Christ the King, November 20, 2011
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Windy and I lived in Portland nine years ago. I was interning in a church up there. Every one remembers what happened in March/April 2003, right? Right. Remember the mess up to Portland? It was really living up to George HW’s moniker “Little Beruit.” It was my first introduction to Eugene as I heard at one protest, “The Eugene anarchists are here, they’re the worst! (meaning best)” It was pretty exciting.
Folks from the church I was working in were quite active in protesting the downward spiral towards war, and one nasty, cold, rainy night, like only nights down by the waterfront in Portland can be, we were part of a big candle light vigil. We were somewhat huddled against each other, backs to the wind, trying to keep warm and keep our candles lit. From a far I bet we looked like a glowing cluster of yaks. We were standing there in silence, praying, and a presumably homeless, decidedly drunk man pushed his way into the circle. He sat down, looking around. “What is everyone doing?” He had a loud, disagreeable voice. “Why does everyone have candles? I don’t have a candle.” And he started singing, kind of. I have never seen that many church folks look so mortified at once. Well, a young pastor there walked over to this man, handed him a candle, and helped him light it. The man said thanks and sat there quietly for the remaining 20 minutes of the vigil. I do not know if he had any idea what we were doing there, but he sat quietly and kept that beautiful, warm little flame safe a top his candle. As we walked away, he kept sitting there, doing a better job of keeping his candle lit that we all did.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”
Does anyone recognize the term “preferential option for the poor”? What does it mean? It means that God prefers the poor, God is on the side of the poor. Does anyone know where it comes from? It comes from the world of liberation theology. It means that God, that Jesus Christ is most potently and palpably present with the weakest, the most at risk, the most broken and poverty stricken. The face of our savior is most clearly witnessed in the faces of the most beaten down by our world, by our community, lets face it, if not locally then certainly globally, by us. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me.”
Gustavo Gutiérrez was a Dominican priest who grew up in the slums of Lima, Peru, as difficult a city as there is in South America. And Gutiérrez grew up in the middle of it. He wrote A Theology of Liberation in 1971. The term “Preferential option for the poor” arises in this groundbreaking book. He lived in the world that most humans throughout history have known as a reality: a world of squalor, of sickness, of violence, of cold nights and dirty water and of really not knowing if you can feed your children today. That was certainly the condition of Jesus’ Galilee. And this little mestizo priest wrote, “I desire that the hunger for God may remain, that the hunger for bread may be satisfied… Hunger for God, yes; hunger for bread, no.” Of course tidings of great joy have also coursed through humans engaged in suffering and survival; it is not all terrible all of the time. This is what Gutiérrez and his contemporaries saw in the slums of Lima and San Salvador, and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. In the midst of body, mind and spirit bending poverty, joy happens. Love happens. Life happens. Christ happens. In fact, Christ happens most in the places of deepest suffering. That is one of the paradoxes, the great mysteries of our faith. Can you imagine anything more liberating? The more miserable you are, the sicker you are, the more depressed you are the more our God is there with you.
This follows in Christ’s teaching that he came not for the righteous, but the sinners, not the well, but the sick. God goes where God is most needed. And where is that? Where there is the most need. Where there is the most brokenness. Where there is the most pain and heartbreak. In the darkest nights, in the hardest places, in the most desolate lives, we will find our Savior and our salvation.
So if you haven’t noticed, I am male. I am awfully white. I happen to be straight, and married and with healthy children. I grew up loved and safe, and have kept up the habit of being well fed. I was afforded the privilege of way too much elite education. In short, I have to be careful about being too self-righteous because when we are talking about the least of these, I am pretty sure what side of the equation I am on. I am in the 99%, which I am certain God prefers, but I, many of us maybe in this place, are not among the least in the kingdom.
Does this mean that God is not with me, is not with us in our relative comfort and wealth and privilege? No. God so loved the world that not only were we given the only begotten Son, but we each were also, each of us given life. Full, loved, blessed life. This is a sign that you are loved by God unconditionally. You are. But the preferential option for the poor, the idea that God in Christ gravitates to the places of most suffering teaches us that God is most present not in our shiny, happy places, the places we like to lead with, that we bring out on first dates, but God is most present in our hurt. Our broken bits. In the sores we carry on our bodies and in our hearts. God is sort of like a holy T-cell, rushing to the broken part because that is where God is most needed.
By this rule it would mean that God is most present in me when I am feeling most cranky. So, let’s say at 5:00 most mornings I am most bursting with God? Well, sort of. How does this work? Some years back I knew someone who was going through a really hard time. Her marriage was complicated. She had young children. She was depressed and everything was stressful. She felt incompetent, she felt like a lousy mom. That must be a terrible feeling. I don’t think I would have known how bad things were going for her, or how badly she felt, but she told me some of the things she had been feeling, and doing and not doing with her kids, quite literally to the least of these, you know what, it was like she was held in the arms of a host of angels. Telling me some pretty ugly things, opening herself up to God and the world made what conventional wisdom says to be an ugly thing, a lousy mom, it turned it, it turned her into a beautiful thing, a child of God as hurt and broken as can be, AND who needs, and wants the light of Christ to shine in her. And it did. Brilliantly.
There is an old rabbinic teaching that tells us that God sits atop our hearts and it is not until they are broken that the Word trickles in. This is the heart of liberation theology. God is most present where God is most needed. When we accept our brokenness, our ugliness, our distance from God not as some punishment or mark of the evil one but as another opening for God to enter; the kingdom is that much closer to us. With the eyes of our hearts enlightened, may we know the hope to which we are called. AMEN