Peter Kitundu was a young adult when I first met him. A young child, living in Tanganyika, I met him because he was interested in medicine and my father, a medical missionary, was the only doctor around for days of travel. Peter later travelled to MN for college and medical school. Peter met and married Mary and together they returned to Tanzania so Peter could fulfill his calling to serve as a medical doctor in his home country. Peter died a very old man having served his people ravaged by population explosion, droughts, famines, curable diseases and AIDS.
Today Paul reminds us that as Christians we must believe in the resurrection, for this is central to God’s story made obvious for us in the life of Jesus, the Christ. Jesus died, tortured to death on a cross; but three days later he rose from the dead. In Jesus’ resurrection God makes obvious that God loves us enough to give his only son, and that death does not have the last word. God’s Word is the first and the last.
With the first Word God created the world. God provided the necessities of life for us: clean air, clean fresh water, plenty food, clothing as needed, shelter sufficient … and God said it all is good.
God blessed us with the necessities of life. God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others, sharing all the gifts we receive.
For generation upon generation we have turned our unequal gifts into a measure of God’s unequal blessing. In an evil perversion that only humans are capable of, we turned our having more than enough into an entitlement and a proof that God favours us and does not favour people who do not have enough in order to live well or even to survive.
While we can be evil, God also provides for us great wisdom that Jeremiah points us to: God provides wisdom for us like trees planted next to streams of flowing water. This wisdom gives us endurance even through times of drought, times when around us all wisdom and truth seem to evaporate in the heat of the time.
In today’s Gospel Jesus provides some of this wisdom for us, a corrective to our perversion of God’s gifts, our abundance, as proof that we are blessed and the poor are not. Jesus proclaims that the poor are the ones who are blessed, that those who hunger are the blessed, that those who mourn are blessed, that those who others revile are blessed.
Travelling decades ago to Central America, with a group visiting Christians caught in desperate poverty, I came to know that even in these desperate circumstances, many caused by my home country’s CIA’s interference, even as they feared that they or their family members or their friends would be ‘disappeared’ without cause, these people knew how to worship gratefully, these people knew how to celebrate exuberantly. These people were as profoundly joyful, despite everything else, as those around me as I grew up in Kiomboi TZ. These people taught me again that those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who mourn, those who are reviled are indeed blessed by God; blessed in ways I did not encounter at home in MN, or in CT and DE where I had studied.
Still there are many times in history, even in the present, when we stubbornly refuse to accept what the Gospel for today teaches us, what Liberation Theology teaches us, that God has a preferential option for the poor, that God blesses the poor more than us, we who (by all standards in today’s world and even more so compared to all people through history) are among the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth.
Instead we have turned the blessing of the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are reviled, into an excuse not to work to provide justice also for them. We have said, mistakenly so, that the poor have earned their poverty and we have earned our wealth. That’s how God created us: we are privileged and they are lazy and deserve what they get, or rather they deserve that they do not get what they need to survive.
We have said it in many and various ways: The poor will always be with us. Poverty and homelessness cannot be ended. There is not enough for everyone so some people will always go without. Life is a zero sum game.
And on top of all that, we do not need to change how it is for them because God blesses them in their poverty, hunger, grief, and ruin.
As if knowing we would turn their blessings into our excuses not to love them Jesus adds a series of warnings for us rich people.
Woe to the rich, to the well fed, to the joyful, to those spoken well of, for they have received blessings, but in eternity God will not provide for them at all.
We like to forget these passages, or pretend that they do not apply to us. Yet in many and various ways there are those among us in every generation who have reminded us that our blessings are not ours to keep. There are those among us today who remind us God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others. We do not receive anything except what God graciously provides for us … and then this profound truth … God provides gifts of life to us only in order that we can share them equally with those who do not have the necessities of life.
There are those among us even today who remind us that our work is to provide justice, to provide care, to provide food, to end poverty. They remind us, with words and their actions, that God provides us with more than enough of the necessities of life only in order that we can and will share our abundance with those who do not have even the bare requirements to stay alive and live a full life.
Dorothy Soelle added to the list of the necessities of life. She added two things that everyone needs: meaningful labour, and love (both to be loved and the opportunity to love others.) We know that the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, and those reviled often have a wonderful capacity to love; to love their neighbours as themselves, and to love even their enemies; and to love God with all their hearts, minds and strength. This is part of the blessing that Jesus promised to the common people on the plain, which is recorded in today’s Gospel.
By comparison this is what most rich, well fed, joyful, those spoken well of are missing. They find it almost impossible to share their wealth with others equitably, to know how to love their neighbours or themselves, and especially to love their enemies. They love having the goodness of this world but seem incapable of accepting it as a gift from God for them to share. They love their abundance and the security it provides so much that they have no room left to love God with all their hearts, minds, and strength … and that is the greatest curse of all.
Without love, we are nothing.
This kind of love, so profound that one loves especially one’s enemies, is only possible when we recognize that God first loves us, even when we do not deserve it at all.
When we accept God’s undeserved love and blessings with gratitude, then we are able to graciously love others with this same unbounded love. We are able to share not only the over abundance we have. By God’s Grace and equipped by the Holy Spirit, we are able to share the necessities of life with others even when that means we will share in their poverty, hunger, grief, and ruin of reputation.
Peter Kitundu’s legacy did not end with his death. His widow, Mary, and my father and his wife, and numerous other people joined together to rebuild the basics of health care in TZ. Peter’s brother eventually convinced this group, who call themselves IHP-TZ to take 30 acres he had north of Dar es Salaam and build the first hospital for children in TZ. Six month of the year my father and Paula fund raise in the US. Six months they are in Zinga helping the crew there and the visiting volunteers from around the world make the next part of the hospital a reality. Life expectancy was 46 years when I met Peter. Now it is 67.
There is a true story, originally about a family in the mountains of the eastern US. It is perhaps truer for us if told set in the north of AB.
A social worker receives a file for a family that she finally finds in the wilderness far from any other people or road. When she arrives on snowmobile they treat her with great respect and honour offering her tea from the wood stove in the two room drafty log cabin. The father arrives home with a freshly shot moose while she assesses whether the young children ought to be in school. It is obvious to her that they are on the edge of survival. She becomes satisfied that though abjectly poor, these people are providing a good education for their children. As she prepares to leave, the father wraps up a piece of moose meat as a gift for her. She starts to refuse it, appalled that she would take anything away from the little they have. The father sees her resistance and with wisdom, welling up from ancient streams of truth, he insists she accept their gift to her, “I know it looks like we are poor, but we are not poor. You are only poor if you cannot give something to others.”
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
Having received so much, we each have so much to give!