by Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington
The beatitudes. How they loved the beatitudes in Jesus' day. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the blessings or beatitudes.
The beatitudes. How we love the beatitudes today. By that I mean to say, how we all experience God's blessings. We talk about God's rich blessings to our lives. How has God blessed you and me? We talk about family. Good marriages. Good children. Good grandchildren. Not perfect marriages, not perfect children, not perfect grandchild, but good people whom we dearly love. We talk about the blessings of friends. Good friends. Mostly, but not always, men have good guy-friends and women good gal-friends. We sat at dinner the other night on a church retreat for "empty nesters" and the men and women were intermingled at the table and our conversation was forced. A friend suggested: let's have the four men sit at one end of the table and the four women at the other end of the table. This arrangement was much better. We chatted, told lies, and really enjoyed each other. We have old friends and new friends, and friends bring such pleasure to life. Blessings always bring pleasure to life. Other blessings? The list is endless: good health and a body that works. A good job to pay the bills, including dinner out. A good car that gets you to and from work. A good church. A good community of people with likeminded values. Good surroundings such as Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. A good God, who loves you in Jesus Christ who died on the cross for you. A good God who created all the blessings of life we enjoy. A good century in which to be born. All of these things bring pleasure to life. In fact, we have beer commercials that advertise "a good life." The beer commercials show a group of men around a fire, after a day's fishing, opening a cold beer and mellowing out. "It's a good life," one of them will say.
In Biblical times, the opposite of blessings are curses or woes. If blessings bring happiness to life, curses or woes bring unhappiness. In other words, life can be miserable at times. If the marriage isn't working out, life can be hell on earth. Our kids can be a pain at certain times and bring great misery. A friend is surprisingly absent when you needed him or her, and you discovered this wasn't a friend after all. You lose your job. Awful. What are you to do now for income? You discover that you can't pay the bills. Your car breaks down. Your body breaks down. Your marriage breaks down. Your plans break down. Life can be filled with all kinds of misery and pain. The Bible called them woes or curses. Sometimes, we feel our marriages are cursed. Sometimes, during an illness or death of a loved one, we feel our lives are cursed.
Good times. Bad times. Blessings. Curses. We all feel and experience them all.
It is with these images that we approach the gospel of Luke and his account of Jesus' beatitudes for today. We find Jesus offering his disciples his first teachings about life and happiness.
Jesus' words in Luke are like bombshells exploding around us, not smoldering embers from a dying fire. Jesus' words in Luke are like lightning bolts flashing in the sky, not merely electrical currents invisibly around us.
Jesus dropped a bomb. Jesus threw a lightning bolt. You must think bomb that shatters everything around it. You must think lightning bolt that flashes across the sky for all to see. "Blessed are the poor and the hungry." A bombshell. A lightning bolt. No one had ever said that before. In the Old Testament, it was clear that the rich and full were blessed. Their riches of camels and cattle brought pleasures and fullness to their lives. That is also true of us today in the twenty-first century. The rich and full are the blessed. With enough money to buy a home, pay the bills, go on a vacation or two a year. The rich are thought to be smarter, quicker emotionally, quicker intellectually, more adaptable to land on their feet. Live like kings compared to the rest of the world. That is what it is to be blessed. … But Jesus turns all that on its ear. Jesus turns everything upside down and inside out. He drops a bomb that explodes in our lives. He throws a lightning bolt that we all see. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Woe to the rich. Woe to the full stomachs." How odd. How unusual. How upside down. … The author of the book of Matthew couldn't handle it, and so he watered down the words of Jesus or made them more palatable when he wrote: "Blessed are the poor…in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…for righteousness." Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes of Jesus, so we all agree and nod our heads in assent. We all know the wisdom of being humble and poor in spirit. We all know the wisdom that we Christians are to hunger and thirst for righteousness and right relationships. We know the wisdom of that. People who are genuinely humble are on the right track. People who are passionate for right relationships are going the right direction. We nod in assent. We agree. … But when Jesus drops the bomb: "Blessed are the poor and hungry, Woe to those who are rich and full," we don't quite get it. His words are such a reversal to all common sense. His words explode our world.
There is this radical and unusual theme of God's exaltation of poor and hungry people in the New Testament that is not found in the Old Testament. There is not one trace of this theme in the Old Testament where God clearly rewards with material blessings. But this theme is found throughout Luke and its companion book Acts. It is also clearly found in the book of James, chapter 5, that says, "Come now, you rich, and weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted; your gold and silver have rusted; and their rust will be laid up as evidence against you." Such words would never have been written in the Old Testament.
What are we to do with these Scriptures? What are we do to with Jesus' persistent theme in the Gospel of Luke that warn of the dangers of the riches of wealth and plenty of food? We live in a first world church. That is, compared to the rest of the world, we live in a very wealthy community. We have homes and jobs and retirements. We take our vacations. We eat too much and compared to the rest of the world, we are much too fat. What are we to do with these Jesus bombs that explode right next to us? What are we to do with these Jesus lightning bolts that flash in our skies and light up the fact that God's primary values may not be our own? How do we talk about materialism in today's world when we ourselves are all so materialistic? That is, our deeply held inner prejudice is to maintain our middle class lifestyle with all its comforts and pleasures. Don't challenge my middle class lifestyle and all its pleasures. How we do handle this theme of Jesus? "Blessed are the poor and hungry. Woe to the rich and well fed."
Equally indicting are Jesus' words, "Blessed are you when people hate you, revile you, exclude you, and call you evil … because you are a Christian, a follower of Christ." In our society, no one hates us, reviles, us, excludes us, and calls us evil because we follow Christ and belong to a church. In fact, just the opposite. We are admired and appreciated for upholding our religious values. And almost all our friends are church friends, who share similar values.
What does it mean to be a Christian in a rich world? What does it mean to be a Christian in a middle class world where some two-thirds of the society belongs to the church? What does it mean to be a Christian when people live in nice homes, have good retirements, and plan nice vacations, all of which we call being blessed? How do we fit all of this into Jesus' beatitudes in Luke? Do we simply ignore Luke's version and listen to Matthew's version which is much more palatable for our lives? Ah, that is a good solution. We will live and listen to Jesus' beatitudes in Matthew, "blessed are the poor in spirit and those who hunger for righteousness," and we will ignore Luke's more harsh words against the richer people of the world. We will listen to Matthew and ignore Luke. That's a solution.
Yet we don't feel good about that. We sense that something may be terribly wrong with our Christian lives when it comes to money and materialism. We sense that something may be wrong with our Christian lives when we, the richest Christians in the world, give only 2% of our income to charity. Of the 2% we give to charity, 83% of all monetary gifts that we give to the church is spent to pay for heat, light, mortgage and the preacher's salaries. In other words, when we the richest Christians of the world give to churches, most of that money is again spent on ourselves. We can't even give to charity without spending it on ourselves. Also, Lutheran Christians give less than a Big Mac and fries to world hunger per year. Ouch.
How do we live as middle class Christians in a rich culture when the vast majority of Christians are poor around the globe? How do we handle this? How do we deal with Jesus' beatitudes in Luke in our middle class, materialistic world in which the vast majority of us live?
That is the focus of today's sermon.
There is so much to be said that a person doesn't know where to begin.
First, as we all know so deeply well, money and what it can buy does not bring true happiness. We tend to privately believe that enough money certainly helps to bring blessings to our lives. Deep happiness had to do with invisible qualities like loving family, loving friends, loving God, loving life. These are invisible qualities inside of a person, and not related to material qualities. Again and again, it has been proven to people in our parish who have visited our sister church in Haiti, these people have found genuine happiness and they don't have colored television sets and cell telephones. In fact, they don't have television sets or any telephones. Again and again and again, God in the Bible tells us that true happiness and joy come from those qualities that are invisible. Love is invisible and happiness always grows best in a garden of love. You can be poor and still have hearts of love. You bellies can be hungry and still have hearts of love. True joy always comes from hearts filled with love. A primary goal in life is not the accumulation of material possessions (good job, good house, good recreation) but the accumulation of loving relationships with God and neighbors. That is what Jesus said. What is the abundant life? To love God with all your heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. That is where your time and energy is to be put. We need to confront our addictions material possessions that we think lead to happiness. These addictions to material possessions are even more addictive than drugs. The wisest of wealthy people understand that their happiness does not come from material possessions.
Second, we are to be motivated to share our gifts with those around us, and one of the primary gifts that God has given to us is to have been born in America at this time in history when there has never been so much health and wealth in our society. We are living in boom years in a booming economy in a booming century. The rest of the world is not. According to Biblical scholars like Walt Pilgrim and Ron Sider, who wrote RICH CHRISTIANS IN AN AGE OF HUNGER, and is president of Evangelicals for Social Action; both of these men encourage us middle class Christians to intelligently share our wealth with our poorer brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas around the globe. The word, share, is so simple, but so beautiful in its possibilities. Walt Pilgrim in his book on Luke-Acts says that the overarching purpose of Luke-Acts is to motivate richer Christians to share with poorer Christians. You cannot be a Christian and not share; you cannot be a Christian and not share your love to your poorer family around the globe. Lutheran World Relief, the Hunger Appeal, World Vision, Lutheran Compass Center, the Millionaires' Club, political action, our homeless shelter, the Food Bank. The list goes on and on. We are to share our material gifts with those less fortunate. … We need to affirm our commitment to them the same commitment found in the book of Acts: there is to be no poverty found in the first Christian community, and there is to be no poverty found in our Christian community either. That's the way God wants it. We need to take care of those poorer members in our community first and there will be plenty of resources left over for taking care of our neighbors around us and around the globe.
Third, we learn from the poor and hungry and persecuted. How much we learn from these people in our own country and around the globe. Within our society here in America, the poor and hungry are often single mothers with children. We need to listen to them and their perceptions about work and jobs here in the United States. We need to respectfully listen to the homeless men who come to our homeless shelter. We need to listen to our neighbors in need around the globe. There are many qualities of Lutheran World Relief that I admire, but one of their strongest values is their commitment to accompany and walk with their global partners as equals, with each learning from the other. What do we know about poverty and earthquakes in El Salvador and India? We are always learning from our partners around the globe. They are usually more informed that we are. At a communion service for our members going on a mission trip to Haiti, I suggested that they will learn things about faith and life in Haiti that cannot be learned here in our wealthy USA, and those people who had been there all nodded in agreement. There are certain things about faith and life and reverence that you learn in Haiti with its poverty that cannot be learned in a wealthier technological society.
Fourth, as you know, I am as capitalistic as most people. A key strategy is to try to create economic systems where people can earn their own money and bread and not rely on self-demeaning handouts. We need to work with others to create more economic systems that enable people to benefit directly from their own work. It is amazing to me how much progress that has been made during the past decades. When Lita Johnson from the Hunger Appeal preached in our church some time ago, she recounted all the countries that had made such incredible progress. We need to be part of that vision: to help countries become economically healthy like a family becomes emotionally healthy. Right now, the cancellation of debts to Third World countries is enormous, totally over thirty billion dollars. This movement has bi-partisan support. Rather than draining capital from those poorer economies into payments for past loans, the richer nations of the world are now canceling the debts of numerous third world countries. What a wonderful gift to be part of. Often the debts of third world nations have been caused by unstable governments purchasing unneeded military equipment.
The question is: what does it mean to be a committed Christian when you are middle class and living in the wealthiest nation and wealthiest church in the world? What does it mean to us when we hear the words of Jesus from the beatitudes of Luke? "Blessed are the poor and hungry. Miserable are the rich and the full." These words are like bombshells exploding around us. These words are like lightning bolts flashing across our sky. In our materialistic words and souls, what do these words of Jesus mean to our lives of faith? Those are the questions for us today? Each of us Christians who live in the First World and are middle class wrestle with what it means to be a Christian in our rich society. Amen.
More Sermons and Commentaries on Luke 6:12-23 (12 Apostles Feast)
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