The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity
(The following is a transcript from the service audio)
I came to this pulpit officially in July, but I've been in Harvard... Well, I came as a master student in 2005, and I served on the faculty here for 8 years prior to my appointment to this pulpit. I used to commute up from Cape Cod. My family and I, as some of you know, live down in Falmouth. Two, three times a week, we get on the bus. I take a bus from Falmouth, the Peter Pan Bus, to South Station. I take the early bus, the first bus. I usually arrive in South Station, depending on traffic, between 7 and 8 a.m. For a time, a few years ago, I got used to South Station in the morning. All the commuters, lots of busyness and bustle. For a time, for a few months, a few years ago, at the foot of the stairs, coming off the commuter rail platform, going down to the subway, for those of you who know South Station, at the foot of the stairs, if I arrived between 7 and 8 a.m., there was a man who was often almost always there begging, asking for money.
He was a blind man. I don't carry a lot of cash usually. But if I happened to have some, I would drop some in his little container. Sometimes, after a long day and a long commute home, sometimes I'd remember him in my prayers at night. But sometimes I wouldn't, because of the long day, and a long commute home. I do remember one time, I had to come to campus in my collar. I think I was doing a service at the Divinity School. I know that day, I remembered to put some money in my pocket. Because I didn't want to walk by him in a collar. This is an important detail, and one I'm confessing to you now, because again, this man was blind. I was doing it to be seen by others, or because I was worried about being seen by others, and what they would see. "Blessed are the poor," Jesus says, "and woe to you that are rich," Jesus says. I've been a priest for 12 years. Just because of the timing of when this lesson comes up every three years, and when Lent occurs, I've never preached on this lesson before.
Here I stand in this rich church. Not everyone here is rich, I know. I'll say more about that. But this is a wealthy church at a wealthy university in a wealthy nation. Now is the time when I'm invited to preach on this lesson from Jesus. We are early in the Gospel of Luke this morning. Jesus has just begun his ministry. He has just called his first disciples, and already he is bucking trends. In Chapter Five, just before this, he heals a leper. Healing is expected, but it's important the way that he heals a leper. He heals a leper with his touch. He touches the man. Culturally and ritually, this was not something he ought to have done. But it is what he did, and He offered healing. Also in Chapter Five, he and his disciples, his friends, they pull grain and eat it from the field on the Sabbath, and they heal on the Sabbath. Some of the leaders question his authority to do so. Then he goes up into the mountains to pray by himself. After he has prayed by himself, it's then that we come to this lesson.
He comes down from the mountain. We heard it at the beginning of the reading that Judy gave to us. He came down from the mountain to the level place where the people were. Now, these are familiar teachings. They also take place. They also are quoted or described in the Gospel of Matthew. The Matthean version is the one that formed Lori's lovely prayers this morning. But Matthew goes a little bit easier on us than Luke. There are no woes in Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus never says woe to anybody. He just offers blessings. The blow is softened a bit in Matthew. Jesus says in Matthew, "Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." I think Matthew's version is important, because it shows to us, it tells us that spiritual and material wellbeing are bound together. If you are hungry, you do not deserve to be hungry. You also hunger for righteousness. If you are poor, you ought not to be poor, and so you may be poor in spirit. I like Matthew's version. But what's useful in Luke's version is this exclusive emphasis on the material.
Another way to put this is that in Matthew's version, if you remember the scene from South Station I just described, when I was very poor in spirit, I might be the one who was blessed. But in Luke's version, it is unmistakably the blind man whom Jesus is blessing. How do we make sense of Jesus' teachings here? There's one way we might make sense of it, which is the prosperity gospel way, for lack of a better phrase. Some of you may be familiar with this, a movement in the contemporary, especially Protestant church, but not only in the Protestant churches, where these lines from Jesus are read quite directly and simply as a promise of benefit for those who have faith. If you are poor now, but have faith, you will be rich. I'm not an especial fan of that interpretation of the gospel message. For one reason, it just seems like that simple reversal just switches the places, and then someone else is rich, and someone else is poor, and the cycle starts again. But also, because I want to ask the question, how do we make sense of it? It's not just rhetorical.
I mean, how do we, us here in this church, me from this pulpit, how do we make sense of Jesus saying, "Blessed are the poor, and woe to you who are rich?" I think the first thing to understand is that these woes are not curses. They're not hexes. The word “woe” in Greek, it's an exclamation. It's more like an “alas,” or an “ah.” That's the way it reads in the Greek. It's an interjection of that kind. That's the part of speech. It's Jesus actually grieving. He's crying out and grieving. He's not promising that some bad thing will happen. He is lamenting some loss that already exists. Also, if we look at the detail of the woes, the way Jesus speaks, "Woe to you, woe to you," when He says, "Woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry. Woe you who are laughing, for you will weep," in some ways, we can just read that as the human condition. All of us who are full will be hungry again. None of us is so happy that we will never face sadness again.
He also doesn't say, "Woe to you who are rich, because you will become poor." He's not flipping the script. He says, "Woe to you who are rich, because you have already been compensating." Because there's some greater gift that you have not yet received, and you will not receive. Some other blessing that has been lost. I'm not trying to weasel out of Luke's teaching. I think these are hard and difficult teachings, and I'm not trying to soften the blow the way Matthew maybe does. But I think what's at stake in this teaching is Jesus saying something is missing, and that is the greater thing. That is the greater blessing. Woe to you, if you have not received that blessing. What is that blessing? Last spring, I taught a class on the 14th century Christian English mystic and theologian, Julian of Norwich. I'm actually teaching a text of hers this week in one of my classes. I feel like I have spoken to you about Julian before, but I can't remember, so I'm just going to talk about her again.
You'll probably hear me talk about her again if you keep coming back, because she's pretty important to me. But Julian was a woman who had this extreme illness. She almost died. In the depths of her illness, she had a vision of Jesus. In vision of Jesus, she saw Jesus suffering. She has this conversation with him about the nature of suffering, and the meaning of suffering. Then she starts talking to Jesus. She says she marvels at how much she suffered, and she says to Jesus, "Boy, God must have done something great for you. What amazing reward did God give you?" She's saying this in the midst of her sickness. Jesus has just been crucified. She's witnessed his crucifixion, and she says to him, "This is so much suffering. You must have received some great reward. You must have received some amazing blessing, some gift. You must have been giving something really, really wonderful to go through this. What did you get? Will you tell me what you got?" Jesus looks at her. I imagine His face a little bit confused and loving.
He says, "What did I get? I got you. You are my reward. You are my blessing. You are what God gave me. It's all I wanted. I would do it again."
As you heard in the prayers this morning, my mom and dad celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary on Friday. My mom and dad are here this morning. We were talking with the kids last night. They came for dinner last night to have an anniversary dinner at our house. We were very full last night. I'm hungry again today. That's the way things go, like I said. They were telling the story when they got married in 1971. The priest in Kalamazoo, at my dad's church, wouldn't marry them, because my mom was Japanese. They got married by a judge, and they built their life in Michigan. They raised three boys, and that was mostly full of joys, I think. But probably some hardships, too. The other ones, not me. They lived through all the joys and hardships of immigration and marriage. As some of you might know, in May, almost three years ago, my mom was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer.
It's been a hard few years with pandemic, and isolation, and chemotherapy. Love is hard sometimes. But when you love someone, as Jesus says to Julian, as I see in the witness and example of my parents, the love itself is the blessing. Even if it is hard, because it will be hard at times. But love isn't a burden. Even if it leaves you hungry, or hurting, or weeping, or poor, or persecuted. The word blessing in English actually means bloodied. There's some truth in that. The only thing woeful, I think, is not the difficulty of love. The only thing woeful is to neglect to love that which deserves loving. It is woeful to have the opportunity to receive that great blessing of love, and to give that great blessing of love, and to walk by it, pretending you can't see it, like I did so many of those mornings in South Station. It is woeful to have that opportunity to love and be loved, and to care more about being seen by others than about the person begging for care at your left hand.
Like every other part of the Christian gospel, this passage this morning from Luke, for all its blessings and its woes, is about loving your neighbor as yourself. The challenge of it, and the gift of it. To be clear, this is literally what is going on in the Gospel of Luke. The dynamic Julian described from Jesus is what Jesus is doing. In Matthew's version of this gospel, he's up on the mountain praying. The crowds come to him. He prays from the mountaintop. In Luke, he's up on the mountain praying, and the crowds of suffering people gather at the foot of the mountain, and he goes down to them. There's more to it than this. Because the word that he uses for the sermon on the plane, the level place, is the Greek word that's used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that people in Jesus' day were using. This level place refers to a place of misery, and suffering, and hunger, and death, and mourning.
The prophets, Jeremiah, and Daniel, and Joel, and Habakkuk, and Zechariah, when those prophets mention the level places, they are places of suffering, and mourning, and sickness, and hunger, and death. At the foot of the mountain where Jesus is praying, people gather in hunger, and sickness, and mourning, and suffering, and death, and Jesus goes down to them. He does it because he loves them. This isn't to obscure the material benefit. He confers to them, of course. He gives them things. He heals them. But the reason He heals them is because He loves them. That is why He goes. That is the blessing He calls for. He invites us into this mourning with this list of blessings and woes. This church is rich. We are rich. I know individually, not all of us are in this church. If you have needs, tell us so we can help you. But we are a rich church at the richest university in the world, and the richest country in the world.
The sick, and the sad, and the wounded are all around us. They are in our pews. They are in Harvard Square. They are in the city, and South Station, they are in the Commonwealth and beyond. What an incredible opportunity we have to encounter the world's sickness and sadness with love. What an incredible opportunity we have been given to fall in love with the people who bear the world's sickness, and sadness, and suffering, and to ease their burden. What a blessing it would be to us if we could fall in love with this world, in all its brokenness. What a blessing that would be. Woe to us should we neglect that difficult blessing for the sake of a lesser reward.