Part 20 of 21...
Focus Area 3:
Engaging in ministry with the poor. As an expression of our discipleship, United Methodists seek to alleviate conditions that undermine quality of life and limit the opportunity to flourish as we believe God intends for all. As with John Wesley, we seek to change conditions that are unjust, alienating and disempowering. We engage in ministry with the poor, and in this, we especially want to reach out to and protect children.
There is perhaps little more to say to this focus area for General Agency investment and focused work than, Amen!
Well, maybe a little more.
There's more to engaging in ministry with the poor than addressing what's wrong. In the midst of all the things we do, of course we must address those things, too. But if the entire approach we take in ministry with the poor at any level-- from international efforts to end child labor and prostitution to much more street level efforts to make sure kids coming home from school have safe places to be and food to eat-- is only or even primarily about addressing what's wrong, and from "our" angle (that is, from the angle of those who understand themselves as being "not poor"), there may be a lot of God's mission we may be missing.
Don't get me wrong. We need to do all those things and more. We pledge ourselves in baptism to resist evil, injustice and oppression in every form they present themselves. This focus area can provide General Agency leadership to help all of us live that out in many ways. And that's all good.
But let's not forget that the same Jesus who leads all of us to battle oppression also said, as Luke's gospel records, "Blessed are you who are poor." He did not add there, as we have it recorded in Matthew, "in spirit." Nor did he add to those simple words something like "when the wealthy give them good things," or even "by and by." No. In Luke the words of Jesus are "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."
Not later. Not by and by. Now. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
If we want to see the kingdom of God, then, we need to look for it with and among the poor.
These were, after all, perhaps the bulk of the people to whom Jesus spoke these words. Luke 6 describes a large crowd scene, with lots of disciples all over the place, and many sick and demon-possessed people gathering in to be healed and delivered by Jesus.
There was no health insurance plan in Israel. If you were sick, physically or psychically, you probably couldn't work. If you couldn't work, you probably couldn't eat. And many, many people depended on working every day to get the "day's wage" to put the food on their table that night.
These were the poor. These were among those who suffer from what we today call "extreme poverty." Jesus turned to disciples, some of whom lived in such poverty, too, and said, "Blessed are you who are poor. Yours is the kingdom of God."
So it's not enough to look at the poor and the problems that face them (do you hear the objectification in all of this!). We are called to do that, too. We are anointed by the same Spirit who anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor. So yes, we do that.
But we are invited to do much more. We are invited to connect directly and personally with the poor and see the face of God and the working of God's kingdom, already at work, even before "we" woke up to our calling to be among the poor and bring them good news.
I don't know about you, but my observation is that we who are not poor have done a pretty good job of insulating ourselves from ever encountering people who are poor very frequently. Often, when we want to do something "for the poor," we do that by creating institutions or programs or funding other people to do something for them. Doing that ensures we may not meet them. Maybe the person or persons we pay to handle what we want to do will meet them. But probably not us. Not personally.
And we've done a pretty good job, too, of convincing ourselves that "we're" okay and that "they're" not ultimately, because they are poor. But we have the power to fix that, to make them better, maybe even almost as good as us. Maybe even more than almost.
But listen to Jesus, again. Blessed are you who are poor. He's not talking about the poor. He's talking to people who are poor. This is an I-thou relationship.
Both those who were poor and those who were not were privileged to hear or overhear him say these words. To the poor, he said "Yours is the kingdom of God." To the rest, he said, in effect "Watch me-- and do likewise."
And he also said, just a few verses later, "Woe to you who are rich now. That's all the consolation you'll ever receive."
Note: This is I-thou, also! He's not blowing off "the rich" or talking about them. He addresses them with the same steady gaze. And so he says to the poor who observe him talking to the rich, "Watch me-- and do likewise."
Jesus invites us all, all who want to be his disciples, that is, to watch and listen to him, and to do and say as he has done. Jesus invites us to watch and listen to and with the poor, not just for signs affirming to us their poverty. The poor have something to give those of us who are not poor, something to show us, something to help us see. The poor have the kingdom of God happening in their midst.
I'm grateful for what appear in this focus area to be commitments to challenging and overturning systemic injustice embedded in institutions and the patterns of institutional relationships. We all need to and can play at that level.
I'm grateful for the commitments here to reach out to children and protect them-- perhaps a set of more local initiatives that congregations and community groups can engage.
But let's keep this just as personal as Jesus did, too. And let's keep this as intimately relational as John Wesley insisted the early Methodists keep it as they were living and holding each other accountable for Rule 2 in the class meetings-- by ourselves visiting the sick, prisoners, and poor people, and offering not just things or advice, but our gaze and God's blessing-- Christ in us. And in the exchange, perhaps, if we are willing, we may see and experience the kingdom of God with them.
Peace in Christ,