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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sermon: Blessed are the Poor

This is a copy of the sermon that I preached this morning. It is an exploration of my time teaching creative writing (with Tamie) in the Kosciusko County Jail.

It was a surreal sensation. The first time I walked through the cell blocks of the Kosciusko County Jail in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana, I felt like I was walking through the film, The Shawshank Redemption. I was immersed by concrete and steel, surrounded by walls that were ugly and unforgiving. The walk through the blocks was short, and before I knew it I was at the center, the small room where the watchman sits. In this space every cell is visible, the camera transmits all of the movements and behaviors of the incarcerated and projects them upon screens: to monitor, to regulate the jail and its inmates.

Walking by the cells, I can see through the glass, into the cells. I can see in, but they cannot see out, except if they come really close.

The inmates wear stripes. For some reason, I was anticipating orange jumpsuits. But here, stripes. Black and white for the men, pink and white for the women.

All of the men wear ink on their skin and hardened expressions on their faces, especially the younger ones. They want you to know that on no uncertain terms they are not ones to be trifled with. Their situation is ironic, of course, because they are almost completely powerless, trapped behind walls, stripped of their civil rights, subjected to a schedule, and subjugated to the orders of the guards. So, perhaps, this is all the more reason for some to assert their manhood.

There are exceptions to this machismo, this harder-than-nails exterior shell. Some are broken and haggard. These are the ones that have nothing to prove, who are resigned to a system that has beaten them. The name they have for this system is "life." It takes me a while to see these men. It is the tough guys who most often make their way to the glass, who assert themselves, make themselves visible. It is their broad shoulders and prominent tattoos that greet me on this my first visit to the Kosciusko County Jail.

It's a funny thing. After living in this small Indiana town most of my life, it is only at the age of 31 that I first make my way through these cell blocks. I have been to countless suburban homes and visited many respectable places of business. I have darkened the doors of the churches hundreds of times and listened to as many sermons. I am thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of the local college, the grocery stores, and I am intimately familiar with all of the spaces in the natural world where one can retreat to in order to enjoy a bit of quiet reading time.

But these cell blocks? They are another world to me.


They were seated on a sloping hill, most scholars say. This is the setting for The Sermon on the Mount. Of all of Jesus' teachings, this homily is his most well-known. It is both instructive and poetic. It is somehow both familiar and simple, yet at the same time provocative and perhaps even revolutionary.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Most of what Jesus says is directed toward the future: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." It is a future hope and a promise to come. Yet Jesus begins his sermon by saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This is no promise delayed for a day to come. Jesus speaks in the present tense: "theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven, if it is anywhere here on earth, is to be found with those who are spiritually poor, those impoverished souls.

But can it really be this way? Who builds a kingdom of the poor, made up of poor spirits and broken souls?

Who does this?


Within a few months of moving to my small, Indiana town, Tamie, now my fiancĂ©, was restless, ready to do something significant and to give. She decided that she wanted to volunteer for the local literacy council, maybe teach English as a second language to local Hispanic people. She called the local director, who in turn asked Tamie if she would like to start a literacy class at the jail. That literacy class quickly evolved into a creative writing class that we taught together. Our incarcerated students were soon composing poetry, writing their life stories, even crafting persuasive essays. We taught two classes each week—one for women and one for men. The women came in wearing their pink stripes, the men in black and white.

Each week they would write. They would process their lives through words. Almost to a person, our class was made up entirely of people from the lower class, the poor. We encouraged them to push the boundaries, the boundaries of their social class and the boundaries that they set up within themselves. Be creative, use your imagination. Don't settle for words and sentences that you've heard before, create your own.

We knew that they already were creative. They tear out threads of their clothing and other material, use dye made of crushed pencils to color the threads, then weave the threads together and create necklaces. One of our students fashioned a necklace complete with a Christian cross pendant. With nothing but time on their hands, they could create these beautiful things. Some of our students were incarcerated for their creativity, like creating a clever or smarter way to cook methamphetamine (or just "meth" for short). For those who grow up with an expectation for failure and live their lives in poverty and violence, creating meth is a way to kill that reality, to escape and live high. Meth only promises death, and it delivers every time: death to pain and poverty, and a deteriorating but inevitable death to the body and the spirit.

It occurs to me to ask: what do we do with this incredible gift, this gift we have to create? Is it possible that one of the most fundamental human characteristics is our imagination?

Our students could imagine and they could create. Last Christmas they assembled a collection of their poetry in a small journal. We printed a few hundred copies or so and sold them, using the proceeds to purchase books for the jail. The poetry was raw and it was well-formed. It was free of pretense, simple but at the same time complex because of this simple pain that they were exploring.

Together, our classes discussed a name for the poetry collection. They eventually settled on "the guilty's innocence." They all really liked this title. For them guilt is one of the most fundamental powers of the soul, a force to be reckoned with. That they were guilty was the given. What they wanted to do with their poetry is let the reader see into their innocence. Looking back now, I think that it's their innocence that surprised me more than anything. There was a certain guilelessness that permeated each class and every written assignment. For example, Tamie and I quickly learned that our postmodern irony was lost on the class. For all of the ways in which they were wise to the world—much wiser than ourselves—for all of their soul-numbing experiences of abuse, violence, and oppression, oddly, they were too sincere for irony.


From my observations, I've found that many Christians these days prefer the version of the Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew. There is, however, another lesser-read version of the Sermon found in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew's account is what we might call a more "spiritual" interpretation. Luke's version isn't so lofty. It's raw and more prophetic, a bit more blue collar. It is also more compact. My earlier reading was from Matthew, which pronounces nine blessings. Luke slims down and gets to the point with only four.

There is certainly much to learn from Matthew's version. For example, I want to think about how the kingdom of heaven is to be found with those whose spirituality is poor. These days, there's money to be made in the business of promoting spiritual richness, and there are churches to be filled with congregants ready to hear a message about becoming spiritually wealthy. What might it mean to flip this paradigm? I want to learn how to identify with this poverty of the soul and see what it is that Jesus saw.

Turning to Luke, however, I can see that the interpretation and application of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount opens up….with a bit of a bite you might say.

woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets

These are the words that follow right on the heels of Jesus' blessings. It has all the fight of the ancient Hebrew prophets who denounced oppression and injustice in the land. The emphasis here is almost "economic." The blessing is not for the "poor in spirit," but for "the poor." Period. The version in the Gospel of Luke omits the term "in spirit" and simply states,

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

When Jesus speaks in this prophetic tone, he is tapping into his Jewish roots. These are deep roots. The Jewish holy writings overwhelmingly speak for the poor.

That these scriptures advocated for the poor was something I knew, but in preparing for this sermon, in reviewing again the writings, I was surprised when I read again the uncompromising emphasis of this message.

For example, the law made explicit provisions for the poor and vigorously forbade taking advantage of the weak and powerless:

For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it…ex23:10-11

Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry…. If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest….ex. 22:22-27

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7 Have nothing to do with a false charge… "Do not oppress an alien…ex. 23:6-9

The poetry of the Psalms also speaks on behalf of the poor, saying in no uncertain terms:

He will defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
he will crush the oppressor… For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
ps. 72:4, 12

Lastly, there are the Prophets. They are aflame with righteous indignation on behalf of the poor and against those who oppress the poor and do not provide for them:

You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
Amos 5:11

The LORD enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
"It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.

15 What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?"
declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.
Isaiah 3:14-15

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,

2 to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

3 What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Isa. 10:1-3

Now, my objective this morning is not to preach a hell-fire-and-brimstone sermon against the rich, but to simply draw attention to the way in which the ancient Hebrew faith aligns love for God and love for neighbor. There is no "love of God" without compassion and care for one's fellow human soul. Love for God cannot exist without love for the neighbor. It cannot. This religion has deep roots in the real world of caring for others, and Jesus, the orator of the Sermon on the Mount, practiced what he preached.

Jesus was poor. Jesus was homeless. Jesus was also a prisoner, a prisoner who died on death row.


As we read through our student's writings each week, we started to see definite trends. One thing in particular was that there were certain ways in which they wrote about themselves that revealed a very low sense of self-worth, particularly amongst the women. Many of our students had done things to cause themselves and others great suffering, and they had to live with that. As convicts and soon-to-be ex-convicts, they also had to live with highly negative (and often unforgiving) societal stigmas.

In light of this, Tamie came up with an assignment for the women's class: write something about yourself that is both true and kind. Only two, simple requirements: it has to be true and it has to be kind.

The next week the women had nothing to turn in. A misunderstanding? "Okay class, it's simple: a writing about yourself that is kind and true. Any questions? Alrighty then, try it again this next week."

The next week came, and still nothing. What then began to sink in, for us, was the fact that after two weeks, the women in our class could not conceive of a true kind thing to say about themselves. Not a one of the ten women could do it. After dialoging a bit with the class, Tamie responded by saying, "You think that you have nothing kind or good to write about yourselves, but I've read your writings…." She then went on to tell the class how as a young teenager, one of our students found herself with a child and in the midst a difficult marriage, and yet in the midst of all of the turbulence and chaos of her life, she was trying to make her house a home: cleaning, lighting candles, and scrubbing the kitchen floor until after a long while she realized it was in fact a dirt floor. In the middle of abuse and violence, fear and uncertainty, she was lighting candles.

After Tamie shared her story, the women in the class all had tears in their eyes, their homemade mascara running down their faces.

This story reminds me of another passage in the Christian scriptures, a rhetorical question really, with a certain echo: "Has not God chosen the world's poor to be rich in faith and heirs to the kingdom?" (James 2)


I think that much of the reason why we do not align ourselves with the poor is because we don't see the poor. Poverty, both material and spiritual, is so difficult to look at; it is unsettling and disturbing to the eyes and to the spirit. We fear poverty, we run from poverty, we protect ourselves against poverty. It was a difficult thing, even for a few hours each week, to go into the Kosciusko County Jail, to enter this new world where everything is so hard and yet so fragile. In our class, we saw the concrete dissolve into a fine powder, and we saw souls of steel become as breakable as dried twigs.

That's a scary thing to see. It makes me want to ask: who builds a kingdom with sticks and dust?

A rich young ruler once came to Jesus asking about eternal life. Had he kept all of the commandments, Jesus asked? Check. Okay, then sell all of your possessions. This was too much for the young man, and he left saddened in his heart.


In all of this, somehow I feel like we are talking about inverting the paradigm, turning common-sense on its head. To deepen the soul and widen the spirit, become humble. For humility, go to the poor, those impoverished hearts. Jesus puts it this way, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

It's like the spiritually and materially rich must go to the poor to seek deliverance and salvation from their riches. Like any religion that is authentic has to be a poor one. That sounds strange to my ears, I admit, and it certainly doesn't sound like any kingdom I've ever heard of. These are also teachings that are very disturbing, because to identify with the poor in spirit is to identify with heartbreak, violence, and brokenness in such a way that one weeps the tears of desperation.

There were many times when being teachers in the jail took its toll on us. Over the course of the one year we taught in the jail, we saw students create spaces for joy, hope, and truth, but we also saw students descend into depression, spiral into cynicism, and even one who was found dead in a ditch only weeks after being released. The unsettling nature of the poor in spirit leads to a good deal of questioning and speculation about one's religion.

For myself, the answers to these questions are often found wanting. There is one thing that seems true, however; and it is that suffering, pain, and poverty are one of the most fundamental realities I know; it's so fundamental to our economic, spiritual, emotional, mental, and societal existence. Therefore, any religion or view of life that does not confront suffering, pain, and poverty only becomes "an opiate for the masses," as Karl Marx put it. What is religion, or what is life for that matter, if it does not align itself with the poor.


I would like to close by sharing a poem written by one of our students, the same woman I mentioned above earlier who lit candles and scrubbed the dirt floor as a young, abused teenager. She was transferred from the Kosciusko County Jail to a maximum security prison, where she still resides up to this very morning.

I'm sitten here at Rockville Prison looking out the bars thinking to myself, "When will this end?" "Will I learn my lesson and never get into trouble again?" This is not somewhere I would want to stay longer than I have to. "Girls!" Not women! They are so rude & loud & disrespectful. I don't want to say nothing because I don't want to get into trouble this is very hard for me "to shut my mouth." I daydream a lot. I think of all the memories I have or I sleep so I can dream. The dreams take me in to a different world, a better place than this.

Some of the girls date each other, most of the time all this means is girls write love letters to other girls. I think it helps them cope with this place. Maybe they need love or just want to fit in. I don't do this, it's not in my world to be something I'm not.

I know one girl who pulls her hair out just because this other girl cuts her arms. Yes, this is not a place I want to be. But here I sit.

None of my friends write me anymore. They all forgot about me months ago. My family don't care. They know I will survive. It's very lonely here. I miss my kids, I miss my life. When will this end? I'm in a fog, drifting by, I'm numb but I hurt on the inside at the same time. This is a nightmare. Someday I will wake up and it will all be over but for now I have to stay in hell until God blesses me. Here I wait.