Sermon, February 13, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
I wonder if anyone has ever heard a Prosperity Gospel preacher deliver a sermon on this version of the Beatitudes from Luke. I imagine it's difficult to preach that God wants you to be wealthy just after hearing ‘woe to the rich’ come out of Jesus’ mouth. But it's not just the blatant preachers of our modern day; I would love to hear how preachers from our earlier Christian traditions who created the Protestant work ethic dealt with this verse. How those who preached Calvinist doctrine that believed,
"To achieve success in your calling was the highest thing you could do to glorify God in your lifetime,” and that wealth was a sign that you were one of God’s elect, managed to repurpose this verse.
That concept of the holiness of the protestant work ethic has embedded itself so deeply in our Capitalist culture that we as a people not only admire wealth and all the conveniences it buys, but too often we mistake it for goodliness. Just look at how many millionaires and billionaires run for office, and how many people rush to praise their fitness for office based on the fact that they've made a lot of money - so of course, they must be good.
Indeed, the idea that good fortune, in all its material manifestations, signifies a godly, upright individual is not simply a modern thought. All we have to do to see that the roots of the prosperity gospel are present in ancient Judaism is to examine the book of Job, a devout man who had been rewarded with God’s favor for his devotion, and then is dumbfounded when it is taken away.
Every 3 years this scripture reading of Luke’s harsh version of the Beatitudes calls us into account for our position in the world. Rather than the version that's easier to absorb - Matthew’s version where the blessed are poor in spirit, as well as meek and merciful and peacemakers - this scripture in Luke pulls no punches. He says blessed are the poor and woe to those who are rich. And no matter how we may long for an exception, defend ourselves with claims of, ‘um, just middle class’… there’s no getting around the uncomfortable knowledge that, globally speaking, the ‘rich’ whom Jesus refers to is us.
For a teacher to speaks mostly in riddles and opaque terms, why is it that these words emerge so directly? Why do you think God wants us to hear these proclamations straight from Jesus’ mouth?
Well, the first thing that is clear is that this stays true to what Jesus preaches about the upside-down Kingdom of God. Let us first look at the location - the symbolic hints we read in the setting. In the book of Matthew, the Beatitudes is also known as the Sermon on the Mount; but in Luke, it is known as the Sermon on the plain. Jesus has just chosen his 12 at the top of the mountain, where he goes to be close to God. And then, we read Jesus ‘comes down the mountain’ to speak to the people in a level place, in a plain. He preaches that those that are low will be lifted up, those who are high will be brought down; Jesus preaches on a level plain that there will be a great leveling of society in the Kingdom of heaven, where not one will be put above another.
The language can also provide us some clues, if we think about it through the lens of Honor and Shame, which was the cultural basis of that society. Some translate the beatitudes to say ‘blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry; other translations use ‘happy are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of Heaven.’ But what if the words were,’ how honorable it is to be poor, for you will inherit the kingdom. How honorable it is to be hungry now, for you will be filled.’ These are circumstances that would typically cause shame for the person who is poor or hungry. Jesus is preaching a complete reversal of cultural norms - provoking his listeners to consider whether they should be showing honor to someone next to them who might be hungry; and what that would entail. Jesus is preaching to shatter the prosperity gospel mindset of ancient Judaism.
And I think this is the second, subtle purpose of this preaching. Jesus’ words force us to look critically at where does culture place our value? Where do we as people? Where do we as a congregation? How do we value money versus relationships? Is it right that we think better of that well dressed man across the courtyard with his clean appearance and subtle signs of luxury than the person next to us whose clothes are dirty, hair is bedraggled, and is not awash in Axe body wash? Is it right that we attribute admirable traits to the Titans of industry whose portfolios put them on the Forbes 500 list, while sneering at the needs of one of their workers barely making a living wage? It is fair and righteous that some people accumulate exorbitant excess amounts of money while we have real people sleeping in tents in freezing temperatures and struggling to find food? Is it holy to hold onto money when the world we live in is so broken and needy?
Jesus calls us to look deeply and critically at how attached we are to our material comforts. It indicts us with the recognition that we are blessed in earthly terms, in material terms, and we tend to judge in earthly, material terms. What does that means for us in godly terms?
Lastly, the verses could also be read as a warning. Rather than ‘woe to you rich people’, perhaps we can swap out ‘woe’ for ‘look out’!
Look out! Don’t you realize what kind of path you’re on; the danger that comes from being full, being rich, the danger of being used to people speaking well of you? Watch out for complacency that comes from being comfortable. Watch out for when your values go astray; watch out for when your decisions are influenced by loving comfort, convenience and luxury rather than loving God, self, and neighbor, for that will be your consolation. You are full now, but someday you will realize your hunger. And by then, it might be too late.
We are a relatively wealthy church, but rather than lecture you all to make massive charitable donations as your are able right this afternoon, I wanted to talk about something that we all hold collectively; our endowment.
In my short time here, the endowment has been mentioned often. The endowment - money that has been gifted or bequeathed to the church, that is invested and provides us with annual interest payments - provides a great source of comfort for many of us. (Including me - I am quite relieved knowing there is an endowment in the case that we ever have trouble making payroll.) These days, only the luckiest churches have endowments. The Hastings church had an endowment which was the only reason that small church was able to afford a full time pastor. We are incredibly fortunate and incredibly grateful that there were saints who came before who loved this congregation and this church so deeply that they wanted to provide for us out of their earthly fortune.
But I worry that the existence of an endowment gives us too much comfort and complacency. Because the endowment alone will not carry this congregation into the future. As clergy, we hear regularly in clergy circles about congregations who had to close their doors, even with their endowment intact. I grieved, 5 years ago, when my friend Roger told me his beautiful aging Deerfield congregation, which met in a gorgeous little glass-walled circular sanctuary, had voted to close its doors and donate it’s remaining $150,000 from its endowment to worthy causes. They sold the property and the church was demolished because it existed in a prime corporate corridor.
Some congregations, facing future decline, have been proactive in closing and using their endowments to nuture needed community programs rather than maintaining a congregation that serves only a few people. My mentor Budd told me about a church he served that took a hard look at their circumstances, and adopted a plan the next year to give away 5% of their endowment in a grant program for community endeavors, responding to the needs of their community in innovative ways rather than focusing on preserving themselves. That congregation is still going today.
And that gets directly to the heart of the message I’m trying to pull from this scripture today. I know this is the opposite direction of most of our conversation about our endowment. We talk about preserving it, building it up, making sure it can continue to provide for our congregation. But do we focus too much on its longevity and not enough on our vitality? Do riches, in whatever form they come, have an impact on how we make decisions? Does the presence of wealth impact how open we are to the movement of God in our lives and the opportunities God presents us?
In our discussion groups, I hope you’ll each discuss what the endowment symbolizes to you. Does it mean security to you? Potential? Does it assure a legacy or future? Or perhaps conflict and disagreement? Does the endowment impact how we go about responding to God’s call in our community?
It’s not an easy conversation - and it’s not an urgent conversation - but I feel it’s a helpful conversation to recognize and discuss our feelings on this as a congregation long before any dire decisions have to be made, to help us think about where we are called for the future.
As always, I long to hear your thoughts, either in the chat or in emails, phone calls, visits at a later date.
Closed the discussion with this translation From The Message: “Then he spoke: You're blessed when you've lost it all. God's kingdom is there for the finding. 21 You're blessed when you're ravenously hungry. Then you're ready for the Messianic meal. You're blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning. 22 "Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. 23 You can be glad when that happens - skip like a lamb, if you like! - for even though they don't like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. Give Away Your Life “
“But it's trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you'll ever get. 25 And it's trouble ahead if you're satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it's trouble ahead if you think life's all fun and games. There's suffering to be met, and you're going to meet it. 26 "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests - look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular. “