Sermon for Third Sunday before Lent 2019
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” -Luke 6:20
These are some of the most beautiful words ever spoken in human history, and yet, they may become so familiar to Christians that we forget how radical they actually are. This sermon, given by Jesus to a crowd of his disciples on a level place in Palestine over two thousand years ago, was spoken in a context vastly different from our own, but it is no less strange, and no less important, for us than it was for them. Indeed, Jesus’ words here seem to reverse the expectations of almost every society in history. When I read them, especially that last one- “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets”- I cannot help but wonder if the Church has ever really listened to them, if I have ever really listened to them, and what it would look like if I lived as if I believed them. Perhaps I would be less worried about what people think of me, perhaps our clergy would be less concerned with their careers and more with their vocations, perhaps the Church would look more like the Church.
To begin to understand these words, it is important to note how Jesus plays with time. The first statement is given in the present tense:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
This kingdom of God is apparently a reality that exists now, though Jesus does not tell us where, at least in this passage. The next two statements deal with anticipation of the future:
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Jesus seems to imply that there is a day coming on which things will be set right, on which those who have not will finally have. Jesus then moves back to the past, to Israel’s history:
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 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.
He compares the suffering of his disciples to the righteous teachers of Israel’s history who spoke the word of God and were hated because of it. He then follows a parallel structure in his series of woes. Jesus uses the language of time here to point to that which is beyond time, that which is eternal. He uses human language and concepts to point to that which is ineffable. Saint Paul does something similar when he says that “If it is for this life only that we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (First Corinthians 15:12-20)
Our Church has, over the past few generations, emphasized the here and now. We recognized that our theology had become a bit abstract, and our practice reflected that. That is to say, if we focus exclusively on the salvation of our own souls, then we can neglect to see the need, the suffering, the opportunity right in front of us. So the Church, especially in the West, has focused on justice and liberation, on civil rights, and more recently on healing the environment. This is right and good. We have a tendency as human beings, however, to fall into the opposite extreme. That is to say, if we get caught up exclusively in the here and now, we can forget to view things of the earth from the perspective of heaven, and things temporal from the lens of eternity. We can forget the reason why we work for justice and peace in the first place.
Jesus is the One in whose flesh heaven and earth, time and eternity, are reconciled, and so when he speaks to us, his words bring these two together. So does the way of life that his teachings commend to us. That means that the opportunities that God places before us each day are of eternal significance, and freed from the concern for human approval. Whether we are cleaning a kitchen, cooking a meal, laying a hedge, or trying in some way to make our little corner of Dorset (or wherever you live) just a little better, we are preparing the earth to once again receive the One for Whom and through Whom she was created, and we are fitting our souls for heaven. Likewise, when we interact with the person in front of us- whether that is someone we like, or someone that we just cannot seem to get along with, in our community, our parish, or our family- that person is not just someone whom we can get something out of, or a momentary inconvenience. They are a representative to us of God on earth. In meeting them, we meet God, in responding to them, we respond to God, and in loving them, we love and serve God. This is especially true for the poor.
So then, earth is transformed, in our minds and in our actions, when we view it from the perspective of the kingdom of God, from the perspective of heaven. Our time is transformed when viewed through the lens of eternity.
These theological points are illustrated in a little story by Charles Dickens called The Chimes. In this story, which Dickens wrote for New Years’ Day, a poor man works as a porter, that is, he carries messages to and from people in town. He is old and frail, and is abused by the rich people in town, and although he works his hardest and does his best to help his family and others, he begins to grow cynical and lose hope. So, in typical Dickensian fashion, spirits come to guide him and teach him important lessons. Towards the end of the story, they carry him to a river (a classic metaphor for Time), and has he looks out on it, he exclaims:
I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise on day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow! I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another.
Only Dickens could have written those few sentences. In them, he brings the eternal truths of the gospel to us in his wonderfully human way: namely, that by viewing earth from the perspective of heaven, and time through the lens of eternity, we are given the trust, hope, and charity that are the marks of the Christian life.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
Jesus Christ came to earth to reverse our expectations. He was born as a conquering Messiah in a barn between two animals. He spoke to us that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor. He even reversed death itself, because by submitting to death on a cross, he destroyed the power of death forever. God raised him from the dead, and if we share in that death by being cleansed in the waters of baptism and performing daily acts of self-denial, then we also share in his resurrection. He offers us His risen life, beginning here and now, and continuing into eternity. He will come again to judge the living and the dead, He will create a new earth and a new heaven, and his saints will reign with him in glory.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.