Seek the Low Places
St. Paul's Episcopal Church | Louisburg, NC | March 13, 2016
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
People get ready, there’s a train a coming, you don’t need a ticket, just get on board.
Those lines from Curtis Mayfield have been in my head while I have been mulling over my remarks today, as I have been focusing on John 12:8 “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
As close as I ever got to getting a toy train was when I was 12 and my brother and I got a race car track for Christmas. I can see it on the living room floor. I also got a BB gun and with it came a quart of BBs, 1000s of BBs, which we proceeded to spill onto the figure 8 track. You see the round brass BBs fell into the two slots on the track where the cars ran, and we could not figure out how to get them out with our pudgy little kid fingers. We were in deep trouble before the sun got up. I still remember how amazed I was when my mom got up before my dad, and with the vacuum cleaner, sucked all the BBs out before he woke up.
You see, the track would not function unless all the sections were connected. I’m going to spend the next 15 minutes trying to talk you into that all of our lives build that track for a train for which, “you don’t need a ticket to get on board.”
Individually and collectively we are not that separate; the haves and the have nots. There is a synchronicity in our lives in the very small and the very large. First the small, if you place two living heart cells from different people in a Petrie dish, they will find and maintain a third and common beat. This biological fact holds the secret of all relationships. This is cellular proof that beneath any resistance we may pose and beyond all of our attempts that fall short, there is an essential joining force in the nature of our lives. This common beat is the miracle of connectivity. This drive toward this common beat is the force beneath curiosity and passion. Accepting this is the strength which enables strangers to talk to strangers. It always feels incredibly uplifting to reach our hand and our heart to the “other.” This is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel today. And those opportunities will ALWAYS be with us.
Many among us are fearful of the poor and the “at risk.” Last week I fell asleep on the sofa watching TV and woke up at 2:30 am. I went upstairs to get in bed and looked out the window to see six young men walking down the street in front of our house. It was troubling watching my mind jump to conclusions of who, what, why? Confusion was triggered in me. The one new commandment which Jesus gave his followers was, “Do not be afraid.” Fear turns our eyes and hearts in a different direction. Fear produces a despair which often we marry with passivity instead of active listening and action. It is my experience that when FEAR is driving my question, Blame often will accompany my answer. Jesus challenges me to check out this connection.
Jesus was never concerned with outcomes when he spoke about giving and interacting with the poor. If I am a follower of Jesus, it is my duty to minister to the poor as I encounter them. I am called to live my life in such a way as to not cause undue harm to the poor. In John 12:8 Jesus commands us to connect instead of to separate. We rush to nail down an idea and it always trips us up. Here is a metaphor:
The people in Puhaditjhaba in Qwa Qwa South Africa live in houses made of clay. The roof of their home is made of sheets of corrugated metal which are held in place with long steel cables which stretch across the roof. On either end of the cable, sand bags are tied. This weight holds the cables in place during driving rain storms. Why don’t they screw or nail the roof in place? The answer shows us the sensitivity of this primitive culture. The vast majority of the nights the climate is very temperate and on those nights the roofs are simply removed and the family sleeps under a canopy of stars. These folks that live in poverty reveal to us a way in which to make it through the storm and also a way to open ourselves up to heaven. Much too often we judgmentally nail down our roofs down when we should be opening ourselves up.
They teach us this: Slowness remembers while hurry forgets. Softness remembers while hardness forgets. Surrender remembers while fear forgets. The next time we are seduced by our own achievements, we need to stop, just stop and understand that it is when are in relation with the poor, that when we are poor in spirit ourselves, that we experience the essence of God’s love. The only thing that really converts people is the face of the other. When we see this vulnerability, we claim it as our own.
As a young boy, I had my racecar track while Jesus had learned these words of Moses in Deuteronomy; “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you to open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in your land. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to them, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”
Now wait a minute, you mean we are asked to give to the poor and our generosity has nothing whatsoever to do with CURING poverty? Yep. I believe when all is settled the joy of connecting is at least a celebration of reciprocity, probably leaning more towards the person giving rather that he person receiving.
Relatively speaking none of you who hear my voice this morning is poor. Yes at times we may have troubles getting our money to not run out before the month does, or we may have to come to terms with poor health, but by and large we are collectively the rich man who Jesus encountered who lived an exemplary life, obeyed the commandments, and who asked Jesus what he had to do to enter heaven. Jesus tells him, and us, to sell all he had, give the money to the poor and follow him. The rich man, and us, walk away sadly because we are unwilling to give up the comforts of our world. This dialogue with money leaves us puzzled. Is it my government’s responsibility? Is it my church’s responsibility? In the end, it certainly falls on my shoulders and square in my lap to figure out my relationship with money and power. In terms of how I relate to the poor, it is not a question of charity, but a statement of justice.
I wonder if Jesus is saying the poor will always be with us because the face of the poor is actually HIS face?
Perhaps when we find ourselves giving help to someone who will never be able to pay us back, we are drawing closer to Christ.
In those first eight verses of the 12th chapter of John, Jesus speaks gently to the Apostles, to his dear friend Lazarus, and to his sisters Martha and Mary. Jesus and his twelve have emerged from the countryside. This was a time of solemn and serious self-reflection for him. The home of Lazarus is but a stone’s throw from Jerusalem. He knew the sanctity of this moment. He knew this was a farewell visit with friends who meant so much to him. He came to accept each character in this room, the service of Martha, the listening of Lazarus, the offering of Mary, the judgment of Judas, and the nervousness of the twelve, and to gently say goodbye to them and to us. Yet even in this moment of departure, with the texture of that fragrance in the air, he models acceptance of the poor, stepping away not in anxiety and anger, but in love. We can touch the reality of the love of Christ when we humble ourselves. We understand that giving to the poor is always more of a process than a product.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition called Tong-Len, followers are taught to be like water, to seek the low places and stay there; to let everything rinse its grief in me and to reflect as much light as I can. Followers are asked to breathe in the suffering of the world and to hold it in the unbreakable place of compassion. When we live in this manner, the lowest place becomes an allegory for poverty.
I keep finding common ground in these three words: POOR, PORE, and POUR. To transfer, to look with great intent, to share, to live with little baggage, to give, to vent, to let in and out, to send forth, to prepare, to flow, to serve, to offer, to accept being faulty and imperfect, to breathe are all meaning which are shared among the three. The path to embracing the poor, is always about descending, not ascending.
Jesus was poor. Jesus was a vagrant. Jesus was dependent on the charity of others. In fact the 12th Chapter of John finds him benefitting from the support of the family of Lazarus. He lived and died off of the abundance of love from God his Father. When Jesus says the poor will always be with you, he is clearly saying that HE will always be with us.
Giving to God and giving to the poor are one in the same. Listen to this proclamation from the Lord in Isiah, “Do I not choose to loose the bonds of injustice, and to let the oppressed go free? Is it not right to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house, and when you see the naked to clothe them? If you remove the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light will rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like noon day. You shall cry for help, and I will say, Here I am.”
In Matthew, Jesus says that, “Blessed are the poor in spirit because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does it mean to be spiritually poor? Jesus is asking us to come to terms with our spiritual poverty. Any salvation we experience is a Grace through Faith. We must find the lowest, most humble point among us. Our good works will not save us. Our self-worth cannot be earned. It is only found as we give up some of our control. We find it on our knees, and with the poor among us who live their life in this brokenness. You see, in many ways, the poor are already a step ahead of us.
I will close with a prayer from an unknown soldier. Please close your eyes and listen with me, “I asked God for strength that I might achieve. I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy. I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of my peers. I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I may enjoy life. I was given life that I may enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for, but everything that I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers have been answered.”