Luke: The Gospel For The Poor
(Pastors need to be aware that not every paragraph in this printed sermon becomes part of the oral, alive sermon on Sunday morning. The oral sermon is shorter than the printed sermon.)
Jesus said, "I have come to bring good news to poor people."
Today, we have come to church for many reasons. We have come because it is good to praise God. We have come because we enjoy seeing old friends. We have come because we hope we will hear a Word from the Lord for our lives. We believe that the Bible is the living voice of God to us and we hope that we will hear a sermon that will not bore us to death. We have come to church today because we want the Word of God to touch our hearts and lives.
For most of us, our day has already begun well. That is, we are all alive. Most if not all of us had a good night sleep in a warm bed in a warm house and then a warm breakfast. Most of us adults had a hot cup of coffee the first thing when we got up. I've already had my hot latte today. And then we drove to church or rode to church in a warm car and our car had gasoline in the tank. In other words, none of us have really experienced extreme poverty this morning. We slept in warm bed, in a warm house, and had a warm breakfast and rode in a warm car to church. Saying all of that simply means that most of us are not poor.
Today's sermon is about poverty and the Lord God's special affection for poor people. We hear this from the mouth of Jesus in the gospel text for today when he says, "I have come to bring good news to the poor."
That theme of God's special love and affection for poor people is found throughout the Gospel of Luke.
Today our sermon is from Luke 4:14-21. It is the first of 37 sermons this year from the Gospel of Luke which has been called The Gospel for the Poor because there is so much about poor people in that gospel. 37 sermons the Gospel of Luke, beginning today, all the way through the month of November.
We are not alone in preaching this many sermons on the Gospel of Luke this year. We belong to the mainline denominations. There are 900 million of us here in the planet Earth. One sixth of the world's population. And today, all of these congregations throught the globe have Luke 4:24-21 as our gospel reading. All of them have the same Biblical readings for every Sunday. In all languages, nationalities, and nations. Luke 4:14-21, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor." All over the globe today.
Today, we need to into the mood of poor people and poverty. We need to talk about poor people and poverty here in the modern world and then talk about poor people and poverty in Luke's world.
So today’s is sermon number one of 37 sermons from the Gospel of Luke, which is the gospel for the poor. The title of the sermon today is, THE FOURTH WORLD AND THE FOURTH CLASS.
Scholars often divide the nations of the world into four categories. The nations of the world are divided into the First World, Second World, Third World and Fourth World, and each category has about twenty-five percent of the Earth’s population. … The First World are the richest nations on Earth, and there are about twenty-two of them. These are the industrialized democracies, with about 700 million people and a per capita income in $4,000. These nations include the United States, Western Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. Do you want to live in a First World rich country? Do I? Yes, we all do. …. In the Second World, there are about fifteen nations, that have 1.2 billion people, and each person’s income is about $1100. These nations include Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea and Viet Nam. … The Third World consists of about seventy nations, a billion inhabitants, a per capita income of about $800. These nations are from Latin America, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, etc. … Then there are the Fourth World nations. These 87 nations nations are at the bottom of the barrel, with a billion people, and an annual per capital income of about $150. These are nations like most sub-Sahara African counties, plus Bangladesh, and Haiti where our new sister church is located. At the bottom of the barrel, there is much inflation, drought, wars, overpopulation, and starvation. … Scholars divide the world into four categories: the first, second, third and fourth world. Think of $4,000, $1100, $800, and $150. None of us would want to live in Fouth World country with a meager $150 per year.
I now have those figures in my mind. $4,000, $1100, $800, $150. Who could live on $150 a year. These people are the poorest of the poor.
Here in the United States, according to a recent Seattle Times article, we read that there are four classes. There are the upper class who live very rich, the upper middle class who live also very well, the lower middle class who are usually short of money, and the poorer class whose members are truly poor.
Wikipedia, the Internet Encyclopedia, gives us the specific numbers of the four classes in America. The upper one quarter of our population makes $77,500 household income for the year. Could I see your hands about how many of you/us are rich and have a household income of $77,500? Just joking. None of us like to talk about those things. The bottom quarter of our nation makes $22,500 per household income and are poor. Could I see a show of hands of how many of you live in a family that makes less that $22,500? No, just joking. We don't like to talk about those things. In the middle from $22,500 to $77,500 there are the lower middle class and the upper middle class. From $22,500 to 50,000, could I see the hands of those in the lower middle? No, just joking. And from $50k to $77.5k? The upper middle. We just don't talk publicly about those things, or ever with our closest friends or even family members. Nope, our financial income is a VERY private matter, but we are ALL keenly intersted in what we and others make.
The poorest of the poor in our nation earn less than $10,000 per household. That is 10% of our population, which is about 30 million people.
Poverty has actually decreased in the United States of America. Way back in 1963, the poorest people in our nation were people 65 and older. 28% of people 65 and older were below the poverty level in 1963. Now, the elderly poverty rate is about 10.1%. From 28% to 10% among our elderly. The government's war on poverty begun by President Lyndon Johnson did make a positive difference for huge numbers of people, especially those over age 65.
The new poor in America are no longer the elderly but single mothers with children. If you want to get a feeling for poverty and what it means to be poor, simply talk to certain single mothers with kids and you may get a first hand lesson on what it means to be poor in America.
Poor people are usually not found on the membership rolls of the church. For example, of the 700 families in our congregation, I counted what I think are the poor households in our parish and there are fewer than five That is generally true: poor people don't belong to the church.
This past week, I telephoned every family in our congregation who was poorer. That is, every one of these families can’t afford food and fuel. There were only four families in our church in this group, and I talk today with their permission. I talked to four single mothers and every one of them cried in our conversation. All four said that the tensions got very, very hard, and at times they couldn’t make it. All four households said that someday they hope to make a little more money so they can afford fuel and food. Not one of these four wanted to be rich, but have just enough to pay for their essential needs.
Only one household in our church belongs to the poorest of poor in our society. There is only one household currently on welfare in our congregation, and they are feeling numb but see a possibility for their lives to get better. This person was not happy with the welfare system and said the system punished her for getting a job at McDonalds.
From these five conversations, it is obvious that many “truly poor” do not belong to our churches or similar churches. Often the working poor and the poorest of poor do not belong to churches.
We have only one homeless person who comes to our parish on a regular basis. His name is Dave and he is here in worship today. I asked Dave if I could mention him in the sermon today and briefly tell of his situation. Dave has been homeless for 25 years. During the five recent years, he has lived under the bridge on I-5 where it crosses over the Kent Des Moines Road. You know the location. It is about fifteen minutes walk from here. This last week, Dave went to a treatment center and he tells me now that he is living in a Salvation Army home. More about Dave later.
The director of our child- care center said that many “working poor” households use our Child Care Center. There are many more working poor families who are at day-care than are at church.
It is with these images of fourth world nations and four economic classes of American citizens and the lack of poor people belonging to Christian churches, that we approach Luke’s gospel lesson for today. Jesus said to clearly, "I have come to bring good news to poor people."
This gospel lesson is the first event in Jesus’ public ministry in Luke. Jesus has been baptized, went out into the wilderness to be tempted by devil, and now he was ready for the first event in his public ministry. You anticipate that you will hear the story of the call of the first disciples, but not in the gospel of Luke. Luke changes the order of the Gospel of Mark. In Luke, we don’t hear the call of the first disciples at the very beginning. Instead, Luke takes a story that was found in the middle of Mark and he makes it the first event of Jesus’ public ministry. This is important. Luke sets the whole tone for his gospel with this first story.What is the first public event for Jesus in the Gospel of Luke?
It is Jesus’ first sermon. It was Jesus’ first sermon to his hometown crowd in Nazareth where he had been brought up. All of them had seen Jesus grow up as a little boy, and now he was a grown man and now he was preaching his first sermon in the synagogue. What would Jesus say in his first sermon? It had to be important. As a guest preacher in the synagogue, Jesus was free to choose any passage from the prophets that he wanted to preach his sermon on. What passage did Jesus read for his first sermon? What passage? He quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the good news to poor people, proclaim release to those who are in captivity and prison, recover the sight of the blind, and free those who are oppressed.” The Greek word, oppressed, means “broken to bits.” To set free those who are broken to bits by life.” This is also an exact, word for word, quotation from Isaiah 61:1.
Now, I ask you the question, “Why?” Why was Jesus’ first sermon was from Isaiah 61? Why? Why did he say that the very core of his ministry was to be to the poor, the lame and the fourth class of Jewish society? Why? Because that is the core of whom Jesus was and is.
It is interesting to me that Jesus’ self-understanding comes primary from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Especially from Isaiah 61.If you are going to understand who Jesus is, you have to read Isaiah 61
In his first sermon, Jesus did not imply that he was going to be a king like King David with lots of power.
He didn’t imply he was going to be a king like King Solomon with lots of wealth.
He didn’t imply that he was going to be a military leader like Joshua.
Rather, Jesus chose Isaiah 61 and said, “I am going to be a servant. I am going to take care of and heal the poor, the blind, the lame and the maimed.”
In his first sermon, Jesus is consistent with the other stories from the gospel of Luke. For example...
Do you remember Luke’s Christmas pageant from Luke 1 and 2? Every single person in Luke’s Christmas pageant was poor. Zechariah was a mere priest and he and his wife Elizebeth couldn't get pregnant. Priests were the "poorest of the poor" in Jesus' day. Simon and Anne were poor. So was Mary , the mother of Jesus. She was nothing but a servant girl. The story of the three Wise men who bring their rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is found in Matthew, not Luke. ALL the stories in Luke’s Christmas pageant are of poor people. That was Luke 1 and 2.
Luke 4 is the gospel lesson today about bringing good news to the poor.
We move to Luke 6. Do you remember the beatitudes in Luke? In the gospel of Matthew, Matthew said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” And how does Luke say these same words, “Blessed are poor people, not the poor in spirit people. He says, blessed are those you are hungry, not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke is clear and definite: blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Mathew spiritualizes; Luke economizes.
Do you remember the story in Luke 7 where John the Baptist sent his messengers to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah? Do you remember what Jesus said? “Tell John. The blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The poor have good news preached to them.” That’s what Jesus told John was the core of his ministry. Now, all of these are quotations from the book of Isaiah. If you want to understand Jesus and what he was about, you need to understand Isaiah 61.
Do you see? Are you beginning to understand? Jesus saw himself and his mission from Isaiah 61 and 58. The passion of those verses and the passion of Isaiah was for the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. Jesus selected these versesto be the outline of his coming ministry. Jesus was going to have an earthly ministry especially to the fourth world and the fourth class. Jesus was coming to help the poor. And so did his followers.
The lepers, blind, lame and poor were the rejects of Jewish society. These were the social outcasts. They were ostracized from the synagogue. They would not come to the temple, not come to the synagogue, and could not be part of Jewish society. It is the same way today. Our American poor rarely participate in our churches and synagogues.
Here in the Gospel of Luke and for the first time in the history of Judaism, we hear some very strange words when Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry.” No Jew had ever said that before. No Jew had ever written that before. The theology of the Old Testament would never say that. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A Jew would have said with vigor, “Blessed are the rich, the wealthy, the comfortable for theirs is a just reward for their efforts.” In the Old Testament, poverty was a punishment for sin. The Old Testament Jew would never say, “Blessed are the poor.” When you think about it, for the first time in human civilization, a person says, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry.” And that person was the Son of God, who knew the mind and spirit of God.
Dr. Walter Pilgrim, in his course and book on the gospel of Luke, GOOD NEWS FOR THE POOR, says that we spiritualize and psychologize these Biblical texts in Luke in order to try to water them down and minimize them. When Jesus spoke his radical words to his hometown congregation, they were offended by what he said and they tried to kill him. I have a feeling that many so-called Christians are still offended by Jesus' ministry. Such people may just as soon join another church where Luke’s gospel is not proclaimed so clearly. Maybe they should join the “health and wealth” church up the street.
So we ask the question: What does all of this have to do with us, with my life, with your life, with the life of our congregation? Jesus’ opening sermon revealed the nerve center, the core, the fundamental theme of his compassion for the poor and those who were broken to bits with life, the homeless and hungry. If this is true, what does it mean for our lives and the life of our congregation?
I have so many stories to tell you I don't know where to begin.
(I didn't use all the following stories for the sermon but some of them.)
First, God's emphatic love for poor people means for us, individually and collectively as a congregation, to take care of the poor in our congregation and on the edges of our congregation. There are not many of our actual members who are poor, but those who are, we need to take care of. Many of you have special ministries to poor people. One of you here today (and I tell this with your permission) received a food basket with olives in that food basket. The food basket was wrapped with expensive ribbons and inside were ribbons. This woman told me, “No one gives poor people good olives.” A love basket of food, ribbons and olives can be much appreciated by someone who is poor. …
Another story from our congregation. This couple live a retirement home. No kids. No relatives here in town. She has cancer; this will be her last Christmas with us and he has Parkinson’s. While giving Holy Communion to her in her apartment the other day, I noticed two, colorful Christmas bags that had been given to all the shut-ins within our parish. We talked about the handcrafted Christmas bags and the presents wrapped inside. She said to me, “We are waiting for Christmas day to open our Christmas presents.” She didn’t say it but we both knew that these were their only presents, simple but treasured and valuable gifts from our seniors. Sometimes, the littlest act of generosity goes much further than we ever imagined.
Let's talk about Dave, the homeless person who comes to our church on a regular basis. The Sunday of the "big freeze," not many people came to church but Dave got out from under his blankets under the bridge over the freeway and came to church. That day, Karla, from our church, had brought a knapsack with a present in it for Dave. She had seen him often at church and wanted to help. Among other things, she bought him a brand new shirt that she still left in the packing from the department store. She thought that Dave may not have received many NEW shirts in the past years. She wanted to give him a NEW one. That looked new. Felt new. The smelled new. Today, Dave is wearing that new shirt.
Let's talk about the Des Moines Food Bank. It is good to work, volunteer and give food to the Food Bank here in Des Moines. I love to quote the book of Proverbs where God says, “An act of worship is generosity to the poor.” The primary act of worship on Sunday mornings is not singing hymns. The primary act of Sunday worship is not listening to sermons. The primary act of Sunday worship is not praying together the prayers of the church. The primary act of worship is always being generous to the poor. Every Sunday morning is “Food Sunday” here at Grace Lutheran. What does it mean when we come to church with empty hands, with hands not filled with groceries for the poor? The food barrels need to be overflowing with food on Sunday mornings.
It is good to work at the Lutheran Compass Center in downtown Seattle, to become informed about their ministry and join them in their missions. In First Corinthians 13, God says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not charitable love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Christians who are not involved with the poor are clanging cymbals. That Lutheran Compass Center is the best ministry around.
People on welfare. It is good to be involved with people who are on welfare. This past week, I spoke with a woman who was the financial supervisor for the Kent and Federal Way Welfare Department. She told me that there are 3,000 families, mostly single parents with children, living on welfare in our geographic area. 450 of these families have physical handicaps. 83% are single mothers with children. These 3,000 households live on meager incomes. I would challenge any of you to live on what a welfare person lives on. Almost none of us could. This supervisor said, “I feel sorry for them and I am glad that I am not in their situation. I am frustrated. The only way out for them is education and a lucky break which means a better job.” We, as Christians, need to be supportive of these families and not politically critical of them.
The homeless ministry here at church. We need people to help in our homeless ministry here at our church, so you can get to know homeless men first hand. Where you rub elbows with them, chat with them, get to know them a bit. We are a satellite church for St. Martin de Porres in downtown Seattle, and they have a great ministry. There may be other similar ministries that you support. Over 100 of you are personally involved with our homeless men as you help with our homeless shelter.
The Mexico Orphanage. Many of you high school students were working in the orphanage in Mexico this past summer. I was told by Pastor O'Neal and you that the most powerful experience for you was to share food and conversation with Mexican children who were living in the dump outside of town. There you were in that dump and meeting other kids who lived there. God got inside your hearts and changed you and made you more compassionate and loving to poor people.
Haiti and Jamaica. Many of you have travel to Haiti or Jamaica and are part of our ministry there. You support our health clinic in Jamaica or sponsor a child in school in Haiti. Maybe you have helped Dale Dann in the computer ministry to Angola.
Mississippi Disasters. Several of you came back last night from your mission to the hurricane-ravaged disaster in Mississippi. This is the fourth team from our church to go to Mississippi to help. I heard some of your stories. They were moving.
We need to support the political activities our church lobbyists in Olympia. There are three people who lobby for the poor in Olympia and they need our informed support. We need to be in conversation with our state legislators.
Last night, like others, I received a weekly email from State Senator Karen Kaiser who belongs to our parish and is singing in the choir this morning. She had a detailed analysis about what she and others are doing to create health insurance for the children in our state whose families do not have healthy insurance. Her legislation is going to make a difference in the lives of our poorest children here inthe State of Washington.
If you came to the annual meeting today and read your congregational annual report for the year 2006, you will see that Grace Lutheran Church donated $394,000 to world hunger and numerous other similar charities last year. $134,000 to world hunger; $38,000 to the Caribbean ministries; $19,000 to local community needs like the Lutheran Compass Center; $20,000 to disaster relief in Mississippi, $21,000 to the summer mission teams. Wow. Our bishop told me that Grace Lutheran Church ranks 19th out of 11,000 ELCA congregations in terms of giving of benevolence dollars.
Meet our acolyte today. His name is Kris Lindenaur. Before the service today, in the sacristy, I told Kris that I knew his great grandfather and great grandmother and that they had raised 27 foster kids, kids whose lives had been "broken to bits." I asked Kris, "Did you hear those stories about your Great Grandpa and Grandma and raising 27 foster kids?" "Yes." "Well in my early years here at Grace, I often referred to your great grandparents as models of caring for poor people and for people whose lives had been shattered to bits. I am glad that you know those stories."
This past week, Jon Peterson who directs the dental clinic which comes to our church for dental needs of poor kids in our area, told me about an email that he recieved. This lady who emailed him told him that she had read Art Simon's book, HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH. Her email said, " I'm glad the dental clinic is going well! By the way, I just read about Grace Lutheran in the book "How Much Is Enough?" by Arthur Simon. It was in a section about churches that model caring for the poor. Have you read it?"
Art Simon is the founder and president emeritus of the magazine, BREAD FOR THE WORLD. He is like a pope when it comes to poverty because he was a fierce champion for the poor. When Art Simon says that Grace Lutheran Church is a model congregation in caring for the poor, that is about as good as a compliment as you could ever receive.
In his first sermon, Jesus chose the most important verse in the whole Old Testament to him. He chose Isaiah 61:1, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to poor people." During his whole life, Jesus reached out to the lepers, blind, maimed, lame and poor. When we follow Jesus, we do the same.
If you want to understand Jesus and the followers of Jesus, you need to understand his very first sermon in Nazareth. What topic did he chose for his first sermon? What Bible verses from the Old Testament did he select for his very first message to his hometown crowd? You know the answer. Isaiah 61 and 58. Quoting these chapters in his very first sermon, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor people, release to those in captivity and prison, recover the sight of the blind, and freedom to those who have been blasted to bits by life. I proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor to the poor.” This was the core of his ministry. This is the core of our ministry together. Amen.
CHILDREN'S SERMON Today, what do I have in my hand? A backpack. Not just any backpack. In Sunday School, your offerings buy food for this backpack. And this back pack goes home with children from our nearby schools which are very poor schools. Do you realize that 90% of the kids attending our two neighboring grade schools are poor enough to get free lunches from the government five days a week. But what happens on Saturday and Sunday when the kids don't come to school? Why, these poorer kids get knap sacks such as these with food in them to last for the weekend. And then bring the knap sack back to school on Sunday morning. I understand that our Sunday School has given enough money in our offerings to buy 84 knap sacks of food so far this year. Thanks, kids, for giving your offerings in Sunday School which helps give food to poorer children in our neighbor hood. To the adults: I bet you didn't understand about these knap sacks and our children caring for poorer children in our neighboring schools. That is pretty cool, eh?