We Are Blest

“I wonder if Tammy Faye read too much of the Beatitudes as told in the Gospel of Matthew, and not enough of the Beatitudes as told in the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps, if she had found solace in our reading from Luke today, she would have been able to look out for the signs of blessing and been watchful for the signs of woe….. [But] it’s all too easy for us to look at someone else and talk about their shortcomings. I hope, this morning, that we don’t simply look at our gospel passage through the eyes of Tammy Faye. I hope that we look at today’s gospel passage through our own eyes.”

Sermon Preached: Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022 at Trinity on the Green

Epiphany 6, Year C: Jeremiah 17:5-10 | 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 | Luke 6:17-26 | Psalm 1

Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.

We’re blest, we’re blest, we’re blest, we are blest,

We’ve got shelter, clothing, and strength and we are blest.

We’re blest, we’re blest, we’re blest, we are blest,

Oh, we don’t deserve it but yet we are blest.

These are words from a 1970’s worship tune that I heard recently for the first time when I watched the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a 2021 film about the life of the famous televangelist Tammy Faye and her husband, Jim Bakker. I can only apologize that I didn’t actually sing this song – with a hand held microphone, teased up hair, background singers, and a good deal of eye makeup to accentuate the blessings. It was an experience watching that film, which covered a good deal of history that I didn’t live through, but that some of you might remember. 

Tammy Faye began her ministry in the 1960s, after meeting her future husband Jim Bakker at a Bible College in Minnesota. They hit the road with a puppet and a Bible, preaching the Word of God wherever doors were open to them. They got a lucky break through, thanks to connections with some other televangelists of that era, and became founding members of The 700 Club, the flagship program of the Christian Broadcasting Network sharing testimonies, teachings, and contemporary Christian music via cable TV. Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker eventually set out on their own, founding The Praise the Lord Club and starting their own TV station. This is around the time in the film retelling that we see lights and glitter, TV-funded mansions, and Tammy Faye singing to a packed audience those words that I recited (all too formally) at the beginning of this sermon: we are blest, blest, blest, we are blest!

Behind the scenes, things begin to fall apart. The relationship between Jim and Tammy is fractured. Tammy struggles with mental health issues. The couple continues a pattern of excessive spending using money donated to the cause of their ministry. They make choices that ultimately land Jim Bakker in prison in 1989, on 24 fraud and conspiracy counts. As Tammy and Jim’s lives unravel, you can’t help but hear the ironic echoes of that song again: We are blest, blest, blest, we are blest.

I’ve been thinking of blessings this week because of our Gospel passage, the teaching of the Beatitudes as told in the Gospel of Luke. The word “Beatitude” does not appear in the original Greek text – rather it’s a title that has been attached to these words over centuries. It comes from the French béatitude, meaning “supreme happiness.” This word appeared around the 15th century, originating from the Latin “beatudinem,” meaning a state of blessedness. Although the word “Beatitude” does not appear in the original Greek, I find it to be a helpful title. It’s a reminder, to me, that Jesus’ teaching in this passage is not so much a pronouncement of blessing, like the blessing a priest offers at the end of our worship service. Instead, these Beatitudes are a description of blessing – they are an observation about how God is closest to those who are poor, to those who are hungry, to those who weep.

It’s important to note that there are two versions of the Beatitudes – one in the Gospel of Luke, which we read today, and one in the Gospel of Matthew. The Beatitudes in Matthew are by far the more popular version. In that account, Jesus’ teachings consist only of blessings – nine of them in total. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

Blessed are those who mourn,

Blessed are the meek,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on and so forth.

It’s notable that Matthew tends to give a “spiritualized” version of these blessings, as contrasted with the Gospel of Luke. For example, Matthew says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Luke’s words are much more direct; much more rooted in physical realities. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Luke writes, as if Jesus is looking directly into the faces of poor people, “For yours is the kingdom of God.” Similarly, Jesus does not pronounce blessing for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; instead Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, pronounces blessing for those who are literally hungry – those whose stomachs are empty.

Then, Jesus goes a step further. Not only does he proclaim blessing those who go without; he also predicts woe, for those who live in the sweet center of society’s benefits.

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 mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Having read these words, it’s no surprise that Christians tend to gravitate towards the teaching of the Beatitudes, as told in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s much easier to read a long list of blessings than it is to read a parallel list of blessings and woes. The word “Beatitude” almost seems not to apply in the Gospel of Luke, where the good and the bad are listed in equal measure. We might call this passage instead “The Beatitudes and the Calamities,” “The Beatitudes and the Sorrows,” or “The Beatitudes and the Discontents.”

Even though these woes are hard to hear, there’s a part of me that thinks they are far more useful to us, in our spiritual formation and our personal healing, than the Beatitudes as listed in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, all we get are the blessings. We are blest, blest, blest, we are blest! But Matthew provides no roadmap for what to do when we feel out of tune with the world; out of sync with each other; out of touch with God.

I wonder if Tammy Faye read too much of the Beatitudes as told in the Gospel of Matthew, and not enough of the Beatitudes as told in the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps, if she had found solace in our reading from Luke today, she would have been able to look out for the signs of blessing and been watchful for the signs of woe. Perhaps she could have protected her heart from material wealth, from fullness, from unmitigated levity, and from the subtle pull of other people’s admiration and approval. One remarkable aspect of the recent film about Tammy Faye is how it portrays her as human – she is not a villain or even a fool, but rather someone trapped by the expectations of the world, just like us. She is someone who, for a time, falls out of a state of blessing and into a state of woe.

Now it’s all too easy for us to look at someone else and talk about their shortcomings. But I hope, this morning, that we don’t simply look at our gospel passage through the eyes of Tammy Faye. I hope that we look at today’s gospel passage through our own eyes. 

Each one of us, at any given moment, might be straddling the line between a state of blessing and a state of woe. There are many spiritual teachers through the centuries who have acknowledged this reality – most famously the Spanish monk St. Ignatius, who talked about the spiritual states of consolation and desolation. Consolation is when we are moving towards God; feeling connected to God. Desolation is when we are moving away from God; when our ties to the divine and to one another are frayed thin. Most of the time we don’t need fancy words like “consolation” or “desolation” to know what this feels like. We can sense when it is well with our souls, and when it is not. The Beatitudes in Luke might serve as a roadmap to help us move away from a state of desolation, back into a state of consolation – a state of blessedness, a state of Beatitude.

Take a moment to consider each of the woes, as listed in our Gospel passage from Luke today.

In what ways are you rich? Not metaphorically rich, as in “blest,” but literally, materially wealthy? In what ways does your wealth, or your aspiration for wealth, separate you from God?

In what ways are you full? How has this enabled you to ignore or misunderstand the hunger of others? How does your fullness mask the need for a deeper kind of satisfaction?

In what ways are you drawn to laughter, smiles, and positivity – at the expense of acknowledging difficult but true realities? Where in your life do you need to grieve?

And finally, how does your desire for approval – your desire for others to speak well of you – impact your authentic connection to God and other people?

The teachings of Jesus are not easy to follow. But they can change our lives, if we let them. I long for an authentic kind of blessing – a blessing that I can’t buy, or earn, or even quantify. I long for the kind of blessing that is really more like a state of being than anything else – a state of closeness to God, and to other people. A state of Beatitude. My prayer for us this morning is that we all will find our way into the light of God’s blessing – and stay there for as long as we can, in that place where our hearts are full, and our eyes clear. Amen.

Works Referenced:

Showalter, Michael, director. The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Searchlight Pictures, 2021.

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