A Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the fount of all blessing. Amen.
Blessed are the poor, Jesus says.
This passage is strangely familiar to us, like a verse from a half-forgotten song.
Today’s Gospel lesson has a parallel text. In Saint Matthew, we read the Beatitudes – a famously popular passage, one memorized by children in Sunday School and read at confirmations, ordinations, and funerals.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” reports that other evangelist. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
But not so for Saint Luke. In today’s Gospel reading, Christ’s teachings aren’t just about spirituality. No, they have real-world, lived consequences. This isn’t just about hearts and souls but bodies.
Christ’s ministry, Saint Luke tells us, is incarnational – it’s about human poverty, human stomachs, human lives, human flesh. Jesus became one of us not just to cure sin-sick souls but also to rescue human bodies from death.
Blessed are the poor, says our Lord. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the oppressed.
But do we believe him?
The powers and the principalities of this world have told us what blessing should be: wealth and financial prosperity. Take to Facebook and Instagram and see the #Blessed lifestyle for yourself: the perfect life, carefully curated, selectively cropped and filtered, to show off the gourmet meals, the extravagant trips, the finest garments, without a hint of discomfort or misery. The more stuff you have, the larger your bank account is, the more exclusive your zip code is, the more blessing you have received. The truly blessed are those with multiple mansions, gilded furniture, private jets, and their names slapped on the side of buildings.
“This is what you should want,” the powers tell us. With every passing ad, they whisper in our ears and urge on our baser desires: “Fame and fortune. Wealth. It can all be yours. Seek after it. Cling to it. Grasp it. Step over others to get it. You know you want it. I see it in your eyes, the covetous dollar signs flashing. I see your ravenous appetite, how you long to devour as much as you can. I see that lust driving you after what you do not have! GRAB IT!”
Consider how we have structured our world – where the wealthy hide behind walls and the poor are cast into outer darkness. Consider how fear of our neighbors has led us to horde guns. Consider how, out of fear, we have privatized education to re-segregate our school systems, granting opportunities to the wealthy while perpetuating cycles of poverty.
Consider the stories that we tell ourselves: to really make it in this world is to have a fancy car, a large house, a vault overflowing with treasures, leaving others behind to fend for themselves.
Blessing, say the powers, is wealth. Woe to the poor; they’re on their own.
Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich, Jesus says. Blessed are the hungry. Woe to those who are full. Blessed are the oppressed. Woe to the oppressor.
But do we want to believe him?
We who go to bed with full stomachs, who rarely miss a meal. We who have access to potable water at the turn of a knob, using gallons of it to flush away waste. We who wear clothing manufactured in sweatshops, paying Nike for the use of their swoosh while stiffing the workers for their labor. We who live in a country where the average income places us well within the top 1% of human wealth,* we who live in what we have proudly called “the first world.”
We, even we, have to realize the profound implications of Christ’s words for us. Even the poor among us in this country are among the global elite. We are the rich, the full, the oppressor. We have to consider that Christ’s words mean woe for the sinful systems we’ve built to keep us on top.
We are all trapped in violently sinful systems, blindly and unwittingly participating in an oppressive world, happy to go follow along so long as the ugly underbelly is hidden just out of sight.
Enter Jesus, the one who bestows all blessing. Into the world controlled by sinful powers and violent principalities, the Incarnate Word came as one humbly born, living amongst the impoverished in occupied territory under oppressive imperial rule. The one who made the cosmos and entrusted humanity as stewards over all creation, came among us as one who was poor, who knew hunger, who felt the sting of oppression. And in giving up heavenly splendor and divine glory to live among the least of these, his brothers and sisters, he blessed them, offering them food to eat and healing the sick.
Dear ones, you have been baptized into Christ’s body, given a share in his coming Kingdom. Hear our Lord calling to you: be the hands and feet of Christ. Be a blessing to the poor and hungry. Give up everything and be who you were made to be.
Yes, this is a call to give up the extravagance of our lives. It’s a call to give everything up – everything. It’s a call to realize that we never really owned any of it anyway. And yes, that sounds like awful news. This sounds like condemnation, not freedom. It sounds like legalism, not mercy or grace.
But dear ones, it’s a call to give up what is bad for us! It’s a call to leave sinful ways behind and a call into freedom. It’s a call to give up injustice. It’s a call to give up everything realizing that God has been our provider all along. It’s a call to give up our fears and our greed. It’s a call to give up the divisions between the rich and poor, the hungry and the satisfied, the oppressed and the oppressor. It’s a call to give our wealth to the poor, to give our food to the hungry, to give our power to the oppressed. It’s a call to trust that when we give it all away, when we give up even our lives, God will still provide. It’s a call to follow in the footsteps of those disciples we read about last week, leaving everything to follow Christ. It’s a call to enter new life.
LISTEN! Do you hear that call, the Spirit blowing over the waters? She is calling to you, my sisters and brothers!
It won’t easy. Entering new life in Christ means dying to sin and to self. To the powers of this world, it sounds a lot like bad news rather than the Gospel – and they will rage against it. Our sinful selves will fight hard not to be drowned in baptismal waters. Our vocation sounds like foolishness and the path to great suffering. Give up everything – and become pitiful. Because if we give up everything, then aren’t we most of all to be pitied?
And indeed, if the story ended there, it would be bad news. If the story ended with us joining the poor in their poverty, the underfed in their hunger, the slaves in their bondage, then yeah. What a sad story that accomplishes nothing. It would all be in vain.
But Christ’s teaching is about a coming future promise, a time when everything will be flipped on its head. When those on the bottom will rise to the top, when those in the back will be moved to the front, when the slaves will be made free. A time when the lofty will be toppled from their thrones and a time when the shackles of bondage are shattered. A time when the dead will live.
There is a time coming when the power of sin will be set to right and the graves will be open as the dead come to life.
We know this because it has already happened: Christ, the first fruits from the dead, has opened the grave. And because of that, we know that our blessing is assured. We can give up everything because Christ will give us the only thing that truly matters: life eternal. That new life is erupting into this world. Christ has called us to be a part of it, to trust in the abundance of this new life, and to share all that we have knowing that the Lord provides.
This coming kingdom all hinges on that one most glorious moment when the tomb opened. Without it, everything is in vain. Without it, this life is all there is, and even it ends in a common grave for rich and poor alike.
But because Jesus lives, we know that we too shall live.
Because Jesus lives, we are free from our fears.
Because Jesus lives, we are free to make ourselves poor, trusting that Christ will restore us on the last day.
Because Jesus lives, we know that we will receive that ultimate blessing.
If Christ is not risen, then woe to us for we have given up everything for nothing. But because the tomb is empty – ALLELUIA! – because the Son of God has conquered sin and death – blessed be his holy name! – we give up nothing and gain everything.
*This claim is based on a statistic I saw, but I have since not been able to find a credible source. The claim also fails to distinguish between income and wealth. The broader point, though, regarding economic inequality remains true. Gallup reported in 2013 that the median household income was $10,000, well below the median US household income. According to the same study, the US ranked 6th overall in median income. In 2018, the World Inequality Report shows the average income was three times higher than the global average.