A week ago Friday, on July 27th, I had the distinct privilege of joining the Labre team (Rob and Tina Reynolds, Kemp Jaycox, and students from John Carroll University) and heading downtown to serve a hot meal of chili (prepared by LeAnn West and Pat Music) to the homeless who spend their nights on the streets.
Labre (taken from the last name of St. Benedict who ministered to the poor) is an initiative started by students at St. Ignatius and carried over to John Carroll. Every Friday night the same thing happens – privileged, entitled students give to the least of these our brothers and sisters.
Between intermittent downpours we served about 25 people and visited a couple of men who are off the streets and living in subsidized housing. Most of the men (for we did not see any women) are struggling with mental illness, injury, drug addiction. Most of them have had jobs, but poor education, no mobility, a mistake, trapped in urban neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – they fall through the cracks until they are lost to most of us. But our faith tells us that these beloved children of God are not lost to their Creator, nor should they be forgotten by us.
I love the prayer of St. Benedict “Poor in the eyes of men but rich in the sight of God.”
The names have already faded from my memory – but I won’t forget them. One was waiting for us on the corner of Superior and 9th. He spends the day looking for work but if he can’t find any, he wanders. He has a child who lives with the mother, but she is on crack, and he can’t take custody. Besides loving the chili, he wanted a hygiene kit: he wanted to shave and put on deodorant. He was grateful, well-spoken, humble, probably 40 years old.
Another was in a wheelchair, living down by the historic log cabin of Moses Cleveland – in the flats alongside the river. He might have been 25. Skinny. He was in need of some kind of rain gear. A poet – he recited some of his work for us. He couldn’t keep a job because of his disability, he had no insurance, was at the mercy of emergency rooms. He had anxiety issues and took medication when he could get to the health provider. He asked for paper so he could write. He seemed gentle, polite, grateful – but stuck.
At 10:00 we came home. I to a roof over my head, snacks in the cupboard, a cold beer in the frig, the Olympics on the TV, my health, a job, a family, insurance, educated, connected, living into my entitlements – so many sacrificed to allow me to have the privileges that I have; that supported me as I worked hard to reach goals.
It angers me to hear people talk self-righteously judging the poor for not working hard enough, or for expecting hand outs, or who say “entitlements” like an epithet. As if people aren’t entitled to food, health care, or a roof just because they are human.
It angers me when the poor are talked about as if they are a commodity. We all know that when budgets get cut it is the poorest who are expendable. It is their votes that are suppressed.
The powerful, and those who set agendas, will always get theirs, and the poor or those without power will always have that which is theirs, even if it is very little, taken away.
King David got into trouble for feeling entitled to Uriah’s wife. She remains unnamed until verse 24 when we learn her name is Bathsheba. Remember, David kills Uriah to cover up a pregnancy.
David thinks it is all taken care of, nice and tidy, until Nathan shows up to speak the truth in love to power.
Nathan tells David a little story about two men in a certain city: a rich man who had everything (I am sure this rich man thought he deserved everything he had acquired) and a poor man who “had nothing but one little ewe lamb.” The ewe was all that he had and he loved it “it was like a daughter to him.”
Now the rich man was visited by a traveler and he didn’t want to give of his own flock so he took the poor man’s lamb, killed it and served it.
David got real mad about this and gave the right answer: “The rich man deserves to die, he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan had set up old King David, set him up good. Nathan gets to deliver one of the great lines of the Bible “YOU ARE THE MAN!” You who have everything seek out more. You who have the power get corrupted by desire. You, who have the capacity to take, do so just because you can. You never understand what “ENOUGH” means.
There is so much here. The call of Jesus Christ is to me: “I AM THE MAN” “YOU ARE THE MAN” “YOU ARE THE WOMAN.”
At the very least, as we enter this season of political rhetoric: there may be a variety of creative ways to share wealth, and redistribute benefits, and hold people accountable, and give incentives to work – but I believe I have the spirit of Nathan, and the spirit of Amos, and the spirit of Micah and the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ when I say: Our nation will be judged by how we treat the least of God’s children. We are judged if we cut them off to save our own wealth.
We are wrong if we believe the rich are morally superior or are blessed. I think it was rich white men who messed up Wall Street, no? Enron, toxic loans, Teapot Dome anyone? And what about the man on 9th and Superior, the guy in the wheelchair at the log cabin? Oh, they are real dangerous characters.
I struggle to fathom what it means to have “enough;” to find satisfaction in the blessings that I have. This is the biggest spiritual issue facing us as consumers.
From the political to the economic to the personal, we have to learn each others’ names. Even if I feel nameless sometimes, even if you feel powerless sometimes – the promise that is given to us again and again is that God knows and God is present. And I know that we want God to fix things, but is it God’s fault that you and I wander through a world disconnected? Is it God’s fault that we don’t know when enough is enough? Is it God’s fault that through greed, and wastefulness and our false priorities that we create systems of anonymity? Is it God’s fault when we seek for our worth in everything but our belovedness as children of God; Unworthy, undeserving and yet loved beyond measure?
It can’t be “Uriah’s wife” anymore. It can’t be GLBT anymore. It can’t be “African American” anymore, it can’t be White Male anymore, it can’t be “poor” anymore, it can’t be “entitled” anymore, it can’t be “them” anymore – because it is this kind of namelessness that allows us to wallow in shallow ignorance; assuming to judge, presuming to know.
I have tried to speak the truth in love – a truth that convicts me as much as it convicts anyone. You and I need to grow up and no longer be children, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind” of partisanship, by negative advertising and fear mongering, by the craftiness of the talking heads on radios, and deceitful scheming.
Remember what Paul says in Ephesians. Jesus’ kingdom is not about personal achievement and wealth – it is not about you, it is about equipping everyone, bringing all into the body, naming and claiming everyone – because all are beloved of Christ. So you and I must grow into Christ – be like Jesus and follow Jesus into the tension of faithful living.
In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus is the bread of life and the living water. Jesus will drive no one away. We want bread, Jesus gives his presence. I yearn for results, Jesus asks for faithfulness. I want answers, Jesus asks questions: “Do you trust me?” “Do you love me?” “Are you listening?” Everything Jesus did and said was witnessing to the abundance of the kingdom which is present if you and I would just share our loaves and fish, like we read about last week and not always seek for more.
All of this reminds me of the man on Superior and 9th and the guy in the wheel chair at the log cabin. They go unnamed but unforgotten; like Bathsheba. Maybe when I recognize their identity, I will find my own as well.
This is what came to me this week as I read the scriptures and brought my life to the living word. The living word has a way of driving me to places I would not rather go – under bridges, onto street corners in the rain, here before you today – but such is the way of the power of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!