Monthly Archives: December 2013

Luke 2:1-20. “I Don’t Understand the Poor”

According to Luke’s gospel it “came to pass” that while Mary and Joseph visited Bethlehem, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

And it also came to pass that my wife and I visited New York a few days last week. It is about as far from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as you can get. Christmastime in Gotham is quite unlike anyplace else. The tree in Rockefeller Center with those million warm spots in chilly night is bigger. The playthings at F.A.O. Swartz and the toys of a different kind in the windows at Tiffany’s are more breathtaking. The plunder, the much-ness, the over-the top-ness of a modern American Christmas pours out through the revolving doors and onto the sidewalks in New York this time of year. It is a Revelation. An Epiphany. As we were being pushed along by the crowds on Fifth Avenue we heard a piercing female voice squeal over the tumult—“My god Versace!” And I thought–Yes, Virginia, there is more than just one god who reveals himself at Christmas.

But no, beloved, this not going to be another rant about the materialism that pervades this season in America. Everyone knows that our celebration of Christmas has become crass and vulgar. And some people even care.  Nice people like you do care, of course. We would like to get behind all the illusion to what is real, and in doing that the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel is a good place to begin. It is so familiar it hardly bears retelling. Yet do we really know the story at all? It is like one of those fake department store presents that never gets opened. It sits under the artificial tree in the front window, a box wrapped up in gorgeous paper and tied with a splendid bow. But the wrapping is all that seems to matter. No one bothers to look inside.

 But the box is not empty. No, not by a long shot. There is something inside, hidden in darkness. In fact, the box is moving. It is filled with Life. Real Life—not visions of sugar-plums and legends of jolly elves and flying reindeer. The Christmas story St. Luke tells is about as harsh as can be imagined. We have enrobed it in chocolate and dusted it with sugar so often that it is hard to know how it was intended to taste. But when he first told it, it certainly had a sharp and bitter tang.       

Jesus, St. Luke informs us, was born in the most squalid conditions, in a stable of some sort, like a cave, among animals–and hardly better than one of them. Everything in the story points ahead to the impending tragedy. This is a child born to die. The newborn is wrapped in “bands of cloth,” like a corpse, and laid “in a manger,” a stone feeding trough resembling a stone sarcophagus, foreshadowing his burial in a borrowed tomb.

The evangelist Luke is always especially concerned with people in real need—the destitute, the sick, widows and orphans–and his nativity story is about the extremes to which want can drive ordinary people.  It is about a homeless couple struggling to take care of a newborn  in a cruel and indifferent world. It is about a band of vagrants, despised migrants, caring for flocks that did not belong to them, forced by necessity to sleep in the open fields at night. They were visited by messengers from God with “good news of great joy.” But if there is comfort and joy to be found in this story it comes as a surprise, like finding a rare jewel lying amongst the soiled straw and manure of a barn floor.

It is a story about poverty, which, for all the wrong reasons, we have made into something else—an orgy of Victorian sentimentality and an excuse for miserable excess. The story has been transformed into a charming fairy tale about sissy angels and talking animals and little princes in disguise–which is precisely what it is not. Stripped of the “shmalts” in which we clothe it, the circumstances of Jesus’ coming could hardly be more humble and debased. 

My wife and I took in a Broadway show while we were in New York—“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” A theatre critic called it “a rollicking story,” with “humor of the most delectable amorality, and the cleverest lyrics assembled in a quite a long time.”  And the lyrics are indeed clever. For example, one of the characters, a daffy English aristocrat–Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith– sings a song called, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” that goes something like this–“The lives they lead/ Of want and need!/ I should think it would be a bore./ Oh, I don’t understand the poor.”  

None of it is intended to be taken seriously, of course. The joke is on the callous rich. They’re rich, after all—they can take it. And at the price of Broadway tickets, the poor aren’t going to be there to take offense. So there is this ridiculously posh snob in his scarlet hunting attire swinging a poor dead fox about, and complaining about how being “so debased/ Is in terrible taste.” We all laughed and no one bestowed much attention on the words.   

It was just a fluffy little number in a bantam-weight musical comedy about serial murder. But it is weighty without meaning to be, and the problem it reflects is the heaviest one of all, beloved. We don’t understand the poor, and therefore we don’t understand ourselves. Even the destitute are often pretty clueless when it comes the meaning of their poverty, though admittedly they have more firsthand experience of it. So they do understand that there is nothing sweet or charming about it. Real want is squalid, ugly, brutal and, most of all, it is frightening.  To be in real poverty is the most frightening thing we can experience this side of the grave, and as close as anyone can get to death and still be alive. 

 That is surely part of the reason we sentimentalize the Christmas story so ruthlessly, beloved. We make it into what it is not to protect ourselves from what it is. It is common and indelicate. As Lord Aldabert sings, “to be so debased,” is “in terrible taste.”  Nevertheless, it endures—often wrapped in corny sentiment but undiminished in power. We are drawn to it by the Holy Spirit as part of the ultimate human tragedy, the self-sacrifice of the Greatest and the Best. His birth is a spectacle as crude and as enthralling as his Cross. And behind the plaster store-bought figures of the manger scene–Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, the shepherds and the angels–lies a idea that merits a lifetime of reflection—the poverty of God. 

That God reveals himself to us as needy would probably come as a surprising and rather shocking idea to many. If they give it any thought of all, most people think of God in terms of limitless riches. There is a whole cult of self-improvement out there called “the prosperity gospel,” which professes to teach people how to use piety to leverage some of God’s wealth for themselves. But you, beloved, can see through all that. You already know that the Jesus of the Gospels was a poor man who did not live and die to catapault us into the upper tax brackets. Jesus was always poor, from birth, and his poverty speaks to our own.

The truth is, although it ranks very high among most people’s priorities, in reality wealth means nothing very much in the long run. Money is one of our own creations, not one of God’s. It gives us a temporary security, but, as has often been observed, it cannot buy real happiness. Money can indeed buy many interesting forms of unreal happiness. But happiness in the ultimate sense is a way of being, not of having. It is a relationship that satisfies an interior need we have.  

And, of course, wealth it is also unfaithful.  In the end, after all the trouble and bother we take with it, it lets us down. “We brought nothing into this world,” St. Paul says, “and it is certain we can carry nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:7). We work so hard and so long to fill our existence with things in order to the emptiness in ourselves. Some of us do very well at Monopoly, beloved. We may amass a big heap of money and property. As my brother expresses it—The one who dies with the most toys wins. But it will never be wealth that defines the essential reality of our lives, beloved, no matter how much we have. It is poverty that embraces us. It is what comes before, and it is what will follow after. And what is true of our lives is true of the whole Creation—there was nothing before it and there will be nothing afterwards. Poverty embraces it.

In the beginning, according to the Book of Genesis, “the earth was a formless void.” And God created everything that is out of nothing in order to fill that void in one big bang. But why in heaven’s name? Why anything? Now it is a pretty laughable business for any of us to try to penetrate the mind of the Ultimate Reality. Who are we, anyway?

Who indeed! But we do have our own experience to work from, and the scriptures do say we were made in “the image of God.” So there must be some point of contact between us. And there is nothing more fundamental to our humanity than the experience of want, and our longing for something to fill that emptiness. Want activates all we do. With his last breath Martin Luther is supposed to have said: “We are beggars. This is true.”

We are poor, beloved, and before all else and after all else God is too. And his poverty is what makes creation understandable. God was driven to it by want. All the wonders of the created universe are the expression of his desire to satisfy his need to fill the loneliness of infinity. We ourselves are the product of his need. He made us to fill his own emptiness.  If there is any rhyme or reason for our human lives, it is to answer God’s need for company in eternity.

 And it is what made his Incarnation, his desperate attempt in Jesus Christ to befriend us, necessary. In Jesus Christ God shows us that he shares our poverty.  All of us who share a certain religious background can rattle off that verse from John’s Gospel—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” But why such love for our insignificant planet? Why should God willing to undertake such a painful rescue with such a measly result. Why? Because God needs us, and he created us to need him.

Of course you don’t have to accept my explanation. Everyone gets a shot at answering the greatest of all questions—Why is there anything? And does anything have any meaning at all?  

Religious people are always telling us that we need God, but to the pious it seems in peculiarly bad taste to say that God needs anything at all. But to me that is exactly what seems to be the case. I don’t understand the poor. I admit it. None of us do. Not even the poor. But poverty is the key to it all. That is the message of Christmas–God not only emptied himself in Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ he also revealed his own emptiness. In his birth he showed himself to be as poor as we.

To me that is what the story means. And to me the best way to celebrate that story is not sentimentalize it, but to accept want as our common experience. It is what binds us to each other—and to God.  We are all beggars. And each of us is called upon to recognize not only in our own way, but together. Not alone. Never alone.  Because there is a cold wind blowing through the universe, beloved, and the best we thing we can do is cling to each other for dear life. Love is all we have.

There is literally nothing else.

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Sermon on Luke 20:27-40. Life Beyond the Labels

            St. Luke tells us that one day some Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,” came to Jesus with a story about a woman who married seven brothers. Her husband died, leaving her childless, so she married his brother, as the Law of Moses required. Then he died.  So she went on, doggedly marrying one brother after another, until they all had died. (Was it her cooking, we wonder?) Then the woman herself died. “In the resurrection . . . whose wife will the woman be?” the Sadducees wanted to know. “For all seven had married her?” The Sadducees were the political liberals of Jesus time. There were upper class, skeptical, infected with Greek philosophy, and in hand and glove with the Roman rulers of Palestine. Religiously they accepted only the first five books of the Hebrew scripture, the books ascribed to Moses, as having authority–and those with reservations. They rejected the prophetic books. They recoiled from anything supernatural, like a horse shying away from a snake. They were in charge of the temple liturgy, and, like certain high church Christians of our time, more concerned with the form of worship than with its content.

            You get the picture. The story of the unfortunate woman who married seven brothers was not intended seriously. It was a theological game to those who told it, a joke really, intended ridicule a literal-minded belief in the resurrection of the dead, as it was professed by conservative Jews of Jesus’ time, the scribes and Pharisees of our New Testament.

            But Jesus, who could at times demonstrate a hearty sense of humor, didn’t think this one was funny. It was a heartless, tasteless little tale, and Jesus’ response to it was straight to the point and no nonsense: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

In the shadow of his cross, Jesus was apparently in no mood for silly theological games. His reply to the Sadducees stung them sufficiently that “they no longer dared to ask him another question.” But it drew from the scribes, who belonged to the other, more conservative wing of Judaism, a grudging admiration. “Teacher,” they said, “you have spoken well.”  But almost immediately “in the hearing of all the people” Jesus denounces those same scribes for their hypocrisy, indifference to the poor, and corrupt materialism, the same sins modern conservative Christians are liable to. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (Luke 20:47). 

Apparently in those last hours of his life the Lord had even less patience than usual for the games and posturings of either liberals or conservatives. He was sick to death of the flacks.  And who could blame him. Jesus lived in a highly polarized time, religiously and politically.  He was surrounded by noisy factions which heartily despised each other—Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, and Essenes. They were left-leaning, right-leaning, revolutionaries, collaborators and drop-outs—all Jews, but each group with its own hotly-defended agenda.

In his life and teachings, however, Jesus always defined himself without reference to any of them.  None of the contemporary labels stuck to him. He was always “none of the above.” He defied categorization, and everyone remarked that he spoke and acted “with authority” without reference to accepted precedents. His first followers came to him with all kinds of labels attached, but Jesus called them to leave all that junk behind and share his remarkable freedom, living in the open space beyond sectarian squabbles and partisan politics.

His independence put him in conflict with every faction. Jesus lived his life “out of control”—a charge frequently leveled by his sectarian enemies–and his Holy Spirit is still summoning us to leave the pigeon holes in which we find ourselves. “You have set my feet in an enormous room,” the psalmist says. He always calls us to a larger life, never to a narrower one.

There is a favorite poem of mine by the British poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995) that speaks vividly about this larger kind of life. It begins with these wonderful lines: “I think continually of those who were truly great./ Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history/ Through corridors of light where the hours are suns/ Endless and singing.”*  

It is immediately apparent that the poet is drawing a distinction between those who are broadly considered great and the ones who truly are. Most people, if they give any thought to the matter at all, would define greatness in terms of wealth, power, or fame. People who possess these things may sometimes be admirable, or at least enviable—though I hope at this point in my life I have gotten beyond all that. Some of the great may also be “truly great.” But the poet suggests that their true greatness amounts to more than money or celebrity. It is a quality that the soul brings into this world and carries out of it to the next. The “truly great” were those who “in their lives fought for life.” Living beyond all categories, their freedom set other people free to do the same.

Some religious people might call such people “saints.” Spender doesn’t—probably because he would include among the “truly great” persons of whom some religious people—the scribes and Pharisees–would not approve. People who live with remarkable freedom are not always hemmed in by rules and customs. The religious people of Jesus’ time certainly did not approve of him, but he is still setting people free. We can call them saints or not, but sanctity is what “I Think Continually” is about—the determination of “the truly great” to never allow “gradually the traffic to smother/ With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.”

In the church calendar the month of November is assigned to the remembrance of the faithful departed, those whom Jesus calls “children of the resurrection.”  After thirty some years in the ministry I have a rather fat file in my head labeled “All Saints,” about whom I too “think continually.”

With so many “truly great” to choose from, which to choose? There was, for instance, a woman named Agnes Schafer. She was well over ninety years old the first time I met her. If they survive to that age, people usually turn inward upon themselves, becoming vague and fearful, but Agnes never did that. She fixed you with eyes as sharp as broken Coke bottles and said what she really thought. “This church doesn’t do enough for the poor,” she told me the first time she met me. “When we help the needy we bless ourselves.  When we don’t, it is we who are poor, no matter how much money we have.” It came right out of the blue. Agnes had, according to those who knew her well, spent her whole life speaking her mind. She had always been a surprising woman. By her own admission her frankness had often gotten her into trouble. As a nurse, she stood up to everyone—doctors, administrators, even family members–in defense of her patients. Her heart was, as the scripture puts it, “steadfast”—the word can also be translated “stubborn.”  

When Agnes died she left detailed instructions for her funeral at the church, including her favorite lessons and hymns. But the attorney who handled her affairs disregarded all that, assuming that only a handful of people would come out for the funeral of a woman nearly a hundred years old with no family. So he arranged for a stark little service with recorded music in a local funeral home. I was to officiate.

But even in death Agnes was still able to surprise us all.  Some years earlier, she had read about a county literacy program and became interested in teaching non-reading adults—aliens, recent immigrants, migrant workers—to read, write, and speak English. So she had started a tutoring program in her own home. Most of her students were Chinese Cambodian refugees, who had fled the Khmer Rouge. And on the day of her funeral those students and their families showed up. They quickly filled up the room where the service was to be held and overflowed the hall outside, carrying armfuls of flowers. The funeral directors scrambled, but there weren’t enough chairs for all of them to sit down. They swamped the whole funeral home, spilling out the front doors into the street. The men and boys stood in respectful silence, the women and girls wept as if a member of their own family had died–which was, in the profoundest sense, true. Agnes was their American mother.   

            “I think continually of those who were truly great.”

Wealth and celebrity are disposable, beloved. They don’t last. But to say they are unimportant flies in the face of experience and common sense. We have no choice but to acknowledge that that kind of greatness is very important to those who spend a lifetime chasing it. And some part of all of us longs for all that kind of disposable greatness. It is our nature. But Holy Wisdom flies in the face of common sense and experience.  People may hate it, despise it, and ridicule it as absurd. But that doesn’t matter. Holy Wisdom goes on saying that there is another kind of greatness, often possessed by those who are not generally envied and admired, those who tell the truth and live the truth, those whose hearts are “steadfast.”  And that true greatness is more attainable than we might think—and more surprisingly ordinary.

I had a teacher in graduate school, Fr. William Rooney, who I now realize was also among those who “were truly great.”  One afternoon in the midst of a seminar on literary criticism he digressed briefly into the subject of greatness. He said something to this effect: “There is a perfection of making, and those who attain it are great artists—poets, painters, musicians, and composers. That kind of perfection is very rare. And then there is a perfection of knowing, and those who reach it are great thinkers, philosophers, and sages. That too is very rare.” He paused then to peer at us appraisingly over his glasses. “I do not think that anyone this room will attain either of those kinds of greatness. But luckily for us all there is a third kind of perfection, more ordinary, the perfection of being—goodness, if you like. Those who attain that perfection are saints. And to that kind of greatness all us can—and should—aspire.”

And Father Rooney was right—may be blessed forever! Greatness of a very modest kind is indeed attainable. In my life—together with some real stinkers—I have encountered a surprising number of those who “were truly great.” And what typifies them is that they are impossible to typify. Who could adequately typify a Gandhi, or a Schweitzer, or a Mother Theresa, or clouds of others more obscure but just as great.  Labels do not stick to any of them. Each one was different and radically individual, but all of them–like Agnes Schafer–were “out of control,” sharing the remarkable freedom and stubborn unruliness of Jesus.

So where does that leave us, beloved, who are still working out way to true greatness?  Well, as always, the best place to begin is with the example of Jesus and—so far as humanly possible–neither a Pharisee nor a Sadducee be. As we said before, Jesus lived in a highly polarized time—and so do we. The parties in our world tend to be more political than religious, but the tug of war is just as fierce. The struggle between liberal and conservative is so vicious and that it threatens to literally tear our country apart. Labels make us devils to each other. And furthermore, they are not what we really are. They are caricatures of ourselves. I remember once during a particularly bitter political year someone tried to coerce a poll worker who belonged to my church to find out how I was registered—Democrat or Republican. As if that should matter! But it does.

  For myself I have found that among liberals I am too conservative, and among conservatives I am too liberal to fit in. There is an old song from my childhood—“Call Me Mr. In Between.” I think Burl Ives sang it. In any case it pretty much sums up my situation right now—Mr. In Between. I am sick to death of the flack. But I am determined that there must be freedom beyond the labels, and I am certain that Jesus shows the way to that freedom.

In his own time Jesus defied all attempts at categorization–and he has continued to do so ever since. And in our own fractious society the best way to confess Jesus as our Lord and Master is to struggle to free ourselves from all religious and political categories—all!–that confine us to our own prejudices and at the same time separate us from other people. There is not only life beyond the labels that divide us, beloved–that is where life really begins.  

I am convinced that there are three ways to get closer to the Lord, beloved—through prayer and worship, by helping the needy, and by living with integrity. The last one is at least as important as the other two. The further we stay away from labels the closer we get to that integrity for which we were created, and the closer we get to that integrity the closer we come to true greatness, of which Jesus is the greatest example.

 

 

 

 

 

*Here is the whole text of Stephen Spender’s “I Think Continually”:

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light where the hours are suns

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

 

What is precious is never to forget

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light

Nor its grave evening demand for love.

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

 

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields

See how these names are feted by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud

And the whispers of wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre

Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

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