Proper 8, Year B
Anyone who's read this blog closely or long knows that I'm profoundly influenced by scholars who read the bible in light of what we know about the cultures that produced it in the ancient Mediterranean world, and that I highly recommend the one-volume paperback Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels as a handy reference for preachers who want information at their fingertips about how things like honor and shame and ancient views of the body come into play in texts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As many years as I've spent with these texts and with much thicker tomes, I still refer to that one-volume Social-Science Commentary often because of the ways it jogs my memory. There was a passage on traditional folk healers and ancient doctors that particularly stood out to me today:
"Professional healers, physicians, preferred to talk about illnesses rather than treat them. Failed treatment could mean death for the physician ... Folk healers willing to use their hands and risk a failed treatment were more commonly available to peasants" (p. 211).
There's no question in my mind as to why that stood out for me today. I'm a good white liberal who's great at talking. Talking is pretty much how I make my living. I talk about war, about extreme poverty, about inequities in opportunity for education, health care, and employment, and even to basic necessities like clean water. I talk about racism and sexism and homophobia, and I try also to talk about harmful stereotypes of my conservative sisters and brothers. At my best, I talk eloquently and movingly. And at my worst, I act as though the job were done when I've spoken movingly and those listening have been moved.
It isn't. Not by a long shot. And I've been thinking a lot lately about discernment -- the spiritual discipline of trying to figure out what God's will for us might be for the moment and circumstances we're in -- in relationship to what biblical scholar Krister Stendahl aptly calls "the introspective conscience of the West."
We Westerners tend to spend a lot of time in our heads. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We are, after all, much more likely to act wisely if we can reflect thoughtfully on how what's going on inside us -- on how our family situations, other stresses we're under, and similar factors are influencing our sense of what's going on and what we want to do in response. But if we don't balance our thinking and our talking about what we're thinking with some honest-to-goodness action, we end up saying things like this:
"It really doesn't matter what you do about poverty, as long as you're doing something. It might be making sandwiches and giving them to people on the street. It might be inviting one person to dinner. The important thing is that your heart is in the right place."
I heard something very much like that at a workshop a few months ago on how Christians might respond to global poverty, and I found myself swallowing very hard and saying something like this:
I think it would matter a great deal if I were a mother whose child dying without clean water, decent food, and good medical care.
Furthermore, if God cares about that mother and that child -- and everything I read in scripture about who the god of Abraham and Sarah and the god Jesus proclaimed shouts to me that God most certainly does care about them -- then God also thinks it matters a great deal what specifically I do and don't do, wherever my heart is.
I think it matters to God whether we use the brain God has given us and the brains of everyone in the communities in which God has placed us to try to act wisely. If my interior disposition of generosity leads me to make sandwiches on Saturday morning to give to people who don't want or need them, then I have in effect just spent my Saturday morning using "my" wealth to make ME feel better. I have been acting as a physician unwilling to fail, and not as a healer willing to touch and try.
Perhaps a good test of discernment would be for us to ask ourselves less how the particular combination of action and inaction we're proposing (after all, we've only got one life and we can't do everything, so what we do is also going to involve NOT doing other things) does what Jesus did. Is it going to help one girl to get up and live a full, long life? How many hungry people will be fed, prisoners freed, debts remitted? Does it bring to life in the world Jesus' word that "the first will be last, and the last will be first"?
And so I have to say that the folks who designed our lectionary did a smashing job this week of choosing texts that illuminate the gospel.
Our reading from Deuteronomy couldn't be clearer. When Jesus said, "you will always have the poor with you," that the shrugging "so why bother trying to eliminate poverty?" that rich Christians often make it out to be; it was a reference to this passage. There will always be a mother and a child out there who will not live to see my generosity if I don't offer it in a way that will make a difference, so God says, "I command you therefore to open your hand to the poor and needy." Our Psalm takes it for granted that "righteousness" -- right relationship to others in the world -- will mean giving freely to the poor. And what St. Paul has to say to the churches in Corinth -- churches that definitely had more than their share of scandals around sexuality -- is worth quoting in full:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints-- and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."
Whatever else is going on in the church, we must hold on to this, for our testimony to Jesus the healer has power only insofar as we use our power to do what he did, to live in a way that brings life to the world. It matters. It means the world to a world aching for that kind of life.
Thanks be to God!
July 1, 2006 | Permalink
Amen. Sister. And as we hear the Jesuit lectionary today (Amos 5), it matters not how we worship God if we do not treat others justly:
Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Posted by: Jenifer Gamber | Jul 5, 2006 9:50:54 PM
You are such a joy and todays posting is as ever great. I do wish to say in response, albeit a non reflective one, that for me, being a Christian, acting as a Christian, living as a Christian, seeing others in Christ- seeing Christ in others is a very simple thing to do and yet because of its elegant simplicity, the Christian path can be a very difficult journey. One that is taken by great part with shakey baby steps.
I have spent part of each of the last 20 plus years in voluntary social service to the sick and/or poor and/or homeless in my urban community( San Francisco). I have done this while growing up, being educated, learning a profession, falling in and out of love, celebrating-mourning within the life led by a white middle class male, born in the United States, who was raised by caring and loving "greatest generation" parents. I have found that for some, and most assuredly myself starting at 26 in 1986, the only way to get to thinking about or even realizing that I or any one person can impact positively the extreme poverty of others, either the needy next door, or on the streets, or on the other side of the globe, was to take a first step. That step as an independent, free thinking, artistic, vain, pleasure seeking, often bitchy, educated, materialistic young adult was making bag lunches for street people and distributing them during my lunch hour along side co-workers from a Law Firm. It was I felt a political action, one which had the lovely aside of making me feel warmly smug and delightfully superior towards those who didn't do such acts. The response from many was a heartfelt thank you but really I never stopped feeling uncomfortable about the actual handoff of the sack lunch. I had given up on traditional Chrisitans churches while at University and was at the time immersed in Buddisim. It was also my way then of getting to if not into the flow of life by use of a right minded action. Well that's what I read I was suppose to think. I see it now as a baby step in my own journey on a path that has been anglo-catholic for the last 10 years.
My point is this Dylan- if handing out sandwiches to people who don't want or need them is what someone can do now than that is a welcome gift. I for one never stay for the after mass coffee hour but for many the weekly socialization is clearly a way of healing and breaking down urban isolation. It is also a very real meal for the silently poor (either in spirit or economic poverty)who are always in our churches. Making unwanted sandwiches clearly would be wrong for you but you are just as clearly on a different part of your own journey. A journey that started somewhere at sometime....perhaps by wrapping a Christmas present for a senior, or during a lenten season.(your Baptism notwithstanding as a departure point) Whatever it was it got you to the next step in your journey. Your journey is something I am thankful for as I find your blog to be simply wonderful. As to those amongst us who are makers of unwanted-unneeded sandwiches, you know you are doing it, carry on, it has no more a negative effect than unlistened to sermons and in fact is a good thing, much like communion it has real spiritual benefits. A donation to United Thank Offering might do wonders too and as they are the ones who paid for the kitchen I cook in I can attest to those quarters and dimes having a powerful effect.
I truly feel Christian when I laddle out stew, bread, salad, cookies, that I have bought (the use of my own money is I find important for me spiritually as it rights me from any transient wish to have another toy or conversely from feeling poor) and by the simple acts of preparing food - greeting/serving my fellows- comrades- brothers, who bless me by accepting my fare. I say mindfully to each and all of them a hearty welcome and thanks and am so overpaid by warmth and smiles that it becomes joyfully clear to me that doing so is my path towards the Lords table. Like the Lords grace to us there is nor litmus test to join our lunch, those rich in spirit and goods are as welcome.
I am no better than those I serve stew and they are no worse than me. I clean up and tell no one who doesn't need to know what I do mid-day for 4 hour's on certain Tuesday's. For me it is alway's a profound spiritual moment to experience the fellowship during that little Tuesday lunch and I feel Christ in that little simple non political human exchange. So such is the power of a humble sandwich and soda made with and shared with a homeless woman and her child who has no means to shelter and anything clean but the summer fog here in the rich elegant and beautiful city of St Francis. For those amongst us who are p.c it also has the added benefit of not being culturally eurocentric and imperialist by doing this in my own country.
I pray everyone enjoy's the journey they are on.
Posted by: Lawrece Guest O'Connor | Jul 9, 2006 2:52:49 PM
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