Sermon for 6 Epiphany 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A disclaimer. In this sermon I am going to take care to speak carefully and precisely, but not timidly, so listen carefully, please, and if you hear something that sounds outrageous, wait until the next sentence or two before you assume the conclusion. Conversely, if you hear me say something you absolutely agree with, be even more careful, because that assumption might get shattered in the sentence or two after that. As ever, I’ll post this text on the website this week.

In light of just having heard St. Luke’s account of the beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (the Lukan parallel of the Sermon on the Mount from St. Matthew’s Gospel), I want to speak briefly this morning about a somewhat controversial theological claim articulated during the latter half of the twentieth century- namely, the preferential option for the poor.

This concept, the preferential option, was first championed by the Peruvian theologian and Roman Catholic, Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérez in his 1968 outline “Toward a Theology of Liberation.” The claim, in its simplest form, is that when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” he was, in some sense, summarizing the moral and socio-political dimension of the entire biblical account, that there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor and marginalized, and that one of our chief moral duties as Christians is to help realize the Kingdom of God insofar as its promise is to restore “the least of these” to wholeness, both spiritually and materially.

Now, this seems uncontroversial enough, doesn’t it? Over and over, scripture demands that those of us with means are obliged to serve those without. But consider when Gutiérez’s outline was released–1968–and the year his seminal monograph, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, was published–1971–and you might realize how this would have gone over. It was the height of the Cold War, and “enemy number one” was the “growing threat” of international Communism. The intellectual movement which Gutiérez’s work sparked, and which came to be known as liberation theology was, thus, labeled Marxist.

In fairness to the critics of liberation theology writ large (and I’d actually count myself among these critics) the movement strayed into what I, for, would consider serious theological error. Many of the proponents leaned in so far to Marxist analysis that class struggle was considered the animating force of history rather than the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus and the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. Too often praxis preceded theoria, the experience of well meaning but sometimes misguided activism took precedence over reflection on the truths given in Scripture and the Church’s tradition, that the movement produced what we might call a “false soteriology”- that is, a mistaken view of what constitutes salvation.

What do I mean? When the establishment of a particular socio-political reality by our own efforts becomes the chief end, when we call that our salvation, then our hope is founded in something at best merely adjacent to and at worst at odds with, the true salvation which is only in Christ Jesus. The same, naturally, can be said of liberation theology’s political polar opposite, the prosperity gospel, which has become popular in North American mega churches. This view seems to place salvation in the realm of the personal accumulation of wealth. Not to put too fine a point on it, but anything that places itself rather than Christ as the source and summit of salvation is, by definition, antichrist. Now, there’s a qualitative moral difference between a system whose intended end is social equality and one whose end is the sanctification of personal greed. But neither can in itself be the Gospel, and if either claims to be, then we are in real trouble. Either soteriological perspective falls victim to “trust[ing] in mere mortals” as the Lord spoke to Jeremiah in this morning’s old testament lesson, and the result, we are told, is curse rather than salvation.

But let’s take a step back and consider two questions: first, what does scripture teach with regard to the status of the poor in the heart of God and what is our concommitant obligation? And second, how does this relate to a true soteriology?

Answering the first question is easier. James tells us God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Our Lady, in the Magnificat, celebrates God’s choice of the lowly to be vessels of his Grace, herself chief among them. The Psalmist continually reminds us of God’s special desire for the poor. The Law of Moses, over and over again, makes special note of Israel’s responsibility for the indigent who dwell among them. Matthew 25 (which I’ve told some of you before, I wish were as popular on posters at sporting events as John 3:16) identifies the moral center of the Gospel as being based on how faithful we are in loving those with less. I’ll hold back from peppering prooftexts all over you, but suffice to say, the biblical account is clear.

I think most of us acknowledge this. I believe that people of goodwill have genuine differences of opinion on what the most effective way of aiding the poor is, and that a lot of our political disagreements about things like tax structure and social programs come from people with different views about what the best approach is to lifting the poor from their poverty, but that they nonetheless desire a more equitable situation. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna on this point, but I feel I have to hold on to that so as not to despair. Of course, there are some who simply “despise the poor in their poverty.” I read a letter to the editor some months back written by somebody who sadly, seemed simply to dislike poor people, and I was offended that she claimed Christianity in that letter. But, I think most of us care enough about the moral demands of the Gospel to recognize our obligation to help those in need.

So, that was the easy question, believe it or not. Now to the difficult question, the one pertaining to salvation. It is worth noting that Luke’s version of the beatitudes has several differences with Matthew’s more popular version, but the difference you might have noticed this morning is the inclusion of “woes” after the “blesseds.” The blessedness of the poor and the hungry and the mournful and the persecuted is contrasted with the coming doom of the rich and the full and the joyous and those who are praised in this world. This should remind us of earlier passages in Luke’s Gospel. It should remind us of the Magnificat, which I’ve already mentioned. It should remind us of Jesus’ first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, in which he proclaimed the year of Jubilee and was, you might remember from my sermon a few weeks ago, nearly killed for it. It may also, and this is where it gets awfully uncomfortable, remind you of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man in Luke 18, in which the young man’s wealth made him despair of his ability to follow the Christ who said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

So, here is the really difficult question, not necessarily difficult because the answer is unclear but difficult because the clear answer makes us so uncomfortable. Is it easier for a poor person to get into heaven than a rich person? Yes. The answer is yes. Now, to be fair, in Luke 18, after the rich man’s desolation, Jesus himself reminds us that “what is impossible with men is possible with God,” but possible does not mean easy.

But, why? It is not because the wealthy are inherently more sinful nor that the poor are more inherently ethical. I believe that we should neither fetishize the poor nor engage in class struggle. This, too, is idolatry. It is, rather, that the more comfortable one is, the more advantages one has, the closer such idols, such false sources of hope for salvation, lie at hand.
I say all this as a sinner in need of saving from the selfsame tendency toward idolatry. I was reminded just the other day in a conversation with my wife, who occasionally reminds me that my never having experienced economic uncertainty in either childhood or adulthood shapes my own view of money. I’ve never been properly rich, by the measures we use in the developed world, but neither have I ever been poor or even “lower middle class,” whatever that means in a country where everyone claims to be middle class, and I’ll admit that not being a paycheck away from penury has meant that I’ve been able to solve or avoid or at least delay certain problems that folks without that would confound folks in more tenuous circumstances. This being the case, I know for a fact that I have–at least on occasion–sought to find my own salvation in money or security or my education or my professional attainments or my innate cleverness instead of in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only thing that can actually save me.

The one benefit, then, the most poor and distressed have in this life is an ease in recognition that the hope for salvation must be built on something greater and more eternal. God does not will penury, no more than God would will any other difficulty that has befallen our world due to sin. Nevertheless, it is in these extremities that men and women can catch a glimpse of the saving power of God in ways that our own comfort and self-reliance can obscure.

It is, then, our obligation as those with more-than-enough to get by, not only to aid the poor (and feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and visit the sick and the prisoner and do all the other things our Lord requires of us) but also to tear down the altars we have erected to false gods in our own hearts (to the gods of wealth and comfort and security and all the rest) until we can be assured that our hope is built on nothing less, nor anything more, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. In other words, we ask God to purify our hearts to be a temple made even for himself, until at last we can proclaim in the words of the great hymnodist Joachim Neander (which we sang as we began this liturgy):

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.