There’s an old African-American spiritual I learned in seminary. It goes, “I’ve got shoes, you’ve got shoes, all of God’s people got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven” Of course, most slaves didn’t have shoes. The early abolitionist Benjamin Lay (who is fascinating) once stood outside in a snowbank shoeless outside of his Quaker meeting in Philadelphia, saying to every passerby who expressed concern about his health that they should care about their slaves who are forced to work shoeless in the snow every day. So they sang “I’ve got shoes,” but they knew they didn’t have any shoes. And they knew that the reason they did not have any shoes was that the so-called Christians who owned them, stole their labor, sold their children, and worse, cared more about their horses than their workers. But they sang anyways. Because this song helped the slaves hold on to a profound truth: things look different in God’s eyes. Your shoelessness is not your status in the kingdom of God. And even if you are shoeless, poor, and hungry, you are blessed.
“I’ve got shoes, you’ve got shoes, all of God’s people got shoes.” It’s the perfect song for our Gospel passage for today. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus said, “for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” To be poor, to be hungry, to be weeping, and to be hated is to be blessed. If we have ears to hear what Jesus is telling us, God’s blessing is not always what you see. La bendición de dios no es siempre lo que puede ver. To sing “I’ve got shoes” while working in the snow without them is to proclaim, in contrast to what the world was telling you, that this is not the natural order of things, but instead a perversion of God’s kingdom. This world is not as it should be. Your shoelessness is not a reflection of God’s Kingdom, because in God’s kingdom you are blessed.
Up until this point in the Gospel, Jesus has done more healing than preaching. It says they came to hear him and be healed of their diseases and for unclean spirits to be cast out. So we know that gathered around Jesus are the sick and the infirm, the possessed and the distressed, and they are begging to touch the hem of his robe. Just like we do every Sunday. And before he tried to preach to them, he took care of their needs. He healed their bodies and cast out their demons and then he gave them a word. May that be a lesson to us all. Primero los sanó, luego les proclamó.
But then he does start to preach. We call this section of Luke the Sermon on the Plain. It corresponds roughly to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and I’m sure you can hear the echos of the Beatitudes in Jesus’s blessings. Only when Luke tells this story things are a lot more practical than spiritual. Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” but Luke says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry.” This isn’t spiritual poverty and hunger, but actual poverty and hunger. If you’ve been with us for any of the other Luke passages we’ve read so far you’ll see one of Luke’s big themes: social justice. is not just a miracle worker. Jesus is not just a guru or a spiritual teacher talking about how to get to heaven. Jesus proclaims a vision for how the world should be, and that vision involves casting the mighty from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things.
Jesus’s vision runs contrary to an assumption that is as common today as it was then. A whole lot of people assume, that because you are rich you are blessed. If you are rich it is because God is rewarding you for your hard work, righteousness, and faithfulness. And you can find that in the Bible, God blessed Abraham with many flocks and lands and descendants, as well as his sons Isaac, and Jacob. God promised Solomon vast riches because he asked for wisdom. But you’ll also find the words of prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Micah, who excoriated the wealthy for living high on the hog while their neighbors were in need. Jesus draws on this long tradition of the prophets to insist that God’s vision for the world lifts up the poor, the hungry, the disabled, and the downtrodden. And those prophets proclaim that material blessings are not truly blessings unless they are shared. The greatest offerings are nothing to God if we forget our neighbors in need. Los mayores sacrificios no son nada si olvidamos a nuestros vecinos necesitados. God gives gifts with a purpose.
And Jesus stands firmly in that tradition when he says “Woe.” Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” And “I’ve got shoes” draws on that same tradition in its chorus, where we sing “Everybody talking bout heaven ain’t going there, heaven, heaven.” Because there were people telling the slaves, ministers waving a Bible around and telling slaves that this is the natural order of things, this is a just world, this is a fair world, this is a righteous world, and yet the slaves still heard the Good News in Jesus’ words. The slaves had masters who went to church, many Presbyterian church, and were told that they were good and righteous before coming home to abuse them. But they knew that God is not here to but a rubber stamp on our own sinfulness, but to root out that sinfulness, and use us sinful broken people for the redemption of the world.
This song is a way of holding on to that vision. God’s vision. The vision that Jesus proclaims when he says, “blessed are you who are poor” and “woe to you who are rich.” The world as it is is not the world as it should be. And that’s the vision that we have to hold on to today. The poor, the wretched, the oppressed are loved and cherished by God even when it does not look like it. The people who have been forgotten by the world are the people who are blessed by God. You who are miserable, you who are wretched, you who are struggling to get by, this is the truth. You are loved. You are blessed. God sees you, and hears your cry, and the pain that you have received from the world is not God’s will for you.
But we’ve got to hold on to that vision for the rich, too. Because if you have been given great gifts from God, great things will be expected of you. You who are comfortable, you who are wealthy, you who have forgotten in your joy the pain of your neighbor, this vision is for you too. To live in a way that does not take into account the well-being of your neighbor is to live half a life. It is to miss out on the Kingdom of God. It is to miss out on the blessings of God. Because the blessing of God is not riches. It is not wealth, it is not comfort or security or safety. It is the work of redemption that is being done in you and for you and through you.
God’s blessing is the ability to participate in this work, the work of lifting up the downtrodden, the work of being neighbors to each other, breaking bread with one another, seeing the light of God in each other, and taking up our crosses and living for each other.
The blessing is the work of the kingdom towards the reconciliation of all people. The blessing is to be poor because you have chosen not to covet what is not yours, to be hungry because you have shared your bread with your neighbor, to weep because you have loved your neighbor as yourself, to be hated because to follow Jesus in this way is to proclaim to the rest of the world that the emperor may have no clothes, but you’ve got shoes, whether your feet are bare or not, and the freedom to walk in the light.