The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
I grew up in the United Church of Christ in the 70s, a time when many of us kids in mainline churches didn’t learn much about the Bible. But I do remember memorizing two passages from the Bible: the 23rd Psalm and the Beatitudes. Beatus in Latin means blessed or happy or favored, and so the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with all the “Blesseds” are called the Beatitudes. Of course, we memorized Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, not Luke’s. Most American Christians probably don’t even know that Luke brought the Sermon on the Mount down to earth and calls it the Sermon on the Plain.
Luke’s rendition is a more raw, tough-minded set of blessings, which is probably the reason that most of us know Matthew’s version better. And Luke leaves in not just the blessings, but includes the curses as well, and we can’t have that, can we?!
The church I grew up in was a very affluent congregation. The poor in spirit were blessed, and that was good news indeed for my family, for a raft of CEOs who were members of our congregation. This was a congregation that defined privilege and wealth. I don’t envy the clergy at that congregation trying to preach on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes: imagine telling the captains of industry: “Blessed are you poor” but “woe to you who are rich!” Can you imagine?! That would be tough to hear if you were in their shoes.
I hate to tell you this…we are in their shoes.
The Greek word we translate as “poor,” ptochos, doesn’t mean struggling middle class. It doesn’t mean that you bought a more expensive car than you should have and you’re having trouble making the payments. It doesn’t mean that things are tight because your son or daughter is attending a private liberal-arts college. It doesn’t mean that you’re worried that your 401(k) won’t be what you hoped so you can retire when you’re 65. Ptochos means dirt poor…reduced to begging…hungry…without any property. While most of us experience financial struggles of one type or another, there are very few folks in this congregation who are in that place…who are “blessed” in that way.
But, the rest of us: woe to us who are rich, for we have received our consolation!
Some scholars say that these Beatitudes are directed just to the disciples, not to a larger crowd. (And you could make that argument, based on Luke’s account: “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’”) One scholar writes, “As such they do not speak of ‘the general human conditions of poverty and suffering’ applicable to the crowds or the generic ‘anxiety about the basic necessities’ but of specific consequences of discipleship.”
Phew! That was a close one. Maybe the text really isn’t about poverty in general. We don’t have to worry unless…we… are… disciples…or…followers of Christ.
The reality is that 2.3 billion people on this planet – 31% of everyone around the world (and 65% of us in the United States) – claim to be Christian, so if poverty is supposed to be a “specific consequence of discipleship,” then a lot of us are blowing it. (Just for the record, 25 percent of the world is Muslim, and only 0.18 percent are Jewish.) Maybe we’re meant to be sacrificing a bit more than we are already. Perhaps we are meant to be a blessing to the ptochoi – the poorest of the poor. Why? Because Jesus said God has shown them favor.
I have a hunch that most of us worshipping today would our lunch if a hungry person sat down next to us; we are a very compassionate congregation. But, there are a lot of hungry people around the world and even in our community whom we simply don’t see. And sometimes there are hungry people whom we don’t WANT to see.
Sometimes, there are people who we wish would remain invisible. We wish we didn’t have to see refugees trying to make their way from Africa into Europe. We would rather not see Mexicans and Central Americans coming across the border into the United States. And we’d rather not be forced to acknowledge and deal with people living in Fort Collins experiencing homelessness.
Most of us would share our lunch with a refugee, give a drink to a Mexican migrant, or give a few more bucks to Neighbor to Neighbor. And some of us at Plymouth are doing a whole lot more than that. A few weeks back, our FFH Team finished a week of hosting several homeless families at Plymouth, which requires a large group of volunteers. Thank you all for putting your faith into action. You make a difference in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
Why do we tolerate a world that allows these conditions to exist in the first place? I’m not suggesting that we just throw money at problems – which often creates vicious cycles of dependence – though it’s a place to start. I am suggesting that we help create equitable, sustainable systems that ultimately enable people to help themselves. And when dire situations arise globally or locally, we should have the capacity to respond with compassion and tangible assistance…even if it costs us dearly.
Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop who died in the 90s, put it this way: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
I know that we need to have the Mission, and Faith Family Hospitality network, but why are there homeless people in Fort Collins to begin with? Is it because businesses offer low-wage jobs that can’t keep a family housed in this community? Is it because there is a limited supply of affordable rental options? Is it because we have a crisis in mental health and substance abuse in Fort Collins that we are only beginning to address? Is it because our taxation priorities have shifted toward aiding the super-rich at the expense of the middle class? (If you think that is an exaggeration, think about Amazon’s ability to avoid federal taxes. Over the last three years, they have paid an effective tax rate of 4.3% on $4.7 billion in profits. I don’t know about you, but my tax rate is a bit higher than 4.3%.)
Housing Catalyst, our local housing authority, is making some great, creative strides around permanent supportive housing that assists formerly homeless folks to live in a stable environment with on-site support for their physical and mental challenges. You may have seen Mason Place where the Midtown Arts Center used to be, which for the last year has been housing 60 formerly homeless people with disabilities. And they are doing great things toward increasing affordable housing, like the construction of The Village apartments on Horsetooth.
Policy makes a big difference, and the American Rescue Plan passed last March had a significant impact on child poverty in the United States. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that this one act helped keep 3.5 million American children out of poverty last year. According to Gregory Acs of the Urban Institute, “Reducing child poverty has the potential to have profound intergenerational benefits. If kids are not poor, if households are not stressed by poverty, then they’re more likely to … do better in school, get more education and be on a better path forward as adults.” And yet, the child tax credit, is not being renewed by Congress. The kids slipping back into poverty will suffer. In a so-called Christian nation, how can we allow this?
What I hope you hear me saying is that our faith demands justice, not just charity. Discipleship is costly. Justice is costly. And if we have the courage to open our eyes, we will see there is much work to be done in the world around us.
Here is a secret I’ll let you in on…doing justice work grounded in faith makes life meaningful. If there in one thing the pandemic has made clear (through The Great Resignation and in clarifying our priorities) is that we want life to have meaning.
Aren’t there times when we would rather that Jesus remain invisible, too…or at least silent? Jesus is so non-threatening when he is the paschal victim on the cross or when he is that babe in the manger. Jesus is so benign when all we have to do is say that he is our Lord and Savior in order to be saved. But as Christians we must look carefully and consider Jesus, because as Isaiah said, “the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” (Isa. 35.5) We have no choice but to see and to listen!
Low-commitment disciples aren’t following the Jesus of the Beatitudes. There is far more required of us if we claim to be disciples of the Christ of our faith, who demands that we risk everything for the sake of the kingdom of God.
One of my favorite poets was an Anglican priest in Wales, R.S. Thomas, and he wrote this poem, called “The Kingdom,” which reflects the rough-and-tumble beatitudes of Luke.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
I hope the words of Jesus push you at least a little to do something, to grow, to expand your horizons and your involvement, to go deeper in your faith, to make a difference. Because we work together at Plymouth, you don’t have to do it alone…we have sisters and brothers working as one for the kind of justice Jesus espoused in the Beatitudes.
My prayer for us is that we approach God’s world and our faith with eyes, ears, and hearts open to God, to our best selves, and to all of God’s children.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.