becoming poor (2/4)

I’d like to bring two thoughts together as we begin this morning. The first thought is this: That I don’t really understand poverty.

Of course, in an abstract kind of way I understand poverty.

I understand that it must be tremendously painful and disabling not to know how you will get your next meal.

I’ve heard my own parents tell stories of hunger in occupied Holland during WWII.

I’ve helped serve meals a few times down at the Old Brewery mission.

I’ve slept in the hut of a poor family in rural Mexico.

So in an abstract kind of way I understand poverty.

But on the other hand I don’t understand poverty.

I’ve had a pretty comfortable life.

I’ve never been really hungry except voluntarily.

I’ve never been in a position where I didn’t have some source of income.

I’ve never known the powerlessness and sometimes the shame that goes along with lining up in a soup kitchen or a food bank.

And it seems to me that if you haven’t lived poverty, then you don’t really understand poverty. So the first thought this morning is this: I don’t really understand poverty.

And then here’s the second thought we would add to add to the first.

If you want to know Jesus, you have to know poverty.

If you want to know Jesus,

If you want to understand Jesus,

If you want to be close to Jesus, then you have to know and understand poverty.

Now it will be immediately obvious to us that the bringing together of these two thoughts represents a significant spiritual challenge.

If you have to understand poverty in order to understand Jesus,

And if I don’t really understand poverty,

then how will I ever understand Jesus?

How am I going to get close to the risen one? How can I possibly understand Jesus? How can I really know him? If I have never known poverty.

The theme song of the 1975 Nicaraguan Peasants Mass, includes the following words:

You are the God of the poor,

the human and sensitive God

the God who sweats in the street

the God with a sun-scorched face.

That is why I speak to you

Just as my people talk,

For you are the God who labors

You are the worker, Christ.

Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount starts out in a very different place than Matthew’s sermon. And I mean that in a very concrete sense. Matthew’s narrative around the Sermon on the Mount begins as follows: “Jesus went up onto a mountain to teach his disciples.”

But Luke’s version doesn’t start out like that at all. In Luke’s gospel it begins like this: “Jesus came down with his disciples and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” It turns out that in Luke’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a sermon on the mount. Rather, it’s a Sermon on the Plain – a sermon down on a low place – on level field where his disciples and a crowd gather around him.

The gospel writer who is sharing this story with us is fairly sophisticated – he’s not recording bare facts about the movement of Jesus. This descent, this coming down of Jesus to a wide open plain, is more than just a geographic detail. Luke wants us to see that Jesus isn’t escaping to the mountain for a spiritual retreat with his disciples. Jesus isn’t escaping to the mountain where he can wax eloquent about the life of intimacy with God. In fact, this coming down the mountain is a mirroring and a repetition of the humbling that takes place in incarnation itself, a humbling that is expressed, for example, in the birth narrative: “And she gave birth to a first born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Jesus descends to dwell with the human family – but not just to dwell with the human family – Jesus descends to dwell with and among those who are the least – those who are on the margins. Jesus comes down the mountain, and this coming down the mountain gives expression to the fact that the Son of God becomes poor.

On one occasion when Jesus was travelling along a road in Luke’s gospel, someone came and said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Jesus dwells among the poor. Jesus is an itinerant rabbi. Jesus is a homeless man – he has no place of comfort to call home.

Between Matthew and Luke there is more than a geographic difference. There is also a significant difference when it comes to the substance of the teaching. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins teaching with these words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It’s the first of 9 words of blessing, 9 words of beatitude that Jesus offers in Matthew’s version of the sermon. And as we saw last week, this first word of blessing represents a challenge to us to acknowledge the fragility and uncertainty of life – and in the face of that fragility and uncertainty, to put our trust in God.

The opening words of Jesus’ sermon in Luke’s represent a different challenge to us in the spiritual life. Jesus comes down the mountain. Jesus becomes poor. And the first word of blessing he offers is entirely consistent with his embrace of poverty, and of the poor. Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

The challenge of these words is only deepened when we discover that in Luke’s gospel Jesus adds a word of woe. For each of the four words of blessing that Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel, there is a corresponding woe:

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

And then he adds:

Woe to you who are rich, for you hare received your consolation.

As we think about these words today, it’s important for us to notice what Jesus isn’t doing as he speaks these words of beatitude and blessing. Whether we are dealing with Matthew’s gospel or with Luke’s gospel, it’s important to notice that Jesus isn’t offering words of instruction. He isn’t telling us what we should do. In the first instance, Jesus isn’t telling us to become poor in spirit. He isn’t telling us to be poor. He isn’t telling us to be hungry. He isn’t telling us to suffer.

Rather, Jesus is simply offering a statement of the way things are in our world.

Blessed are the poor – that’s just the way it is. Theirs is the kingdom of God. They are the ones to whom Jesus is close. They are the ones to whom God shows his face. Blessed are the poor – that’s just the way it is.

With these sermons, Jesus is describing the shape of the universe. What he says may contradict what we believe – what he says may be contrary to what we’ve always taken for granted – what he says may be difficult for us to swallow. But he is offering a statement of the way things are in the kingdom of God – within economy of God.

Blessed are the poor. Woe to you who are rich.

And Jesus himself is an embodiment of this truth.

Blessing belongs to the one who is homeless.

Beatitude belongs to the one on the margins.

Fullness of life belongs to Jesus.

Blessing and beatitude and fullness of life belong to the one who comes down the mountain to dwell with the least. As the Apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus has given up the privileges of divine sonship – given up the privileges of glory. He has taken the very nature of a servant – his servanthood becomes his glory.

You are the God of the poor,

the human and sensitive God

the God who sweats in the street

the God with a sun-scorched face.

That is why I speak to you

Just as my people talk,

For you are the God who labors

You are the worker, Christ.

One of the challenges we face as we confront Jesus’ declaration in the sermon on the plain – is our tendency to moralize everything. We tend to want everything reduced to simple moral statements. Do this. Don’t do that.

In fact, this tendency to toward moralizing is widespread in our culture. At some level it may be counter-intuitive to say this because there is a common assumption in our culture that simplistic moralizing somehow belongs to past generations – there is a widespread feeling that moralizing belongs to the fifties or the Victorian era. But we still moralize in exactly the same way, today.

Let me give a few quick examples to make the point. If you don’t think we moralize today, try sending your kid to school with a lunch packaged up with materials that aren’t reusable or recyclable – and watch the moralizing begin. If you don’t think we moralize today, try being a mother who can’t or won’t breastfeed her infant in the first six months of its life. If you don’t think we moralize any more, try wearing a Jesus t-shirt in a Nova Scotia High School – as student William Swinimer did this past week. We are as good at moralizing as ever we were – in contemporary Canada we just moralize about different things. Simplistic do’s and don’ts that make you a good person.

But in the sermon from the plain, Jesus isn’t moralizing. He isn’t offering a tight little list of do’s and don’ts. He isn’t giving a straightforward or simplistic account of how to be a good person. Yet our tendency is to right away take what Jesus is saying and to turn this into a series of do’s and don’ts. We take this word of beatitude and we turn it into:

You’ve got to give money to help the poor.

You should help those who are less fortunate.

You should bring donations to church for the NDG Food Depot.

You should contribute to the Centraide campaign.

You shouldn’t spend to extravagantly on yourself or your family.

Particularly in mainline Protestantism, we have loved these simple and beautiful do’s and don’ts. They are so easy.

But if that’s where we start – if this list of do’s and don’ts is primary or predominant in any way – then we have totally missed the point – and we have totally missed Jesus. If this list of do’s and don’ts is primary or predominant in any way, then we will never meet Jesus – we will never encounter the one who had no place to lay his head – we will never encounter the one whose life on the margins has been vindicated in resurrection life.

It isn’t about doing this or that.

It isn’t about feeling good for having done this or that.

It isn’t about feeling guilty for not having done this or that.

It is about discovering what is good and true and beautiful about the human, and about discovering the truth of human life. What is that truth? That in Christ God accompanies the poor, blesses them, and will vindicate them.

The truth isn’t that it’s somehow wonderful to be poor.

The truth isn’t that it’s a good thing to be hungry.

The truth isn’t that it’s desirable to live on the margins of society.

The truth is that God makes his home with the poor, with the hungry, with those on the margins – and that one day the tables will be turned. In the sermon from the plain, Jesus speaks of a great reversal that is coming.

Blessed are you who are hungry – for you will be filled, the day is coming.

Blessed are you who weep now – for you will laugh, the day is coming.

Blessed are you who are poor – for you dwell now with the beloved Son of God, and will finally dwell with him in God’s kingdom

We started out with a dilemma, and we come back to that dilemma.

I don’t live in poverty. But Jesus dwells among the poor.

I am not hungry. But Jesus dwells among the hungry.

I am not powerless. But Jesus dwells among the powerless.

I am not suffering. But Jesus dwells among those who suffer.

How am I to understand him? How am I to know him? How can I possibly draw near to this Jesus?

In the end it may turn out that I can know Jesus. But if we try to solve our dilemma too quickly, we will miss something fundamental. If we try to solve the dilemma of our distance from Jesus too quickly, we may also forget the identity of God with us – we may forget where blessing and beatitude belong.

You are the God of the poor,

the human and sensitive God

the God who sweats in the street

the God with a sun-scorched face.

That is why I speak to you

Just as my people talk,

For you are the God who labors

You are the worker, Christ.

Who is this God? Do we know this God? Are we prepared to encounter this Jesus?

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