All Saints Weekend (C/RCL)
November 5-6, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
People in dire straits often call churches for help. Peter Seggel is our Holy Trinity point person for following up with the caller and evaluating the need. He met with a homeless woman recently. She’s on disability because of mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by childhood abuse. Her boyfriend is a day laborer. He didn’t get enough work so they didn’t have enough money for another night’s rent in a local motel. They hid their few belongings in the woods so they wouldn’t lose them, expecting the management to lock them out of the room they could no longer pay for. She appears to be pregnant.
I took a call from another woman the other day. She was nearly in tears, explaining she’s been homeless since the summer and reduced to staying in bedbug-ridden motels. She asked for help with a night or two of lodging while her caseworker helps her complete Section 8 Housing paperwork.
As you can imagine, these women are not happy. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say they do not feel blessed either. So what’s Jesus talking about in the first Beatitude in today’s Gospel??
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20b)
Don’t be too quick to say, “He means poor in spirit….” That’s what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount from St. Matthew’s Gospel:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are you who are poor [period], for yours is the kingdom of God” comes from the Sermon on the Plain in St. Luke’s Gospel. It’s only one-quarter the length of the Sermon on the Mount. Location is important. The mount (mountain) “counts” because it’s traditionally the place of revelation – closer to heaven – you know, “nearer my God to Thee.” The plain is theologically cool, too, though, because it’s where we spend most of our lives – not on the heights, not on the pits, but on the level ground. It’s where the people are. St. Matthew says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” (Matt. 5:1) In St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount to His disciples, the inner circle, a small and exclusive group. In St. Luke’s Gospel we read:
Jesus came down [from the mountain] with [the apostles He had just chosen] and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people....
Jesus addresses the Beatitudes to His disciples, but there’s a whole passel of people- on-the-plain eavesdropping!!
This close to our presidential election, how can I not point out that what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Plain has been called “a major policy address”1? Jesus is laying out what the people can expect from His “administration,” so to speak. He tells them what happens under God’s governance. Teddy Roosevelt spoke of a “Square Deal,” FDR spoke of a “New Deal,” Harry Truman spoke of a “New Frontier,” JFK spoke of a “Great Society,” Jesus speaks of a “kingdom of God.”
If Jesus had had a campaign manager, that person would have despaired. Jesus’ “constituency” didn’t form much of a power base:
“Blessed are you who are poor…
blessed are you who are hungry…
blessed are you who weep…
blessed are you when people hate you….”
Those “kinds of people” aren’t the electorate at which most politicians aim their message! At the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, pregnant Mary sings her “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), tipping us off about the kind of people her unborn Son Jesus will champion: the lowly and the hungry. These are not people with deep pockets. These are folks who might be stereotyped as more apt to pick pockets because of lacking the basic necessities of life. Mary sings that the proud will be humbled, the powerful brought down, the rich sent away empty. Not much of a political platform. But then again, as Jesus told Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
That statement and other ones like it have led some Christians through the ages to believe that the Church as a whole and Christians as individuals should not be concerned with “this world.” Slave owners once urged the people they enslaved to see religion as a “pie in the sky, by and by” kind of thing. “Don’t complain about your lot here, because heaven awaits you and that’s all that counts!” The Bible doesn’t support that view that people’s suffering in this world doesn’t count, though. On the contrary, Jesus says, “When you donate to the food pantry, you’re putting food on My table. When you host Family Promise guests, you’re serving a meal and providing a bed for Me. When you deliver furniture, you’re putting a couch in My living room. When you donate dishes, know that I’ll be eating off that plate and drinking from that cup. When your gift to the pastor’s discretionary fund pays for someone’s motel, you’re preventing Me from sleeping outdoors.”
“Blessed are you who are poor” doesn’t mean that poverty is God’s target state, God’s dream, God’s ideal for the world. It means that God has a blessed “future” planned for those whose “present” is the pits. But that doesn’t take me off the hook, now. I hear, “Blessed are you who are poor” and I think, “I’m not poor. I live indoors. In a beautiful, warm home. I sleep in a bed. I eat three meals a day. I can see. I can read. I’m employed. I have a family. I am an American citizen. I have faith. I have a faith family. I am not poor in any way.” In all these ways, I am rich, not poor. You are probably “rich” in many of these ways, too. And Jesus has a warning for the rich:
“…woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation….” (Luke 6:24)
This sounds a lot like condemnation, doesn’t it? But I believe we can hear it as a word of invitation, for us to share our wealth, as well as an implication of what happens if we don’t. The last verse of today’s Gospel is the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) The Golden Rule is a pretty good rule of thumb for how we are to share our wealth. When we see someone who needs what we have: share. Even if they’re not on our doorstep, we’re all well-aware they’re in our world – around the corner and around the globe.
Because the philosophy of our faith family is that we are blessed to be a blessing, and because ofgenerous-hearted people who share their worldly “wealth,” we assisted (in at least a small way) the couple who hid their belongings in the woods and the woman who rejoiced she could spend another 2 nights in lodging that was bedbug free. We didn’t solve their problems, by any means – but we hope and pray that God used us to reinforce hope, fend off despair and help the Kingdom come, at least fleetingly, into their lives.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Martin Luther wrote that we are citizens of 2 kingdoms. May we be faithful subjects in each. One way to do that is: vote! Remember to take your faith into the voting booth. Amen
1David L. Tiede, Luke (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament) (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), p. 139.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham