The beatitudes are a tough text to preach, particularly this version we get from Luke. Episcopalians, often prefer Matthew. Matthew skips all the cursing, the “how terrible-s” and in the “Blesseds” he includes two magical little words: in spirit.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is easier for many Episcopalians to swallow. Luke’s version makes us worry God might have something to say about our economic lives. Matthew sublimates. I’m going to take a risk here today. I’m going to simply ask you not to tack on the words “in spirit” when you hear the first beatitude. What happens if we believe Jesus’ when he simply says: “Blessed are the poor?”
We are an economically diverse congregation, not only in present circumstances but in families of origin. I know many of you in this congregation grew up poor. You don’t want to hear some preacher, particularly a preacher who grew up with economic privilege, tell you God wants you to be poor. I’m not here to tell you God wants you to be poor. I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying.
But most of you also know me well enough to know, I’m not going to tell you God wants you to be rich either. There are plenty of churches that sell that version of the Gospel. If you’re looking for a preacher to tell you God wants you to be rich, those churches are legion, and most of them have nice parking lots.
This is a tricky Gospel for people who live like many of us live. So what happens if we take Jesus at his word: “Blessed are the poor?” If we don’t subconsciously add “in spirit?”
The Great Reversal
Miguel Escobar, an Episcopalian lay theologian and friend, just had the first chapter of his book “The Unjust Steward” published. The book is a meditation on wealth, poverty, and the church. He writes about his upbringing in Texas, about sitting vigil with his grandfather Eusebio as he died of skin cancer. His uncles and aunts sat around with his parents, telling stories of the summers they spent working as migrant laborers on family farms in Wisconsin.
As his grandfather is dying, Miguel wondered what went through the minds of the men in the cockpits of planes dropping chemical pesticides on fields full of migrant laborers. “Poisonous snow” Miguel thought. Did those pilots have any idea how many of the people below would die of skin, prostate, brain, leukemia, cervix or stomach cancer? Did those pilots have any sense their faith might have something to say about what was happening?
Miguel has come to believe Jesus is proposing in this chapter of Luke nothing less than a “Great Reversal.” In the Beatitudes, particularly in Luke’s telling, the poor are blessed and Jesus says, “woe to the rich.” Jesus wants to upturn the status quo. But it’s not just a reversal of fortunes. Jesus doesn’t want the poor to become rich and the rich to become poor, any more than Miguel wishes his grandfather could have been the one dumping the chemicals. It’s a greater transformation Jesus dreams about. God dreams of a world where no one finds themself a victim or a victimizer.
Jesus lived in a world not so different from our own. There was a quiet implicit economic theology at play. At least subconsciously the poor were believed to have merited their status. Someone in the family must have sinned for such terrible fortune to fall. Today we might quietly wonder whether the poor woman is just lazy. Is the unhoused family simply unwilling to work hard enough to make rent? Well-meaning city councils regularly pass laws trying to push the poor away. An Episcopal parish in Oregon just sued their city council, because the council is trying to curtail the church’s food ministry, allowing churches to serve food less frequently than this congregation has been doing for years. In his writing, Miguel mentions a poster, which hangs on the wall behind one of the activists he interviewed. It says simply: “Fight poverty, not the poor.” Jesus would agree. When Jesus says, “blessed are the poor,” I think you can also hear “Poverty is hell. Let’s end it.”
We live in a city, we live in a country where so many churches bless wealth. Christians post pictures of expensive cars or houses and write hashtag #blessed How do we re-introduce these Christians to Jesus? How do we re-aquaint ourselves with Jesus? How do we help folks see that God is in the business of welcoming the stranger, embracing the outcast, lifting up the poor? How do we shift the subtle theology, and the not-so-subtle claims about who God blesses and who God curses that are all to often used to bully?
A Loving Sweet Beautiful Contradiction
I had the privilege, this week, to interview your Senior Warden, Rudy Nickens. Something Rudy said in our conversation has been sticking in my mind. We were talking about the new stained glass being produced right now by the artist Cbabi. There are pictures up on the church’s social media. We hope to install the window later right there in the chapel later this spring. Cbabi posted a picture of the Resurrection scene, still in progress. The Risen Christ is visibly Black. We’re talking dark brown skin, teased out Afro Black Jesus. Rudy said, “I think it’s very important that we have this Afro-centric moment in our representation…with so much pushback in the world right now against race and race theory, I love that what we’re offering is a loving sweet beautiful contradiction.” A loving, sweet, beautiful, contradiction.
Last week Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, superintendent of Ucity schools, was in this pulpit. She and the education community are on the front lines right now, facing people who in the name of their faith, in the name of their sense of patriotism, are fighting back against race theory and public health measures. I hope that last week Dr Hardin-Bartley found our congregation to be a “loving, sweet, beautiful contradiction” to all she’s facing.
Friends, I think our Senior Warden’s words name well what Jesus is doing in the beatitudes. These are tough words for those made comfortable by the status quo. But Jesus words, like the power the Gospel says is going out from him, these words are healing balm to those who find themselves forgotten, ignored, or persecuted. Too many people still find themselves in the drop zone. Too many people still find themselves struggling to find the bottom rung of the so-called ladder of success.
Thomas Merton used to say, many of us spend our whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.
Too many people do not have access to economic mobility, to adequate housing, to healthy food, to quality healthcare and education. Too many people have been bullied or worse on account of race, gender, language, skin color, ability age or their sexual orientation. God has to bless the poor, the hungry, the weeping because in our society, as in the society of Jesus, too few people are paying attention to those who suffer.
Do we have the courage to believe Jesus when he says, “blessed are the poor?” not to add additional qualifiers? Do we have the courage, in our own lives, to try and make that loving, sweet, beautiful contradiction of a blessing a little more present for those to whom it will matter most?