Luke 6:17-26; excerpt from Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez
I am Blessed?
I see him most days because he works at the Plaid Panty where I get my gas and morning caffeine. He is an elderly man with a ready smile and a strong voice. How are you this morning?, I ask. “Oh, I am blessed”, is his invariable reply. Blessed…I ponder as I drive away. How is it that this man, well past retirement age and pumping gas for a living thinks of himself as blessed?
Most of the time we use the word to mean some special benefit that a person enjoys. He is blessed with good health….she is blessed with musical ability. Blessings in this sense are things that we have to enjoy—whether they are material or intangible. But then we read in Luke’s gospel, blessed are you poor—blessed are you who are hungry now—blessed are you who weep now—blessed are you when people hate you or when they exclude you. Blessed.
How can you count any of these as blessings? No one wants to be poor…no one wants to be hungry….noone wants to weep or be hated or excluded… What are these words of beatitude— these words of blessings about? And even more puzzling, what’s with the woes that follow them?
The Great Reversal in Luke’s Gospel
More than another gospel, Luke is concerned with issues of wealth and poverty. The rich and the poor populate his stories and his encounters. Jesus tells us of the rich fool who plans to build bigger barns to accommodate all of his goods only to die and leave everything behind. Or the rich young man who Jesus urges to sell all that he has and give money to the poor but turns away because he can not let loose of his wealth. And who can forget Zaccheaus, the tax collector who preyed on the vulnerable, yet was invited to have dinner with Jesus.
New Testament Scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson tells us that the Great theme of Luke’s Gospel is simply “A Reversal of the Social Order”. God reverses human status and perception. In a downward movement, God scatters the arrogant, pulls down the mighty, sends the rich away empty. But also, in an upward movement, God exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and takes the hand of the poor.
Blessed are the Poor
Luke says to us: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”. My friend who pumps my gas at Plaid Pantry reminds of my roots growing up in and out of poverty. My roots of living a day to day reality, where chicken pot pies were a daily staple in my home, when having a Frosty at Wendy’s was a luxury, a time of not really having a future because the moment was too heavy for such a privilege. But I also remember being content, living for the moment, I remember laughing a lot more than I do these days, and believe it or not, I remember not worrying about this and that. Life was simple. Trust was effortless.
Beginning in the 1990’s, a number of theologians especially from Latin America have come to speak about God’s preferential option for the poor. Gustavo Gutierrez writes: “God has a preferential love for the poor, not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor. Living in an inhuman situation, a situation that is contrary to God’s will…(and yet) they have learned how to trust in something other than themselves.”
Woe to the Rich
On the other side of the ledger are those who are blessed with a whole slew of material possessions—things they enjoy. Luke says, “woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation”. I am reminded of a story. A rich man died and went to heaven. He was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter who led him down the golden streets. They passed stately homes and beautiful mansions until they came to the end of the street where they stopped in front of a rundown cabin. The man said to St. Peter “there must be some mistake”. And then asked why he got a cabin when there were so many mansions he could live in. St. Peter replied, “I did the best with the money you sent us.”
The problem with wealth is not the material possessions themselves, the problem is the temptation that wealth presents. Wealth of any amount, whether it is a 10 million dollar stock portfolio or an hourly wage job with benefits tempts us to think that is where our security lies. The problem with wealth is the temptation for misplaced trust—we begin to trust ourselves rather than God’s work in and among us. And the more wealth we acquire, the more isolated and insulated we can become. This is a temptation for churches as well as individuals. This a temptation that this church, Southminster, must fight against, and in fact, does.
Our Response as Individuals and the Church
Think about the ways that we as a church have chosen not to be isolated or insulated. Think about what Southminster would be like without programs like Family Promise, reminding us that those experiencing poverty and homelessness are no different than we are. I remember the words of my daughter Ciera after we served a meal at Family promise about a year ago. She said, “one of my favorite ministries at Southminster is Family Promise because it reminds me of who I am”.
Think about what this church would be like without our annual mission trips that transform the lives of youth and adults, or what we would be if we didn’t donate Christmas baskets to so many VOSE families in need, or raise over $9,000.00 for victims of the recent fires, or send youth downtown to provide meals for the hungry, or build relationships across faith traditions and cultures, or stand in solidarity with racial groups who face systemic discrimination… What would our church be like without?
And think about how much more these ministries will be expanded when the pandemic is over and when we have our Senior Pastor in place…and when mission programs begin to thrive once again at Southminster. I know that Amanda and I have big plans to “rock” our youth and family programs! I am full of vision and “all in” for 2021, are you?
I am Blessed and So Are You
In Luke’s gospel, God has announced a reversal of the social order. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. Blessed are the poor, but woe to you who are rich. These are words of encouragement and vindication for those on the bottom rung of society. And they are words of judgement…but more importantly, they are an invitation to stewardship for the rest of us. It is a calling that asks each of us, “where do you place your trust?”
Luke shows us that God’s path leads to the side of the poor. The man who pumps my gas is old enough to be fully retired. I suspect that he works in part because he likes to have some place to go every morning, but mostly because he probably really needs the money. Every time I see him, he says “I am blessed.” And he is. Jesus said so. And so are we, when we follow the path of trusting something other than ourselves.