Suffering, loneliness, illness are things that nobody wants. We do our best to get rid of them. Doctors, nurses, researchers, social workers, people with clear religious commitment and people with none, faith-healers, rationalists - all strive to rid the world of its problems. It is an effort which unites so many people from different places and backgrounds, although there are plenty of squabbles along the way about whose method is best. So it is not surprising that, when the gospels present Jesus, the stories show him as a healer, someone who can cure people and help to lift the burdens that they are carrying. What would be the point of a saviour who couldn't make any practical difference?
So, in the story told in today's passage from Luke's gospel, a crowd of people was following Jesus, a man who had a reputation for being able to heal people's illnesses and take away their problems. They came from all over the place looking for help, practical help. And what did they get? A sermon!
That probably sounds all too familiar for many people who have approached religious groups for help. And the sermon or the talking-to that they have to listen to is often about what they must have done wrong to deserve all that has been happening to them. People suggest, for example, that AIDS is a punishment from God for a lifestyle they can't approve of, or that poverty is the product of laziness and so on.
But that is not the line that Jesus takes. He starts his sermon by saying, 'Blessed are you poor..., blessed are you that are hungry...' Now the word that is usually translated as 'blessed' or 'happy' doesn't mean the sort of happiness you might experience at a good party. It comes originally from a word that describes the straight flight of an arrow. I think the best translation of it would be 'on the right track'. So Jesus is not saying you've done something wrong if you're poor or hungry or are bullied and so on. Quite the opposite: you're probably on the right track if things like that are happening to you. I don't think he's suggesting that suffering of any kind is a good thing or that you've got to go looking for it. It's a message of encouragement. Problems come along to everyone, but when things do go wrong it doesn't mean it's your fault, God hasn't given up on you.
The sermon goes on to give some guidance about how to cope with life in general. It's all based around an idea of love. It is a kind of love that is free and generous. It's a matter of trying to respond well even when people are unkind to us; trying to heal damaged situations by forgiveness where that's possible; trying to improve our own reactions instead of just being critical of what other people are doing. It gives a whole framework for life. Nothing in the sermon comes across as being superficial or easy. Trying to be as open to people as it suggests means being prepared to allow ourselves to be very vulnerable. We are going to be hurt, we are going to be taken advantage of. But, says Jesus, when that happens we are probably on the right track.
Maybe it is because so many people were following him, expecting him to take their problems away, that Jesus put the question back to them in the sermon. He was suggesting that they could free themselves from the weight of carrying around too much guilt for everything. They could give some shape to their lives by taking on board some of the ideals that he was presenting. They could heal their own lives without necessarily having their illnesses or their problems taken away from them.
The miracles of healing that we hear about in the gospels and elsewhere are spectacular, even if they do seem a bit out of reach. But the sermon is more practical, more possible. Thank God we can still rely on healing in various forms, some more or less miraculous, but there's something just as important and more within the reach of everyone. To be able to love and accept ourselves, to give someone else the support of love and maybe some guidance if it is needed, even to be able to make someone feel better about themselves, is to bring a kind of healing that is very real and very important. It may not be spectacular but it can still be a miracle.