Thursday, May 15, 2008

Identity in poverty - blessed are the poor in spirit

We must desperately seek to be poor in spirit. When we have much, and we are focused on our own needs and our own lives, we think everything we have is earned of our own works, or owed to us because of who we are. When we have nothing and seek nothing, all we are given is more than enough and we can share this freely with one another. And truly, dear brothers and sisters, we are poor. We have nothing to offer our Creator, and we can give Him nothing. But in our spiritual poverty, he has filled us in His pleasure to be overflowing. We cannot take his grace and horde it for ourselves, we must share his grace with others. We cannot keep His forgiveness in jars in the basement, we must take it to others who are spiritually starved. We cannot live in our comfortable homes in our comfortable lives without all of our blessings given freely away. We cannot go on in this life accepting everything and giving nothing. Dare I say it is spiritual constipation?

Because we have received such great a love we cannot contain it, we must share this love with others. We can say "those in need," but who is not in need of grace? Who does not need the love God shared with us? How dare we keep it to ourselves!

When I read the scriptures I find our Savior lived a scandalous life. He had lunch with capitalists and tax men. He shared dinner with whores and homos. He stopped off for coffee with rebels and vagrants. Our Lord, the Creator of all, shared a sandwich with the sick and dying, and a drink with the political powers, outcasts of society, and ethnic enemies. This is a daring life to be sure (it did kill him after all).

It seemed as if everywhere he went, Jesus was eating with someone. Always at some one's place breaking bread. Our church fellowships certainly carry on this tradition with potlucks and banquets. But there is so much more to this than we know. In that culture of 1st Century Palestine, a meal was an invitation to a deeper relationship, and equity. When two men broke bread together, they were equals, and they were sharing their lives with one another. The symbolism is deep.

Then Jesus went and messed things up. He said that when we have a party to invite the poor and oppressed. Go out to the streets and find the hungry and bring them in for your luncheon. This is an invitation for us to relate with the poor and oppressed. This is bringing the poor onto our level, but more importantly bringing our haughty selves down to their level.

We must be careful with this last point, and I will emphasize it once more: We are not simply bringing the poor into the fold of the rich. We are not counting the oppressed in the ranks of the oppressors. We condescend from our place of wealth, from our identity as oppressor and become poor, become oppressed.

Christ Jesus lowered himself from the high place of authority in Heaven down to the level of sinful man. Our example for life did not grasp at his rightful place of power; he humbled himself and master became servant (Philippians 2:5-8).

We should not bring the poor/oppressed to the level of the rich/oppressor. We need a new world where neither designation exists. Slave/free, poor/rich, Jew/gentile: Christian.

The Church talks about helping the "poor." That very term is levying a wall of separation between two worlds. "Us" the church; "them" the poor. When the church can identify with the poor, and become poor themselves, we have equity and mountains are brought low and valleys are raised high (Isaiah 40:4). And all nations stream to the great mountain of Zion and learn the laws of the King of kings (Isaiah 2:2, 3).

And the challenge is not in the understanding, but in the practice. How do I, as a white, male, Christian, middle-class American identify with the black/brown/red, female, Muslim/Buddhist/tribesman, poor foreigner? I identify by my very being as "oppressor" in everything I am. And I hear Scripture screaming at me that Jesus condescended to the lowest level: the Samaritan, adulterous woman and identified with her where she was. This is a great challenge I may struggle with my whole life.

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