Monday, January 13, 2014

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Last week I talked a little bit about the Year of the Jubilee, and how we as Christians need to take it seriously. The jubilee, as a quick refresher, was a year in Levitical law that was supposed to come every 50 years. In that year all debts owed by Israelites to one another were to be cancelled. And even if you had sold or traded your land to settle a debt, it had to be given back.

This was significant. Significant to a people who had been slaves in Egypt. Slavery that was made possible - as speculated by some biblical scholars - by an ever-growing debt that Israel - who had once been free - owed to Pharaoh. Debt is a tool that's been used again and again, and is still being used today, to keep one group of people oppressed. Captive. Slaves. 

It was important to freed slaves that they'd never be enslaved, or slave owners, again. Hence the year of the jubilee, a piece of the law not only talked about extensively in the Torah, but over the course of the prophetic texts, and then even by Jesus himself who quotes Isaiah 61 to announce his ministry. He, Jesus, came to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. The year of the jubilee.

So, we'd better take this scripture seriously. But if the early church still had rich and poor, slave and free, what exactly does this mean for us today? The clue, I think, is in this thing Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven, which is anyplace God's will is in place. Not just after we die, but here... on earth. Jesus was AT LEAST as concerned about this life as the next. And so, going forward we need to understand the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. To do this we're working through the "Blessed are" part of the Beatitudes, one "blessed are" at a time. The thinking is if we take a look at who is blessed by Jesus coming, that will give us clues as to what the Kingdom looks like, and hence how to celebrate the Year of Jubilee.

The first "blessed are" is "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.". Poor in spirit is actually a translation of one Greek word, Ptochos. Ptochos is basically everyone who isn't connected. Powerful. Wealthy. Important. They can even be destitute or needy. These are essentially ordinary people. Everyone who has no say, or sway.

Remember, the Roman Empire is a world where only a few people, at the top, have any power. Any say. The vast majority of people living in the Empire are not citizens, but rather subjects of it. A subject in an empire exists to serve the citizens. It's not a great existence. There are stories in the Gospels, for example, of pig farms in Israel. Israelites don't eat pork. They're not even supposed to touch it, and yet there are still pig farms to feed those who had been sent by Rome to rule over Israel. A governor with a bureaucracy and all their families. Roman soldiers. Didn't matter if you weren't allowed to touch pigs. You're a subject. Not a citizen. 

A strange thing to say, I think.... blessed are the subjects. 

You ever felt like a subject? A "less than"? I remember a few years ago we were in Haiti looking for a possible place to house a team. Somebody suggested we go visit a missionary couple who had a large house where other teams had stayed. Our friend and ministry partner, Pastor Marius, took us out to this place. I remember we climbed out of the truck, and one of the missionaries invited us into their home. We had called ahead so they knew why we were coming. They were going to show us around the place. So we got out of the truck, and went into the house to start the tour, but before we could get out of the living room, one of them made it clear that Pastor Marius wasn't welcome to come with us. He wasn't allowed in the house. 

"We don't let those people, the Haitians, in our home."

I'm sure they had their reasons. We started the tour. Pastor went back and stood by the truck. We ended the tour, left, and never went back. 

He was a subject, not a citizen... and it just felt, wrong.  

I think that's why the text in Luke 14:7-14 is so powerful. Jesus is at a dinner party, and he's watching (I'm supposing with a little amusement) the scribes and Pharisees jostling for position around the table. For the place of importance. And in the midst of this, he just simply says that the person who takes the seat of least honor, can be honored when the host offers them a better seat, which is way better than taking a great seat, and then being moved by the host so the seat can be given to someone else. 

And then, he lets everyone there in attendance - everyone in attendance largely to hear him speak - know that for their next dinner party they shouldn't invite friends, family, and people of importance in the hopes of reciprocation or to receive some sort of favor. Instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed. Maybe not today, but someday, then the righteous finally win the day, you will get your reward. 

Invite your subjects.

I don't like to think about myself having subjects. I'd like to think I could invite anybody. Anybody. But would I really invite the recently emancipated foster child who had lived an impossible for me to imagine hard life into my home? The homeless man? The woman with the strange skin disease? The recently released prisoner? Who do you consciously or unconsciously place yourself above? Who, in the way you think about them, have you made your subject.

I'm just going to say this.... the church has never fared well when she's tried to put herself at the head of the table, and try to keep others in the kitchen or servants quarters or outside looking in the window. That always seems to fail us. When white churches refused communion to blacks. When men consciously try to marginalize women. When the young or the old are shorted and compromised. 

The church makes a lousy bouncer manning the front entrance at the velvet rope. Might have a lot of reasons - some of them might even sound good - when we try to make others feel "less then", as subjects, but it never looks good. And it's never resolved easily. 

And I understand. I get it. It's easier to make limits. Place boundaries. The poor in spirit aren't always easy to get along with. They aren't always reasonable. They're behavior and choices can seem strange to us. There are too many of them. They eat up all the resources and take up all our time. We can't manage them, and they wear us out. 

But the Kingdom is theirs. They're citizens. Our banquet is supposed to be laid out for those who can never pay us back. It's supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. It's supposed to feel backwards and wrong. It's a clarion call to just how out of whack the earth runs, compared to the way God wants it to run. 

It's a wake up call to new priorities, where inconveniences are begging us to lay ourselves down. To let ourselves die unto ourselves, to find a new reason for living. And what it makes more than bearable. What makes it joyful, is that we learn how to do this together. We experience it together, so we're not in it alone, as we show others they aren't in it alone either.

Yesterday we were at a swim invitational in Celina. Maybe you read about it in the paper. There were a lot of teams there. Hundreds and hundreds of swimmers, and for most of the events the swimmer couldn't enter if they hadn't beaten a certain time. Like if you hadn't swam the 100 meter breast stroke faster than 1:30, you didn't qualify for the race. And this was true in every single event except for the 50M freestyle and the 100M freestyle. 

The freestyle, for those who don't know, is the most common stroke. It's the one where your hands kind rotate around like a couple of windmills while you kick your feet. And here's something most people don't know.... in the freestyle, you can swim any way you want. If you want to do the butterfly, the back stroke, the breast stroke, even the doggie paddle you're allowed. In the 50M (which is up and back in the pool) and the 100M (which is up and back, up and back) freestyle, there was no minimum time. 

The pool could swim a maximum of six swimmers at one time (what they call "a heat"). Six swimmers could swim in one heat. To accommodate all the swimmers who wanted to swim in the 50M and 100M freestyle races, it took 83 heats. 83 heats. My kid isn't in a single one. 

The fifties were first. I went to lunch (a cup of chicken and noodles). I talked with some of swimmer and the parents. I walked around the facility. I surfed the internet on my phone. I took my time. The natatorium was packed and was heated to about 289 degrees. I thought I was gone a really, really long time.

I was. Just in time for the 100M Freestyle races to start. I'd only missed half of them.

Incredulous and a little bitter, I took my seat back in the bleachers. First were 25 heats of girls 100M freestyle. 

And then we got to the boys, and that's when I met Ian.

Ian was in the 1st of 18 boys 100M freestyle heats, which would be the slowest. But he was locked in. Focused. He was about a foot shorter than all the other swimmers. And he had Down's Syndrome. 

Nothing mattered. Then the buzzer buzzed, Ian was good to go. 

He didn't as much dive as he belly flopped. Belly flopped to the degree that an audible "ooh' rose up from the crowd and 500 people started rubbing their belly in sympathy pain. And his stroke wasn't the smoothest. Kind of a combination of the freestyle and butterfly. And his turns weren't the sharpest and he wasn't the fastest, which is why by the time he had gone up and back, and up again, the rest of the heat had finished.

But it didn't matter. Ian kept plowing through the water. And as we got closer and closer to the final wall, first there were a few cheers and a few claps. And then there were more. And then more. And then more. Until the whole place was cheering to Ian. To the point that when he finished, the whole joint just broke out into cheers and applause. 

And surly, inconvenienced, disdainful ol me, was thankful they had scheduled every single one of those 83 heats of freestyle. 

So I think the first secret of the Kingdom, of the jubilee, is you stop thinking so much of yourself. Make yourself a little less important in your own mind. Shift seats at the dinner table. Maybe even move over to the kids table where all the plates are plastic and their have the Flintstones printed on them. Because if the point of church is simply to make you feel good about the choices you've made or recharge you to do what you are going to do, then maybe we've missed the point. We've told Ian "no heat for you", and in the process we'll miss the highlight of the day. The moment when a YMCA is turned into a temple, into holy ground, into a classroom where we learn something essential about what matters. 

And on the other side of things, sometimes we don't just need to find humility in service, but the humility to be served. To be unflinchingly real. No pretense. No bull. No putting up the best front. And trusting that the people who have decided to open the door a little wider so everybody has the chance to come in, will even let you in, and serve you, like a citizen even when you don't have much to offer. 

Even when your spirit, is poor.