Gospel Poverty for Seminarians

Homily, “Gospel Poverty for Seminarians”
Choral Morning Prayer, Wednesday, October 7, 2020
Seminary of the Southwest
Austin, TX

Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:
Luke 11:1-4

I. Intro

Give us each day our daily bread. Amen.

According to a 2014 Pew Research study, Episcopalians ranked the wealthiest of all Christian denominations in the U.S., with almost 70% of its households making above the national median household income. Episcopalians also ranked the highest educated Christian religious group in the country. Not all Episcopalians are wealthy and that’s an important thing to remember. The same study reported that 19% of Episcopal households made less than $30,000. But given our Church’s position of overall economic privilege, its important to ask, what does it mean for the wealthiest Christians in the nation to subscribe to a faith which sends the rich away empty (Lk 1:53), declares woe to the rich (Lk 6:24) , and asks us to give up everything (Lk 9:23)? What does it mean for the wealthiest Christians in the nation to subscribe to a sacred text which highlights the plight of the poor more than two thousand times? What does it mean for Episcopalians to show up to church week after week and pray the prayer “give us each day our daily bread” when many of us have no idea what it is to ask someone else to provide for our material needs? And what does it mean to be seminarians formed and sent in this tradition? What do we mean when we pray, “give us each day our daily bread”? 

II. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray

In today’s gospel we encounter Luke’s version of the well-worn Lord’s Prayer. While the text is very similar to the prayer in Matthew (though a bit shorter) the context for the prayer is quite different. Instead of being presented in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount to a large crowd as in Matthew, here in Luke, Jesus is passing down a sacred prayer in the context of a teacher-disciple relationship. Jesus teaches the words in response to a disciple who asks him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I don’t know about you but as a seminarian, I identify with that request. Teach us. Lord, teach us to pray. 

And while the request seems like it would be early in the curriculum, by this time in chapter 11 of the gospel, the disciples have already started their field education. In chapter 9 they were given authority by Jesus and sent out to preach the kingdom and to heal. And in chapter 10 that mission was opened up to seventy men and women who were also given authority and sent out. So here in chapter 11, we encounter a Rabbi passing down a sacred teaching in the form of a prayer to his chosen disciples being sent out into the world. 

“Father, hallowed be your name. 
Your kingdom come,
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

The prayer especially makes sense in this context because these words would have resonated with the disciples in their rugged experience of the ministry to which Jesus called them. In the Gospel of Luke the Lord’s Prayer acts as a sort of learning agreement, so that the prayer “your kingdom come” would remind them of Jesus’ command in chapter 10:9, to say to the townspeople, “the kingdom of God has come near you.” And how much more would the words “give us each day our daily bread” resonate having been sent out into the mission field with “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money” (Lk 9:3)? 

Evangelical poverty was a central feature of Jesus’ curriculum for his disciples. And we see throughout the the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts that evangelical poverty is intimately tied up in the alleviation of oppressive poverty. In the next chapter Jesus tells the parable of the foolish rich man who hoarded his wealth ending with the words, “sell your possessions and give alms.” In a few more chapters, Jesus proclaims salvation to Zacchaeus who repented of his sinful economic practices and gave half of his wealth to the poor.  Presumably it was partly the same seventy we encounter today who would go on to found the early Church which Luke describes to us in Acts 2 as holding all things in common, selling their possessions, and providing for any who had need.

Whether it be through the willing detachment from material capital or the inequitable restriction of wealth in an oppressive economy, the gospel curriculum has everything to do with poverty. The reason the disciples and the early Church could pray this sacred prayer that has been handed down to us, the reason the disciples could pray, “give us each day our daily bread,” is because they knew what it was to live in solidarity with the poor around them and to depend upon the generosity of community. Jesus began his whole ministry, according to Luke, with the words from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). The gospel has everything to do with poverty.

III. To be formed by the poor

If poverty, then, was so central to the formation of the disciples for ministry, shouldn’t poverty be central to our own seminary formation today?

Where are the poor in our formation? Where is poverty in our discernment?

We cannot begin to understand the words to the prayer Jesus taught us until we have some sense of familiarity with poverty and what it is to be poor. In fact, I don’t believe we can even understand the gospel, much less preach it, unless we have an acquaintance with poverty. 

Some of us do have an acquaintance with poverty. Some of us know very well what it is to live off the generosity of others. Many of us have made significant financial sacrifices to be here and follow the word of God. And many of us still find ourselves with significant economic privilege. My invitation for us, then, is to more formally invite poverty and the poor into our process of discernment and seminary formation. If we want to be formed by the gospel, we must allow ourselves to formed by the poor. 

Allowing ourselves to be formed by the poor not only pushes us to the important work of economic justice, but it teaches us the meaning of the gospel and draws us closer to the person of Christ. As Latin American liberation theologians have noted, often when the Church loses itself and gets wraps up in the cultural status quo, it is the poor who evangelize and convert the Church and remind it of the gospel values of solidarity, service, and simplicity. Isn’t that a beautiful and powerful image? What does it look like to be evangelized by the poor? How can we allow ourselves to be converted by poverty?

I’m not necessarily asking for each of us to renounce all of our possessions and make a vow right here and now to poverty. But I am asking that as each of us discern our various calls to ministry in this church, we include poverty and the poor as a central voice in that discernment. Perhaps that means becoming acquainted with poor people in our community. Learning their names, hearing their stories. Perhaps that means doing research on the distribution of wealth in our sending dioceses. Perhaps it means contributing financially to organizations which accompany the poor. The key is to build a habit of asking ourselves regularly, how does what I am doing proclaim good news to the poor.

When we read a theological text on the doctrine of the Trinity for class, how does this text embody good news to the poor? When we lead a Bible study, how does this exegetical perspective embody good news to the poor? When we study church finance and administration, how does this spreadsheet embody good news to the poor?

How is my formation for ministry being shaped by the gospel which is good news to the poor? By asking these questions, we not only pray the words Jesus taught us, we live into them so that we are able to proclaim to all whom we meet like the 12 and the 70 whom Jesus sent “the kingdom of God has come near.”

Let us pray,

“Father, hallowed be your name. 
Your kingdom come,
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”