February 17, 2019

2019 Feb17

6th Sunday after Epiphany - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

Ah…The Beatitudes! The ultimate feel good Bible verses that have inspired music, art and even atheists! The Beatitudes have such universal appeal that even non-Christians can support and recite them! The original 8 Beatitudes are in Matthew, and Luke brings 4 Beatitudes into Jesus’ Sermon the Plain.

 

But this is Jesus. Very little of what He said that is recorded in the Gospels was intended to make hearers feel good. Jesus in the Gospels was a revolutionist whose mission included unsettling the establishment in order to express and impress upon people that God has a preferential regard for the poor and oppressed.

 

The question that Jesus always
leaves us with is, “What are YOU
going to do about it?”

 

Today’s Gospel reading is no different. Jesus is clear that those with power and material comfort are not in God’s favor. This is not the stuff of Prosperity Gospel.

 

So, what does that mean for us gathered here today? In the most basic, literal sense, and at its core, we are to give up everything we have, follow Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom of God. There is no amount of preaching or pastoral support in the world that I could heap upon you that you would take this literally and give up all you have. So, can we still be faithful Christians?

 

UCC minister and social justice campaigner David L. Ostendorf’s commentary on this Gospel reading from Luke refers back to the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, and provides a harsh – but warranted – rebuke of the Church and Her members:

 

Ever since Matthew spiritualized the poor in his Sermon the Mount (5:1-12), the inclination has been to domesticate the radical pronouncement so that it comfortably fits “us” who by no means meet its criteria...Over generations in hallowed sanctuaries the prophetic word became hollow and even more watered down than Matthew had rendered it.

 

So, how can we even begin to work toward what God demands of us? I suggest that, both on the macro level and the personal level, we need to work toward abolishing the competing ideologies of:

 

  1. Religion is for the poor & weak.
  2. One’s material wealth is a sign of God’s blessings.
  3. The poor just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

There are those who believe that religion is for the poor & weak, citing that some of the world’s poorest countries are also the most religious. Looking at the data, that is partially true. Frederick Solt from Southern Illinois University studied the World Values Survey and found that the most unequal countries also tend to be very religious. And in those counties with extreme economic disparity – like the United States – both the rich and the poor hold strong religious beliefs or practices. Furthermore, the wealthy in those countries tend to be more religious than the poor. Despite decreasing religious adherence in the United States over the last half-century, this dynamic holds. We can see it with our own eyes as we encounter churches filled with migrant farm workers in the rural Midwest and churches filled with stockbrokers and lawyers in Manhattan.

 

This study illustrates to me that there are forces in the US that fuel the competition between the notion that religion is the opiate of the masses and the Prosperity Gospel. I have often stated that to improve the quality of life for those in under-developed countries, we need to reduce the quality of life in the West. The Millennium Development Goals, and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals are efforts to do just that. Bridging any gap requires compromise. And our planet could not sustain 7.7B people with a standard of living of the average American, never mind the standard of living of the super-wealthy. Moving toward helping the poor requires our move to live more simply, and not to replace God with material goods and services.

 

The biggest real impact of reducing our standard of living would be on the environment. We know that the rate of consumption of natural resources and manmade climate change are disproportionately hurting the poor of this world and of this country. But also, our hoarding of the services and amenities of this world – education being #1 among them – deprives the less fortunate in our own communities from improving their own lives.

 

The notion that the poor just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is a complete fallacy. The majority of people on government assistance work.

 

What we need to do is dismantle
the structural bias against the
poor who exist in this country
and throughout the world.

 

Our society – both within our towns and cities and within our systems of government – is structured in ways that keep the poor poor and ensure that the rich get richer. It has never been more evident than with the Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession.

 

From education to access to resources to the way we hire to the way we build housing and corporate development, wealth creation is the goal, not the eradication of poverty. And then we have the audacity to turn to the poor, label them as lazy, and take away their financial assistance in order to fuel wealth creation. Such structural inequality was never more evident than in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and the decision for Amazon to move to Long Island City. Both of those moves – right there on the surface, without even going into the detail – disproportionately negatively impact the poor and favor the wealthy.

 

As much as I might use Amazon, let me further use them as an example: The city and state of New York was offering $3Bn in tax breaks, an amount of money that the CEO Jeff Bezos could himself write a check for. Instead of claiming rightful business taxes to be used toward infrastructure or improving education and services or other means of removing the barriers of social mobility, New York chose to put the profits of one of the world’s few trillion dollar companies to gentrify yet another neighborhood of New York , which would push out key service workers who would be unable to afford to live near their place of employment. And to add insult to injury, because of the 2017 Tax Bill, Amazon will not pay any Federal taxes on its $11.2Bn profits. The company will also claim a $129M Federal income tax rebate, all because of the 2017 Tax Bill which shifts welfare from the needy to the wealthy and corporations. This is the stuff that Prosperity Gospel is made of, but not The Beatitudes.

 

When we examine those examples of structural bias against the poor, how can we expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? And these few examples only really touch the working poor. The structural bias against the indigent poor – those about whom Jesus is actually preaching – those who have nothing – the structural bias against the destitute is much more insidious. How can we believe that they can or should help themselves? And how can we even begin to believe that one’s material wealth is a result of blessings from God? Yet, those living the Prosperity Gospel use religion to justify the plight of the poor, and the poor use religion to sooth their woes.

Ostendorf says of today’s Gospel:

 

The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God. God watches over them and blesses them abundantly in God’s way, not the way of the world: they will be filled, and they will laugh, and they will inherit the kingdom of God…To be blessed of God is to have nothing but God.

 

One can understand why Napoleon Bonaparte declared: “Religion keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” We have a lot of work to do to reclaim the Gospel for the good of the world from those who are actively – through their own pious and misdirected prayer lives – trying to disinherit the poor from the Kingdom of God.

 

Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain was meant to challenge and unsettle the Disciples and those of us who hear these words today. So, what are we to do? First, we listen to the final Woe: “Woe to you when all speak well of you.” God does not bless us as we position ourselves to gain the respect of others or concern ourselves with status. We are to use our influence for the good of God’s people, even if we are reviled.

 

Dr. Diana R. Garland and Vicki Marsh Kabat, Dean and Student, respectively, at the Baylor School of Social Work, wrote a document entitled “Power and the Christian”. It’s structured into 5 lessons, and Lesson Five explores “When Our Use of Power Pleases God”. They write:

 

In our culture, we are taught at an early age that the acquisition of power is a good and worthy goal in life. Having power is equated with being successful in the corporate and political worlds, but also in other [community and personal] realms. Power is even considered a virtue and a value and, inherent in the position is the universally accepted (if not practiced) tenet that with power one will exercise wisdom and act on behalf of those over whom he or she has authority. The theory goes that if one is smart enough to rise to power, then that person can be trusted.

 

They go on to illustrate how, in both society and the Bible, that theory of the benevolent exercise of power has been abused or absent, and in relation to faith, they quote G.K. Chesterson:

 

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

 

Jesus in the Gospels was a revolutionist whose mission included unsettling the establishment in order to express and impress upon people that God has a preferential regard for the poor and oppressed. The question that Jesus always leaves us with is, “What are YOU going to do about it?” To take a step toward living a Beatitude Life without giving away every single possession, we are to use our money and power and votes and concerns and our lives toward the good of God’s people.

 

The call of Jesus today is for those who follow Him to enter into the lives of the poor and destitute and to have compassion – to suffer with – in order to realize God’s purpose for us in the world. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul asserts that Jesus “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died and was raised for them.” If we believe that, then Paul’s writing in today’s epistle must ring true, or everything we believe has been in vain.

 

To serve God is to serve God’s
people. Let’s not let that be
in vain.

© 2019 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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