Friday, January 27, 2012

Always with you…

Much of what Jesus said are wonderful, heartwarming, powerful ideas and words. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen, Brother Jesus! Of course I’ll follow you!

But if you keep reading, less…comfortable notions emerge; concepts that paint a more complicated picture. “I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.” “Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you.” “Those who want to preserve their lives, will lose them. But those who lose their lives for my sake, will keep them.” Seriously, Jesus?! Are you joking?!

Then there’s the following hard saying that’s received plenty of attention over the centuries. “The poor will always be among you, but you will not always have me.” Leave aside- for the time being- that the latter half of that sentence contradicts something we encountered in paragraph one (both of which occur in the Gospel of Matthew, by the way). At face value, the idea’s disturbing; obvious perhaps, but something you’d want Christ to admit only in whispers. After all, the image we likely hold of our Savior includes unrelenting compassion for the world’s poor. Some theologians even argue (correctly, I’d contend) that if Jesus were made to chose, he’d show a “preferential option for the poor.” Yet in that sentence, it’s almost like Christ says, “Whatever we do, poverty will endure. So don’t worry too much about it. Just believe in me.”

First, a little context, for those confused by this thought. At least in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says it to his disciples in reaction to a strange event. They’re having dinner in Jerusalem, scant few days before his betrayal and execution, when an unnamed woman saunters in with an expensive jar of perfume. She breaks the seal, pours the contents over Jesus’ head. The disciples respond indignantly, “Why’d she do that?! We could’ve sold that for lots of money, and given it to the poor.” The Anointed One responds, “The poor will always…etc.” He then interprets her actions as loving preparation for his burial. Not the typical dinner party event, but surely quite memorable.

Nevertheless, we’re left with profound cognitive dissonance. “Didn’t this guy proclaim, ‘Blessed are the poor’?” Yes, in fact, he did. But the two thoughts aren’t mutually exclusive. What matters is how we respond to Jesus’ frank admission of poverty’s pervasiveness. Given that throughout his life, Jesus made understanding and alleviating poverty a top-three priority, I suspect we’re not to believe, “The poor will always be with us, so let’s not put in too much effort to help.” Instead, we’re always to keep their needs atop our moral priorities too.

The trouble is, for modern Christ followers living in American suburbs like ours, we’re often uninformed about the lives of the poor. Who are they? Where do they live? Can we meaningfully help? Lots of stereotypes about poor folk persist, of course, likely filling our minds with unpleasant images. But separating truth from myth, fear from courageous engagement, isn’t easy, especially with so much else vying for our attention.

To that end, I want to ask you to join me for an event next month. You’ve maybe heard me announce this in church already, but if not, please consider putting it on your calendar. On February 27, from 6:30-8:30 at IOCP, our church is co-sponsoring (with twelve local faith communities) a “Community Conversation about Local Poverty.” I’m helping plan (and emcee), and we’re crafting an evening I hope you’ll find meaningful. The goal is helping attendees discover who the poor are in our midst, the challenges they face, ways the broader community assists, and crucially, what we all need to do to help out. You know that stereotype about a homeless man in a cardboard box under the freeway? Doesn’t match the truth of suburban poverty, but what, you may ask, does?

Well, we’ll answer that February 27. So I hope you’ll attend, for Jesus claimed the poor will always be with us. But so will he, he said, inspiring us to live and reach out with compassion.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. - Space is limited, so you’ll need to register ahead of time. Either talk to me, or email Jill Kohler at IOCP to get on the list.

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