As we start out this morning, I’d like to explore a couple of temptations the preacher faces when dealing with a biblical text. The preacher’s task, of course, is to explore a particular text, and then to share its message with the congregation. The sermon itself can take many different forms – there are many different styles of preaching – but the task is always the same – to repeat and share the message of the text.
Now in the background to this task there are a couple of temptations – more than a couple – but there are two I want to mention this morning. And the first of these temptations is a temptation to smooth over different points of view within the text. Within the Christian tradition we believe that the Hebrew bible and the New Testament are faithful witnesses to life of God with his people. The scriptures provide one grand narrative of God’s creation and covenant. But at the same time, within that one grand narrative there are different voices:
voices that emphasizes particular issues,
voices that raise specific questions,
voices that explore different aspects of our life with God.
Over the last two Sundays we got a bit of a sense of this as we contrasted Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke represent two particular traditions within earliest Christianity – and each tradition emphasizes particular aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching:
So we have the Sermon on the Mount versus the Sermon on the Plain.
We have “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, vs. “Blessed are the poor.”
So there are these different voices within text and tradition. But for the preacher there is sometimes a temptation to just smooth over the differences. The preacher sometimes feel like there should be one clear and unambiguous message. So the preacher might blend together what Matthew says with what Luke says, and blend it in with some Old Testament narrative, or with some words of the Apostle Paul – and he or she ends up with one clear and smooth and unambiguous statement about some aspect of Christian faith.
Now at some level this impulse is probably ok – the scriptures are one tradition describing the God of creation and covenant. It is one narrative, and not multiple narratives.
And yet there is still a problem when we blend all of the voices of text and tradition into one. When we stop listening to the particular voices within the text, we often miss something important. Sometimes those particular voices have something to say to us in our particular context. If we miss what a particular voice is saying, we might miss something vital to the life of God and his people.
Last week we tried to hear what Jesus is saying through the gospel of Luke. Blessed are the poor. In the voice of Luke we hear a very real emphasis on the poverty of God. In Jesus, God comes and dwells among the poor. Where is Jesus? In his historical life, and therefore also in his resurrection life,
He is among the poor.
He is alongside those who can’t make ends meet.
He is with those who are dying.
He is among those who are powerless.
On this point Luke seems abundantly clear – and if we fail to listen to his voice, we do a disservice to ourselves and to the gospel that defines us.
With all of that in mind, let me introduce another temptation the preacher faces when moving from text to sermon. This second temptation is the temptation to make the message an easy and comfortable one.
To explain this temptation, we should perhaps remember that in our cultural context we can’t make anyone to go to church. No one has to go to church in general. And certainly no one has to go to any particular church. And the flip side of that, is that if someone doesn’t like what he or she finds in one church, they can always go to another – or to no church at all. Let me be clear that I’m not complaining – and I’m not suggesting it should be otherwise – I’m simply trying to describe the lay of the land in contemporary Canada.
But for the preacher, this freedom of people to come and go as they please, generates a temptation not to share a message that might leave anyone uncomfortable. The preacher might not want to say anything too challenging or difficult, because if anyone doesn’t like it – they might leave. This is a kind of double-edged sword. It can be a good thing, because it makes preachers be careful with their words. But it can also be a bad thing, because the preacher might avoid saying the difficult things the text demands.
Last week we tried to resist this second temptation. The gospel of Luke emphasizes the poverty of God. The gospel of Luke proclaims Jesus’ life among the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, and the marginalized. But in the west today
our churches are not places of poverty,
our churches are not populated by the powerless,
our churches are not peopled by the poor.
The church in the west today is not places of social and economic marginalization.
Which raises the distinct possibility that Jesus is not where the church is. To some extent, I hope this message leaves us uncomfortable. I hope it leaves us uncomfortable to think that Jesus is present and alive in our world – but in some sense he might not be where the church is.
That’s where we left things off last week. When we listened to Luke’s particular voice – when we heard Jesus speaking through Luke’s gospel – we were forced to end on a difficult note. That Jesus might not be where the church is.
But is that it? Is that the end of the story? Are we simply left with to wallow, if you will, in the possibility of the church’s alienation from the Son of God? Is that it?
Well, in so many ways that is not the end of the story. There is much more to be said. But even this week, we aren’t going to get to the simpler message we might expect to hear when we speak about poverty in the church. The message we perhaps expect to hear is this: that our God is a God of justice and love – and that following the risen Jesus means pursuing justice, and means serving the poor. In general terms that’s probably a good message – a very Christian message. But the problem with that message, from the perspective of Luke’s gospel, is that it lets the church stay where it is. The problem with that message is that it lets us stay where we are, while we just try to do a little more to pursue goodness and justice in our world.
But Luke won’t let us stay where we are – more importantly, Jesus won’t let us stay where we are.
Let me take a moment to explore how some in the history of Christianity have responded to the difficult and radical message of Jesus that we have been hearing in Luke’s gospel.
There are some within the history and tradition of Christianity who have said:
If Jesus is in the place of poverty, I will go to the place of poverty.
If Jesus is in with the hungry, they I will live among the hungry.
If Jesus is among the marginalized, I will go to the place of marginalization.
The story of Francis Bernardone is likely a familiar one to you. Francis Bernardone was born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in the Italian city of Assisi. As a young man he is said to have lived a self-indulgent life. He dreamed of being a knight and of being a soldier – in fact he became a soldier. For his reward, in fact, he spent a year as a prisoner of war during a conflict between the cities of Assisi and Perugia. But after he was released, and after his recover, Francis Bernardone returned to his military post – but one night while he slept, Francis had a spiritual experience in which he felt challenged to serve God in some new and decisive way. He didn’t know exactly what this meant – and in response to this spiritual experience he experimented with different ways of submitting himself to God. Mostly this involved giving away his wealthy father’s money to the poor. Or it involved selling his father’s cloth to rebuild dilapidated churches.
But the decisive moment in his life came in the year 1208, when Francis Bernardone heard a gospel reading from Matthew chapter 10 – a text in which Jesus says to his disciples: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” As the story goes, from that moment Francis renounced his father’s wealth. In front of the whole town and the bishop, he stripped naked, and gave back to his father even the clothes he was wearing. Francis announced his embrace of poverty, and from then on declared that he would rely on “our Father, who art in heaven.”
Of course, Francis Bernardone is known to us as St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of what became the Franciscan order. An order that embraces poverty.
Francis of Assisi repudiated wealth, and followed Jesus in the way of poverty and service. He went about preaching the message of love and repentance. He abandoned the security, wealth, and comfort of his father’s home. He relinquished his position of power, and he put his trust in God to provide for him in the way that Jesus was provided for during his earthly ministry among the poor.
Having read the gospel of Luke, it will likely come as no surprise to us that Francis felt compelled to abandon the place of wealth and power. There is something entirely faithful about the vision of life he articulated and followed.
He became poor.
He went to the place of human marginalization.
He went to the place of hunger.
He went to the place where he believed he would most truly encounter Jesus. If Jesus was not where the church was – if Jesus was not in that wealthy and comfortable place – then Francis was going to take the church to where Jesus was. In his own person, Francis took the church to the place of poverty.
In the last century, a little closer to our own time – we could take also take the example of Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day, of course, was a leader of the Catholic Worker Movement in the first half of the twentieth century – she was a social activist and pacifist who worked to relieve poverty. But like Francis, she went to the place of poverty. For a number of years she lived in a house of hospitality in the slums of New York.
Dorothy Day is described this way by Robert Coles: “She was always trying to remember that Jesus was an obscure carpenter who in his early thirties, did not go talk with emperors and kings and important officials, but talked with equally obscure people, and thereby persuaded a few fishermen, a few farm people, a few ailing and hard-pressed men and women, that there was reason for them to have great hope.”
Even today there are movements within the wider church that would draw us to the place where Jesus is. One of those movements is called the new monasticism. The new monasticism includes a diverse group of women and men, who live together in Christian community – all by itself that is a radical concept. But they do so, they live together in Christian community, in some of the most forgotten corners of North America’s cities. Living with and among those in impoverished neighbourhoods. Living with and among drug-addicts and other marginalized communities. There is a real diversity within the new monasticism. But what they are attempting to do, is to take the church back to the place where Jesus dwells – to find Jesus and to learn from those to whom the kingdom of God belongs. They are going to the place of marginalization and poverty and pain, because that is where Jesus is – and that is where the kingdom of God is to be found.
We would be right to notice this morning that in going to the place of poverty – Francis Bernardone, and Dorothy Day, and the new monastics – they all go to the place of poverty not because they believe that poverty is good thing – not because they believe poverty is an essential and enduring part of human life. Each in their own way, is looking for the transformation and renewal of the world – looking for the overcoming of poverty, and the establishment of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
But each in their own way also seems to understand that
the renewal of our world,
the restoration of relationships,
the healing of broken lives,
and the end of poverty
are found neither through the exercise of power – nor through middle-class benevolence – nor through the trickle-down of wealth to the poor.
The renewal of our world, the restoration of broken relationships, the healing of broken lives, and the end of poverty are found in the God of poverty.
The renewal of our world, the restoration of broken relationships, the healing of broken lives, and the end of poverty are found in life together – encounter with the one who became poor, who lived with those on the margins, who learned to trust God, and who embodied love. He is the son of God.
Where is Jesus? Are we prepared to seek him and to find him in the place of poverty? Do we trust him – do we believe his word – when he says: Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.