Friday, December 16, 2011

The Third Friday of Advent

Third Friday of Advent
December 16, 2011

The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts. . . (Zechariah 7:8-13)

As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. (Psalm 40:17)

For we American church people, those who are in a place of suffering often become categorized as something other than us. We might have some widows here and there within our congregations, but we tend to be short on orphans, aliens, and the poor. We know they’re around, but they’re more out there than in here.

Aliens and the poor get a fair amount of press these days. Aliens are characterized as mostly illegal and a problem for American society. Sure, we have poor people, but as I heard someone comment recently, maybe it’s mostly their own fault—drugs, booze, and downright laziness will get you every time. It’s such a shame.

It’s easy for us to reduce people to categories that we believe do not include us. In our society we often create narratives for their existence, and then vocalize our preferences for legislation that will take care of the problems.

Many of us, however, are about five paychecks away from joining one of these unfortunate categories. Lose a job, lose a house, you just might be part of the category of people that used to be them. Get desperate enough, you might even sneak across a border for work. The line between us and them isn’t quite as distinct as we imagine.

People I know in churches that reach out to the poor and needy find their stories and identifications changing on them. The people they impact—even the ones who have messed up their lives—cease to be others and begin to be brothers and sisters. It’s a profound change, and an important one.

The Bible speaks so often about God’s heart for the needy and the requirement of the people of God to care for those in need, that it’s a bit startling. If we’re saved by grace and not by things we do, then what’s the big deal? It’s about souls, right?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe it’s about the whole person. Maybe it’s about all of us, and we’re all in God’s heart. There is no us and them, but only the us that God loves and draws into his circle of care and compassion. This is a participatory faith, not one of spectatorship.

In the birth of Jesus, we stop and remember that he was born in a poor place. Others recognized the needs of his family and brought gifts. Jesus was among the poor and found care.

The Lord takes thought for us.

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