For the past few months I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says some really fascinating, counter-intuitive, beautiful, confusing things. His opening line is this, "Blessed are the poor..." Really?! How? I can remember when I was a child driving around in a rusty station wagon with wood paneling. We would duck and hide when we saw one of our friends. I wasn't feeling too blessed. But I've been watching and listening and I've seen this strange promise become reality, and I've seen the reality of the implied reversal. When I see how the poor among us, rely on one another, ask of each other, celebrate together... I am moved by the beauty of these simple (and profound) connections.
This last year, I would often do my seminary homework in the Clubhouse in our apartment complex. Now, this clubhouse could be reserved for parties for those who lived or worked for the apartment. More times than I can count, as I would be reading away, I would look up and see people preparing for a celebration. Cakes, pinatas, enchiladas. I was always a little envious. These particular communities celebrated so well! Anniversaries, birthdays, graduations. Large families. Hugs. Storytelling. Everyone pitching in. I admit I would linger and watch, and leave feeling blessed.
Comedian Louis CK jokes (in a sardonic way that only he can pull off) that everything's amazing and nobody's happy. (For the full interview on Conan click the link) He captures the tragic (and sometimes hilarious) reality of our entitlement culture.
Now of course we know that this isn't the case for everyone in the world. Around half the world's population lives on less than $2.50 a day. According to some estimates, it would cost about $30 billion dollars a year to meet the needs of global hunger and other basic needs. Does that seem like a lot? Guess how much money USAmericans spend on ice cream each year? How about cosmetics? Go ahead, guess...
USAmericans spend roughly $20 billion per year on ice cream and roughly $8 billion a year on cosmetics. And then of course there's the big spender, roughly $500 billion on defense each year. Now if your like me, after hearing some of these stats you have mixed thoughts and feelings. First, a sort of gut, ugh! at hearing the military stat. Then maybe...mmm... icecream... I should pick up some Chunky Monkey on my way home. Followed by a malaise of apathy and empathy.
Friends, historically, have sought to maintain simplicity and have often been skeptical of wealth and power. However, when Quakers acquired a reputation for honesty and integrity their businesses often flourished. American Quakers had a humorous, self-deprecating expression: "We came to this country to do good, and ended up doing well.”
I wonder how many of us could say the same thing. We imagined ourselves doing good in this world and ended up doing well. We ended up comfortable. That’s what my dad always called it. Growing up in a pretty poor home, I would ask my dad, “is so-and-so rich?” (maybe they owned a pool table, or had an "underground" swimming pool) And he would almost always say, “No, but they’re…comfortable.” John Woolman, a great Quaker abolitionist, wrote in an essay titled, A Plea for the Poor, “Wealth desired for its own sake obstructs the increase of virtue…” He goes on:
If a wealthy man, on serious reflection, finds a witness in his own conscience that there are some expenses which he indulges himself with that are in conformity to custom, if he was to change places with the poor, he would desire to go without them. Whoever is thus awakened to this feeling will find this injunction binding on them, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Paraphrased)
I know that most of us would not consider ourselves wealthy. But Woolman seems to define wealth a little differently. He asks us to consider if we possess or consume non-essential things just because they are cultural norms. I think this has huge implication not just for what we have, but what we organize our time, energy, emotions, and values around. Jesus say it best in his famous sermon in Matthew 6, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also...Don't worry about what you will eat, or what you will wear. Isn't life more important!" I'll end with a few queries...
- Do we recognize when we have enough?
- Is everything amazing, but we're often unhappy?
- When have you seen the affluent in poverty, and those in poverty, blessed?