Midweek Musing: let's not defend ourselves against the poor

Reflecting on Mark 10:17-31, and Hebrews 4:12-16 : Canberra Central Parish, 14 October 2018

A response of confession feels appropriate, hearing these readings. This poem is by John van de Laar: ‘Biographers of the Least’

Our world overflows with stories, Jesus,
so many lives,
so many ways of being human.
So why are we satisfied with so few?
Why do we keep telling the same stories over and over,
of the wealthy and powerful and beautiful?

Why do we so carelessly pass by the rich and unpredictable stories
of the unseen
who in a million magical ways,
make a life out of nothing?

God, forgive our narrow interests,
and our lazy entertainments;
Make us biographers of the least,
who listen to the untold stories of the shadow people,
and bring them into the light.

Give us the curiosity and the restlessness
to search out the forgotten,
the neglected,
the unwanted,
the discarded,
and the worn out,
to learn their legends,
and to acknowledge their place
in the epic story of humanity.

Saint Martin – the image on the pew sheet for today - lived during the reign of Constantine the Great, and was a soldier in the imperial cavalry stationed near Amiens. Encountering a shivering beggar near the city gates on a cold winter day, it is said that the young soldier divided his cloak with his sword and shared it with him. Tradition has it that Christ later appeared to Martin in a dream, saying, "What thou hast done for that poor man, thou hast done for me."

It seems to me that there are circumstances in which to give of what we have, to give half a cloak, is not actually to lose very much at all. I could have given the man at our church door last Sunday, who told us he was homeless, his mother in a shelter had not the money for the cancer medication she needed, the $50 he asked for, and not really have felt the loss. Which is a new circumstance for me, for 12 months ago, I certainly could not have spared $50 without it being a significant sacrifice.

So what stopped me? Why did I look at that man and hesitate? Richard Swanson wrote this week about our need to defend ourselves against the poor. Why did my defences go up?

I, like many I’m sure, have been burned badly before by people whose word I trusted when they said they needed money for food, but then went and bought the drugs they really wanted. When I let the woman staggering in the middle of the road into my car and trusted that she had, as she said, been beaten by someone in her home and she and her children needed to get to the bus, though where were her children I asked? And no, I wouldn’t give her money, but I would drive her where she needed to go, and the story changed and changed again as she muttered to herself her thoughts that ‘she isn’t going to give us any money’ …

There are many reasons we as individuals, as congregations, don’t give money in these sorts of situations. Variations on the theme of giving someone a fish so they’ll eat for a day or teaching them to fish so they’ll eat forever: but until they learn to fish, they’re still hungry, right? Last Sunday we offered food to the man who told us he had no home, no money, but he did not take any. Was he playing us with his story of his need for money? Do we find it distasteful that people might use us in this way, abuse our trust, manipulate our emotions? Is it fair? No. It is not fair for someone to so deceive another.

When I lived in Edinburgh, I quite often encountered people sitting on the pavements begging, or who would walk up to you in the street and ask for five pounds. I knew that some were likely looking for money to get a fix. I knew that some would make unhelpful choices about how they spent what money they were able to scrounge. I’ve lived with the stress of limited finances – to a lesser extent than the folk in the streets, I was at that time – and I’ve seen how it limits my capacity to make good choices.

I also knew that for many of these folk, their homelessness was real, the consequence of choice and circumstance and bad luck. And that when I walked past without meeting them in the eye and at least saying sorry mate, I was contributing to their feeling of being dehumanised by their situation, and their fellow humans.

So what will it take for me to see that man on our doorstep as having essential human dignity, and meet him with compassion. Give him time to hear his story, however he wants to tell it. See him, not look past him to the betrayals of others in his place before. It is my responsibility to change my perspective.

To hold fast to my confession, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says. Yes, the word of God will cut like a sword, and it did this past week, I tell you. Whatever the reasons that help me understand – past betrayals, limited capacity after a draining morning’s work, lack of process and procedure for our community together. Whatever the reason, I felt cut by my own preaching of the word last week when I reflected on my response to the stranger at our door. So cut. So in need of the grace of God.

Hold fast to our confession. I have asked our staff meeting, our joint church council, to work with me to review and revise our policy and practice. For what I gave up last week was his and my humanity. That is far more costly than the loss that comes from a betrayal of trust, from giving $50 to someone whose story may or may not be told truly.

What I wanted to do, perhaps not aware of it consciously, was to defend myself against the needs of the poor. To turn away so I could not see. To pretend these folk don’t live in our city, our neighbourhoods. To keep my blissful ignorance of a problem so overwhelming I don’t know where to begin to help. And I feel a bit like the young man who turned from Jesus’ challenge dismayed.

Now, about this young man’s request: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Is he seeking to secure a place in heaven? I wonder.

What if we heard it, as Richard Swanson suggests, as seeking the way to live as a participant in the new age Jesus proclaims and brings about? This age might be called the messianic age, the kingdom of God, the realm of God, I often use the language of the kin-dom of God. How do I live so others will see me and know I am one of them, that family, that kin-dom, the people of God? What are our family traits? That is the question.

Jesus names the family traits of the ancient people of God: refraining from murder, adultery, theft, deceit; honouring your parents. Awesome, the young man says, I’ve been doing that my whole life, so I’m doing the right things. Excellent. Does he turn at this point, feeling affirmed, and then Jesus says, But wait. There’s more.

In this family we’re none of us free until we’re all free. None of us fed until we’re all fed. This family believes the humanity of each one of us is inextricably bound up in the humanity of other humans. So that wealth you have, it’s not yours alone – share it. Jesus says sell up, and that’s a huge challenge that we really want to resist. But even if you don’t actually sell all you have, the challenge should still feel uncomfortable. What we have is not ours to hoard with a selfish survival of the fittest attitude. We must see our neighbour’s need and do what we can. Whether that is to sit beside them and hear their story, to offer them food, drive them to where they can get connected to systems of longer term help and support. Do what we can.

Now, the man may not take the food you offer. That is his choice. The woman may spend the money you give her on drugs or alcohol. That is her choice. You cannot do everything. But you must do what you can. What. You. Can. And I can’t help feeling that last week I did not: for what I can do is sit and listen.

I want to challenge us all to allow the word of God to cut us like a sword, to feel uncomfortable, chastised, even. And then to get up, and hold fast to our confession that we are the people of God, and our family traits are generosity, care, and the affirmation of the dignity of each human in whose humanity our own resides.

We celebrate today the way we do each answer the call of God to serve God and our community of faith, through particular positions and responsibilities, through shared stewardship of our resources, through the collaborative efforts to put on a remarkable event such as the spring fair was. We have each given much for those roles, tasks, responsibilities. We may, however, still have more to give, as individuals, as a community. And that may come with some risk. Hold fast to your confession – we are the body of Christ, and we are commanded to love, to see in the beggar at the gate Jesus, God, the Sacred, a human beloved. God is waiting.


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