Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” With those words we begin the season of Lent; a season that the prayer book describes as one of ‘penitence and fasting.’ It is traditional for people to give up something during Lent; something that is a part of the daily fabric of their lives, perhaps something that is a treat or is looked forward to regularly for comfort. For instance, many people give up drinking their favorite soda, or eating chocolate. Others may give up watching a favorite TV show or spending time on social media. Whatever it is, when we are triggered by habit or desire for this creature comfort, its absence ultimately serves to remind us of our ‘poverty.’
The common definition of poverty is: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. (1) It is this description that fuels our social discourse on poverty. We’re made aware of poverty in the news by reading articles like one in the Huffington Post this past year which reported that 14.5% of Americans, roughly 45 million people, live below the poverty line. (2) Or, we may read in our history books that someone was born into poverty and achieved greatness by overcoming it. The word poverty by this definition carries with it a negative connotation. Most people when talking about themselves would not talk to you about their poverty. To do so would be like admitting our failures. The recipe for success according to American Industrialist Jean Paul Getty: Rise early. Work hard. Strike Oil! (3) This is hard to contradict. At the time of Mr. Getty’s death in 1976, his net worth was a staggering $2 billion. (4) So why do we as Christians spend a season reflecting on our poverty when the world in which we live regards this as unvirtuous?
I think the answer lies in the very essence of our creation. When it comes down to it, none of us are ‘self-made’ people. We did not choose to come into the world on our own. We did not choose our families of origin, our ethnicity, or our sexuality. While we were born with intelligence and with the capacity for learning, we did not arrive fully assembled nor did we come with instructions. The only instinct we had in the beginning once our lungs were clear was to cry out for help as loudly as we could. I love that line from our Psalm this morning: “For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.” From our infancy, continuing on through our lives we were guided and formed, one step at a time by others who had come into the world the same way and who were similarly formed by others back through generations to the beginning of time.
In Chapter 6 of the SSJE Rule of Life entitled “The Spirit of Poverty,” we read: “Faith sees the cross of suffering and self-giving love planted in the very being of the God revealed to us in Jesus. When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying.”
This is the way God has always worked in the world, creating out of the core of his very being. Perhaps we as human beings find this spirit of poverty hard to comprehend because it is from this self-emptying act of creation that we were conceived. You may remember in the Gospel of John, in a confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus says ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am,’ meaning there was never a time when He came into being, and there will never be a time when He is not in being. God is timeless. We however, at least in this mortal life, have a beginning and end. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We have no consciousness of the time before our birth and what lies beyond our death is a great mystery. The promise of everlasting life is one we take on faith through our trust and belief in Jesus Christ our Lord, just like Abraham believed the promise God made to him in our Old Testament lesson this morning.
Abraham, a man of great faith, was overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of God’s goodness. From the beginning of the Abrahamic Saga one thing was made perfectly clear. Out of all of his brothers and their wives, Abraham and his wife Sarah were unable to have children. And like most couples who want children, just as in our day, this was a source of great sadness in their relationship. God promises Abraham that in return for his faithfulness not only will he be a father, but he will become the ancestor of many nations. He continues, “As for your wife Sarah, I will bless her and give you a son by her and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” The lectionary actually leaves out my favorite part of this passage. The next sentence reads: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” There have been biblical scholars who have interpreted this not as a laugh of disbelief, but rather one of joy that from his lineage the Messiah would come. (5) Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
God has always chosen to work and create out of the seeming emptiness of situations. God did not redeem the world with a mighty snap of his fingers but instead entered into our human condition, with all its limitations, through the person of Jesus Christ, to live and die as one of us, and to reconcile and redeem us from our delusion of self-reliance and ego. God emptied himself, became poor and even in his poverty gave all that he had so that we might have life and have life abundantly. (6) This is the spirit of poverty which comes from God and is not to be confused with the physical poverty in which so many people are forced to live in our world today. This worldly poverty is our own creation and is a result of hording the riches of this life instead of being good stewards of the gifts God has given us. If we are to embrace and live in the spirit of God’s poverty we must follow his example and share with others who have nothing. In our gospel lesson today Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” That gospel Jesus is proclaiming, that ‘good news’ is that in God’s economy, everyone will be fed but we have to be willing to share from the riches that God has given us.
In order to do that we, like Abraham, have to stop and recognize the goodness that God has given us in our lives. This can be a challenge when we obsess on what we don’t have that our society says that we should. If we are to have faith in the good news that God in his infinite love permeates all things, even time and space, then that means we have to see our own limitations and poverty as a vehicle in which Gods glory will be revealed. Perhaps we can start by offering our poverty to God with the faith that he will redeem and transfigure it, then we can enjoy the blessings of our life more fully and share them with others. From the chapter “The Spirit of Mission and Service” in our Rule of Life we read: “If we give freely of ourselves, we should expect abundant gifts in return, according to Christ’s promise. We should enter into our ministries expecting to receive as much or more than we can give. Christ will make himself known to us in wonderful ways in those we serve, especially in those who suffer and are poor in spirit. Ministry itself will draw out from us gifts, insights and strengths that we never knew we had. We will be continually taught, humbled, surprised and stretched.” This is the economy which springs from the poverty of God. Abundant Life! Amen
- “poverty.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011.
- Web. 8 May 2011.
- Gongloff, Mark. “45 Million Americans Still Stuck Below Poverty Line: Census.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
- “J. Paul Getty.” BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2014. 23 September 2014. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jpaulgett100065.html
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/citation/quotes/quotes/j/jpaulgett100065.html#kZzzUJWVVm11s3Uh.99
- Lenzner, Robert. The great Getty: the life and loves of J. Paul Getty, richest man in the world. New York: Crown Publishers, 1985. ISBN 0-517-56222-7
- Barclay, William. The Gospel of John, Vol. 2. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956. Print.
- John 10:10
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