Sermon for April 12th, 2015

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Matthew 5:1-12

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Luke 6:20-26

20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Beautiful Attitudes: The Poor and the Hungry

It was my very first week as a pastor. I was fresh out of seminary, self-confident and full of grand ideals. I was ready to change the world--to preach good news to the poor, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to heal the brokenhearted, to walk on water and raise the dead back to life. Did I mention I was idealistic and self-confident?

So, of course, God (in his infinite wisdom and slightly twisted sense of humor) decided to give me an opportunity.

In my first week as a pastor, Mr. and Mrs. Heath Andrews walked into the church offices asking for help. They were passing through El Paso, on their way from somewhere to somewhere, and had fallen on difficult times. They shared with me the story of their hardships--financial, medical, spiritual--and asked if the church might be able to help with the cost of diabetes medication for Heath's wife: Her prescription had expired... they could not afford to renew it... all the other churches and social service agencies in town had turned them away... time was running out... we were (I was) their "only hope."

So we had a check drawn up from the church's benevolence fund (that's what it's for, after all) in the amount of $48--according to Mr. Andrews, that was the cost of the medication. They left, and somewhere in the back of my head I thought "help the poor and needy...check!"

A few hours later a call came through to the church. It was the pharmacist. We had made the check out to the pharmacy, not directly to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. The pharmacist informed me that the diabetes medication was only $3.98, and Mr. and Mr. Andrews were asking for the remaining $44 dollars to be given to them in cash, and, would that be ok with us? And somewhere in the back of my head I thought, "duped by the poor and needy...check!"

Now, in the grand scheme of life and church budgets, $44 isn't a huge amount of money. It's enough to feed a four-person family a nice meal, or a two-person family a couple of meals. Perhaps that was their intent, and that would have been okay, but what really upset me was that they hadn't been honest with me. So I asked the pharmacist to have them return to the church with the check, and we would make one out in the correct amount.

Not surprisingly, they did not return to the church, and we never saw them again. But then one day, several weeks later, there was a message on my answering machine: "Pastor Neal, this is Heath Andrews. I just wanted to let you know that we finally found a pharmacy that would cash your check and give us back the change. Have a wonderful day!" And somewhere in the back of my head I thought, "duped AND insulted by the poor and needy...check!"

I try not to let this incident color my opinion of everyone who comes to the church asking for help. Many (perhaps even most) are genuine in their need, and truly grateful for any help we are able to give, whether its money from the benevolence fund, food from our food pantry, or even just prayer, encouragement and a listening ear. These days, I probably ask a few more questions, and I'm more likely to make a referral to the appropriate social service agency than reach for the checkbook. But striking the right balance between wanting to help the poor, and wanting to be responsible in the way that we help, is still a difficult thing.

It doesn't help that terms like "poor" and "hungry" are relative, moving targets. Between 3:00pm and dinnertime, my three children are absolutely convinced that they are starving to the point of near-death, though this is clearly not the case. According to a 2013 study by the Economist magazine, the poorest 10% of Americans still enjoy a higher quality of living than the wealthiest 10% of those living in Italy, Israel, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico. And that study only took into consideration developed countries.

I don't mean to say that being poor in any country (including America) is a bed of roses. It isn't. But poverty is relative. On the opposite end of that spectrum, I suspect there are plenty of people right here in this sanctuary who, even though we may live in nice houses and drive nice cars and eat three meals a day, are just one economic recession, one government shut-down, one lost job, or one family crisis away from financial disaster and radical change in socio-economic status. Poverty is relative, but at every level, it is devastating, frightening, and disheartening.

And so Jesus, at the beginning of his greatest sermon says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled." I have lumped these two together because they so often go hand in hand. I don't have any fancy Greek etymologies to give you today--poor means poor, and hungry means hungry, in Greek just the same as in modern English. Matthew's version says blessed are the poor "in spirit" and blessed are those who hunger and thirst "for righteousness" but Luke's version just says simply, "blessed are you who are poor" and "blessed are you who are hungry." The rule of thumb in biblical criticism is that the shorter, simpler version is usually the original. In any case, the gospel of Matthew tends to take an abstract, spiritual approach to things, while the gospel of Luke tends to prefer the concrete, and a more direct approach.

Last week, I said that the beatitudes are not attitudes or practices that we must adopt in order to be blessed by God -- they aren't a magical formula we can apply in order to make our lives better. If that conventional interpretation were actually true, then in this case it would mean Jesus is telling people, "You need to be poor. You need to be hungry."

It's true that many of us (especially in America) could benefit from owning a lot less, and eating a lot less. It is also true that sometimes Jesus calls his followers to do exactly that. He tells a rich young man to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and to follow him. Occasionally Jesus would go into a time of fasting and prayer, and call his disciples to do the same.

But that's not the same as saying "Be poor. Be Hungry." I don't think Jesus is saying that. I don't think anyone who has ever been truly hungry or poor would actually advocate living that way for any great length of time. Even members of traditional religious orders (monks and nuns) who take a "vow of poverty" are not promising to go hungry or be poor. The vow of poverty is a promise to share everything one has with others, particularly the poor.

So if the beatitudes are not a magic blessing formula, not attitudes for us to embrace, or practices to adopt, then what are they?

As I said last week, they are a reflection of God's beautiful attitude toward all of his children, especially those described by Jesus whom we tend to see as un-blessed or un-blessable. In this case, the poor and the hungry. And these beatitudes (like all of them) come with a promise. To the poor--those who were excluded from the blessings and promises of the mighty Roman Empire--Jesus promises a different kind of kingdom. Not a kingdom that belongs to the Emperor in Rome, or to his petty regional kings, but one that belongs to all of you. To the hungry, Jesus promises the one thing they want most--to be full. Not hungry anymore.

And therein lies the problem. Jesus tells all those hungry people that they'll be filled...and then he keeps preaching... and preaching... and preaching. In fact, at this point in his sermon, Jesus still has 2,461 more words to go before he's finished. By contrast, there are about 739 words remaining in my sermon today (anyone hungry yet?).

At the end of his sermon, what does Jesus do with all those hungry people? He sends them home. Hungry. Some of you might be saying, wait a minute--what about the time when Jesus feeds the 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish? That's not here. That's not for another ten chapters. No, this time, the hungry leave with nothing more than the promise that someday they'll be full. The poor leave with nothing more than the promise that someday they'll have a kingdom of their own. Why doesn't he feed them, when it's obvious to us that he can? For that matter, why doesn't Jesus magically poof a thousand winning lottery tickets into their 1st century pockets (or ours, for that matter!) so that they don't have to be poor anymore, or at least poof this kingdom he's been talking about into existence?

Mohandas Ghandi is famous for saying "If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime." It's not exactly true that the crowd leaves Jesus that day with nothing more than a few promises. In the rest of his sermon, he actually lays out a plan for them. It's a plan for how to love your enemies, how to share what you have with others, how to treat each other, and how to live with each other, how to pray. In short, it's a plan for how to bring about that Kingdom he was talking about, the one that belongs to everyone, the one where no one goes hungry.

That's the thing about God's plans. They are beautiful plans, and they reflect God's beautiful attitude toward us. In God's eyes, we are all important, we are all worthy of being fed, no matter how great or how small. But we are also the ones reponsible for bringing that kingdom to pass. The Kingdom of God is not some beautiful, magical place we go after we die in order to escape from the misery and suffering of this world. The Kingdom of God is a beautiful, real place we create right here in this world, in this life by loving each other, and by taking care of each other. And like all of God's beautiful plans, it requires work. It requires commitment.

I'm reminded of the story about the chicken and the pig. One day, the chicken and the pig were walking past the church, and discussing the problems of world hunger. The chicken suggested that between her species and the pig's they could provide everyone in the world with a good breakfast of bacon and eggs every morning. The pig thought long and hard before replying, 'That's OK for you to say, because from you that's only a contribution - from me that's total commitment!'

The people in that first century crowd who listened to Jesus preach went away just as poor and hungry as they came. Today you will leave this sanctuary just as poor and hungry as you came (maybe a little poorer, if you put something in the offering plate later in the service, and little hungrier if I keep preaching for much longer!). But some of those people--not all of them, but a few--made a total commitment to living the way Jesus taught them to live, to loving each other, and taking care of each other.

Eventually, they came to be called Christians, and they spread out over all the world, sharing those teachings and trying to live by them. They--and we--have not always been successful in that, but I like to think that on balance, we have done more good than harm in the world.

In any case, there has been a steady decrease (over 60%) in the number of people in the world who live in poverty since 1820, when such statistics began to be kept. Hunger has followed a similar pattern of decline. There is still so much more to be done, of course, but that's pretty significant progress. This is impossible to prove, but I believe that the teachings of Jesus have played a role in that decline.

I believe that the kingdom Jesus spoke of is here...and is still coming.

And I believe that each one of you...rich or poor, hungry or full, or somewhere in between, are an important part of making that happen, each and every day.