May 20, 2018
…a note about today…
With all that went on this week, with the storm and extensive damage and related power outages I lost track of the fact that today was in fact Pentecost Sunday. Held on the seventh Sunday or roughly 50 days after Easter, Pentecost is the celebration in our faith of the birth of the church after Christ’s resurrection. We usually read from the scripture in the beginning of Acts that recounts the disciples all gathered in the public square when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit descended upon them all, appearing as though flaming tongues of fire on each one’s head. With the Spirit’s touch everyone from many different countries began to proclaim the wonder and glory of God, each on their own language and each one able to understand the other.
In preparing for today’s service as a Third Sunday Lord’s Table celebration I was not aware that today was in fact Pentecost and drew upon the scriptures that I felt supported the theme rather than on the usual ones listed for Pentecost. It was not until last night when I was here late setting up the communion table for today that Marion showed up to change the vestments from the Easter season over to Pentecost that I realized it was indeed today.
However, in reflecting on it afterwards at home I realized that the day of Pentecost itself represents at least two wonderful aspects of our faith story that in fact do fit in quite well with our theme of engaging radical poverty today. First of all, Pentecost was an incredibly liberating moment for the church. People from everywhere and every walk of life were all blessed by the Lord simultaneously; all were freed up to express the joy and life they had just experienced. And secondly, Pentecost represents the closest we have ever come to date as a faith to witnessing the brother and sisterhood of the blessed kingdom Jesus spoke so often of throughout his life and ministry. All were welcomed that day into the family of God, rich and poor, young and old, slave and free, and people of every race and nation on earth. It truly was a day of freedom and community…
Today’s Lord’s Table theme of learning how to go back to that blessed time of holy community as one family under the lordship of the Holy Spirit fits amazingly well into the scriptures and the story of that first Pentecost some two thousand years ago. And so, as we make our way through the message and then the celebration of our Lord’s Supper together, remember that on one very special day many years ago, all that we now long and hope for in terms of holy and blessed community did in fact occur…and the church of our Lord was born…
…and now on to our message for today
Scripture: Matthew 6:24-33
I know this is a strange title for a message…but I wanted to try and convey that there is a real difference between not having all that we want, and not having enough to get by. That for some, every day is a matter of survival…of coping with the lack of healthy food, adequate clothing, or safe and secure shelter. In fact there are many more than we can imagine living on this, the very edge of existence…not just in the poorest countries we hear of or see on the news, but right here in our own country, on our own streets and in our own neighborhoods. It is these most poor and desperate among us whom I would say have a true poverty of need. The rest of us, as poor as we may sometimes feel are most likely only experiencing a poverty of want…we do not have what we wish we did, but we are far from not getting by…far from hand to mouth or day to day survival.
And I have also referenced many times over the years the terms centrist and marginal or marginalized. And by these terms I am indicating the same dichotomy. Those of us who have a sufficiency of resources, who seldom are hungry except for something special we may yearn for, those of us who have more than a single set of clothes and in fact probably have closets full of things seldom worn, those of us who have a place we call home even if we do not own it, are those who dwell in the center of society, we are in a ‘centrist’ and therefore privileged, or if you prefer, ‘blessed’ position. All those others with insufficient access to adequate resources, be they food, clothing, or shelter or even equal access to justice, employment, or opportunity…all those subjected to the various biases often meted out by those in the center, are the ones who dwell in the ‘margins’ of society…they are the ‘marginalized’. And it is here in the margins that poverty and prejudice takes its greatest toll on our brothers and sisters who dwell there.
And earlier this week, as I was trying to discern our Third Sunday Lord’s Table topic I came across a quick notice on the news of a nation-wide revival of the Poor People’s Campaign being led by Rev. William Barber. The ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ was in fact originally started by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 as an anti-poverty campaign seeking economic justice for poor people in the United States. It was carried out in fullness back then by Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. Since that time much has been done in the realm of civil rights reform however of late progress seems to have stalled or even regressed some, prompting renewed calls for recognition of and engagement with this dire condition of abject poverty affecting countless marginalized peoples in our society. And after hearing the news report I felt that this was a topic that needed to be brought forth even though truly engaging it may in fact be extremely difficult for many.
And that is because most of us feel that we are already involved pretty significantly with assisting the poor and less fortunate both in our daily lives and through the ministries within our church that seek to feed and to clothe people in need. However, this is where the issue of the ‘center’ and the ‘margins’ comes into play. For there is an underlying social imbalance that is not affected or corrected simply by seeking to address the needs we see on a case by case basis. We need to realize that providing handouts to the poor from a place of over-sufficiency, while good and necessary, in an effort to raise the level of that person does not address poverty as a social ill, but rather only temporarily impacts the one assisted.
We actually need to deeply consider what it is that our faith calls us to and specifically the call issued in our scripture passage today to seek first God’s kingdom and not to fret about the future and in so doing begin to move to a place of discomfort with wealth and over-sufficiency. If we are able to consider this idea then we may find the Holy Spirit leading us into a sincere desire and/or willingness to go to and share those extra resources with those in the margins in fullness, with the result being perhaps that one’s individual wealth may diminish to the point of mere sufficiency…or maybe even not quite sufficient as the excerpt on the front of the bulletin suggests.
Our faith cannot simply be an affirmation of capitalism with its predictable stratification of society, but rather must become an engaged social movement once again and not simply the aged and ineffectual institution it has largely become. Those who follow Christ today under the Spirit’s guidance must stand against un-Christ like tendency’s such as those that tend to concentrate wealth and power at the center-top of society…in short, Christianity must stand in contrast to and in repudiation of the policies and practices relating to the poor put forth by the current administration in Washington and supported by many misguided and sold-out ‘quasi-evangelicals’.
Jesus, in his sermon on the mount said, ‘Blessed are the poor’…not the poor in Spirit as at least one gospel account renders it but rather, blessed are those who are actually poor…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus sought to demonstrate that it is in and at the margins of society where he himself was forced to dwell, that the fullness of the kingdom of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind can and must be realized. Attempts by centrist portions of western society to share the wealth or to somehow ‘trickle down’ resources ostensibly to lift the poor out of poverty, while remaining comfortably in the center, do not address the underlying inequities. In some sense, resources overall must be devalued personally in the eyes of those who possess them and then revalued as life-giving blessings to be shared equitably such that all might strive together to prosper under the lordship of Christ in the kingdom to be realized under our faithful stewardship.
However one of the greatest dangers to not engaging need and inequity among our brothers and sisters has more to do with our relationship with God. And I am not talking judgement here; I am not talking about God’s potential response or displeasure with our willingness to let others suffer in actual need, for that is not the response of a God of love. Rather I am speaking of the break in relationship that often occurs when there are greater resources than need…namely, if we only know or ever experience poverty of want…if our only problem is that we do not have what we want, but indeed actually do have what we need…if we have food, clothing, shelter and other comforts, then it becomes possible that we may lose sight of the very real need we each have for a living, dependent relationship with God. If the storm this week taught us anything it should at least remind us that when difficulty strikes it is no respecter of wealth, position, privilege, or status. We need to learn to rely far more on our Lord than on anything we may possess or anything we feel gives us some hedge against future need or insecurity.
Our God seeks that we each would be in a dependent relationship with the Holy…that we would be in sacred conversation with the Holy as a matter of course. Many of those in dire need are already in that conversation out of necessity. And as a result their heartfelt cries for justice and some level of sufficiency are heard by our God. Would that through sharing and truly redistributing a measure of our over-sufficiency of resources might we begin to see blessed community break out here, there, and everywhere with the result that some of those cries heavenward might turn into shouts of praise and thanksgiving.
And finally…the elephant in the room here which must be acknowledged is that in many respects there is a descending ladder of access to resources in our society. And whether or not we choose to accept it, the ladder is largely weighted with those in the center on the top rungs…most of whom are primarily the beneficiaries of white privilege, while those on the lower rungs, if they are on the ladder at all, are largely people of color. For in truth, our society has not yet been able to let go of deep internalized historical prejudices against people of color which keeps many of them permanently in the margins…but…but…but, the ‘margins’ of our society may not be all that bad…for that is where Jesus himself lived…and perhaps where he is still to be found. And I believe, as testified to by his actions among the poor to whom he daily preached, that indeed he is most comfortable there among the marginalized…which is not in any way meant to justify or condone the centrist treatment of those of color in our society…for it is not loving, and not at all what Christ intended for his disciples when he commanded them to love as he loved…but rather to assert that, at least as I see it…unless and until the ‘margins’ are seen as a holy possibility for all…until the center with all its ‘baubles, bangles, and beads’ is seen as the ‘naked emperor’ that in many respects it truly is…until we welcome each and every stranger with open arms and trust in the Lord’s provision which surely comes to all who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteous justice…until then…we will not see the fullness of the incoming ‘Day of our Lord’. Until then we will not see justice break out spontaneously as former enemies embrace one another…until then we shall not see the end of warring and strife and the melting down of swords, bombs, and missiles in order to refashion them into tools for peaceful coexistence, neighbor with neighbor, people with people, faith with faith, nation with nation…
In many respects, comfort and over-sufficiency can function much as do blinders on a horse being guided down a busy city street…they keep the horse from being distracted or alarmed by all the noise to the left and right, allowing it to ignore what may be there…allowing it to go about undisturbed in its task and to proceed down the road to its intended destination…
…and so I guess the question remains…are we ever guilty of wearing ‘spiritual blinders’ when it comes to hearing the distressed cries of these our brothers and sisters in need?
…I pray that we find our way into loving and radical sharing…by learning to live in radical dependence upon our Lord…
…for it is there I am sure…that the ‘kindom’ will appear…