Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Let’s just start with the first weird thing about this passage in Leviticus: how we are to live, act, behave, and treat each other is grounded in the nature of God, and in our relationship to God. We are to be holy because God is holy. Because somehow, somehow in a way we cannot exactly understand, (here comes the weird part) we are intimately related to God.
So our lives are to reflect the qualities of God: the qualities of holiness, compassion, Presence, Completeness. Perfect, the text says. Fred Craddock translates perfect as “complete” or “mature”—to be fully grown up into who we are. He says, It is not referring to moral flawlessness but to love that is not partial or immature. (Preaching through the Christian Year A)
We then see, as this passage goes on, that the holiness we are meant to reflect plays out in our economic lives. Our holiness, or lack of it, is directly linked to how we live with our money. Holiness is found, or not found, in our economic relationships, especially with the poor.
The rich, the owners of all the stuff, that’s us, are not to vacuum up into our retirement accounts every possible bit of wealth that comes near us. We are supposed to leave some of our wealth—the edges of our fields—for those who are hungry, for those who have little.
Why? Because, just as we are intimately related to God, we are intimately related to each other. We are kin, the text says. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin. It doesn’t mean we’ve all been hating people. It means we should not be immune to the suffering of others. The human family is our family. There is no them; there is only us: one Creation, one family, one world.
Now you may be thinking: I do not hate the poor of the world, but this here in my hands is my stuff. They should get their own stuff. I am putting my stuff in a retirement account because soon I will be feeble and unable to work and care for myself. And no one will take care of me if I don’t have the savings I need for thirty more years of post-employed living.
Does that sound familiar? I took it right out of my 3am head, so I am not judging your terror. Because that’s the world we’ve inherited, isn’t it? An insane world, that pretends that any one of us can take care of ourselves when we’re old and feeble. It’s like demanding that infants take care of themselves. Whatever you think about God or no God, that worldview is insane.
It is the nature of being human that we need each other. We need others in the earliest years of our lives, and we need others to help us when we’re sick or injured or old. We cannot do it. We cannot do it. The entire financial security industry is lying to you about that.
The people Israel, who were, in relation to the empires all around them, poor people, figured all that out. They realized they were in this life all together, and they developed codes of living that reflect the truth of that. Old and young together, rich and poor together: they brilliantly resisted Empire’s Myth of Them and Us.
There is no them. There is only Us: One planet; one people-all kin. To the extent that we each live in denial of that we live catawampus to God. Unsaved, is what our faith ancestors called it; without salvation, meaning that in our individual & community lives we live without the healing Presence of God.
Someone from the Tuesday lunch and learn group told me about one of the units from Brian Swimme’s The Powers of the Universe, called “Catastrophe”. She said, that he talked as if our civilization is coming apart. “It is,” I said. And then I thought to myself, well that was not very pastoral.
So I added something I want to say here. I said our faith tradition teaches us how to create new forms of Community—communities of faith, hope, love, and resistance—right here amid the wreckage of the old.
That’s what Ancient Israel was doing. That’s what the Jesus Community was doing. They weren’t trying to prop up failed ways of being human community. They were living as a community of faith, hope, love, and resistance, as new life in the wreckage of the old.
Our young people are already all over this. They see the unraveling of late-stage industrial culture. And TV and the Internet has shown them (and us) the faces of those others, the world’s poor.
And there are whole groups of young Christians—kids who were raised in mainline, evangelical and even fundamentalist churches, who read the Sermon on the Mount, just as we’ve been doing, and they left their suburban churches in their comfortable towns and suburbs, and created new forms of community in what they call the abandoned places of Empire. They are living together simply, with the poor.
One such community is called The Simple Way. These young men and women grabbed hold of the Sermon on the Mount and decided they would try to live it. Blessed are the poor…. Seek ye first God’s kin-dom and God’s righteousness….
They put down the frantic search for individualistic security, and began to build Beloved Community in the poorest neighborhood in Philadelphia in the ways Jesus had taught them.
Shane Claiborne, one of the founders, wrote in his Christian manifesto, The Irresistible Revolution, Living as an Ordinary Radical: I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor…I truly believe that when the rich meet the poor, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.
The more I struggle with our faith, the more I’m convinced it is all about seeing. Maybe that’s why there are so many stories about Jesus healing people who are blind. It’s a promise that such healing is possible.
We are not called to change the world. We are called and invited to see the world, to not look away from the all of it. Because Jesus knew, and I’ve seen it is true, once we see the poor, once we know even one or two of the world’s (or our community’s) poor, our hearts know exactly what to do. Our hearts already know what is possible.
There was a video on the Huffington Post website this week. A group in Norway set up a camera at a bus stop, set a small coatless shivering boy on the bench, and then filmed what followed. Person after person responded to the shivering child by giving him literally the clothes off their backs. Some handed him their gloves, scarves, sweaters, even their coats. Several people wrapped the child in their warm winter coats and then sat waiting for the bus in their shirtsleeves.
That’s who we are. That’s how we respond to the poor when we see them. The group that set up the camera was a nonprofit trying to ease the suffering of Syrian child refugees. Their point was so simple: if you could see these children, you would help them.
Do not be afraid. That is the most common thing our bible says. Over 350 times it says, Fear not. Fear Not. Fear not. The Rev. James Forbes has said the whole thing is just one big fear not book.
Do not be afraid to see the world as it is. You don’t have to solve it. Do not be afraid to live with a little bit less, so that others might have a bit more. Do not be afraid to see, and be kin with, your sisters and brothers, the poor.