Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter Sunday

The poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless.
- Psalm 10:16

What does it mean to be poor? Most often we think of those who suffer a lack of material resources. But there is a more expansive meaning to being poor that is hinted at by our Lord's words from the sermon on the mount in Matthew's Gospel, "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." The version of this statement that appears in Luke's Gospel simply states, "Blessed are the poor." Sometimes Matthew's record of the saying is said to be a spiritualizing of the statement as recorded in Luke. The thought is that Matthew is somehow softening the abrasiveness of the bare statement in Luke. The truth is that material poverty and spiritual poverty have a common result. Both types of poverty result in the need to trust in others and in God. In a sense, when you are poor, you reach the end of yourself. You have no material, no inner or spiritual resources. There is also a kind of poverty in sickness and weakness. A dear friend and mentor died a few weeks ago. He was a bull of a man, tall and strong. When he used a tool, it was like an extension of his hand. But in his final illness, he had very limited mobility, and was almost exclusively bound to his bed. The last time I saw him, he was in a wheel chair and I served as a human crutch to help into his car so that his wife could take him to a doctor's appointment. In a kind of second childhood, he was dependent on others for almost all of his needs. 

It occurs to me that the greatest poverty is in death, because as we die everything is taken from us. Although the order varies there are generally degrees in which life is taken from us in death. There is first I think a detachment from material things: we all know buying a present for an aging person can be almost impossible because generally they do not want anything. This detachment from things is followed by a loss of vigor and strength. Then there is the loss of privacy; finally the reality sets in that natural relationships will come to an end—in this sense, the poets speak of how death is a road that every one must walk alone. Finally, there is the end of desire. Poetically describing death, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote "desire shall fail because man goeth to his long home." 
Our Lord knew the poverty that is found in death. By the time he comes to his crucifixion he had no possessions except for his clothing. When the cross was placed on him, his strength failed him, and we are told that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry our Lord's cross. The tradition, as represented in the stations of the cross, tells of Jesus falling three times on his way to Calvary. A loss of privacy came as Jesus has his garments strip from him, and is crucified with just a loincloth on. While on the cross, he sees an end to his earthly relationships and commends his mother to the beloved disciple, knowing that he would not be there to care directly for her. Finally, he enters the loneliness of death itself. In all of this, our Lords commits and commends himself to God. It is in his passion, death and burial that the words from the Psalm acquire an added depth: The poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless.Everything has been taken from him, even life itself, not unwillingly but for our sakes. 

The proclamation of the resurrection is that the poor who commits himself to God does not trust in vain, but in this complete trust and total surrender, God brings new and unending life. And while the resurrection is an historical event, yet it is not just history. Rather, the Christian proclamation is that this resurrection is the first sign of the new order God is establishing in our midst. His will is to make all things new, to heal the breach between him and us, and to restore us to one another. To live into this new and resurrected life we have to get in touch with reality that we are poor but this feels strange and foreign. You see, new and resurrected life, unlike many things of this world, is not something we can achieve, it's not something that we can buy, and or wield it under our control by a show of force or power. This new and resurrected is a gift as we die to ourselves and put our trust in God. We have to learn what it is to be the poor who commiteth himself to God. You have may not be on the brink of death, though as we know as least intellectually there are no givens or certainties with the when and how of death. Someday we will know the poverty of death. But even now we can put our hand on our spiritual poverty, the truth that we come to God empty-handed like children. Even now, we can realize that though we might not have a material poverty, we have an even greater poverty which is found in a dearth of joy and gratitude and an abundance of greed. Remembering that you are dust and ashes, will you commit yourself this day to the God who is a helper of the friendless, to the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead, and will also give us life and love and joy and gratitude as we commit ourselves to him? I'm afraid the alternatives are not that attractive: we can go it alone, pretending that we are rich and denying our poverty. But the God who created you and loves you and has redeemed you in Jesus, has also called and claimed you to this new life. The poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless. Alleluia, alleluia, Glory be to God. 

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