The Way God Sees the World
A sermon preached from Matthew 5:1-12 & Micah 6:1-8
Let me start off this morning by saying that I realize the sermon title: “The Way God Sees the World” is presumptuous. Last time I checked, I was not nor ever would be called God. Even with a seminary degree and all from Duke Divinity School like your pastor (Go Blue Devils!) and with ordination accreditation ascribed to my name, I claim I am a human being with limitations to understanding the mystery of the Divine. And if there is one thing I am certain of in this world, God is God and I am not.
And I boldly offer such based on our New Testament lesson for this morning taken from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5. For within the first 12 verses of this text, we find Jesus laying out for us some very straightforward, yet often misinterpreted descriptions of the world. God looks upon and says, “These folks get it. They’re not waiting on arriving in heaven to see my face and know me. They are living in the kingdom of heaven right now.”
Last week in our lectionary reading, the first disciples of Jesus have just been asked to join this new spiritual movement. Jesus met Peter, James, John and Andrew and said you’ll be fishermen no more— “Come fish for people with me.”
And as chapter 5 opens, Jesus’ teaching ministry is about get quite busy. Folks from all over the countryside have heard about him and are curious to know more. The crowds want to know what is Jesus’ next move. The disciples, however, are given premier access. Matthew 5 opens by telling us that the crowds have followed Jesus up to a mountainside. Jesus sits down with the disciples beside him and begins to say words that no one could have seen coming.
Jesus was expected by many to be a political leader after all—one who rose up to mobilize the Jews in force to overtake the oppressive Roman leadership.
If he truly was the Messiah—the one for whom they had been waiting for hundreds of years, then surely he’d have a message of power proclaiming himself ruler of all. Surely he would teach this crowd gathered to raise up an army and fight back
But instead of anything like this, what we hear is:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. . . .
Biblical scholar NT Wright talks about this paradigm shift when he says: “When God wants to change the world, God doesn’t send in the tanks. God instead sends in the meek.”
And it is meek Jesus on the scene. But, was Jesus out of his mind? Did Jesus really know what he was saying?
Yep. He did. For Jesus goes on to call out these groups of people as blessed: poor in spirit, mourners, meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and persecuted. He’s making some very clear statements about what life will be like for those who want to follow him.
There are so many preachers and teachers who at this moment of a sermon would parse out this text for you by explaining the difference between blessed and happy. Some translations say these are the blessed statements others say these are the happy statements. These pastors would say, "Happiness is short-lived and blessing is eternal." And their message could be summed up as: “We oh people of God need to focus our attention on less worldly things”
Then there would be some preachers who would go down the route of telling you that the Greek adjective markarios which the NRSV translates to English as “Blessed” can actually mean “fortunate” “happy” “in a privileged position” or “well off” (all true in fact) saying if you follow exactly what Jesus says then you have more fortune, happiness or privilege in your life, etc. Joel Osteen, anyone?
And even others would go down the route of saying that the beatitudes are about missions. Jesus doesn’t favor the rich and well off in life they’d say. Then these preachers would come down hard on their congregations with a strong voice: “We’ll be a better church, oh people of God if we spend more of our budget on the “least of these” instead of on our fancy new buildings or big staff salaries.”
And to all of these interpretations, I say there would be some truth found within, but maybe not the deeper question that Jesus is trying to help us understand. And this is: how does God see the world?
I have been blessed (pardon the pun given today’s scripture) over the years to travel a lot internationally. When I was in high school, college and even seminary, I always jumped at the opportunity to go abroad on service learning trips. When I was 14, I took my first big adventure out of the country without my parents to the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean to be mentored by a missionary teacher. And after that I was hooked. There was just something about seeing another country with a culture different from my own that enlivened me like nothing else could.
When I was 18, I booked a trip alone to Tanzania and Kenya for three weeks. Though I would be staying with friends of our family when I arrived, who were Americans, I was eager to get to know Africa as I’d had read and studied about it in school. I wanted to taste the food. I wanted to smell the air. I wanted to shake hands with new friends. I wanted to see Africa the way Africans saw their country.
But I have to tell you that whole trip turned out to be a bust. Never did I taste Ugali. Never did I go into any non-expats homes’. Never did I go anywhere that a person of non-European descent would go. My hosts wouldn’t allow it.
The Africa they saw, I learned, was the Africa through their American eyes. Their body had no sight or no taste for anything that didn’t resemble what was most familiar to them. For three weeks, I ate a lot of pancakes, pizza and tacos in Nairobi—strange, right? I came back to the US three weeks later only having tried bottled water from an African bottling company.
In the same way, I believe many of us read and understand the beatitudes much like my “Americanized African” trip.
We read these scriptures through the lens of what we know: being human, the way my friends introduced me to American food in Africa.
We digest scripture literally. We make salvation about where we go when we die. We might even look at beatitudes as a checklist for righteous behavior. And we stop engaging the scriptures right there.
We don’t take a step back and see the bigger picture. We don't see the feast of a new kind of life that Jesus is offering his followers. "Come learn of me," Jesus is saying, and "You will never position yourself in the world in the same way. Because the kingdom of heaven is not about some specific action you do. It’s not about how poor or rich you are. It’s not about how many mission trips your church takes. It’s about seeing the world with God’s vision, taking your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth."
I'll say it again, you take your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth.
This feast of living is what makes the gospel of Christ so mind shattering! The kingdom of heaven IS here and it can be known through human ambassadors like us. How? When we see the world as God sees it.
In August of 2012, my husband and I traveled to Malawi and Kenya for our first overseas adventure since he took over as President and CEO of Feed The Children a few months before. It was a trip of many jewels but one of the most important encounters for me during our time there was with a group of young men called the Hardy Boys—a group of 20s and 30s something young men with special needs. They had lived in the Feed The Children orphanage in Nairobi since childhood but had aged out of the system. (Thus, the “Hardy House” was created for them to live in for the rest of their life for most all of them have no family that is interested in caring for them).
Though full of life challenges and unable to do the one thing that they all wanted to do—work—for there are no jobs with persons with disabilities in Kenya (like most developing countries), the joy in their faces communicated to us beyond words and moved me to tears. During our time, one of the men, Christian gave me a year’s worth of his beautiful paintings in a sketchbook (pictured to the right). We ate together a meal with foods they thought we’d like the best. And later around chairs, we sang one of their favorite songs, “Kumbayah” together while drool rolled down the cheeks of some their faces and the blind ones twitched their heads back and forth and the rest of them couldn’t stop clapping their hands.
It was in this motley crew that most everyone in the world had written off as unimportant and insignificant that I saw something about God that I, as a seminary educated, able-bodied, able sighted person hardly knew: that God dwells where people have given their life to Jesus—all of it.
And this is truth: the way God sees the world is much like the Hardy boys do. And on that August day in their living room, I was standing on holy ground.
This does not mean, however, that we should any way glamorize the harsh realities of poverty. It does not mean that embodying compassion or enduring persecution is a bed of roses. It does not mean that hungering for righteousness is a delightful kind of labor.
No- not at all: injustice is real in this world and God asks us to lend our voices to do what we can to speak out against the greatest ills. Doesn’t our Old Testament reading for this morning make it plain? “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”
But in all of this, the world that God sees and Jesus exhorts us to get to know is a world where every mourner is comforted, where the meek inherit the earth, and where those who endure persecution KNOW they are doing divine work. And in this world there is joy, even in the midst of pain and suffering.
This kind of life goes against all modern notions of happiness. For in a nation where we constitute the "good life" with a well-paying job, children in good schools, the ability to go to see as many movies in a weekend that we want, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and having enough money to hire someone to clean our house and cut our grass, we don’t realize how POOR and OFF the mark we really all.
Again, not that having things is bad. But just that we’ve got the narrative of blessing all wrong.
Are we focused alone on our little kingdom on this earth or are we seeing the kingdom of heaven come to earth?
This is what I know without a shadow of doubt: when we come and see the world that God sees it, we are blessed. God's kingdom IS among us! How could we not be?
We are blessed as we mourn.
We are blessed as we purify our hearts.
We are blessed as we make peace.
We are blessed because we are living within the kingdom of heaven. And though onlookers may say falsehoods about us and mock the ways we spend our time, our talents and our money, we can not be shaken for God gives us vision for the plans of his world. We just need to follow.
For Jesus’ coming and showing us the way to the kingdom of heaven, today we can rejoice and be glad. There’s more than meets the eye in this world in which we live and this is good news for all of us today.
This week I've been reading Anne Lamott's latest: Help, Thanks, Wow. It's a book about three essential prayers that Lamott says are necessary for all of us to go back to over and over again. Saying to God, "Help!" "Thanks!" and "Wow!"
The first two sections were typical Anne Lamott good-- honest, raw, and real. So real that her words make you want to figure out how to write like this in your own voice.
But the third section has captured my attention in way that I think we don't talk about enough as people of faith: Wow!
Lamott writes: "The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can't think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace."
And when you put it like this, I don't think we don't know how to say wow. Sure, it's a simple enough word, but I can't think of the last time I heard it in a conversation.
Maybe it is because we don't know how to stop.
Maybe it is because speechlessness as a prayer doesn't seem to equate to "real" prayer in our minds.
Maybe it is because we are people who like to rush on through to the next project, the next meal, the next adventure that we keep our eyes shut to "Wow" most of the time.
This week as I've been traveling with the team from Feed The Children in Guatemala, there have been a lot of wow moments.
The children getting a book for the first time.
The smiles of the mothers.
The birds (and flying beatles) waking us up in the morning at sunrise.
As we've been thrust out of our normal day-to-day routines saturated in the beauty of a country with lush hills and valleys, colorful clothes and flavorful foods, it is much easier to say wow. Especially as we've served meals to children with the sparkle of gratitude in their eyes for a simple plate full of tamales, rice and beans, you just can't help but smile in wow!
But I don't think you have to go out of the country or into a new experience to have a "wow" moment or to offer up a "wow" prayer. Such opportunities are all around us, I believe.
Our children learning to say please.
Waking up before our alarm goes off.
An unexpected invitation to dinner.
A card of thanksgiving.
What about you? what is making you say "Wow" where you are today? Here's some photos of mine.
The juxtaposition of my life these past couple days has been interesting—attending a Christian conference discussing orphan ministries and global poverty in a well-to-do suburb of Nashville, TN to now being among kids in poverty in rural villages in Guatemala assisting with feeding programs with the staff of Feed The Children.
There’s still much to process. But for now, this is what is coming together in my mind:
One of the best experiences of the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit for me was the breakout session I attended called, “Straight Talk from Adult Adoptees.”
In the session, a packed room, three adults and one older teen led a panel discussion about growing into maturity from their experiences as adopted children.
Feelings such as “I hated my birth parents or birth country for abandoning me” to “I always knew my birth parents loved me, until they got a divorce . . . “ to “I never really understood why my birth parents would give me up” were shared openly.
But, then the discussion got complicated. We quickly learned there would be no “one sized fits all” answers or even the luxury that “being adopted” would be the defining experience of the panelists’ lives.
One of the adult adoptees shared how her trust issues were complicated by the fact that she learned her adoptive father only agreed to her adoption to save his marriage—which indeed didn’t happen as they divorced six months after her placement with family. She talked about her mother’s complicated re-marriage processes and then shared about the recent death of her adopted mom. All experiences of great loss . . .
But before our minds in the audience could single out her experience as “oh so bad” this adult adoptee stopped us saying directly to us: “Everybody in their life has pain. I have friends who have been through great losses too—deep woundedness that follows them as mine does me. . . . It just so happens that mine is more understandable than some with the label of adoption.”
It was a light bulb moment for me.
She spoke the truth: everybody has deep pain. Everybody is wounded. It's not an adoption issue. It's a human issue.
Being adopted and coming to turns with the abandonment part of it is just one of the ways that deep pain of this broken world can find a person early in life.
Pain is pain. Grief is grief. Loss is loss. And it is something we all understand, the more honest we become with our own story. Experiencing pain is a part of what it means to be human. Experiencing pain is part of what connects us to other human beings.
Fast forward to this morning as I spent the day with the Feed The Children staff in Guatemala and several other guests at one of our feeding centers in rural Guatemala. As we visited with the kids, played games like hitting the piñata in search for candy, read stories to them, and then of course served a meal (rice with some chicken mixed in, cucumbers and radish salad, and tortillas), I couldn’t help but think about these kids’ pain.
I thought about the pain these kids may not have words to speak of right now, but pain that will follow them because of the kind of livelihood they were born into.
For, these were kids who came to the center in tattered clothing, dirty faces and shoes that didn’t seem to fit right.
These were kids who starred often at us “white people” with the cameras taking pictures of the festivities with the look of “Wow, what a nice life you have!”
These were kids who have walked to walk miles to school, many of whom depend on the donated shoes from TOMS (one of Feed The Children’s partners) in order to get there safely.
These were kids with great needs, more than I can mention in this post (though of course thanks to the generosity of FTC contributors and sponsors many of these needs are getting met).
They know pain.
Though I did not grow up in a home that struggled to provide me with basic life necessities, I can identify with them. I can identify with their loss, even if it may not be to the degree that their loss is to them.
For at the end of the day, we all just want to be loved. We all just want to know that someone cares about us in particular. We all want not to worry about where our next meal will come from or that we’ll have clean clothes to put on the next day. We want to feel secure in a family system, orphaned or not.
And I believe that when we all get to the point in our lives when we see our stories as broken, as in need, and most of all full of pain of one kind or another—we are given a great gift.
We're given the ability to more honestly look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters in humanity, knowing we’re from the same family. All of us. Because of this, we need each other more than we ever thought.
Who is the church called to care for?
Who is the church asked to speak for?
Who is the church told to lift up?
For those of us who believe in the mission of the church, each of us has our favorite answers to these questions.
Many say the church is called in mission to the poor or the widows, or the sick.
Many say the church is called to speak for those without a voice.
Many church is called to pray for those who are often left out or ignored in remote places of our local communities and around the world.
But, I'm learning this week that there are a growing number of Christians and Christian churches who answer these questions by specifically by saying: "God calls us to care for, to speak up, and to lift up the orphans."
I'm attending the Christian Alliance of Orphans Summit Conference in Nashville, TN as a representative for Feed The Children exploring what relationship with this Christian Alliance might look like in the future. And here with folks who deeply care about the church's mission going forth in care of children who have been abandoned, malnourished, or without the basic life essentials to achieve their greatest potential, I've had some shocking revelations.
It has been shocking to see how many folks are here in the middle of the week (organizers say it's the largest turn out ever in its history). Starting only with 45 folks sitting around shared tables only 9 years ago and now more than 2,000 . . .
It has been shocking to learn about how many churches around the country host "Orphan Sundays" each year-- in an effort to spread the message about the plight of orphans around the globe. Big mega churches, medium-sized churches and tiny ones alike . . .
It has been shocking to see such passionate conversation between all sorts of church folk around the exhibit hall asking such questions as "What more can we do to raise awareness about these children who need us to care for them?" Folks from all corners of the spectrum of theological camps, conservative, liberal, you name it. ..
And it is good to be shocked. It is good to see so many folks in James 1:27 t-shirts (the adoption theme verse). It is good to see so many interracial families and families full of kids with special needs and families putting action to their faith instead of words only.
It is good to be learning in community.
It is good to be so proud of the organization I know best, Feed The Children-- a group that has been working since 1979 around the globe to bring attention to children in poverty including orphans.
If you are interested in joining the movement: click here to learn more.
Today, I am participating with my friends at Feed The Children in their pledge to go one day without shoes. It's a cold day in Oklahoma and I have missed wearing shoes for sure, especially when an errand I needed to do took me on the streets of downtown OKC.
It's an emphasis begun by one of Feed The Children's partners, TOMS shoes to raise awareness about childhood poverty around the world and what it would be like to be even without the most basic life necessity: shoes. Feed The Children is participating, staff-wide for the second year now.
We were invited to write a name of a child on our feet-- as a way to walk in solidarity with them for the day. I chose Dorcas, a little girl from the area of Tumaini, Kenya.
Dorcas is an 10-year-old girl who lives in a community without running water. Her home does have electricity for which she is thankful. She contributes to her home by carrying water/ wood, cleaning and caring for her younger siblings. Her favorite color is red and her favorite food is rice. Dorcas hopes to become a teacher when she grows up.
Consider sponsoring Dorcas or a child like her (as Kevin and I have done) through Feed The Children's child sponsorship program. You'll ensure she never goes a day without shoes again.
Or, consider buying a pair of TOMS shoes, knowing that as you do a pair will be donated because of YOU to a child in need (and many of these kids are participants in Feed The Children's programs!)
I can't help but be reminded on this day as I participate with countless others in this emphasis of Isaiah 52:7: "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!"
Bringing shoes to kids in need is good news indeed! Thanks TOMS for your leadership in this great effort.
Today, I watched as 800 people stood in line with grocery sacks, trash bags and wheeled carts waiting to get food.
Most if not all were minorities.
Many were elderly, walking with canes or walkers.
Many were young mothers with babies in strollers or in car seats.
Many looked cold after standing in line for three or more hours simply to make it to the front of the line.
Many spoke of their long journey home, taking two or more buses to get back to their doorstep.
Most looked weary with the burdens of a hard life-- a life that had a lot to do with self-reliance, determination and perseverance to succeed even under less than desirable circumstances.
These were some of my hungry neighbors in the northeast neighborhood of Washington, DC. They gathered in mass nearby the Central Union Mission because they heard Feed The Children came to town with "the big truck." Feed The Children came with boxes of essential can goods, personal care products such as soap and toothpaste, and loaves of bread, oatmeal, and even some chocolate for the way home from its partners including Pepsi, Frito Lay and Wal-Mart.
As I gathered with my neighbors and stood in the line of folks giving out boxes to families in need, I couldn't help be overwhelmed by how deeply embedded hunger needs are, only a few miles from our nation's capital.
Can you imagine what a line of 800 people looks like? (As soon as we thought we'd made headway in passing boxes out, the line seemed to get longer and longer). Can you imagine what it is like to be hungry enough to wait in the cold for a box of food which might only last you a week? Can you imagine the humility that comes from asking for help to simply feed your own children?
As I helped elderly women and young mothers put their canned goods and Corn Flakes into their suitcases or duffel bags, wishing them well on their journey to get all their heavy weight home, I could help but think about what Jesus would say about all of this.
How in a nation of plenty do we allow some of our neighbors to live with such little when many of us take so much?
How do the poor, in a town where media coverage runs on just about anything, become invisible to us?
How do we call ourselves good neighbors, as residents and frequent visitors to the District when some of our neighbors simply do not have enough food to feed our families?
Of course, these are big questions to ask and big questions without simple answers. And, the folks at Feed The Children know that food is only the beginning-- you feed hungry people so that doors of greater relationship can be opened for lasting change. Feed The Children just is a small drop in the larger assistance movement in communities. Feed The Children's food drop's like today mean little if they aren't connected to greater, long-term investment by partner organizations. And Feed The Children's network of building lasting change with in communities like DC is certainly growing by the day. Today was more than about just food-- Feed The Children made sure of this.
As I reflect tonight on my experience today at this event, I am sobered most of all. I know I need to think of my neighbors-- all of them-- in new ways. I need to remember as much as I have, there are those who struggle in my own neighborhood to buy vegetables and shampoo.
Maybe for all of us on this Holy Week as we stand around in the crowds, watching and waiting for and with Jesus-- we can all do our part by remembering the poor among us. We can thank God for the blessings in our life, both great and small. Yet, we can remember that no matter how wide we think our vision is in our community, there's always hungry folks among us wanting to be seen and feed too.
Who is on your list of people that you don’t like?
Of course, talking about people who we don’t like isn’t really something we often do in public, especially in church. And, I know it is Christmas. Most of us are well on our way to be appearing to be nicer than we seem with the corporate theme of “Peace on earth and goodwill toward all men”
But, seriously, I’m asking. Who is on your list of people you don’t like?
We all have them.
From the mechanic who installed faulty brakes in our car just last week to the neighbor who wakes up at 6 am and starts the leaf blower or the chainsaw directly below our bedroom window.
To the family member who tells racist jokes about our dear friends, even when we ask them to stop.
And horrifically, to the shooter who changed the world as we knew it on Friday morning—when 26 precious lives were taken from this world by gunfire at their elementary school.
(Such is of course an example of “people we don’t like” that I didn’t plan on including in my sermon for this morning. But nonetheless it happened. If you are like me, as the scenes of parents picking up their children from Sandy Hook Elementary rolled across the television screen on Friday and reports of how many parents would not —I couldn’t help but think oh so mean thoughts about the kind of person who would do such to innocent little children in school. Very mean thoughts in fact).
From the trivial to the tragic, there are plenty of really valid reasons to not like people—even as we know our calling as people of faith is to “love one another.” It is as my husband says to me after we’ve had a “friendly” marital dispute: “Honey, I love you but I just don’t like you right now.” (Anybody ever had been in this place too?). We all have people in our lives that we just don’t like, even if we love them or know that we should love them.
And along these lines, I suggest that the sermon title for this morning should be changed from: “Waiting with the Shepherds” to “Waiting with the Despised” or “Waiting with those whom we belittle” For the small chunk of our beloved Christmas story before us today features a group of folks who were very much disliked in their time. Though for many reasons that maybe weren’t fair—prejudge and classism— the shepherds were put down nonetheless.
When I say “shepherds” it’s hard to get your mind around the idea of the association of not liking them, isn’t it?
If you know anything about Biblical history, you know that scripture is full of stories about shepherds. If you are a child growing up in children’s Sunday School as some of us were—you learn how to get good at sheep crafts because there are lots of lessons by which they apply. I can’t tell you how many cotton ball sheep I made in all my years of church classes.
Pertaining to sheep, we tend to think favorably of them. Moses was a shepherd when God called him. So did David claim this profession and several of the prophets too. What more beloved passage of scripture do we have than Psalms 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want?” Didn’t Jesus later say, “I am the good Shepherd?
And these days- when we think shepherds we often think of cute kids with bath towels wrapped around their heads in Nativity plays.
Or we think of burly but strong characters from our coffee table manger scenes.
Or at worst we think of smelly field workers who could really use a hot bath, but not the despised.
I mean, how could we dislike characters that were among the first to worship and greet our Lord?
But, in the time of Jesus’ birth, to be a shepherd was not a ticket to popularity. While sheep are cute and the Bible seems to speak of sheep and shepherds often—what we need to understand is that being a shepherd in this day and time was the modern equivalent of being a trash collector or a someone who empties the latrines of our airplanes or someone who is forced to pick up trash on the side of the road as part of the patrol from jail.
For what does a shepherd do? They raise sheep and goats—smells and all. They guide their sheep to graze in open land. They live a nomadic life without a permanent address or even a P.O. box. They put up with some of the most unpredictable creatures on earth—fuzzy, stubborn creatures who don’t always go where they were led or remember to stay in the bounds of their owner’s land.
It was a rough life. We don’t know if they had mental health issues that had forced them outside the bounds of “normal” society. We don’t know if they had addiction problems. We don’t know if they had mother or fathers or wives to welcome them home once the herding was over. We don’t know if they wished they had a better job—if they’d only be offered the opportunity to thrive somewhere else.
All we DO know is that to be a shepherd in Jesus’ time was to be unseen by those outside of the working class like them. It was to be overworked, without holidays or weekends off. It was to be paid less those with more important jobs in palaces, the city square or even at the temple. And most of all to be shepherd was to be a little less human.
And it is to this collection of guys the multitudes of the heavenly hosts appears at night saying, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”
The Presence of the Living God comes to this unlikely band of sheep herders and says, “The best thing that has ever happened to the world is in your hood. Your heavenly Father has picked you first to see it. Now, go!”
Wow—what a special invitation this all was!
But, remember our theme. Today we are talking about what it means to wait. In particular, what does it mean to learn from the waiting the shepherds did to get to this climatic moment in their lives?
Different from other sermons in this series, we’re not talking today about the process of actually waiting and what it was like for the shepherds to hear the good news. Because, hey! I don’t imagine that this group of fellas thought they were waiting for anything special at all. No wonder scripture tells us “they were afraid.”
So, today, rather, we’re taking this opportunity to wait with them, to consider that these were THE ones who were asked to attend to the birth of Christ first. What does it mean to wait for Jesus alongside the lowly among us? What does it mean to wait with those in our life this Advent season who are on our “I don’t really like them very much” list?
It’s one of those piercing questions because of who’s on that list. I don’t like to go there. I don’t like to be forced to consider the fact that I think I’m better than the men who pick up my trash every Friday morning.
I bet you don’t either. It’s easier to go about life as if we’re the most important character. It’s easier to go through life as if we are kings and queens of our own kingdom, inviting only those in our lives who are we like.
But, what if we began to wait with the shepherds among us? What if we saw the world from the perspective of those in whom our society doesn’t value? What might our waiting entail then?
In a mid-size US city much like ours, a man named William Well is homeless. He was interviewed recently by a television station about his story. This is what the reporter said about him:
William is a convicted felon and recovering addict who’s stayed sober four months and counting.
The reporter says about William, ”He’s ready for the cold shoulders and weary eyes likely to greet him from the family next door, should he land a spot in supportive housing for the chronically homeless. For now, though, he’ll bide his time on a waiting list.”
At 59 years old, the Chicago native insists that he’d be happy just to hold down a job and mind his own business.
William says: “At this stage of my life, I wanna be able to help myself … buy my food, buy my clothes, pay my own rent,”
“You’ve gotta give a person a chance,” he said. “It’d make me feel like a man.”
But men like William who walk the streets every day aren’t those who we often give a second chance too.
It’s annoying sometimes to be greeted by a homeless person at an intersection of a shopping center, isn’t? Or, to be greeted by someone going door to door in our neighborhood asking to do odd jobs around our yard? Or to be given a flyer by a person standing a street corner for a service or product we could care less about and becomes just one more piece of paper to have in our purse of pocket?
We look at people like this as beggars, wasting our time, or most of all suspiciously who are just going to take and take and never give back to society. We look at their criminal past and judge them without an eye for the possibilities for the future. We often don’t think God could appear to them, speak through them or be the central characters in a play school children would perform for centuries to come, as the shepherds became that night.
But, the God we know of our beloved Christmas story is the God who appears to those in our world we might dislike, despise or might otherwise overlook in our busyness.
The God we know of our beloved Christmas story is the one who goes where the hungry seekers of faith are found-- those who have been rejected by the world, who are working jobs at fast food restaurants, in cleaning companies, and as street cleaners.
The God we know our beloved Christmas story is the God who often goes outside of the bounds of the city to find those who are ready to worship the Christ child—those in the trailer parks, those in the shacks of country houses, and those who find themselves camped out in the woods of Reston in the tent cities because they have nowhere else to go.
If we truly want to be people who wait with the shepherds as the third candle of our Advent this year asks us to do, then we’ve got to first re-orientate ourselves to the types of people that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ asked to come and worship Him first.
One of Bill Watterson’s famous Calvin and Hobbes cartoons speaks of the type of mania we deal with this time of year: “Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer.... Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously? ”
There’s a popular phrase this time of year and I bet you know it. And it’s “Jesus is the reason for the Season.” It’s kind of the Christian catch phrase we use to talk about the rise of consumerism and emphasis on all things Santa that seem to take the thunder away from Jesus.
And of course, it’s true, Jesus’ birth is the reason for all our preparations and waiting this Advent season, and yes, it should be our main focus.
But, I’m here today to offer you something more. Who are we waiting beside? What kind of people are we waiting with? Are we waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth this year alongside people just like us? Or are we waiting with the shepherds?
Who will be around your dinner table this Christmas? Who will you buy presents for? Who will you befriend in the New Year? If there's anything I've heard over and over about this school shooter in the past 24 hours it is that he was "a loner." Where were his friends? Where was the church?
I dare suggest that if we wait with the shepherds among us this Advent season, what we’ll really find this Christmas is Jesus.
. . . Jesus who humbled himself, coming from all the lights of heavenly glories to become a baby, a tiny, helpless baby so that we could all know how much God truly loves each and every one of us
. . . Jesus who came to help the broken, the tired, the lame not the well and happy
. . . Jesus who came to teach us God’s abundant grace lavished on all of us, not just the select few.
If we want to know Jesus, let us wait with the shepherds among us, let us learn of them, and most of all let’s invite them in to our lives.
There are weeks when I have scripture texts before me and I wonder as I prepare what the writer of the text was smoking (for I just can't figure out the point) and there are times I think I have absolutely no experience with the implied message of the text and feel so inadequate to preach. How God can use me to speak a word to you in weeks like this? I just don't know.
But then there are some special weeks like this one, where I feel God must have thought I was the one who really needed to learn something. For, I've seen and experienced a version of this text all week-long.
If there is ever any doubt that I learn as much from writing sermons as I do in giving them or you do in hearing them, then I have proof. Mark 12 was mine to learn from this week.
And this is our particular text that I want us to stick closely to this morning: Jesus is nearing the end of his life, on his way to Jerusalem. And on his way, he's using every teachable moment possible to help his disciples see what the kingdom of God looks like. Not only did the disciples need to be prepared for what was to come in his death, but they needed guidance as to what kingdom living looked like on earth in real time.
Let's look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples and those bystanders in ear-shy beginning in verse 38. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Obviously, Jesus and the religious scribes were obviously working from two different visions of what made their life count with lasting value.
The scribes wanted to do works to be seen and to be important among the who's who of society. And, to achieve these goals, the scribes were known to take from those in the community who were without means to defend themselves, namely the widows. Specifically they were known to "devour them" a word used in scripture only in cases of extreme separation from what is good and what is evil.
Contrary, Jesus cared nothing for this kind of recognition or power. In fact he condemned it. He had already said in Mark chapter 10, "and the last shall be first and the first shall be last." Things in the kingdom of God were not like the ways of the scribes. In Jesus' vision of the world, room was always made at the table for one more, no matter the rank, class or belief system. According to Jesus, a life that God honored always included love of neighbor.
As many of you know, Kevin and I spent the last week on a mission delegation to the Philippines as part of Kevin's job with Feed The Children. It was an experience that challenged us on many fronts as to what love of neighbor looks like.
And over the past 8 days, we held babies. We fed school children who eagerly anticipated their portion of rice and sweet potatoes. We danced with women (yes, proving that white women can shake with the best of them). We talked to school children about staying in school and studying hard. We traveled long hours by plane, boat, van, and taxi to see with our eyes what we didn't know before we left the comfort of our home in Northern Virginia.
We spent several days in the capital city of Manila, a city over 12 million people.
In Manila, everything you could possibly need or want as a Westerner is here. You could start your day off with Starbucks (which you know Kevin did, of course). You could go to the mall and buy a new outfit at Old Navy or body wash at The Body Shop. You could dine at Wendy’s or Burger King. Folks in the business district of downtown can be seen carrying Prada purses or wearing Jimmy Choo stilettos. Folks at the airport all talk on the latest IPhone 5.
But, as with most major urban centers, it is not the whole story.
The urban poor, living in shanties in the slums are in this city only a few km from the high rises of folks drinking the finest coffee and wine. For these slum dwellers, life is difficult and assistance is needed from NGOs for basic survival.
The necessity of organizations like Feed The Children comes into play because government social services (which we expect in the US as a given) are limited, if existent at all. Children are malnourished and drop out of school. Children go unsupervised and play in garbage dumbing grounds. Children grow up without dreams of ever leaving the community in which they were born.
In these experiences we learned much. But most of all this--
There are far more widows in the modern world than rich scribes and Pharisees.
As much as the religious zealots of our time make the headlines on a daily basis especially as they have over the last year of our election cycle . . .
We are a world of "widows."
And by widows, I don't necessarily mean just widows from the technical definition --women who are on their own because their husband has deceased.
But I mean "widows" in the broader sense. For example, mothers and fathers who have more children than they can afford to take care of. Or, these are babies who come from the womb malnourished because their mothers didn't receive the proper prenatal care. These are families who make the choice to live in garbage dumps because they can make $2 a day in the recycling sorting business instead of no income at all in somewhere less smelly.
Throughout the Philippines, I met these "widows" this week ... or otherwise known as the slum dwellers, the down and out or the working poor.
And in meeting them, I realized that such is not a situation in the Philippines, but one that is all over the world...
And so this is what I really want to say: the Mark lection is not some isolated occurrence without application to the characters we have among us today. We live in a global community among the rich and the religiously arrogant. And we live in a world of the incredibly poor and destitute.
(Though such is not something that we like to think about very much, if at all. It is of course much easier to go about our lives pretending all is well in who-vile or whatever it is that we call where we live.)
Yet most interpretations of this passage or sermons you've heard for that matter seek to guilt us into believing our calling as Christians is to be more like the widow. For we read in verse 42 and following that when it came to offering time in the nearby temple: "a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny . . . out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” And so, like her, we too must give more!
(So shall I take a special offering now? Will the ushers come forward . .. Ok, just kidding.)
It's inspirational isn't it? Giving beyond our means. Giving till it hurts. Giving all we have even if it means our own personal suffering. But last time I checked the Bible was not an inspirational book, but one full of challenges to our societal norms.
And so this morning, I am not going to tell you to be more like the widow. For how much you give and how you give, comes out of your own life circumstances and spiritual journey. Your giving practices are a conversation you must have and keep having with your Maker.
But what I am going to ask you to do is to see the world as it really is-- not to glorify poverty but to lament with me for a moment that we live in a world where those with few resources have to carry the responsibility of giving what they do not have so that the rest of us can learn what loving neighbor is all about.
Professor David Lose of Luther Seminary asks us all this pointed question: "Are we wrongfully accepting the gifts of those who are giving too much of their income while we praise, and give influence to, those who give greater sums but hardly feel the impact of their gifts?"
While Kevin and I were spending time on Wednesday of this week, dedicating the new wing of a school that Feed The Children gave to an impoverished community outside of Manila, our schedule included some time in the community from which the children came. Namely the slums.
I was prepared for anything I thought but little did I know what was in store.
Remember this was the slums... But when the community heard Feed The Children was coming, they made our group quick guests of honor. A tent was found to give us shade (not sure where it came from). Plastic chairs were brought from individual homes to make sure we had somewhere to sit. A banner of welcome made from bedroom sheets hung over our seats of welcome. The town council chair said to us "We don't get visitors often. We wanted you to feel special."
And special we felt as kids and mothers alike performed for us cultural Filipino dances and modern ones too, sang solos and prayed blessing prayers over us. Kids even without shoes put on their best outfits for the performance.
At one point during the program, Kevin leaned over to me and said, “I can't imagine what amount of work this took to put our visit on like this."
"Yeah, I know."
"Look up Elizabeth, and see those decorations across the tent. Those are colored plastic grocery bags filled with air have become such a colorful and resourceful expression of their welcome to us. . . . Folks with so little have given us everything, all they have."
Like the widow with her mite, our team was given some of the most pure expressions of love and hospitality that can be experienced in our world. We who came from so much-- people who could have parties every week and afford more than blown up plastic bags for decorations-- were given all that these people had.
We, oh citizens of this great nation , of the United States of America. I am here to say that in this gospel reading we play the role of the scribes. There's just no way to get around it. We are the ones who have left the poor behind.
No matter if we find ourselves in the middle of the Filipino slums or right here on the Plaza in Reston, we are contributors to the systems in this world that pretend to give but indeed take and take some more.
We pretend to be people who care for social justice but we buy cheap clothes and jewelry from sweat shops in developing countries where workers earn pennies an hour.
We pretend to be great givers to church, civic groups and other non-profits, but our end of the year giving reflects more distaste for federal taxes and less about giving and receiving one another abundantly.
We pretend to give sacrificial gifts to loved ones during the holidays but what we really are doing is re-gifting stuff we didn't like from last year.
Today's sermon is not meant to make us feel guilty for what we have or what we don't give away. But simply to tell us the truth of who we are. When it comes to giving as Jesus showed us how and gave to us, we are clueless.
But thanks be to God that there is always good news. We can live a life that counts for the good of all people.
Later on in the same day (that we visited the slums), Kevin and I made a trek up a very tall hill to visit another family. I was grumbling because I had flip-flops on and didn’t quite think I’d be able to make it the whole way. But somehow, we arrived at a stopping spot. There we were introduced to a mother of one child who struggles to have food to give to her daughter. Though her husband works in factory that sends goods to America—figurines, in fact that we will probably see on our shelves during the holidays, she hardly has enough rice or meat in any given day not to go hungry.
As Kevin and I listened to her story of pain, and we both struggled not to cry (unsuccessfully of course). Why did the rains of blessing fall on us but not her, we wondered, As we left, I stopped the camera crew. “Where’s the hope?” We have to give them hope. We didn't give that family any hope in the interview. (We learned that later the Feed the Children staff would be bringing them food for the next week).
And so, we always must have hope. We interact with one another in hope. And here is yours:
If we are ready to see the world as God sees it . . . If we are ready to live more of our days with the kind of generosity that is not taking too much or too less . . . If we are ready to accept our Pharisee status and move on to what God has prepared for us, our Lord is ready to teach us. I’ll say it again, the Lord is ready to teach us.
All we have to do is ask.
At dusk last night, I walked through the slums of Cebu City, Philippines.
The invitation to walk through the slums at nightfall came after our delegation spent the afternoon at Pasil Elementary, where Feed The Children is highly revered. Last year the elementary got a new wing of state of the art classrooms with funding facilitated by FTC. Upon hearing of our visit as a delegation from the US, a program of celebration was planned. Songs, dances and opportunities to interact became a delightful stop for our group. The kids who got FTC scholarships to attend school sang to us in the program: "Thank you, thank you. We hope we make you proud. May you remember to pray for us and that the Spirit connects us all." I sat on the stage and cried.
I thought the emotion of the day couldn't be any more intense. But then there was . . . the slums . . . the place where the school kids live.
Though no slums virgin, the shock came over me quickly with the first step. It would be a sensory assault from the start.
Stepping through the maze of "houses" in order to get to the dock by the sea, several roosters running free nearly tackled me, pecking my feet. I saw a man going for the kill with a chicken-- I guess for his families' night's dinner. Passing by public toilets where the entire community showers, uses the toilet and gets their running water (after paying a fee of two pesos), the potency of the odor marked the spot. Next door to the "sanitation" center was a dwelling that burnt down in 1988 (we learned) that still housed a family even among the ashes and lopsided walls. I saw a mother chopping potatoes by candlelight there.
Further in, child after child was running free without supervision with tattered shirts, dirty faces, and shoeless. They stared with wide eyes as to why I would be there. Makeshift market stands selling shrimp and crab caught by fishermen slum dwellers earlier in the day, filled the concrete pavement. And no, there was no refrigeration to keep the seafood up to health code relegations. I wondered who would eat the shrimp and whether or not it would make them sick. I wondered who would treat the ills of these folks if they got sick. Anyone?
Yet, afterwards, Kevin said, "Now that was a scene out of a nightmare, wasn't it?" Funny thing was I was thinking the exact same thing.
Before all the mother worrying types out there get too concerned, let me tell you that Kevin and I weren't alone. Thank goodness, we had a guide, the local town council member for we surely would have gotten lost or had something stolen off our bodies if this woman's presence hadn't said "They're with me. I will take care of them." Our group stayed close to her and felt as safe as one can feel in a slum.
This is the part of this blog post where you might expect me to make meaning of what I saw and experienced. But I can't.
I am a wealthy white woman from the United States. But there are some members of my human family who live in the slums.
Last week, we began by asking ourselves some big picture questions as a congregation: who are we? And where are we going? Following the lead of Micah 6:8, we answered by remembering that our first calling as a community is to do justice by simply opening our eyes and seeing people that we might otherwise overlook. Justice begins with opening our eyes to see. But this morning, let’s take the conversation one step further—asking again, who are we?
If you are like most, you probably would answer this question based on where you find yourself in this moment of your life. I am a grandmother. I am retired. I live in Reston. I work in Tysons. I live in a brick house. I drive a Honda hybrid.
Though we know intellectually that we are more than our jobs or more than our titles or even more than what we own, it is very easy to talk about who we are by the stuff around us. It very easy to be people who are always out for the hunt for something more—just as a recent survey of American reported than a large majority feel that they deserve right now a 20% increase in pay or that if they made at least 20% more money than they made right now then they’d be happier.
But Micah’s exhortation encourages us today—that our second call as congregation is to be a people who “love mercy.” People who not only see the needs of those around them, but begin to use their resources they have—whether they be time, talent or even finances to come to the aid of others.
And in this calling, as we consider living it out, can come in direct assault to the ways and the stuff around us that we normally define ourselves by. What if we didn’t buy the new I Phone 5 and instead sponsored a child monthly through a relief organization in lieu of that extra special data cell phone plan? What if we waited to purchase a vacation home and instead agreed to assist our grandchildren for paying for college? What if we left our high paying job (and thus guarantee for an early retirement) for a career in the non-profit sector where we knew we could use our talents for the great good of our community?
Ouch! This “love mercy” stuff is no easy calling . . .
However, as we take a closer look at our gospel lesson for this morning, we know that we are in good company. The earliest disciples suffered from the same struggle too. The cost of discipleship was in fact harder than their check-list faith paradigm from the past might have otherwise imagined.
As recorded in Mark 10, Jesus has had a hectic day of ministry but a man comes running toward him after the blessing of the children. This man was a courageous young fellow as he risked ridicule by humbly approaching this Teacher everyone was talking about. Clues from other gospels help identify him by the title of Rich Young Ruler.
And because of his wealth, this was also a guy who we can imagine got everything his heart desired—only the best social status, the best camel his dinari could buy, and handsome garments to wear to prove to the world that he was somebody. Basically, his life was on a direct path where everything was as it should be. (Though I’m sure he still thought he needed 20% more!)
Furthermore, from this passage, we gather that even in the religious realm, the Rich Young Ruler was the kind of guy with every t crossed and i dotted— he followed the commandments of his faith doing everything that was expected of him.
However, one huge unanswered question mark remained. Was he completing the right to-do list? The Rich Young Ruler wanted to know if his efforts to be a godly person were enough to get him on the “Who’s Who of God’s People” yearbook.
Thus, we hear him uttering this question to Christ: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” in verse 17.
And this question is not just one that 1st century Jews were asking themselves—it still lingers as one of the most pondered questions in the modern-day.
Answer the question in a book of 150 pages or less with good marketing and you’ll be a bestselling author. Speak prophetically about the nature of salvation with specific dates about Jesus’ second coming and you’ll be the founder of a new branch of Christianity. Preach a five step salvation plan and you might just be a pastor of a growing mega church.
But why? I believe it’s because there is something in all of us that craves a checklist faith: we want concrete answers. We want a rubric that leaves us with a chart full of gold stars from God at the end of our lives. And we want all of these achievements in a package we can easily understand, so we’ll have time left where we can cram in everything else in our lives that we think is important.
In the same way, the Rich Young Ruler truly got this desire of ours. In his craving to know what Jesus’ bottom line was for salvation, he was just asking to see the black and white meaning of eternal salvation. So, why couldn’t Jesus, this good teacher, just tell him? He knew whatever it was, he could do it.
In typical Jesus fashion, he steers clear of an easy answer and adds an impossible addendum to the commandments he was already keeping in verse 21: “Go, sell everything that you have and give it to the poor.”
“What, are you crazy?” the man must have thought, “This is NOT what I expected to hear!”
For, he knew he could not give up everything as Jesus said. Jesus was asking for ownership of ALL of his life, not just the part he could easily give him.
Having a conversation about money and faith . . . Oh, this would be too hard. Impossible in fact, for a guy like him, as everything in his life was tied in some way to physical possessions.
Asking this man to give up his stuff was more than just a call to poverty (as this passage is not just about money), but it was a call to complete surrender of his life. It was a call to acts of mercy, to a lifestyle of mercy.
Thus, we read in verse 22 that the man’s “face fell” upon hearing Jesus’ exhortation. He journeys away saddened by the proposal. For, he could do nothing.
And, the Rich Young Ruler was not the only one for whom to love mercy would be difficult.
The disciples found themselves confused too. Was there any possibility of salvation for them either? Peter (as always) quickly speaks: “We have left everything to follow you!” Peter wants to make it clear that if anyone had made great sacrifices, they certainly had. Wouldn’t that certainly be enough for his kingdom? And while Jesus says their efforts will be recognized, he doesn’t directly answer the question. Because to love mercy was not something that could be translated into a black and white spread sheet or action that could be qualified by human standards . . .
Because perhaps because Jesus’ life provided a completely new paradigm of loving neighbors that would not be dependent on human ability to follow the law . . .
Perhaps because salvation would take its cues from the cross— a place of self-emptying, a place of unselfish love, a place where the mercy of our Lord the gift given for us all!
You see, the type of kingdom the Rich Young Ruler, the disciples and even you and I are often looking for is one where we don’t have to suffer. A kingdom where we can be sure of our salvation we had the right answers or a kingdom where our faith does not have to change our daily to-day lifestyle, vacation plans or shopping trips to the mall. Many of us live on fixed incomes after all. We’ve made decisions about what to do with our finances years before we retired. There is no way we could change now!
I feel I would remiss if I didn’t interject here that I totally understand how hard this is, to open up a conversation on acts of mercy that flow out of our pocketbook.
Not even pastor types, with a Revs in front of their names are experts at mercy. We too like our stuff as much as the next person. (It is true, that I have been accused on many occasions of having a love obsession with my IPad or my purse collection).
Maybe this is why Jesus said in verse 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Did you know that in Jerusalem there is an eye in the needle gate? Kevin and I saw it ourselves a couple years ago on a trip to the region.
In ancient times, the needle of the eye gate was purposely built with a very small entry way so to prohibit invaders from coming into the city. However, this safety feature was not without its disadvantages. What if they wanted to get necessary goods into the city?
When traders wanted to come into the city of David with their camels (or other animals) loaded with goods, they could not fit in the gate. The only way for the camels to get in “the eye of the needle” gate was for the owners to unload their goods and leave it outside until someone else was able to bring it in through another way.
So, to is our work if we are going to be people who enter the kingdom of God as lovers of mercy. If we are going to be people who live in the city of God, then we are going to have unload on a regular basis, so to make room for of God’s ways in our lives.
But, why? Really, why mercy? Could that just be left to someone else?
Biblical commentator, David Lose, answers the question in this way—we love mercy because:
The way we spend our money (and I would add here time and talents) “has a great impact on the welfare of our neighbor. Notice that Jesus doen’t just tell the man simply to give his wealth away, but rather he tells him to give it to the poor. . . . Jesus invites not just the rich man but all of us to imagine that we are, indeed, stewards of our wealth, charged to use all that we have to best care of all the people God has given us as companions along the way.”
We love mercy because there are those whom we need to assist that will not otherwise have what they need unless we give. Simple as that.
He also adds that we are to love mercy because:
The way we spent our money (or our time and talents) has a great impact on our own welfare as well. Consider [how our relationship with what we earn ourselves] can mask our dependence on God and each other by creating a sense not just of independence, but actually of not needing each other. . . . Jesus knows there are few things more important than for us to do than to share our abundance.”
We love mercy because it is good for us. We remember who our Creator. We remember to whom we belong which is to ALL our human brothers and sisters. We remember that just as we give, we receive.
How did this passage end? Look with me at verse 31. It’s a favorite of mine: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This my friends, is THE radical message of the teachings of Jesus. Our life is found loving mercy. For as we give we might just find that no matter how much money is or is not in our bank accounts, retirement funds, or how much our savings bonds are worth, we’d rather love mercy than be in love with our new car, dream vacation or even season tickets to our favorite sporting team.
Hear me not say today that Jesus is not anti-stuff or anti fun. God, I believe wants to us to enjoy what brings us delight and what we’ve been blessed with. What good is it to have anything if we walk around feeling guilty about it all the time?
But, in the end, we are to love the most is mercy. Our lives as Christians are to overflow with mercy. Or church is to overflow with mercy—not just when we have enough in savings or our building suddenly stops aging or when our pledges get over a certain amount for the year ahead or even when we have a certain number of people in worship, when we think we can afford it. Nope. Mercy is never about cost and benefit analysis. Nope. Jesus says, “Be merciful now. Be merciful now. It’s what I’ve asked you to do if you want to follow me.”
As I’ve been back in the US this week and have been processing the trip Kevin and I shared to Malawi and Kenya last week, one of the questions/ comments I've heard a lot is: “Aren’t you so glad to be back? I’m sure the poverty was heartbreaking over there. You must be so relieved to be at home again so that you can get back to 'normal' life.”
I mean no offence to any of the wonderful people in my life here, but I really do want to say "no". I haven’t been relieved to be at home. In fact, I’m grieving the passing of the experiences of last week. With many tears, Kevin and I were quite sad to leave. The work we participated in-- such as serving lunch to school children in the slums (see picture) was so special. It's the purest and most wonderful parts of this kind of work.
And while yes, there are so many perks to life in the US— water from the sink that is safe to drink, constant source of power to your home without daily interruptions, warmth and water pressure in your daily shower, well-constructed roads and city planning that makes getting from place to place easy, etc, etc—I really want to convey that being in the US is not always the end all existence. We aren't as rich as we might think.
And this is what I know: I feel our journey took us from two rich countries to come home to a poor one.
For the true be told, when we begin to life with less as Kevin and I did last week, we realize we need less. When we converse face to face, those whom we thought we came to serve become our teachers. When we relax and enjoy life, laughter springs up even in the slums.
It’s obvious what you might be thinking. All the world statistics of East Africa tell a story of scarcity of resources. Access to clean and safe drinking water is rationed - if present in some communities at all. Mothers die unnecessarily during childbirth. Fathers die too soon of preventable diseases. If children live to their 5th birthday, families are overwhelmed in amazement. The number of inequalities in this land are unfathomable. Cycles of poverty seem too strong to even imagine being broken (even if all the NGOs and government agencies actually worked together).
But, even with this true, there’s another story at work. And it’s a story not of poverty, but of abundance. As we spent time with the Malawians and the Kenyans, this is the richness I saw:
Smiles are warm and heartfelt.
Time is unhurried.
Simple pleasures like breaks for tea and coffee are honored.
Food is savored, not devoured.
Leftovers of all kinds are not put to waste.
Help given is received with overflowing gratitude.
Sitting from my position of privilege, it's not that I want to overspiritualize poverty. Rather, I want to say that in the US, I believe it is so easy to become distracted by our blessings. We not only take them for granted, but we become consumed with them to the point of forgetting from where they came. We forget the responsibility that comes from such great gifts. We forget to be people of blessing instead of just people with blessings.
As I continue to stick close to what my spiritual teachers taught me last week, I hope you’ll join me in thanksgiving for the great paradox of the gospel. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is more blessed to give than to receive. And, blessed are the hungry, for they will be filled.
Today, our delegation toured, observed, and participated in the work of Feed the Children Kenya in the Maparasha, a remote village community of the Masai tribe.
We saw a water sanitation project in action as women and children gathered water from a clean well instead of walking 5 km up a hill to a remote water source. We visited with school children in an early learning center who received lunch of corn and beans from Feed the Children's distribution. (Kevin and I even got to serve the meal to the kids who came through the line with their tin bowls). We visited an AIDS education training session. We met with mothers at an nutritional seminar at the community birthing center-- watching lessons on how mothers can best feed their family.
I felt proud today to be connected to the larger Feed the Children family.
However, in all of these accomplishments, there is always so much more that that just isn't getting done because lack of resources.
Children have shoes but they are tattered and falling off their feet. Children have uniforms on, yes, but they have holes in them. Children eat lunch but the school only has a few number of bowls so everyone must eat in shifts. Yes, there is clean water from the pipes, but in dry season there's still not enough water to go around so that water is only available two days a week.
Feed the Children like other NGOs needs more funds to support even more sustainable projects. And while many of us in theory care for the poor and want to help out, we look at our monthly budgets and say there is no way that I can give or give more. The big issue of child hunger and poverty seems too overwhelming to even try to involve ourselves in. Or if we are givers, we do so without a lot of hope that our small donations can make a difference. We have no connection to the larger human family that needs all of us to give and take.
I remembered today in all of my thinking about this a sermon illustration I used many months ago by Tony Campelo that seems to apply well here.
In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC where seminary professor and social advocate, Tony Campolo spoke. It came time to give the offering for missions after the sermon. And, the gentleman guiding the program asked Tony to pray before the ushers came forward to receive the offering. Seemed like a very normal churchy thing to do.
However, to the shock of many, Tony refused to pray. “What?!?” we were all thinking in our seats. Instead he said something like this: “We don’t need to pray for the offering tonight because this is what I know about God. God has already given each us in this room enough resources to meet our $15,000 offering tonight. All we need to do now is to give. So, I’ll start by emptying my wallet with the cash in it and maybe some of you could do the same.”
And, just like Tony said that night, we got our $15,000 plus mission offering plus some in that very room.
And it is the truth. God has given us every resource we need to do what we are called to accomplish. We have the money. We really already have it. It is just up to each of us to do our part. Or in this case, give so that many more kids around the world have life's most basic necessities.
I know I am catching more fire in me for advocacy work this week. You simply can't see needs and not be changed in return.