Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pentecost 18-C: The trap of privilege

Lectionary: Lectionary: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

The following is one of my favorite prayers from a book by Mother Theresa called, Meditations from a Simple Path:

“Dear Lord, the Great Healer, I kneel before You, Since every perfect gift must come from You. I pray, give skill to my hands, clear vision to my mind, kindness and meekness to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift up part of the burden of my suffering [brothers and sisters], and a true realization of the privilege that is mine. Take from my heart all guile and worldliness, That with the simple faith of a child, I may rely on you.”

Mother Theresa’s prayer pleads for the will and wisdom to be faithful, and to answer God’s call for justice – the same call issued through the Prophet Amos, the psalmist, St. Paul, and even Jesus himself in today’s readings. It’s a call for an inward change (meekness of heart and a true realization of our privilege) that has an outward effect (strength to lift up the part of the burden suffered by others).

Privilege is the right to have…and the right to have immunity from guilt for having. But being comfortable, being privileged can be a trap – a trap that creates a blindness in us. Our attention narrows and becomes focused on ourselves. We come to believe that we deserve all of the good things we have and we redefine ourselves according to those things.

In his book, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life, Theologian Bruce Birch says, “those who enjoy the fruits of wealth and luxury without regard to the plight of the poor and needy are as guilty as those who actively exploit them.” And this is just what Jesus is addressing in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel.

In that story, the rich man goes on about his life not thinking much about the poor man, Lazarus, who sits nearby, hungry, and covered in sores. He doesn’t even notice when Lazarus has starved to death right outside his gate. When the rich man dies, he is surprised to find their roles reversed. Now he is suffering and on the other side of a great chasm Lazarus being comforted. It seems that the rich man had forgotten Amos’ warning: Alas for those who are at ease…they will be the first into exile.

And that is the trap of privilege. Being rich is not bad, or wrong, or even to be avoided. The problem is failing to grieve over the ruin of Joseph as Amos says, failing to care enough about those children of God who suffer poverty, degradation, and humiliation … failing to care enough to do something about it.

Another part of the trap of privilege is our masterful ability to justify and rationalize our protection of it. American slave owners in the 19th century justified their ownership of persons stolen from Africa by agreeing to believe that Negroes had no souls, and therefore, were not human. This, of course, alleviated any guilt for their inhumane treatment of them.

They rationalized the continuation of their ownership of slaves by asserting that they were, overall, good people, beneficent masters. The Negroes were actually better off as their slaves than they would be on their own, so their continued forced imprisonment was really a compassionate act.

But the ultimate justification of their privilege had to be their claim of Scriptural support. Christian slave owners made themselves immune from Jesus’ command to love their neighbors as Christ loved them, by agreeing to single out a passage of Scripture and interpreting it as supportive of the institution of slavery. Scripture, they said, confirmed that slavery was part of the natural order established by God. They were, therefore, slave owners according to God’s word - as they chose to understand it.

It took a Civil War to undo those justifications and it nearly destroyed our country. Those who suffered and died for the abolition of slavery are saints and martyrs whose singleness of purpose freed us from a terrible sin – the trap of privilege.

Lately, the claim of a natural order established by God as found in Scripture is often directed at issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender. But try as we might, we will find no immunity here either from Jesus’ command to love one another as Christ loved us.

It has been said that in today’s world, America is the rich man and Latin America is the Lazarus at our gate. In her book “Healing a Broken World” Cynthia Moe-Lobeda quotes a Mexican strawberry picker who says, “Our children die of hunger because our land, which ought to grow food for them, is used by international companies to produce strawberries for your tables.” We who are comparatively blessed with wealth or power or position, are called to open our eyes to a ‘true realization of the privilege that is ours,’ to notice the plight of those around us who have little or nothing, and then to imitate God who, as the psalmist says, gives justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger… [who] sets the prisoners free…opens the eyes of the blind [and] lifts up those who are bowed down.

The Christian’s call to social justice is one we inherited from our Jewish forebears. It is a call Jesus lived out during his ministry on earth. Jesus confronted the oppressive systems of his time calling them to account and offering them opportunity to repent. He modeled how to welcome the stranger and how to treat those whom society labeled as sinners. He demonstrated how the covenant people (God’s people) had been redefined when he ate with Gentiles and sinners and called women to be disciples.

In response, they killed him, choosing instead to protect the status quo. It seems that sort of redefinition and inclusion proved too hard.

We confront a similar problem today. We understand ourselves as good people, and rightly so for the most part. We’re trying to do the right thing according to the will of God as we understand it from Scripture, tradition, and reason. And I know that most of us here are already actively working to make things better in our world. Our Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry are evidence of that here at Redeemer.

So the question for us is: Are we willing to be redefined by God or will we protect the status quo instead? Will we, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, be distracted by money and privilege and understand it all too late?

In the end, St. Paul says, money and all that money can buy aren’t worth setting our hopes and attention on … for we brought nothing into the world [and] we take nothing out of it. Besides focusing too much on money and things can cause us to wander away from our faith, and it distracts us from living the life that is really life, the life of faith to which we were called.

I hope we will remember this as we begin to think about our stewardship campaign (which will begin next month – God willing). Money is only money and it is not the primary focus of our attention and effort – living lives of faith is. God will provide what we need to do the work God is calling us to do. Really.

I’ll close with Mother Theresa’s prayer, slightly revised: 'Dear Lord, Great Healer, we come before You, knowing that every perfect gift comes from You. We pray you… give skill to our hands, clear vision to our minds, kindness and meekness to our hearts. Give us singleness of purpose, strength to lift up part of the burden of our suffering [brothers and sisters], and a true realization of the privilege that is ours. Take from our hearts all guile and worldliness, that we may faithfully rely only on you.'

1 comment:

Cheri Miles said...

I am deeply moved by your sermon and have chosen to hand write Mother Teresa's prayer as I begin a new morning ritual to include this prayer.
Must remain grateful and humble!
I am so proud to know you!