The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, CO
I want to start by saying that I appreciate that ministers are in a privileged position in that we have access to a pulpit, which we try to use responsibly. And I’d like you to know that you do not need to agree with what I say from the pulpit, and that I am open to dialogue with you about it, and I appreciate that you are willing to listen.
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, 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 one reason that it was not given to us kids to memorize – the same reason that most of us know Matthew’s version better. And Luke leaves in not just the blessings, but the curses as well, and we can’t have that, can we?!
The church I grew up in, Second Congregational UCC in Greenwich, Connecticut, was a very affluent congregation. The poor in spirit were blessed, and that was good news indeed for my family, for the chairmen of the board of Exxon, General Electric, and Textron, all of whom were members of our congregation, not to mention one of our senior members, George Herbert Walker, after whom two presidents have been named. (I was just impressed because he was part owner of the New York Mets!) 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 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.’”) Richard Horsley 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.” (Horsley 1991:194).
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 – 33% of everyone around the world (and 72% of us in the United States) – claim to be Christian, so if poverty is supposed to be a “specific consequence of discipleship,” then some of us are blowing it. (Just for the record, 24 percent of the world is Muslim, and only 2/10th of one 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.
I have a hunch that most of us in this room would share 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 Syria and 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 the Homelessness Prevention Initiative. And some of us in this room are doing a whole lot more. Every Friday, a team here at Plymouth interviews folks for rental assistance. Yesterday, we finished a week of hosting several homeless families at Plymouth, which requires a large team of folks. Thank you all for putting your faith into action.
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 corruption and 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.
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 paying no federal tax on $11.2 billion of profits last year.)
Fort Collins Housing Catalyst, on whose board Jake serves, is making some great, creative strides around permanent supportive housing that assists formerly homeless folks to live in a stable environment with support for their physical and mental challenges. And they are doing great things toward increasing affordable housing, like the construction of The Village apartments on Horsetooth.
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.
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 have to look 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)
The low-cost disciple isn’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.
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.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
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.