Monday, September 27, 2010

Connecting Names to Hunger

In today’s gospel Jesus offers us a challenging story. I’d like to offer a story of my own. Years ago a successful businessman was abducted, drugged, beaten, robbed and thrown out of a moving car into the doorway of an office building in New York City. He lay barely conscious on the sidewalk, his clothes in tatters, bruised, bloody and dirty. In NYC, it’s not notable to be lying on the sidewalk in tattered clothes and bleeding- he could’ve been just another drunk, or bum. It’s because someone saw this man thrown from a moving vehicle that the police were called and he survived. The person who called was not one of the many in business suits, who walked around him, but the immigrant street vendor. Lots of other well to do people walked right by him and through that door into their skyscraper. Help was just on the other side of the door, if only he could get there. There are many victims of such events- this man was my Dad. Putting a name to a face changes everything. And every face has a story.
In Lazarus’s story, he didn’t place himself at the gate. Literally, he "had been thrown before it." Many don’t get to that place by their own power. They’re tossed there by others. Whether the gate is a good thing or not depends upon your perspective. If you want to be blind to the Lazaruses at the gate, want to pretend all is well in a personally controlled environment, a gate is good. It’s the phenomenon a resident of the Rescue Mission where I worked called “eyes front.” But if you’ve been thrown there, a gate might as well be that chasm we hear of later between the rich man and Lazarus. Some who have found themselves thrown at the gate were once on the other side of it. Just ask someone now dealing with foreclosure because they lost their job, or had a catastrophic medical condition. They know that feeling of being thrown at the gate. So too do the children of the poor who are powerless to change the equation.

On a larger scale, many in our world struggle with illness, hunger and the threat of death, victims of larger forces, yet seemingly invisible to others. Though then and now, good people want to believe they must have brought it upon themselves. But we don’t hear why Lazarus was in the state he was in-perhaps because it isn’t important. What IS important is that he’s hungry and in need.
But I’m still speaking in the abstract- let’s focus our vision a little closer. Take a moment and picture in your mind what a hungry person looks like… If it’s only the stereotypical image of a homeless person in the inner city or a child in a third world country, it’s time to expand your image of that face. Hungry people also live in rural and suburban areas. They hold down jobs, own homes, and try to raise families. They might live in your neighborhood or work in your building. The number of people in poverty in 2009 (43.6 million) is the largest number in the 51 years according to US Census Data. Hunger is on the rise in Pennsylvania. For African Americans and Hispanic persons 1 in 4 live in poverty. 18% of Pennsylvania children live in poverty.

Nearly 1.2 million Pennsylvanians, almost 10% of our population, live in households at risk for hunger. That’s enough people to fill Penn State University’s football stadium nearly 12 times.

We don’t have to look far beyond the gate to see these faces. But if we do look farther, we’ll see that while a family in poverty in the US is one living on less than $54 a day, half the world’s people live on less than $2 a day. Globalization changes everything. In our world today, there are 8 million Lazaruses at the gate. Eight million people suffering unto death from diseases intensified by poverty like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and water borne illness. And tens of millions more whose struggles with these illnesses won’t lead to death, but will result in lost income, heavy debt burdens due to health care costs, interrupted education, homelessness, and social stigma.
And every single face has a name. Names like Donna, Angelo, Ster, Abdul and names like yours. Why do I say this? Because names put a human face on a statistic. We may be tempted to generalize “the rich” or “the poor” since so few of us belong to that category. Whenever we generalize people we find it is easy to say that “they” need to fix it, need to work harder. “They made their bed and they can lie in it” or “God helps those who help themselves”- which by the way are words NOT in the Bible. But we always pay more attention to things that affect us directly, to names we know. When we “know” someone we see their plight, and feel their concern because they are a part of us. We find ourselves opening the gate if you will to let them into our world. We find ourselves contemplating the question author Shane Claiborne asks, “What if Jesus really meant all that stuff?” What if it was our name?
The rich man wasn’t condemned for being rich, but for his indifference and uncaring attitude towards poor Lazarus right outside his door. His greatest fault throughout the story was that he never recognizes the humanity of Lazarus. In the entire time Lazarus sat at the gate of the rich man, and after death in the demands the rich man made, we never see him recognize the existence of Lazarus as another human being created in the image of God. This problem persists today while people die every day because they’re too poor to live, as climate change brings rising coastal waters, droughts destroy crop production in the world's most insecure areas. For decades now humanity has had the means for global destruction or global possibility. Our ability to confront these challenges is one of the great pressing issues of justice in our world today. That’s some pretty heavy stuff.
How can we who are living as those blessed by God respond to this call? The name "Lazarus" may be significant. It means "Helped by God". In the parable, Lazarus is a man who can do nothing for himself, who can't even keep the wild dogs from licking his sores. Yet both our gospel and our Psalm today lift up that God helps those who are in need- those who put their faith not in “help yourself” but in God. Those who stop relying upon government, or gate building to protect their way of living. Who remember that rulers after all are busy making a name for themselves-gathering for themselves. We can’t place our trust there.
Instead, happy and blessed are those who help is the God of Jacob. We have a God who desires to be involved and to help us. A God who then calls us to adjust our vision and tear down our gates, to live as those who proclaim we are “helped by God” and are liberated from putting our ultimate faith in ourselves. In this way, one writer suggests, wealth ... is not the proper object of your devotion, but a convincing way to demonstrate and live out to whom your devotion is truly offered.
We live in the center of wealth in this world, as residents of the world’s wealthiest nation. And we live as those blessed to have as the center of our living a God who enables us to live gratefully and with justice. This justice of our God presents a fundamental and radical challenge that is simple yet hard to realize: to recognize our common humanity with all God's children of this world. To believe that all of the faces around us and around God’s world deserve to have their humanity honored, to be comforted, and to live in abundance as children of God. When we do this, faces with a story will be connected to God’s story, to a God who really means it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Still Blessed are the Peacemakers

Every year on my daughter's birthday I run the post below which has alwyas been entitled "Blessed are the Peacemakers." This year the daughter who is the subject of this post, who was seven that fateful day is now 18. And she has gone off to college to be a Russian and international studies major. She has embark on that journey we talked of long ago- where the road will go we do not know. And while I still mourn the losses of so many I also celebrate God's possibility not the least of which I see in a young woman who was born this day . I still believe that the power of those who believe the world could use more peace and less brinksmanship exists. I pray that it is so.
Here is the first post from five years ago:

This week people across the nation marked the sixth anniversary of the tragedies which unfolded on September 11, 2001. Septembier 11th holds another importance to me- my younger daughter was born on September 11th and was an elementary school student in 2001 when the world seemed like it was falling apart.

It was, in the tradition of the school, her day to be the line leader and the snack person. And it all started out like any other great day. And it is almost always clear and sunny on her birthday, as it was that day.

She had been dropped off with her cupcakes and dressed in red, her favorite color. Her older sister was also at school and my husband and I were at work. The way it worked out, my secretary was on a family trip ( about a mile from where the plane went down in PA). So I had public radio on and I was vaguely listening as I waited for a client to come for an appointment.

As the appointment began there was a report that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center but the assumption was it was a small plane. Hmm. The client came and we met. When I finished, I called our lawfirm’s main office and people were frantic. Get to a TV, they cried.

So, still wondering, I walked down the street to the coffeehouse and on the TV, the now infamous plane clips that are etched into our collective memory were rolling. I got a coffee and as people were wandering in and sitting down to watch numbly, the first tower collapsed. I watched it as though it was a surreal vision, but it had really happened.

They announced that the last plane was unaccounted for, but was over Pennsylvania. I felt like Chicken Little; the sky was falling. I frantically called my husband, and found out his government office near the school was in lockdown.

The school called and I was on my way to pick up the kids. Driving on a sort of auto -pilot. As it seemed was everyone else. My kids got in the car and it was as I saw the tear-stained face of my young child, I realized that for her this was as much about her day as anything else.

How much do you share with 7 and 9 year olds? They had heard the whispers of a few things. We talked briefly about what I could say, planes had crashed and people were not sure what had happened but that it looked like someone made them crash on purpose.

When we came home, my birthday girl was wondering why anyone would do such a thing. At the time none of us knew who was behind the attacks or why. But it seemed to come from somewhere in the Middle East. I struggled to find a way to explain why any person would embrace death in this way.

I started by saying that people do not always agree about where other people should be able to live, or what religion they can believe, or what people can say and who is in charge. I used the playground as an analogy for who gets to pick the game, or who gets to be on the swings first, or who solves a problem when there is a fight. And I admit that even though grownups tell kids not to act out, and to get along and share, we do not always do what we tell them to do. And so we argue and we fight, even though we shouldn’t. And we try to settle things the way we want and we do not take turns. And we push and shove.

Heads are nodding and I think I have made a connection. Perhaps a little too well. Because then the birthday girl points out that the difference between kids on a playground and adults is that “ when adults fight, the way they settle things is to kill.”

My eyes welled up with tears as I heard the truth of what she so boldly said- yes, sometimes this IS what adults do. And now.. what to say? To my saddened, disappointed bitter child who at age 7 knows us as we can be?

I tell her she is right, and that when people do this, it is wrong, and that it makes God sad. She laments that this is how things are. And suddenly I find a moment of good news. I ask her to think about the fact she is not the only person born on this day. That there are too many to count. And that if she and every other person born on this day says, “ I have had enough!” They can become the peacemakers. They can help to bring the change our world needs. They can work for peace, not just because it is right, but because they know how awful not having peace is. And all around the world, change starts because one person stops saying “there is nothing I can do” and starts saying, “ I can do something.”

Post-script: For years I have said I hope that as the events of the past become further into history, the best hope we have of honoring memories is to work, pray and hope for peace. This past week's events with threats of burning Qu'rans are a sad reminder how far we have to go in understanding others and ourselves within God's world. LC#2 has indicated she wants to pursue a career in international affairs. Maybe she will be a peacemaker after all.

Finally, this past Thursday marked the beginning of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, a part of time called the “Days of Awe” that begin with Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s) and for ten days, ending with Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. It’s a time for faithful reflection and repentance and reconciliation, for drawing all back together if possible. In the world of Islam it is time to begin the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and to try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds. How might we as Christians in this country also faithfully reflect and respond to God' call in our lives across many issues.I continue to pray that when we remember September 11th, just as it evokes sadness, we also remember that there is life and hope and God’s promise. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Daring Risk of Commitment

If you’ve ever bought a house or a car or refinanced a debt you know there is a lot of paperwork. In that mountain of papers was a form called the “truth in lending” form. It’s required by law to tell you how much it REALLY costs over time to do what you’re doing. The form takes total dollars you borrowed and multiplies it by the interest rate across the number of months of the loan. Most of us just sign and try not to think about it. What really matters is getting the thing we need for ourselves and our families. But though we ignore it there is a staggering amount that represents the true cost of our commitment. That’s why a lot of times there is another form called the right of rescission- you have time to change your mind and back out if you think it is too foolish to commit.

Our willingness to just sign on the dotted line reflects how we’ve become immune to those numbers. Every day media analysts try to get us to think about the real costs of our decisions-the real cost of the war on terror, the real cost of the cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico, the real cost to us of our trade deficit with China, the real cost of the economic crisis in our country. But frankly, I can’t even wrap my head around numbers in the billions and trillions. Can you?

We proclaim that we are followers of Christ and we talk about helping the poor, being peacemakers, caring for creation and being committed to justice. We want to live these out, but our world quickly tells us this cost is too great.
Today we hear that people in growing numbers have been flocking to Jesus. By our standards he should realize capitalize upon this. Instead he speaks words that will thin the crowd. He tells people who say they believe to count the cost- read that fine print. Because to really be a disciple we must “hate our family,” stop building towers, stop being warriors and kings, and be ready to walk away from all we possess. Strong language that takes on our preference to put ourselves in the lead and that tells us there is a difference between saying “I believe” and “I commit.” It involves being willing to separate ourselves from following the usual people and forces that guide our choices and let get behind Jesus’ lead instead.

This change in vision involved hard words then and maybe even harder today for a consumer driven society like ours where the word “sacrifice” is not very popular. It’s Labor Day weekend, on a holiday initiated to focus on dignity of workers and fair trade that has become all about those towers and wars and consumption. While we think nothing of the costs of our world, rethinking our views about labor and trade and many other things in light of the cross will cost us. Maybe it’s too foolish to try. After all, our ways of doing business are complicated. Yet this is a part of our walk of discipleship- it really gets messy.

I was talking with a business consultant about how the store where we can get good stuff cheap regularly violates fair labor standards and immigration laws. We should stand against this. But while at church we can say this is injustice, that retailer is a client of the consultant and its store is the closest to home. It both pays for and provides for the needs of the consultant’s family. What is the right response as a disciple? Which path would you walk? Lest it seem like I am just judging another, I surveyed my own world in a given day. Starting with breakfast-cereal with some raisins and milk. The raisins came from California where a migrant worker who picked the grapes is paid substandard wages and may be here illegally. My milk comes in a plastic jug that takes that oil rig in the Gulf to be made. I discovered my bowl was made in China, where I’m sure no one is paying attention to fair labor and where industrial pollution has destroyed most of the rivers. The bowl was purchased at a store where most of the people employed are only given enough hours to be part time so the employer doesn’t have to offer health insurance. Getting dressed I looked at the labels in my clothes-nothing made in the USA though some fair trade. And it took me awhile to look at all those things because I have a lot.

When I looked at my world, I noticed how easy it becomes to focus upon building our own towers and empires and stockpiles. We are always looking to climb higher, looking beyond or looking inward, yet our eyes are not open to who is in front of us. We think about numbers not faces. I thought about how complicated it would be to change my lifestyle. I started counting the cost of living more faithfully, I realized would cost me a lot more money and take a lot more time. But maybe we’re too busy hanging onto what we have to have. So much so that our hands aren’t open to God’s possibility. I would have fewer choices if I changed my habits. In one way I would be renouncing possessions. But to really think about more permanent change is a challenge!

There’s the weight of that cross- just one example of the challenge in taking what we hear in here and building upon it out there. To stop letting our vision lead the way. If I really started living out a lifestyle that honored the dignity of others in fair trade and the care of creation it would be a struggle and some might even mock me. True discipleship involves being willing to sacrifice our wants and our self-esteem.It’s clear in so many ways that we can’t be those noble selfless disciples. As Martin Luther once said,” I believe I cannot by my own understanding or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.” We can’t make that commitment.

This is exactly where the good news steps in. Bearing the message of the cross into where we are, where we live and work, is not to show our leadership or to earn something, but as a sign that we follow the one who by the cross demonstrated God’s compassion and love. The other times besides our story today where we hear about foolishness and cost is the story of the cross and of the Jesus who is mocked because he saved others but can’t save himself. Our gracious God knows our limitations, but in compassion and love took on the cost of claiming us and then gave us task of discipleship anyway.

A disipleship that risks living out in words and actions God’s compassion and love even when it means standing with people in need, or devoting ourselves to God’s creation. Even when it means to standing over against the world of our family of co-workers, loved ones, employers and media that tell us it’s OK to do otherwise. Knowing we will struggle.

When we wonder how we might even begin to live a truer walk of discipleship, it is in prayer, in worship and in studying God’s word we are given guidance. In this way we are empowered by the Spirit. As we grow in faith, we will continue to find ourselves driven into the world despite our resistance and reluctance to serve others to share our gifts and talents and witness to God’s redeeming word. It is challenging to keep that long term commitment, but it is because we have a God who has not given up on us that we can live with a sense of daring we couldn’t manage on our own.