Adapted from a Sermon Preached Feb. 2nd at St. John’s Anglican Church Peterborough
I hate it whenever I hear a leader of country proclaim God’s blessing on there nation. It drives me crazy when Obama says “God bless America” or Harper says “God Bless Canada”. It bothers me because I know what they are saying is that God is on their side.
You don’t have to look too far back in history to see the destruction that has taken place when the powerful justify there power by claiming God is on there side. Slavery, Colonialism, Apartheid, the Crusades, the list goes on and on. This is why it bothers me so much. But this week I began to ask myself, is my issue with how they understand blessing, or who they say is being blessed? To say it another way, is it that they equate blessing with taking sides, or whose side they think God is on?
As I read the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) I realized I kind of agree with how they understand blessing. I think in a way Jesus is saying God does pick sides. I just think that they are totally wrong with whose side God is on.
Jesus declares who God is aligned with when he says “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God”. We middle and upper class, privileged people want to be the good guys in the story so we spiritualize this, like we do with many of Jesus teachings on poverty, so that we can pretend that he is talking about us. We argue that we may be materially well off, but God sees our poverty of the heart! But we are kidding ourselves. Look at Luke’s version of the same passage, he leaves off the “in spirit” entirely and straight up says “blessed are the poor.” Does Matthew really just water down the beatitude to make it palatable for the well to do, or is Matthew actually saying “blessed are those whose spirits are broken by material poverty”?
I think the answer is clear: Jesus here is claiming that God is on the side of those who suffer from material poverty. He is basically saying that the kingdom of God is for the beggars and the homeless. We need to stop spiritualizing these passages just because we feel uncomfortable that God is not on the side of us the privileged. We need instead to really think about why God is on the side of those pushed to the bottom of our own societies.
Three reasons came to mind as I began to ask this question. First of all, God is on their side because those who are squeezed of everything and are discarded like trash by the current system are often the only ones least entangled in its destructive trap. When we are honest with ourselves we know how much we collude with the systems of destruction in our world, and the more we have, the more entangled we get. The poor are closest to the kingdom because they are the most free from the entanglement of the rival kingdoms of consumerism and greed.
Second of all, God is on their side because it is they who need to regain there dignity, there belief that they are image bearers of God. Theologian Obery Hendricks puts this beautifully when he asks us to imagine a destitute old man, listening to these words of Jesus and then, saying to his grandchildren, with tears in his eyes, in a voice choked with joy and pride ‘Did you hear what Jesus said? He said we’s somebody. He said God has not forsaken us, that we’re blessed. We’s poor, but we’s blessed…Thank you, O God, for letting me live long enough to see this, Galilean poor folk standing up like somebody.’”
And third, God is on their side because God wants to reverse their situations, and in and through Jesus, a community is being created that will work against poverty, hunger, and misery. And this, Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino points out, is where we, the non poor can become “poor in spirit”. He says
“the kingdom is for the poor because they are materially poor; the Kingdom is for the non-poor to the extent that they lower themselves to the poor, defend them and allow themselves to be imbedded with the spirit of the poor.”
But what does this look like on the ground? This has been the question I have been asking this winter as I have been over seeing the warming room, an overnight program for those unable to use the current shelter system, as we are filled to the brim with individuals who are destitute, and more often then not with severe mental illnesses. How do I join with them? How do I defend them? How do I allow myself to be imbedded with there spirit?
I wondered how we do this as I listened in my office this week as a young man read a dark, heart wrenching poem about all the things he longs for but can’t seem to have because of his mental illnesses. He longs for true community where he is fully embraced and welcomed. He longs for close, intimate, friendships. He longs for a job. None of these have been possible because of his mental illnesses. How do we join God and be on his side? How do we be on the side of the many in our community living in destitution? What can we as a community do? There is no easy answer, but I think this is the most pressing question for our churches today.