Last Sunday, someone who had heard my sermon for the electing convention asked me to share it with all of you. I had misgivings—so much of it refers to the context in which I preached it. But I think what she was asking for was one particular segment, which I am happy to share with you.
When I met with the diocesan leaders guiding this process [electing the next bishop] on the day the slate was decided, I offered them a way of reminding themselves to trust the process as the responsibility for discernment spread out to the whole diocese. It’s a call-and-response declaration of faith: “God is good—all the time! All the time—God is good!”
God is good, all the time. It’s so easy to believe that God is good, that God really, really loves us, when the sun is shining and the temperature is just perfect…when we find a twenty in our pocket…when the lab test results tell us all our worry was for nothing. People of faith have no problem declaring “God is good!” when things are going their way and they feel blessed.
But here’s the thing—here’s the hope at the heart of our proclamation.
God is also good when things aren’t so great. God really, really loves us even when the rain is leaking through the roof in the middle of the night and we can’t find a tarp…when we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay the bills and put gas in the car…when we’re attached to a chemo drip and wondering if there is even going to be a tomorrow.
God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.
This sermon grew out of a frustration I sometimes feel, when people have something wonderful happen to them and declare, “God is good!” I always want to snap at them, “And if the outcome had been different would you be declaring, “God is bad”?! God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.
This is not some simplistic denial of the hard times in our lives, nor is it a denial of suffering. It is, instead, a way of staying rooted in our faith. God is good, even when things are hard. God is good, even when we fail to be. God’s goodness is not dependent upon us. It just is. The very nature of God is goodness, which finds expression in God’s unconditional love for us all.
Most religions have a quid pro quo approach to blessings. Be good, God will bless you. Be bad, God will curse you. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes bad people get earthly rewards while good people suffer. Many of the psalms, Ecclesiastes, the book of Job and other later writings of the Hebrew Scriptures challenge God with the question, “why do the wicked prosper?!”
Jesus is addressing that question in this passage today. He is with the poor, the ‘unclean’, the sick, the possessed. He is with people we would not consider “blessed.” Jesus knows the struggles of good people who find themselves in awful situations. He knows that they are people who strive to keep the faith of their ancestors in the face of Roman oppression; they see that those who cooperate with their oppressors live easier, more prosperous lives. Their apparent blessedness put the lie to the old ‘reward/punishment’ system of faith.
If you’ve been in this place yourselves, you know it’s easy to spend inordinate amounts of time asking yourself what you did to deserve this. It’s not bad to search your conscience for the areas in which you might have contributed to a bad situation. But if you’re like me you sometimes spend more time than necessary; you try to take responsibility for something that’s not yours.
This is a time to step back and remind yourself that God’s goodness, God’s love for you, is not dependent upon the circumstances. God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.
I have been known to encourage someone to ‘count their blessings’ when they were going through hard times. Look for signs of God’s goodness. Find something—anything—for which to give thanks at the end of the day. “Counting your blessings” is a way of seeing the world through the lens of God’s goodness. Sometimes we Christians are accused of wearing rose-colored glasses, and sometimes it does get a little saccharine and reality-denying. But there is something to be said for looking at the world in a way that will help you to refocus and see more clearly.
What are the things you “count” in these times? Family? Friends? Home? Health? I appreciate those who count things like “a beautiful sunrise” or “the way the fresh snow looks”…
But Jesus challenges us to see the blessing in the struggle. Look at those Jesus names as blessed—the poor; the hungry; those who weep; those who are hated, reviled, excluded. And then Jesus does something inexplicable. He sets aside all the signs of prosperity as “woes.” Many preachers take this as social commentary by Jesus—and in the context of Luke some of that makes sense. But I think there is another lesson as well—sometimes the more ‘conventional’ blessings are not blessings at all.
Sometimes the things society sees as blessings—wealth and health and happiness—prevent us from making those connections with God. They prevent us from growing good roots—a related theme from today’s readings.
Several years ago, a summer couple in one of my congregations up in Piscataquis County, checked in with me after a particularly brutal hurricane hit their house in Florida. They were the only people on their street without major damage to their home. Know why? There was this old oak tree on their property, a tough old thing that they had more than once considered uprooting and taking out, because it was a bit of a nuisance. But that old oak tree that had survived years of rain and drought took the worst of the wind. It has a root system that went deep into the earth, and so when all the other structures and less hearty trees and plants were being uprooted and blown away by the storm, its roots held it firmly into the ground and the rest of it just bent beneath the wind. Some branches blew off certainly, it was even more scarred and weather-beaten and kinda ugly. But it stayed firm and protected their house from the worst of the hurricane. Never again would they consider removing it.
Faith is the deep root that burrows down into the darkness until it finds and taps into the free flow of the Spirit. The taproot of our faith is this: God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.
Part of growing a faith like that old oak tree is counting your unconventional blessings. It’s seeing, as Jesus did, that there is something about the hard times that connects you more deeply with the Source of Light and Life.
This doesn’t mean you should go seek out chaos or turmoil—this is not a call to be an Eeyore, who is only happy when life is glum. But when you find yourself in the midst of a mess, rather than get stuck in a pattern of moaning and bewailing your sorry lot in life, start looking for the ways in which God is blessing you through it, even if the only blessing is that you find yourself clinging to God for help. You would be surprised how many people there are who envy that kind of faith and closeness to your Creator.
Perhaps that’s the way to determine what blesses you—something that brings you closer to God. Family and friends and home and health can do that certainly. But I also have seen divorce and loss and illness draw a person back to their faith, and make them realize their dependence upon God. It can be hard to say—or even think—blessed are those with cancer, but you would be surprised at the ways in which you find yourself surprised by joy in the midst of it all.
I may have already shared the following quotation by Bebe Moore Campbell (no relation); it’s a favorite, a way of claiming the blessing in even the most desperate situations. A way of declaring our conviction that God’s goodness is not dependent upon the circumstances.
You can’t always beat what is difficult in your life. Sometimes, you have to let it win, and shout hallelujah anyhow.
Shout hallelujah anyhow, my dear ones. Be like a battered old oak tree and shout hallelujah anyhow. Remember: God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.