Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Matthew 5:1-12 & Micah 6:6-8
This week’s readings combine two of my favorite biblical texts. The prophet Micah’s beautiful dream of the way we’re called to live: do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And Jesus’ beautiful teaching about how God’s world really is: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
I could go on and repeat them all, they are so beautiful, but I think that gives us plenty to think about.
These are not difficult teachings that have been left to us from the Prophet Micah and from our Beloved Jesus; but for us, the world’s comfortable and wealthy, these teachings can be hard to live.
Sometimes the only way to understand our faith is to see it through the eyes of the world’s poor–those who have so little they have nothing much to lose, and so they follow Jesus’ teaching with courage and faith we can barely imagine.
There have been a lot of stories in the news lately about workers on the lowest end of the economic scale who are finding the faith and courage to work for economic justice in the world. One of those who thirsts for righteousness is a Mexican-American chambermaid, who works in one of the big hotels in Los Angeles. Her name is Reina, and she is a single mother of three children.
For years she cleaned sixteen motel rooms a day, working 40 hours a week, and she earned $1,300 a month in take home pay. At first this was almost manageable, as she lived in a one room apartment in L.A. with her three children with rent of $560 a month.
Her work started at 7am and ended at 3pm. This allowed her to get home soon after her kids got home from school, and she could be with them in the evenings, to help them with their homework and keep them safe from the gangs.
But rents kept rising and her paycheck didn’t. First she moved her family an hour east of the city and added two hours of commuting to her eight-hour workday. But the rents there also kept rising until she was living in a studio apartment with her three growing children, paying $1,200 a month in rent while still earning only $1,300 a month.
Now her children were going hungry. She couldn’t earn enough money to keep her family both sheltered and fed. And she was stuck in the dilemma the working poor face: should she take a second job to provide food for her family, leaving her children alone every night? Who then would help them with their homework or keep them safe from the gangs?
At her workplace some people started organizing to join a union. The union organizers promised them their wages would go up. But Reina’s boss took her aside and he told her that because she was a natural leader and one of their best workers, if she got involved in the union he would have to make an example of her by cutting her work down to two days a week.
If they did not organize her children would continue to go hungry. If she risked trying to better their lives, they would become homeless as well as hungry. Reina went home and talked it over with her children.
She told them she believed it was the right thing to organize the workers. But she and her children would pay a terrible price. Knowing that her participation would probably make them homeless, the family decided together that she should risk helping the hotel workers try to unionize.
Reina’s hours were cut to two days a week, and the family spent the next three months living in their car while Reina worked for justice while continuing to clean hotel rooms two days a week.
After three months the hotel workers won the right to unionize, and they negotiated a 30% pay raise for the chambermaids, who were the worst paid among all the hotel workers. Reina and her family moved back into a single room apartment, but now, at least, they had food to eat. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Now, the Kingdom Matthew talks about, is not real estate in the sky for the dead once we’re dead; it is the Presence of God with us now, with the living.
One final detail to this story before we move along: In the year that Reina and her children went homeless and hungry to fight for a living wage, the CEO of the corporation that owned the hotel was paid twenty million dollars. No one who believes in a living God could imagine that is righteous. If God is real, a living Presence, then our economic system is unrighteous and a lie.
Now I want to share a story about a man named Michael. He was an investment banker in the bay area, who, having left the church as a young teenager, had only recently returned to it. As he began to participate in worship on Sundays and began to attend adult education classes, he became more and more uncomfortable about how he earned a living.
He began to talk with his minister about his discomfort: how the reality of his work contradicted Jesus’ teachings. But what could he do? He was stuck really: he had a wife and two kids and a thirty- year mortgage, all depending on the money he earned from this job. How could he fail them? And what would he do if he could even find the courage to insist that his work align with his faith?
He gathered his family together and told them of his growing discomfort with how the money they lived on was earned. And he asked for their permission for him to quit his job, knowing they would have to drastically change their lifestyle while he figured all this out.
With his family’s support and permission, he quit his job, and they moved from a wealthy lifestyle to a much smaller house and a lifestyle that required a whole lot less money. And they discovered in time that their lives were better, their family closer, and they had more joy in their life. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Michael started a socially responsible investment company where he now makes a decent living helping other people match their money to their values and their faith.
Jesus’ teachings are not some pie in the sky fantasy; and they are not just a hopeful, naive story. They are true statements about what is deeply true in life. We are blessed in the most unlikely places. And while it is true that life is confusing and hard, we can live it surrounded by God.
May we together as a community of faith learn to trust that though our faith requires that we sometimes make hard choices, we make our choices and live our lives held in the Presence of God.
The Rev. Jorge Lara-Braud once said, God knows it is still a serious risk to be merciful, to keep one’s heart pure, and to make peace with one’s enemies. But the much greater risk is to confuse privilege and self-protection with the good life. (day1.org sermon, 1/28/1996)
I pray for us that we never do that. I pray that we risk trusting the wisdom of these ancient teachings. Because if we trust our lives to God, we can learn how to put down our self-protection systems and open our lives to be blessed.