~ Isaiah 58:9b-12, Luke 6:17-23 ~
Yesterday’s benefit concert was magical- in so many ways. The choir and musicians were masterful and inspiring, the reception lovely and enticing, and the crowd larger than we dared hope. Central to it all were three speakers, each asylum seekers, who talked about their own experiences, along with the help they’ve received from ASAP, the Asylum Seeker Assistance Project.
There were many things they said that touched my heart and educated my head, such as the year long wait for a work authorization permit—a policy both crazy and cruel, since without permission to work, asylum seekers have no way to earn an income. During this time, they often feel lonely and depressed and are, ironically, at risk of being called lazy or unmotivated!
Yet, what hit me hardest was hearing about the families they left behind: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives. As one speaker said, no one just randomly leaves home when leaving home means not seeing your family for years (asylum seekers can’t leave the country during the asylum process). No one just randomly leaves home when leaving home means being demoted from the profession in which you’ve been educated to some form of “survival” work (i.e. any job, no matter how menial, that pays the bills). No one just randomly leaves home when leaving home means leaving your language, culture, cuisine, and community for a country that questions your value as a human being.
British writer, Warsan Shire, understands. Born to Somali parents in Kenya, she later emigrated to England, and her poem, “Home,” expresses the deep pain experienced by those forced to leave all that they love behind.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles traveled
mean something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
asylum seekers, sucking our country dry
[n-word] with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
I want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of a gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” That’s a metaphor worthy of Jesus. Jesus, defender of the marginalized and outcast. Jesus, who told us the poor are blessed. Yes, “the poor.” I know Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes (which we read as our Call to Worship) says, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but Luke’s version says, “the poor.” And these words echo the Hebrew prophets quoted by Jesus.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
—Jesus’s first sermon in the 4th chapter of Luke.
Jesus grew up amongst the poor and marginalized, chose his disciples from them, and preached to them. He made statements such as, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” He called the poor “blessed.”
But why? One could easily argue that the poor are far from blessed, that idealizing the plight of the poor is hardly helpful. In fact, it’s awful to be poor. It’s horrible to be marginalized. And it’s traumatizing, lonely, and potentially dangerous to be a stranger in a strange land.
True. But I think Jesus understood that what separates us from God and other humans, more than anything, is ego or false pride. And we’re far more prone to this when we’re not poor, when we have “stuff.” Here’s what I mean:
1) We tend to believe that having money, a title, a good education, possessions… makes us better than those who don’t.
2) We tend to believe that having money, a title, a good education, possessions… makes us safe, even “saved.”
3) We tend to believe that our own virtue (hard work, intelligence, good grades, smart investing) is the reason we have more than others, the reason we are, in the parlance of the dominant culture, “successful.”
In other words, having “stuff” feeds both our ego’s need to believe we’re different and “better than” others and our limbic system’s need to feel safe. And this leads us to create “us and them” categories which cut us off from others and from God.
But what makes us believe we’re the source of the material abundance and cultural privilege we enjoy? What about Etsegenet and Merawi, the two asylum seekers from Ethiopia, who spoke yesterday? They’re both well-educated lawyers, one specializing in human rights, the other in finance. Yet, neither their education and social standing nor their material possessions protected them. Rather, they had to flee their country, families, culture, and friends only to end up here, wait a year for permission to work at all, and then, in Merawi’s case, work all night as a cook in a bar while his two children grow up in Ethiopia without a dad!
Our way of making sense of it all makes no sense. For, those of us who enjoy material abundance and cultural privilege are not blessed because we have “worked harder” or “planned better” or chosen the “right” religion or behaved more virtuously. Again, those of us who enjoy material abundance and cultural privilege are not blessed because we have “worked harder” or “planned better” or chosen the “right” religion or behaved more virtuously.
And to think that we are (again, understandable, given our ego’s need to believe it’s special and our limbic system’s need to feel safe) separates us from other humans and alienates us from God. For, if we rely on “success” to confirm our blessedness, we’re always just one step away from being damned! Meaning, we’re just one unanticipated, impossible to predict illness, addiction, stock market plunge, marital affair, or freak accident away from no longer being in control, or, should I say, no longer believing we’re in control…
What I’m coming to understand is both Luke and Matthew were right. The poor, hungry, weeping, reviled people of this world (Luke’s words) are blessed. God is with them. And, perhaps, they have a better chance of actually experiencing Emmanuel or “God With Us.” Jesus knew that the lack of worldly padding between us and fate can bring people on the brink closer to God. For when we’re in such a state, we no longer have the luxury of believing it’s only and all about us.
So, “blessed are the poor.” But, blessed are the “poor in spirit” as well. Because I don’t believe we’re damned just because we’re lucky enough to have material wealth any more than if we’re not. God is bigger than that. God is so much more loving than that. God knows, material abundance doesn’t mean we don’t experience pain. None of our lives is perfect. We each have moments, even seasons, that bring us to our knees and that much closer to God.
Which may be Matthew’s point. We don’t have to be materially poor to be poor in spirit, a phrase that literally means a person who has nothing, who’s beggarly, whose arms are out in supplication. In other words, a person whose ego is out of the way, a person who understands they don’t have it all figured out, a person who gets that success is precarious at best, who no longer believes they’re in control.
I know this makes some of us cringe. I mean, who doesn’t want to believe they’re in control? But the deep truth is, we aren’t. We aren’t in control. And if we can accept this, if we can open our hearts to it, I really do think it will be easier for us to open our hearts to those whose lives are very clearly not in their control—and to open our whole selves to the God who’s with us no matter what.
Jesus’s name for this state of openness is “Kingdom of God,” that holy space in which we open our hearts and minds to love God, self, and neighbor, in which we live (quoting the Prophet Micah) justly, kindly, and humbly. It’s not a destination, it’s a way of being. It is every moment we promote justice, every second we behave kindly, every breath we understand ourselves as no better or worse than any other human being.
In Luke, Jesus says the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor. In Matthew, Jesus says the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit. So, I ask you: whose is the kingdom?