Luke 6:20-31 NRSV
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
OK, Can we just read that bit again –
“Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
From anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt
If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”
Really? I mean, yes, I know this is what we are supposed to do as Christians, but honestly – Really?
I think maybe it’s just a little harder to hear this following the truly poisonous election season we just survived. Not that we should ever think of people of different political parties or religious views as “the enemy” . . . it’s not like we were engaged in an actual war, exactly, although some of the rhetoric made it sound that way. It was just an election. And both parties were equally evil in the way they campaigned. I was sorely tempted not to vote for any of them - that’d show them, right? But then I remembered that it wouldn’t be the politicians who would suffer if I didn’t vote. It would be the environment and teachers and students and folks without jobs and folks without health insurance . . . So I voted.
The enemy that Jesus was talking about was Rome – a real enemy who had taken over the land, collected extortionate taxes, abused and oppressed the people. The soldiers had no problem hitting someone randomly, because they were in the way or because it was Tuesday. They would often grab a passer by and force him to carry heavy burdens, the way they forced Simon to carry Jesus’ cross. They would take someone’s coat, not because they needed it, but just to deprive the owner of it. They were the ultimate bully. And Jesus was telling these folks, his countrymen and the people of Judah who were being oppressed to put up with it because ultimately the Romans weren’t the ones in charge of the world. God is. And God has a special love for the poor.
The biggest problem with this passage is that it is this where Pie in the Sky theology comes from. Preachers told slaves, “yours will be the kingdom of heaven.” Even after the slaves were free they were told they same thing. This is what the oppressor in Christian countries always says to the oppressed. Put up with all kinds of indignities now and you will be rewarded after you die. But those preachers must only have preached from Matthew’s version of these words because they never seemed to get around to reading the next bits of Luke to the slave holders. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” Because if the slave holders did hear those lines and they really were Christians, then surely they would have done some cringing and squirming in the pews.
Picture it – the preacher speaking those blessing lines to the blacks up in the balcony and then turning to the whites in the front rows to read the woes. I figure if any preacher did do that, chances are good that he wouldn’t still have been preaching there the next week.
Pie in the Sky preaching still goes on today. It’s hard to avoid that trap, really, with this passage. Because when I read these words I don’t think of myself as one of the rich, even though I know I’m not one of the poor. I don’t think of you as the rich, even though I know none of you are really poor. Ophelia is poor. She lives on what she gets from SSI and from recycling cans and bottles she finds on the streets and in trash cans. She rents rooms in strangers’ homes and is often victimized by the home owners or other renters. All she wants a place where she could sleep and keep what little stuff she has in safety.
I started watching home design shows on HGTV to avoid political ads and became fascinated by the house hunter programs. I watch as folks buy huge vacation homes in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. I watch as newlywed young couples who “need” at least 3 bedrooms, 2 full baths, a finished basement and a big yard look for a house. I especially enjoyed watching one episode about a family who moved because Dad was called to be the minister of music at some big church. They found a lovely home with a bedroom for each of their four children, a master suite, an office, formal living and dining rooms, a family room, an eat in kitchen, and a finished basement where the dad could practice his music. And as I watch these programs I think about Ophelia and all the other families who show up here for food and a little counseling and wonder “What on earth do they need all that for?” and “How much are they paying that music minister anyway?”
I read an article in the NY Times titled “Our Banana Republic” by Nicholas D. Kristof. In it he pointed out that in countries like Nicaragua, Guyana and Venezuela the richest 1% of the people take home 20% of the national income. The very rich are so much richer than the rest of the people that it boggles the mind. Then he said that in the US the richest 1% of the people take home 24% of the national income each year. The CEOs of America’s largest corporations earn 531 times what the average worker in those corporations earns. In our recent elections we kept seeing ads about CEOs who laid off thousands of workers and outsourced jobs while taking home millions of dollars. This disturbs me. I knew there was a gap but I didn’t know it was that extreme. I like to think about those folks, that top 1%, as “the rich” and me as “the poor.”
But I know I’m one of the rich. I may not have much but I have way more than Ophelia. I don’t worry about where my next meal is coming from or whether my purse is safe while I’m taking a shower. I have a car and money for gas, she has a folding shopping cart and money for a bus pass. I’m not facing a cold winter without shelter like the folks in Pakistan or South Chicago. I can’t do much to make their lives better except work toward the kingdom, toward a world where mercy and compassion outweigh greed and hatred.
That’s what the saints who came before us did. People like Deitrich Bonhoeffer who was executed for working against the oppression of the Nazi Party. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated while working for equal rights. Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated while fighting against the government of El Salvador on behalf of the poor. All of these worked in opposition to Christians who held power over powerless and marginalized people. All stood up against Christians who used the Bible to justify what they were doing, even in some cases this particular passage.
We don’t have to die like they did. We don’t have to give away 95% of our annual income, like Dennis Bakke and Bill Gates do. We do have to work toward the kingdom. And not the pie in the sky, we’ll be fine when we die by and by kind of kingdom. We are supposed to work toward the kingdom of God in the here and now. God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We are supposed to help the helpless, give hope to the hopeless, feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the prisoner. Last week we talked about the ministries that all of us here pursue in our lives – ministries in which we serve God’s creation, and do those very things we are called by God to do.
Today we lift up the saints of our congregation, both the living and the dead – the men and women who integrated this church long before it was the popular thing to do, who brought in new music and new understandings of doing God’s work in the world. Men and women who served in the NAACP to gain civil rights for all persons, marched with Cesar Chavez, voted to make this congregation Open and Affirming and to affirm the right of all Christians to worship God together, here in this place. We remember those folks whose dream founded Delhaven Community Center and those who believed it would be good for our community to open Delhaven preschool. We remember those saints. We speak our gratitude for the work they have done and the example they have set for us. And we look to the future, knowing that we cannot rest on Delhaven’s reputation as a social justice church.
So what does the future hold for us? How do we live up to the rich history of Delhaven and her saints? What do we do about the homeless sleeping in our bushes? The hungry we have to turn away when we run out of food? The man who came into my office on Wednesday needing get medical care without money or insurance or a welfare card? What shall we do to gain the blessings promised to the poor and avoid the woes of the rich?
Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” May we look to the saints who came before us for inspiration and example, for ways to do to our neighbors as we would have others do to us in that situation, that we may be a community blest by their faith in Christ. (Hymn For all the Saints)