true of this text. While debates have been raging on social media lately about whether it’s moral to be a billionaire when so many people are hungry, Jesus remarks, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” So is the debate over? Is this a Jesus-given condemnation of the rich? 

You could certainly read it that way, if you want, but you’ll also notice that people who laugh are equally condemned right below that, so I only recommend subscribing to that interpretation if you have no sense of humor. It takes us right back to Puritanism: don’t laugh on Sunday; you’ll go to hell! 

No, I think the answer is much simpler: we all experience the fullness of life. There’s no escaping pain, or joy, or ridicule, or embarrassment or shame or love. You’re alive, so you’re going to get it all, in seasons. 

Let’s go back to the scene: Jesus is walking through the crowd. They’ve come from all over, Luke tells us: from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. In our own terms, it’s as if you’ve got a great crowd from all New England, from Boston, the coast of New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and west from the Berkshires. They gather from all over the region to hear him and be healed of their diseases, Luke says, and those who are being tortured by unclean spirits are healed. The crowd is clamoring to touch Jesus, because just touching God’s body is enough to heal you. And then Jesus Christ looks up and begins to speak.

“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.
Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, and say all kinds of stuff about you. That’s what their ancestors did to the prophets.

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 weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
  (Luke 6:20-26, paraphrase)

No matter what you’ve heard from TV preachers, good fortune is not to be confused with God’s blessing. Your poverty and sadness and seeming failure are not because of your unbelief. And in the same way, your faith in God cannot save you from weeping; faith only means that you know that God is with you in your tears. 

When Clare Toeniskoetter, New York Times reporter, interviewed the Parkland students one year later, it was just as heartbreaking as the year before. That’s not because these students are any different than the fifteen year olds we know personally; it’s heartbreaking because they are, in many ways, the same. 

They are the same, yet they’re different, and not because of the political action of their peers. There is a wisdom about these girls, though they’re clearly still teenagers, figuring out how to do life, make relationships, endure heartbreak. They spoke of needing closure, of missing and still mourning their friends, of becoming impatient and often furious with the incoming freshmen who do not understand what it was like to be there on the day of the shooting. They describe their childhood as ending that day. Though they’re still fifteen and sixteen, they have an adult’s understanding of the fullness of life: violence, death, weeping, closure, laughter, new beginnings. The seasons of life.

The psalm and the Jeremiah lesson both speak of humanity as trees, and of faith as being planted by streams of water. Jeremiah says, “[This tree planted by the water] shall not fear when the heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8). I grew up in a climate not unlike the one that Jeremiah existed in — one that’s usually quite warm, where trees never lose all their leaves, even in winter.

Here’s what living in New England has taught me: the tree planted by the water will not escape the fullness of the seasons. The trees outside this building have lost their leaves through no fault of their own, exposing bare branches that reach up towards the sky. These branches look like the veins of our lungs, connecting us earth creatures, as Genesis 2 calls us in Hebrew, to all the life around us. 

Blessed is the bare tree, for soon it will sprout new life. 

But woe to the tree beautiful with autumn color, for winter will strip it bare.

What Jesus is getting at, I think, is this: if you are rich, if you are popular, if you have plenty to eat, if you’re full of joy, don’t confuse that for God’s presence. For the day is surely coming when you may have to sweat paying your bills, when you are hungry, when you will weep, when people will hate you. None of these things means that God has abandoned you.

And Jesus is also saying that, as it has been said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Blessed are you if your life is hard, for God is with you, and a season of joy will come again — either in future years or in eternity.

God is still in the midst of hurting people who still dare to clamor near to hear healing words. God is still in the midst of us at the table, offering his body for healing.

We who gather here are like trees planted near to the water of God’s words of life. None of us will escape the winter; it will come. But the water of new life keeps flowing. God is still in the midst of the people, healing our wounds, driving away the unclean spirits, these days and maybe always mostly voices in our heads that say that we will always be bare and left wanting, that we’ll only be worthy of love if we try hard enough.

I long for a world without suffering, and I’m betting you do too. If you came here to hear answers about why suffering exists, the adult ed Genesis students already know that I have none, nor does any theologian. I do not know why a very different tree exists in the Garden of Eden story, tempting humankind to destruction. None of us really knows, and those who pretend to know are faking it. God alone understands this riddle.

The reality beyond guessing is that winter comes for all of us. At some point, we are all stripped bare of leaves, exposed to the cold, not knowing why. 

But the water keeps flowing. God remains. 

So whatever season you find yourself in this morning, draw near. God’s body is here for you in bread and wine. Water and nourishment are here in words of life.

When that group of now sophomore girls from Parkland gathered to talk to the New York Times reporter one year later, one of them remarked, as they audibly munched on snacks, “I feel like this is like when you see a movie, and they’re like ‘ten years later,’ and [the characters] have cut their hair and stuff — this feels like that.” 

The other girls giggled. One said, “I have changed my hair.” 

They talked about the shooting, yes. But they are sixteen. They have so much life ahead of them, and that much is evident. They lamented that their friends should be there, too, but they aren’t. The girls also talked about college, and life after, and what it’ll be like to be [gasp!] twenty, looking back.

There will be many more seasons for all of them. 

These kids are certainly not the only ones hurting in America, not the only shooting victims, and many more in much poorer communities see gun violence every single day. The Parkland kids are not the only ones who have seen pain. 

What they do, though, along with many others, is remind us of the strength of the human spirit. What they do is to remind us of the importance of having someone around you who understands what you’ve been through. What they do is remind us to stay connected to the waters of new life. Hope, as they say, still springs eternal. 

“I feel broken, I feel defeated. Right now in my mind, it’s not going to be fine.”

At some point we have all uttered something similar. And if we haven’t, we will. The good news is that, whether we laugh or cry, Christ is in the midst of us, loving, healing, and bidding us to do the same: to walk with each other, to love, to heal. So let your branches grow strong. Whatever season you find yourself in, drink deeply of the good news of grace and love. Lean on each other when you need strength, for Christ’s body and healing presence are, were, and will be always, here, in the midst of the people. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. You can listen to the entire episode of The Daily by clicking here.

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