Waking at the stroke of One, Scrooge was anxious. So anxious and expectant, in fact, that when nothing came to disturb his bed-curtains, he became even more frightened. He finally gathered himself enough to notice the light streaming from under the doorway into the next room.
He walked over to open the door….cautiously opened it to find the Ghost of Christmas Present, surrounded by what can only be described as a great feast. It is as if every Christmas dinner from all of London, maybe all of England, has been transported into Scrooge’s chambers.
The light of this spirit is somehow less stark than that of the Ghost of Christmas Past, though certainly as bright… it is a warmer glow.
This Spirit takes Scrooge around the neighborhoods of London before they travel to a lighthouse, a ship at sea and a mining slum in the moors. At each stop, the pair encounter men and women who have made a feast of what they have, people who have made do and made merry– in even the bleakest of circumstances.
Scrooge seems eager to learn this time, building a bit on lessons from Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past. But like most of us humans… his old patterns, his old habits are going to take time to reform.
Unlike the miracle stories shared at revivals and on infomercials, repentance is often a messy, long and hard-fought process of recognizing, confessing and quitting our sins layer by layer, moment by moment, day by day. Especially when it comes to sins that are reinforced by the culture in which we live. It calls to my mind the work of recovery.
When an addict goes to rehab – to reform, to turn away from her drug of choice – she is secluded for a while. When she has to go back out into the world, she is encouraged to disconnect from the people and places most closely associated with her old habits.
It’s hard to stay clean and sober… especially around people who aren’t even trying…or who want to see you rejoin them in their illness and dysfunction. It’s even harder to stay generous and loving, welcoming and tolerant in a culture that is addicted to greed and fear, exclusion and bigotry.
When we choose to live differently, to walk away from those sins, where can we go to escape the relentless messages, from the media, even from family or friends? The messages that tempt us to view the world through the lenses of scarcity and exceptionalism?
One hopes we can find sanctuary in a sanctuary – in a faith community. One that has listened closely to the teachings of Jesus, like these verses from Luke’s gospel.
And then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20-26, NRSV)
This passage is the beginning of Luke’s depiction of the Sermon on the Plain. Matthew places a similar set of teachings into what is called the Sermon on the Mount. In each case, the sermon comes near the beginning of his ministry, and Jesus has been up on the mountain, praying.
Luke tells us that Jesus came down to a level place – a plain – with the twelve he had just chosen as his closest group of disciples.He spoke to a large crowd of his followers and a great multitude of people from all over Judea, Jerusalem and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
The people had come in hopes of hearing his teaching, and of being healed of diseases. There were people dealing with unclean spirits, as well. Everyone wanted to get close enough to touch Jesus because there was great power that flowed from him… healing power. Enough for all of them.
What they heard as they drew near was some very direct teaching. about who is blessed and whose life is leading to woe.
You and I, most Americans in fact, tend to hear these words through Matthew’s version, the more familiar set of beatitudes. We may even prefer to think of the “poor in spirit” as blessed, or the ones who “hunger and thirst for the sake of righteousness.”
Perhaps because – especially by most of the world’s standards – we are not poor in the literal sense. Most of us in this room have not had to worry in the last week about finding our next meal or glass of drinkable water.
And don’t we all want to see ourselves among the blessed?
But here in Luke, Jesus is lifting up as blessed, as honored, those who are just plain old poor, hungry and hated…the vagrant beggars unable to sustain themselves. Perhaps they have homes and families, but they can’t keep them fed without assistance.
Clearly these people are a drain on the system. Not job creators. Not upwardly mobile. Some might say they may as well go ahead and die, then, and decrease the surplus population. You know… thin the herd.
Why in the world would Jesus say they are blessed?
That’s the thing about God-With-Us and his teachings. He maintains God’s unfaltering love and concern for those whom the powerful would leave behind. God calls underdogs and oddballs to lead the people. God promises children to the barren and aged.
God chooses a young woman from the middle of nowhere, engaged to a man who will barely be able to sustain a wife, to be the vessel through which he will enter time and space as a tiny, vulnerable infant.
So, yeah, it makes sense that the Son of God would care deeply about the underdogs and oddballs, the ones others have pronounced cursed and forsaken, those who are sick in body, mind and spirit.
Blessed are those the world would call “losers”.
And woe be to the ones the world would call “winners”.
Woe to the ones with easy access to plenty and choose not to share. Woe to the ones who laugh, without taking into account the pain and sorrow of their neighbors.
Be warned, Jesus says, to the ones who most resemble me.
Who resemble most of us.
Like Scrooge, we have worked hard to get where we are, and really, there isn’t anything wrong with hard work. Or hoping to put aside enough resources to be secure, to care for our families and perhaps leave something to our heirs.
The danger comes when we fail to recognize the allure of more and our understanding of just how much is enough gets warped.
Or when we fail to recognize the face of Christ in the ones who are the face of poverty in our own city and county.
When we allow children to go without food.
When we saddle struggling neighborhoods with failing schools that mostly feed the school-to-prison pipeline.
When we tuck the undesirables behind the folds of our gowns, hidden away in subsidized housing or camps in cypress stands, or in cars that double as bedrooms because at least they have doors that lock.
But we cannot read this passage from Luke with any honesty and not see the truth: Jesus stands on the side of those we would push aside.
Just as Jesus would stand by us if we were to find ourselves facing one too many medical expenses, one too many missed house payments, another year of increased expenses on a fixed income and are faced with the prospect of begging someone… anyone… for help.
And we cannot read this passage with any honesty and not see that Jesus is calling on those of us who are doing ok to offer more than token gifts and pity.
Jesus calls upon us to remember that we are blessed, not because of what we have or don’t have, but because we have been claimed and loved by the God who created and sustains us.
Which also means that Jesus calls upon us to remember the poor and ill, the grieving, the hungry, reviled and despised, are blessed. Not because of what they have or don’t have, but because they, too, have been claimed and loved by the God who created and sustains all of us.
I haven’t shared a lot about the time Joy and I spent in Cuba. Partly because we want to find a Wednesday night when we have more time and an excuse to share some amazing food and flavors we experienced along with our photos. But I also needed some time to think and pray through what I saw and experienced, and how to make sense of it for people outside of my brain.
I wrote a bit about this in my newsletter article for this month…How we were invited into homes in neighborhoods we would classify as slums – run down and shabby outside.
When we first arrived, I looked at these buildings and my heart was filled with pity. I wondered what it might be like to live in such poverty. But everywhere we went, in spite of the difficulties they experience, despite the economic hardships – many of which their government blames the US for – we were welcomed with open arms and open hearts.
When they said, Mi casa es su casa, they meant it, offering up their home as a home away from home. Asking us come back, to sit and talk, to join them at table. They went out of their way to cook for us, to spend time with us so that we might begin forming friendships and to teach us about the lives that they lead day to day.
They made clear that they didn’t want anything from us – not until we understood each other better. Not until we knew each other well enough to see what we needed from them, what strengths and resources they can bring to bear in our areas of need.
As we drove back to the airport to leave Cuba, I found myself looking at those houses and apartment buildings in neighborhoods we would consider slums. And I found myself imagining the people inside them. And I realized I was leaving with a very different perspective on poverty and wealth.
They are so very rich… and we are so very very poor.
We have so much to learn from them about what it means to welcome and love our neighbors.
In Christ, God calls all of us holy and blessed and sends us all to bear witness to God’s grace and mercy.
When we come to the feast at God’s table, that is what matters…not the size of the table or the family around it, not the quality of the pottery or the silver, not the rituals and means of passing the plates.
What matters is that God’s grace is abundant and that we are making a real, honest effort to call all God’s children inside to share the feast.
Rich and poor, clean and grubby, powerful and disenfranchised –
when we all gather to celebrate and remember when the unfailing, unflinching love of our Creator God came down all those Christmases ago…
when we learn to love one another across all those invisible lines…
Then and only then can we cry out as one with the words of Tiny TIm:
God bless us, every one