This sermon was preached today, February 17, 2018, at Christ Church Alameda. The lectionary text cited is Luke 6:17-26.
Some of you know that I recently spent two weeks on a study visit to Hong Kong, living at the seminary there and learning about the Anglican church in that part of the world. It was an incredible trip that I’d love to tell you about, but given the story Stephen shared in his sermon last week about his family trekking in the Andes, I don’t want this to inadvertently turn into a sermon series on “what the clergy did during our winter vacations.”
So for now I will just tell you this: the day before I left Hong Kong to come back home, I was looking around the gift shop of the Anglican cathedral for some little souvenir to remind me of my trip. And jammed amid the usual books and postcards I found this: a small wooden carving of a cross, rising up out of a lotus flower.
I thought this was so cool! The lotus is a significant flower in Chinese culture–it shows up in paintings and flags and architecture–so maybe this is a symbol of how the gospel has shown up and taken root in China.
And that’s probably true, but…today’s Gospel reading has cast this little carving in a new light for me, and I want to share with you how so.
In Luke, we encounter Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Plain. He comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place and teaches his disciples. This version in Luke is typically overshadowed by the very similar Sermon on the Mount described in the Gospel of Matthew.
But if we look closely at the words of these two Sermons, they are not the same.
In Matthew, Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit…” but here in Luke, Jesus says “blessed are you who are poor.” Just poor. No spiritualization of the concept. The Greek word used, ptochos, more literally means “destitute”—those at the bottom rung of society.
And whereas in Matthew Jesus says blessed are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” here he simply says, “blessed are you who are hungry now.” “Blessed are you who weep now.” Those for whom oppression, hunger, and sorrow are immediate, physical realities–these are the people Whom God blesses.
Scholars disagree, of course, on the reason for this discrepancy between the two gospels. Perhaps they were indeed two separate sermons with similar themes. Or perhaps they are different editorial approaches to a well-known collection of Jesus’ teachings. I tend to agree, however, with those who conclude that the Lukan version, the one we heard today, is closer to Jesus’ actual words—because the message is simpler, more prophetic, and thus, frankly, more challenging to the social norms of his time—and ours.
Because to say that the “poor in spirit” are blessed is far more vague and comforting; that phrase is so easily interpreted to suit our own needs. To be “poor in spirit” has been taught at various times in the church’s history to mean a state of dependence on God, or an interior vulnerability of the heart, or detachment from worldly concerns. And those are all meaningful, even valuable pursuits in our personal discipleship.
But to say that it is the poor—the materially poor, the economically and socially poor, the invisible, oppressed, and, as some might think but never say aloud, the “problematic” and “burdensome” poor—to say that it is they, and they alone, who will inhabit God’s kingdom? That is confusing and not altogether good news for anyone who operates on the assumption that the cream rises to the top of society. And it’s fearful news for those among us, in Jesus’ time and now, who enjoy wealth and privilege and know (or suspect) that our abundance comes at the expense of others’ well-being. Because Jesus is saying that to the extent we are those people, the ones who have obtained the good life, the ones who are pursuing comfort while others struggle to live, God is not interested in our cause. In fact, God altogether rejects that cause.
This is hard stuff to face. I know it certainly is for me, as I think about all the ways I have benefitted and continue to benefit from a society that marginalizes and ignores the desperate needs of so many. As I ponder this, I am drawn back to this cross rising out of the lotus.
You see, the lotus is imbued with significance in several faith traditions, especially those in Asia, like Buddhism and Hinduism, where the plant is a native species. The lotus is an aquatic plant, and it has a root system that grows out of muddy, swampy water. At dawn each day, the flowering part of the lotus rises up from the dirty water and blooms, the most spotlessly pure white or soft pink, and at nightfall it closes and disappears again into the swamp. And that blossoming out of the mud is often associated in those faith traditions with wisdom, purity, regeneration, and divine beauty.
But for our purposes, looking at my little carving, to see the Cross of Christ rising out of the lotus petals is a reminder of the very lesson we might want to resist in today’s Gospel:
God’s blessing, God’s tender concern, is found in those places we would rather not tread. In the muddy, messy places. The undesirable places. The places where beauty is least expected. Among the poor and hungry, and sorrowful. That is where the Kingdom of God takes root and blooms and is revealed to the world.
And, this is the difficult part of the message: it is ONLY in those places that the Kingdom is revealed to the world.
The Kingdom of God is not found ensconced in communities of privilege. The kingdom of God is not found where people hoard wealth, eat more than their fill, and laugh while the world cries out in pain.
You know how they used to announce at the end of his concerts, “Elvis has left the building”? Well, wherever privilege is enthroned, God has left the building. God is nowhere to be found in the opulent palaces of this world, because God’s kingdom inhabits that other space, the muddy swamp, where the lotus and the Cross rise up declaring hope and blessing for all who are plunged in its depths.
And this is important: God’s kingdom shows up there, among the miserable, not because God delights in misery, or because poverty is noble, but because the oppressive systems of self-interest and indifference that produce misery are themselves the antithesis of God. And to the extent that your or I inhabit those systems, the blessing of God is far from us. So we have work to do, to break those systems, to break free from them.
Easier said than done, perhaps, but we take steps every day. I have been heartened and inspired since coming back from my travels to learn how wholeheartedly Christ Church has embraced the warming shelter ministry for our unhoused neighbors in Alameda. I feel, as many of you do, that this program is such a perfect example of the church being and doing what we claim to be about: hospitality, openness, and deep care for others. But with today’s hard lessons from Luke, we are given an important caveat as we embark on that work together in the coming months:
The warming shelter, or any other outreach ministry of the church, should not be understood simply as an act of charity. When we welcome in our homeless brothers and sisters, we miss the point if we think it is simply US giving something to THEM. We start to think things like “oh, WE have all of these resources, and we are going to do a good, Godly thing and welcome in these outsiders, to give them what they need. It will be such a blessing for THEM to be welcomed by US. ”
But remember what Jesus told us today: to the extent that we are the ones with wealth and privilege, WE are the ones in need of blessing!! We are the ones who are in need of those whom we host on cold and rainy nights. Because the kingdom of heaven is THEIRS, it is being revealed in THEIR midst. They are the inheritors of God’s blessing, and we, here, will encounter that blessing when and ONLY when we draw near to them, when we throw open the doors and go out into the streets and fall on our knees and say, “Come in God. Come in Holy Spirit. Come in Lord Jesus. Come in, friends. Liberate US by letting us feed you, and letting us keep you warm, and letting us give you a place to rest. Let us get into the mud and love you and be loved by you and together we will behold salvation blooming like a lotus in the light of dawn.”
This possibility is our joy and our hope, and Christ is revealing it to us, coming up out of the mud.
Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry, now. Blessed are you who weep, now. And if you, like me, are not those things, then let us go find those who are, and pray that we will be blessed by them. The Kingdom is theirs.