Sermon on the Plain Luke 6:20-26
There was a custom in Merry Olde England, maybe in the early US, too. That is, when you passed a pauper, or a homeless person on the street, holding out his tin cup, you dropped a few coins in. As you did so you said, “Say a blessing for me.” Or, you might even go further. As you dropped your few coins in, you might say,“ My name is Gay Lee, my mother is sick. Please pray for her and our family.”
I thought about that custom a few weeks back. I was stopped at a light at the exit ramp off Route 29 as you turn onto Barracks Road. At that light, stood a poorly dressed man, his knapsack beside. He held a cardboard sign reading. “Need money. God bless you.” Which is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, or the period at the beginning of the sentence. But I didn’t say anything, to him. In fact, I didn’t DO anything at all, I am embarrassed to say. The light changed, I drove away. Had I rolled down my window and given him some money, though, I might have explained to him: “Giving a blessing in exchange for money, is the right way to do it. Don’t just give your blessing away.”
That custom of, in effect, paying a poor person to give you a blessing, as was the practice in Merry Olde England, is rooted in scripture—in fact, it is based on Luke 6, verse 20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” The idea behind the custom was, if poor people are blessed by God, and you are NOT poor, you find a poor person to deliver your prayer petition. The poor person serves as your go-between. He is your messenger, your courier to God.
I personally don’t know if poor people are more blessed than the rest of us. And, I don’t know if God listens to poor peoples’ prayers more than our own. I have been in ministry 22 years, but somewhere along the way, I gave up trying to know the mind of God. Most days I HOPE God pays special attention to poor people, though. Someone needs to, right? Then again, I have had some desperate moments in my life, as have we all. In those moments, if I was really honest with myself, I would have wanted God to ignore everyone else, and grant my prayer request first-- “Step aside everyone, this is REALLY important!”
Years ago, I took a group of senior high youth from Northern Virginia, think well-off white kids, to Anacostia. Anacostia is a low income Black neighborhood in DC. Lots of unemployed people there; lots of crime, too. Our purpose was to study poverty. It seemed like there was an ABC store on every corner. We walked by run down row houses with bars on broken windows and on front doors. Trash cans spilled over the sidewalks and into the street. Lots of empty beer cans. We saw, not a lot, but some people on the sidewalks or in the street asking for money.
Our young band was led by a man who worked at a local homeless shelter. He told us, “When you walk by someone asking for money, don’t ignore him. Look him in the face. You might even say something like, “I don’t have any money with me, sorry.” Or “Hope things work out for you.” To just walk by, eyes staring straight ahead or at the ground, is not to recognize the other’s humanity. It is as if to say, “You are no more to me, than that street sign, or this discarded beer can.” Which might be a sweet side-benefit to that common practice in Merry Olde England. Besides dropping a coin in the tin cup, you look that pauper straight in the eye, You give your name, exchange a few words. You are saying, “I understand that you are human, just like me.” By asking him to bless you, whether God truly listens more to him than to you, doesn’t really matter that much.
There’s still another side-benefit, as I see it though. By dropping your coins in, you are giving that poor person the opportunity to earn his pay. He can hold his head up. Back then, it was considered a fair exchange: Money for a blessing. Beautiful, don’t you think?
We would do well to resurrect that custom. That’s my take on it.
There’s another way to translate Blessed are the poor, though. And that’s what I want us to consider next.
Meet the Benedictine monk David-Steindal-Rast. He’s a religious author, now in his 90’s. Brother David became a monk in 1956. He has spent many years contemplating, teaching and writing about his own understanding of life, and of God. On the internet I learned that he has played an important role in furthering interfaith dialogue and working on the intersection between spirituality and science. Brother David has made a study of gratefulness. He’s written books on it, he delivered a Ted talk on it. I’ll just give you one intriguing quote here. Brother David says:
“Gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift.”. Brother David lives in a monastery in the US, but for a time he was living in Africa. It was what we would call an impoverished existence. When he returned to the United States, he experienced gratitude, ALL the time. When he flipped a switch, behold, there was light! And he was grateful. When he turned on a faucet, behold there was water! And again, he was grateful. Then of course, after a few weeks, he expected the light to come on when he flipped a switch and he expected water to gush forth, when he turned on the faucet. He wasn’t grateful anymore.
Something similar happened to a young woman who was in the youth group I mentioned earlier. I have followed her life. She is now married with children. In grad school Diane studied to be veterinarian. One summer she had the opportunity to travel to India and work with exotic animals. What a thrill! But like Brother David in Africa, in India, Diane’s day-to-day existence was a challenge. And she witnessed dire poverty. When she returned home, she stayed with her family a few weeks before heading back to grad school. As she helped her mom unload groceries from the family car, she was suddenly overcome by the revelation of her abundant life. Tears streamed down her face--tears of gratitude — In the trunk of that car? Grocery bag after grocery bag of FOOD!
And one more example for you. This one from Ellie Wiesel. You may have heard of him. Eliezer Wiesel was a writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor. He contributed his energy, his intellect, and his money to the building of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
Wiesel was a teenager at the end of World War II. When he was released from Buchenwald Concentration Camp he had no where to go. His parents had been murdered in the camps. He was sent to live in an orphanage in France. I heard him speak in a TV interview. He was asked, “You have seen the absolute worst human beings are capable of. How do you manage to not be overcome with rage or depression?”
He said, “On the contrary. After the war, I received so much love and kindness. I was grateful for everything in my new life.” Gratitude. We become immune to the good that we experience in life to our blessings, until we don’t have them anymore. Realizing that he had become desensitized to the blessings of electric lights and running water, Brother David stuck little post-it notes to all his switchplates and on his bathroom sink. That way he could remember: BE GRATEFUL. NOW we are ready to return to the scripture passage we are studying. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God. We’re stepping into the weeds here, for just a minute, I promise. We’re putting on our theologian hats. The Greek word translated in our text as blessed is Mákarios. The Greek word Makarios also means Happy. So you can read the text as “Blessed are the poor”, but you can also read it as “Happy are the poor.” Surely not true that happy are the poor?! You can see why so many translators choose to go with blessed are the poor. But let’s assume that Jesus’ actual meaning WAS happy are the poor. Why in the world would Jesus say that?
Brother David claims, it’s not that happy people are grateful people, it’s the other way around: Grateful people are happy people. The gratitude comes first.
We think that the more cars we have, the more property we own, the more money we make the more titles we earn, the happier we will be. And the happier we are, the more grateful we’ll be. Not so, says Brother David. Happiness is the direct result of gratitude.
Where does gratitude come from? Well, it does not come from having more than enough.
To repeat: Brother David says:
“Gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift.” Gratefulness is an inner gesture. It comes from inside us, then. Gratefulness is the sure knowledge that what we have and what we experience are not something we deserve or earn; they are gifts--gifts from God. So while we never strive to be poor, we accept the fact that some people who are poor, anyway, may have something we don’t. That is, an experience of gratitude for every little thing that comes their way—which may be nothing more than a sunny day, electric lights, running water or a sandwich. And that gratitude makes them happy in a way that those of us who have so much can’t begin to understand.
So is it blessed are the poor, or happy are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. To quote Forest Gump. "Maybe it's both?" Amen