Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, February 22, 2015
Lenten Sermon Series:
The Path of Blessing – Blessed are the Poor
[Psalm 32; Luke 6:20, 24; Matthew 5:3]
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we long for true joy, for deep contentment, but the world’s answers to our questions do not satisfy the inner cravings of our hearts. The world cannot give what You give. Help us to choose You and stay close to You as You journey to the cross, even when You take us off our familiar paths and routines. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
I am straying off the path of the lectionary texts during Lent, in order to spend more time on what Jesus considered “the portrait of the citizen of the kingdom of God.” Have you heard of The Beatitudes? They are “Blessings” found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as recorded by Matthew and Luke, which contain the core of Jesus’ teaching. These “Blessings” flow beneath and through all the parables, stories and human encounters we read about during Jesus’ 3 years of ministry.
“Beatitude” means: “a state of blessedness or happiness” however, the happiness Jesus describes is profound, prophetic, and counter-intuitive to human thinking and ambitions. Jesus’ Beatitudes turn the world upside down. The Kingdom of God is unlike any kingdom on earth. There is no parallel or comparison. The Kingdom of God initially disturbs our peace.
On first reading we may get the impression that The Beatitudes are only about sacrifice and hardship, just as many people think Lent is about self-inflicted suffering. I want to re-frame the picture of Lent, noting that whoever walks in the footsteps of Jesus experiences a deeper, more lasting joy than can be found anywhere on earth or in heaven.
What is the purpose of Lent? What are the spiritual disciplines God wants us to practice? I suggested some disciplines last week that bring us closer to God and create space for God to draw near us: Bible reading and journaling, regular worship where we ask God to reveal new guidance, sharing, caring, prayer, and living in community with others where we collaborate to meet each other’s needs. All these practices require commitment, intention and time. They are spiritual exercises, as important as aerobics, weight training, and flexibility. Although some spiritual practices are done in private, all impact our communal well-being as Christ’s body at the corner of Armfield Street and Old Stage Road.
Jesus calls us to be a new society which “rises up from below” according to Marjorie Thompson, author of The Way of Blessedness. God’s reign is compared to “earthy, humble images” such as yeast and mustard seeds. Marcus J. Borg says that Jesus’ message and activities had a “radical social and political edge” which challenged the social order of his day. Jesus showed “uncommon concern for the least and the last, an outlandish generosity” while indicting the rulers and wealthy of his day.
The Path of Blessing is deep spiritual wisdom rooted in a paradox that runs through the heart of the gospel. Marjorie Thompson states it like this: “The power within and behind the entire universe does not assert itself as raw power; it is rather, revealed in self-effacing humility and love.” The self-emptying love of God is the power which transforms our lives for good. It’s a paradox, because words cannot adequately explain how “letting go” is “gaining” and “holding on” is “losing,” but that is exactly what Jesus teaches.
Philippians 2:6-7 says it best: “Although in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” The Path of Blessing begins there, where the pyramid of human accomplishments is turned upside down. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Luke’s version has a corollary: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
Matthew’s version of this beatitude puts a slightly more “spiritual” spin on the text. He wrote: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Some interpreters say Jesus did not mean the “literal poor.” How would you define “poor in spirit”?
While in Seoul, Korea at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, David and I worked with church leaders from around the world, especially from impoverished Third World countries in Africa and Asia. The students were on full scholarships provided by the Korean Church, working on graduate degrees.
Hope Antone, daughter of a Philipino minister studied Christian education. She wrote her thesis on The Beatitudes in Luke, because she appreciated Luke’s literal interpretation of “the poor.” One night I was wearing slippers at a Bible study, because in Korea people remove their shoes at the door & my slippers had a picture of a little “house” on each foot. Hope looked at my slippers and remarked: “Sue, having a house or home of your own is beyond our wildest imagination in the Philippines. Americans think it is a human right.”
Hope took Jesus and Luke literally. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” I learned something that day. Jesus and Luke addressed the “literal” poor directly with words of hope. Jesus called them by name, and blessed them.
I wonder how people who weren’t poor felt when Jesus’ preference for the poor was expressed. Lest they miss the point, Luke points out the corresponding WOE in relation to wealth. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
Do good American capitalists, who are Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Pentecostals, truly believe this IS God’s word? We want to add a descriptive phrase, such as the poor who deserve it, but it’s pretty clear what the word, “poor,” means. Some of us are poor here in Robeson County, but the PC(USA) has historically been associated with people of wealth and means. Jesus’ blessing of the “poor” makes people of substantial means feel uncomfortable. Jesus steps on the toes of the “comfortable” in all cultures. Mainline churches, including our own, have lost Jesus’ prophetic edge and Jesus’ mission to give good news to those who are literally poor.
I received a Facebook message this week from a former professor, Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes. Listen to his post for Ash Wednesday: “As we celebrate Ash Wednesday, let us think about the capitalistic ashes imprinted in our faith, our forehead, throughout our body and in what we eat! From capitalist exploitation we came and to capitalistic exploitation we shall return!”
A former student asked him what he meant. Claudio elaborated: “Every day we go about our faith unaware of the structures we are a part of, being part of structures of oppression, feeding systems that destroy us. Underneath the ashes on our forehead is the capitalistic kidnapping of our faith, the class struggles ignored by our churches, our appeased consumerism, & worship which fails to address social inequality. We serve Mammon not God. We see the exploitation happening everywhere and say nothing about it. Most churches have money invested in the market feeding the oppression and exploitation. And yet, we continue to give glory to God. All I wanted to say with this post is that we are caught in this dreadful garment of capitalism that is killing us all—but especially the poor. Sorry if I have said too much.”
It might help you to know that Claudio was an orphan shoe shine boy on the streets of Rio de Janiero in Brazil when he was found by the Presbyterian Church (USA). A former Director of World Mission, Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, was one of his mentors and invited him to come to the U.S. as missionary to us, where he still speaks with a prophetic voice. He received his doctorate in theology from New York University and leads cutting edge worship services which creatively address social, political and economic inequalities of our time.
Claudio was a friend to me in Louisville. He has a heart for the poor, and can speak to the powers and principalities in our culture as well as his own in Brazil. I was “poor in spirit” when I returned from India, but Claudio welcomed me as a stranger to his class, called “Borders and Beyond” – one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. I learned from the readings, his teachings and my own experience how bad it feels to be on the outside looking in, as poor people often are.
David Powers, in his book, Love Without Calculation, is so bold as to suggest that the Church is called to live the beatitudes of the kingdom of God by becoming “poor” itself – not just in words but in deeds, by emptying itself of worldly power. Why? Because that is who God is, what God does, and where God lives. God changes addresses regularly.
David Powers talks about a group of bishops that called itself “The Church of the Poor” at the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, which offended some people, After all the poor are no “better” than anyone else, right? The poor are sinful & self-centered, like the rest of us. And why are we to love them? Well, because Jesus does!
I have seen some of our weakest and poorest church members exercise extreme generosity towards others. They know what it feels like to have nothing. When they have something, however small, they will split it in halves or thirds to share it with people less fortunate. When I witness their generosity it takes my breath away.
Matthew’s text, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is more difficult to interpret, because being poor in spirit does NOT mean people who are “spiritless, disempowered, or washed-out victims.” Spiritual poverty… is best defined as “radical dependence on God.” A person can have resources and means, but also recognizes that everything comes from God. Marjorie Thompson describes poverty in spirit as: A mature, freely accepted dependence on God’s gracious and powerful love, the source of all empowerment. Such persons are willing to surrender their wills to God’s will in ALL circumstances.
Two of the people I hold in highest esteem because of their “poverty in spirit” & Christ-like lives are medical Drs. Les and Cindy Morgan who visited this church several years ago. I received their latest missionary letter, which begins with St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “Prayer for Generosity.” This prayer is framed and hangs on the wall just to the right of Les’ desk in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It says: “Teach us, good Lord, to serve Thee as Thou deserves, to give and not to count the cost, to toil and not to ask for rest, to labor and not to seek any reward save that of knowing that we do Thy will.”
After quoting this prayer, Les writes: “Dear Friends, this prayer hangs on my wall as I write to you now a review of Cindy’s and my service as mission co-workers in 2014….We continued to engage in and promote ministries of healing in the Church of Bangladesh…Throughout the year Ignatius’ “Prayer for Generosity” gave me much encouragement, because caring for the sick requires much labor, and the rewards are not always readily observable, if at all. God sustained us and at certain times and in special ways assured us that we were indeed doing what he wants us to do.” I encourage you to go to the PC(USA) website and read the rest of Les’ letter.
The truth of The Beatitudes is this: God is not asking our opinion, or taking a vote to see if the majority of Christians approve this “Rule of Life” which Jesus describes. We need to chew on Jesus’ troublesome, yet liberating words, depending upon where you stand: “Blessed are you who are poor, or poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Let us pray. Lord, I want to be near YOU, wherever you are. If you hang your hat in the hovels of those who have nothing, I would rather be where you are, than gain the whole world. Self-emptying God, you generously give us yourself. May that be enough to meet all our needs! May we join you in that same generosity to those in greatest need! In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Marjorie J. Thompson and Stephen D. Bryant, Companions in Christ: The Way of Blessedness participant’s book (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2003) p. 19.
David Powers, Love Without Calculation: A Reflection on Divine Kenosis (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), 115.
The Way of Blessedness, 27.