Sermon for All Saints’ Day Year C

Receiving the Kingdom

Reading
Luke 6.20-31

I’m not poor. I’m fine with that. I don’t want to be poor. But then I read that Jesus says:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.

And I also read that the Lord says,

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

And I begin to wonder. I want Jesus to tell me that I am part of the kingdom of God. I don’t want to hear him say, ‘Woe to you, Paul—the writing’s on the wall for you!’

How can I listen to Jesus and be fine with not being poor?

You know, I don’t know what it’s like to be poor. I wake in the morning and wonder what I’ll eat. I don’t wonder whether I’ll eat today or not.

I am not poor because I have shelter, education and health care. I have choices. I am not poor because I live where I do. I am not poor because I was born where I was. In global terms, I am rich. In comparison with the villagers of Nepal that Sue has shared about, I am rich. I just can’t help it. I didn’t make it this way.

Jesus speaks to ‘you who are poor’. He spells out further just who the poor are: they are poor in ‘stuff’, yes—but they are also hungry now. They weep now. And they are hated, excluded, reviled, defamed.

I’m not poor. I’m fine with that. I don’t want to be poor. Then I remember that Jesus was poor—the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. And Jesus wept; he was a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. And he was rejected as he was hanged on the cross.

And then I’m not so fine with not being poor. Yes, Jesus died for me. He died so that I might be forgiven. He died that I might be set free and follow in his Way.

‘Blessed are you poor…’ How can I share the blessedness of those who are poor?

How can Jesus say that the poor are ‘blessed’? Firstly, because he identifies with them. In the great parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus calls the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the imprisoned his brothers and sisters. They lead us to Christ. In serving them we serve Christ. When this reading from Luke’s Gospel is used for All Saints’ Day, the poor both show us what it means to be a saint, and they give us opportunities to become saints. Blessed are you poor.

The poor have nothing to lose. A couple of years ago, when the great ‘credit crunch’ came, my daughter Erin asked what it meant for her. We were all asking that question, weren’t we? She was especially concerned, living in Spain and at that time still getting used to the place.

I told her it meant very little to her. She was living a pretty penniless life, saving just enough to travel a bit. I told her she had nothing, so she had nothing to lose. In the worst case scenario, we would get her back home.

You might think she was upset about being told she had nothing. She wasn’t. She knew it was true, and she saw that she would be ok. The only way for her was up. Blessed are you poor.

The poor know they need others. They have to live in communities that cooperate. It’s simple survival. We get overly busy with our own stuff. I read of a man who’d lived next to his neighbours for ten years, and always meant to get them over for dinner. Why hadn’t he? The neighbour left at 5.30 am to commute to work. He got home at 7.30 pm. On the weekends, he was involved with his children. There was no time for these neighbours to have a meal.

The poor need others, and they know their need of God. Anyone ever said to you that religion is a crutch? Aussies are sometimes reluctant to consider that they might need God. We are self-sufficient, self-made. We can do it ourselves. The poor know differently. Blessed are you poor.

Jesus can say the poor are blessed, but does that mean poverty is a good thing? Absolutely not.

Poverty grinds people down. It cuts life expectancy; where there is poverty, more babies and indeed more mothers die in childbirth. Children grow up with malnutrition and with little or no education. Poverty is an evil.

I’m glad I’m not poor. But Jesus still says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor.’ When the judgement of God comes, we shall find that God does not judge as we do. Jesus is proclaiming a great reversal—blessings on the poor, woe to the rich. Blessed are you poor, for you will receive the kingdom. God will act on behalf of the poor—and God invites us who are not poor to be part of that action.

So though I am not poor, I may share their blessedness—but only by the grace of God.

Who then are the rich, the ones to whom Jesus says ‘The writing’s on the wall for you’? The rich are those who eat and drink and laugh in the presence of the poor, who don’t even notice the poor. This cartoon from The Christian Century illustrates it well:

The rich man in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a great example of this: he wasn’t a bad man, he just didn’t see poor Lazarus sitting at his gate. He ate and drank without noticing Lazarus at all. And he found himself on the pointy end of the great reversal.

The same with the parable of the man who built bigger barns to house his grain. That night, he died, and God said, ‘You fool!’
Or the ‘rich young ruler’. He wanted to inherit eternal life along with everything else he’d inherited. Jesus said, ‘Go, sell everything and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me. And’—what happened next?—‘he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions’.

Jesus says,

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

‘The rich’ are those who do not do to the poor as they would wish the poor to do to them.

If I am not poor, how can I share their blessedness?

I can give. Tithing would be a good start. we’ve been pretty generous here lately, with giving so that Nepalese villagers can have solar cookers and so that Indigenous young people can go to the National Christian Youth Convention. Giving is good. We’ve done well.

But wait: there’s more. Giving can produce dependency so easily. Then the poor wait for handouts, and we feel good giving them out. Not the best situation.

I want to suggest a way to help: by helping the poor to stand up tall. By allowing them a voice. By hearing what they have to say and trying to let their voice be heard in the corridors of power.

For example, we can listen to the voices of Indigenous young people through the work of Michelle and James up around Weipa. We can listen to the voices of Nepalese villagers or Indian schoolkids. We can support the work of Maiti Nepal among young girls who are sold as sex slaves. We can develop relationships with Zambian orphans through Katie’s work. We can help create a situation in which these people can stand straight and tall.

You might wonder about encouraging the poor to stand tall. Where will it end? And didn’t Jesus say, ‘Turn the other cheek’?

Yes he did, but what did he mean?

When I am slapped—as an insult—on the right cheek, if I turn the other cheek I make it impossible for my oppressor to do it again. And if I am told to give my shirt, and I give my other clothes and stand before him in my underwear, I am obeying him on the surface; but in reality I am making him look stupid.

That’s what Jesus means. Not be passive; not let people walk all over you; but find creative ways of standing tall and keeping your human dignity.

Let me tell you a story about the poor having a voice. This story comes from South Africa.

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana tells of an experience he had had conducting the Eucharist in one of the so-called ‘Independent Homelands’ during the Apartheid era. At this time, starvation was widespread.

A mother, a black woman, brought her baby to the altar and made to take a communion wafer for the baby. ‘No my daughter!’ said Malusi. ‘You know our tradition. I will bless your baby for you.’

‘Father,’ said the woman, ‘this piece of bread will be the only food my child eats this weekend. Yet you refuse it, and then you tell us that Jesus is the Bread of Life! For shame!’

This was a conversion experience for Bishop Malusi. He heard the deep truth of what this poor woman said. Perhaps he also heard the voice of Mary the Mother of Jesus, who sang:

God has brought down the powerful 
 from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1.52-53

Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor.’ I’m not poor. Perhaps I—we—can catch some of the crumbs of the blessedness of the poor by noticing them, by giving, by hearing them and working to get those in power to hear their voices. I hope so. I pray so.

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