Sermon 2/2 Blessed Are the Poor

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon: Blessed Are the Poor
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I want to start with a disclaimer. I am not poor. I am not financially poor. I never
have been. I have never worried about where I am going to live or how to pay for
it. I have never worried about what I’m going to eat. And how I’m going to pay
for it. I don’t feel poor in terms of family or relationships. I have always had a life
filled with love. I’m not poor in terms of spiritual nurture. I’ve always been part
of the church which has sustained and fed my spirit.

So, I don’t have a lot of personal experience with poverty. My knowledge is
second hand; what I have seen and heard from people who are considered poor,
poor in terms of money and poor in terms of spirit. But I have never been what I
consider poor.

Now, at this point, in a typical sermon, I might ask if anyone here has been poor.
And I might invite those who raise their hands to say something about that. But
you know that I won’t do that this morning. I won’t ask who here is poor. Or who
has experienced poverty. Because in our societal context to be poor is looked
down on. Poverty is associated with being lazy or deficient in some way. Poverty
is considered shameful. It’s embarrassing. Humiliating. Poverty is indicative of
failure. If you’re poor, there must be something wrong with you. Especially now
when the economy is supposedly so great. There’s no excuse for being poor.

You want to see the reality of this attitude toward poverty? Go to a place like the
Social Security office. Someone like me is treated in a polite manner. The staff is
friendly and helpful. But you can hear the very same staff people treating others in
a rude and demeaning manner. Because they are poor. I doubt if the staff people
even realize they are doing this.

There is so much negative stigma attached to being poor today. That’s why I
wouldn’t ask here this morning about who has experience with poverty.

Well, if you can believe it, in Jesus’ day it might have been worse. Because
poverty was not just seen as a personal failing, it was seen as punishment from God. If you were poor, it was because you did something so bad that God was
punishing you for it. The Divine Ruler of the Universe had seen fit to look down
upon this planet and single you out for punishment. That’s what people saw when
they saw poverty. Divine punishment. Talk about stigma!

While poverty was seen as a curse from the Almighty, All Powerful God, material
wealth was seen as the opposite. Wealth was seen as a sign of blessing from God.
If you were wealthy it was obvious that you were good, you were a delight to God,
you were pleasing in God’s sight, so God was rewarding you. Wealth was seen as
a direct blessing from God.

Into this context comes Jesus. And he is remembered for proclaiming, Blessed are
the poor, in the gospel of Luke, and Blessed are the poor in spirit, in Matthew.
These two phrases are not really that far apart because in that culture, the material
and the spiritual were seen as one. So here is Jesus, in a context where wealth is
seen as blessing from God and poverty is seen as Divine punishment, declaring
Blessed are the poor. Favored by God. Worthy of congratulations. Of highest
happiness. Privileged. Fortunate. Well off. Blessed! It’s raucous affirmation.
Right here. And right now. Not in some future reality.

The poor are favored by God. WooHoo! This proclamation from Jesus is a
complete turn around from socially accepted thinking. It’s a one-eighty. Jesus is
reversing commonly held assumptions. He is presenting a completely new
orientation toward society, economics, theology, and relationships.

Blessed are the poor. If the poor/poor in spirit, are favored by God, then they are
deserving of respect and dignity. They are fully human. They are beloved children
of God. They can’t be cast off as lazy and expendable and less than.

And we are going to expose the deeper truth of that reality.

‘Why are there poor people? The convenient answers: They’ve made bad choices.
Had bad luck. There isn’t enough to go around.

But if we go deeper, we see that there are poor people because poor people are
needed to make other people excessively rich. Excessive wealth usually comes
from taking advantage of people, abusing labor, making others poor. The rich exist largely because of the poor. Poor people make other people rich. Oppression,
from slavery to the farm workers, to the abuse of labor in Asia and in our very city
and country, makes some people rich. That is why oppression exists. It is
economically incentivized; motivated by greed. If there was no economic
advantage, there would be little to no racism and maybe even no sexism.

Basil the Great, a bishop in the early church, understood this and exposed the truth
of Jesus’ teaching. He shared these harsh words with his congregation in the 4th
century:

“When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give
the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your
cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one
who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes;
the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

So when Jesus says, Blessed are the poor, he is disturbing the peace. He is
fomenting radical revolution. Blessed are the poor, it’s not the glorification of
poverty. It is not the idealization of homelessness. It’s a dissolving of the glue that
binds our social and economic reality together so that something new can emerge.
It’s no wonder they killed Jesus.

The truth is that systems that create poverty diminish all people. Poverty
diminishes those made poor and it diminishes those who accrue excessive wealth.
Our spiritual teachings tell us a lot about the relationship between material status
and the well-being of the spirit. Money, the power that goes with it, and the desire
for a materially rich life, can undermine our basic spiritual needs to love and to be
generous. It can separate us from other people. It can separate us from what we
need to be doing with our lives, our calling. And it can separate us from the values
and ethics that we hold dear and that we see embodied in the life and ministry of
Jesus. Money can prevent us from experiencing our highest good. Economics
based on the amassing of wealth by creating poverty is damaging to all.

The church is called to reflect the reality of Jesus, the commonwealth of God.
Blessed are the poor/poor in spirit. The church must be against taking advantage
of people in any form. We cannot support the demeaning and degrading of other human beings beloved by God. Everyone is deserving of dignity and respect. It
means we cannot support economic arrangements that abuse and devalue others.
Where were our clothes made? Where does our food come from? Where do we
work? It’s that close to home.

Blessed are the poor/poor in spirit. This reminds us that we are all dependent on
God; on what we have been given. Air. Water. Earth. Life. Love. Beauty. The
accomplishments and knowledge of those who have come before us. All given to
us, all of us. For our mutual upbuilding and flourishing. Blessed are the poor/poor
in spirit reminds us to be aware of our need no matter how much money we have.
There is no room for an inflated sense self-importance. We are all dependent and
interdependent. That is our blessing. That is what we have to rejoice about. That
is what we are to celebrate.

In thinking about our current economic circumstances, Paul Krugman, Nobel
laureate in economics, professor at the City University of New York, and columnist
for the New York Times, describes what he sees as America’s economic divide:

“One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state a private-
enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a
social safety net morally superior to the capitalism . . . we had before the New
Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

“The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that
taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what
lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the
right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.”
[ https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/14/opinion/14krugman.html ]

While Krugman may describe a fundamental divide in America today neither of
these views is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. They don’t acknowledge that
the creation of wealth is usually achieved by making people poor. And to make
people poor involves demeaning and degrading and devaluing them. And doing
that demeans and devalues the humanity of the people who are amassing the
wealth. It diminishes them, too. Everybody loses.

The teaching of Jesus challenges the position of the left and the right in America
today. Jesus celebrates the personhood of everyone, poor and poor in spirit
included. After all, Jesus himself was poor. With Jesus, all are beloved. All are
worthy of dignity and respect.

Jesus invites us to live in the commonwealth of God. He invites us to live, full and
free, with no complicity in injustice or oppression. Unencumbered and no longer
enmeshed in systems of degradation. Released from bondage to the buck.

Blessed! Enthusiastically joyful. Experiencing our highest good. Beloved! As
Nobel laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. said when he accepted his prize: “I have
the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their
bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for
their spirits.” [ https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/26142-martin-
luther-king-jr-acceptance-speech-1964/
]. Amen to that!

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in
this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church
of Christ.

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