Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Up From the Garbage Dump: Sermon, November 18, 2012

Then Hannah prayed:
My heart rejoices in the LORD.
My strength rises up in the LORD!
My mouth mocks my enemies
because I rejoice in your deliverance.
No one is holy like the LORD —
no, no one except you!
There is no rock like our God!

Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly,
spouting arrogance from your mouth,
because the LORD is the God who knows,
and he weighs every act.

The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
but those who were stumbling
now dress themselves in power!
Those who were filled full
now sell themselves for bread,
but the ones who were starving
are now fat from food!
The woman who was barren
has birthed seven children,
but the mother with many sons
has lost them all!
He brings death, gives life,
takes down to the grave,
and raises up!
He makes poor, gives wealth,
brings low, but also lifts up high!
God raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy
from the garbage pile.
God sits them with officials,
gives them the seat of honour!
The pillars of the earth
belong to the LORD;
he set the world on top of them!
God guards the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked die in darkness
because no one succeeds
by strength alone.

His enemies are terrified!
God thunders against them from heaven!
He judges the far corners of the earth!
May God give strength to his king
and raise high the strength of his anointed one.
- 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Common English Bible

This morning we have the story of Hannah, who was one of the two women married to Elkanah. This was back in the day when men could have more than one wife. I can barely handle one. And Elkanah has a hard time handling the problems between his two wives, for Hannah can’t have children but Peninnah can, so she mocks and provokes Hannah constantly. This kind of thing would seem to me to be a major drawback to having more than one spouse. Hannah finally just pours out her soul to God in prayer, and God grants her prayer, and she gives birth to Samuel, who will grow up to be a great prophet and leader.

So Hannah prays, in what is called the Song of Hannah, about what God can and will do, shattering weapons, filling those who were starving with food, bringing life, raising up from the grave, lifting up the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump, sitting them in places of honour and power.

Lift up the needy from the garbage dump. When I was in Nicaragua in Central America, we drove through the capital city, Managua, to the garbage dump. A thousand people live in the dump itself – people whose land was stolen by the dictatorship that ruled the country until 33 years ago. They had nowhere else to go, and have remained since because land reform never came. Thousands more live in the barrios at the edge of the dump.

It was an apocalyptic landscape – mound after mound of stinking garbage, smoke and flame from fires burning everywhere in the trash, vultures eating the rotting corpse of some dead thing, cattle grazing in the rubbish and so thin their ribs were showing, stray dogs roaming around, shacks built out of waste and surrounded by pools of reeking, toxic water, and the people who lived there – men, women, and children – picking through the garbage to find bits of paper and metal to sell.

My emotions were confused. People forced to live in a dump is completely outside my experience, our experience. We don’t have people living in the South Stormont Township landfill. And my thoughts went back to a novel I had read before going to Nicaragua, A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.

In the novel, the North American characters are driving through the poor neighbourhoods of a Central American city, a city just like Managua. And one of the characters says:

What I wonder, is whether the people down here have to live this way so that we can live the way we do. We have to believe it’s no, don’t we? We couldn’t face up to it otherwise. Because if most of the world lives in this kind of poverty so that we can have our goodies and our extra protein ration – what does that make us?

That’s hard for us to think about. We’re shocked that we have to think about it. We even resent it. But, you know, the teachings of Jesus are hard. One time his friends said to Jesus, “Your teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”

But it’s also hard to see people living in a garbage dump – and it’s even harder to be the dump dweller.

These words are wrenching for us because they’re true. Things may not be great economically for many Canadians, but most of us still benefit from the widest gap between rich and poor since the Middle Ages. Most of us in Canada are the minority surrounded by the majority in the world: the kids overseas who can’t afford to go to school, yet make the school clothes for our kids; the farmers who get paid less than it costs them to grow the beans that get made into our coffee; the poor longing for the scraps that fall from our overloaded tables.

And the question for us is the same one we ask whenever we come up against the hard challenges of the Bible: how, then, shall we live? Hearing the truth that people have to live in crushing poverty so we can live the way we do, well, we feel guilty. I struggle with that guilt. Yet our guilt can lead us to conclude that we made a choice to be so wealthy, that we created the problem so we can create the solution. As North Americans, we think that we can do something about everything. If something is wrong, it’s our fault. We can fix it.

And it’s certainly true that as followers of Jesus, we must fix what must be corrected. If we have wealth, we are to use it for good. We are to seek justice and resist evil. We are to support our Mission and Service Fund and give with vision. We are to look closely at our lifestyles – because for the entire world to have our Canadian standard of living would require the resources of five planets.

But in doing so, we need to recognize that we may have more power to act than people in that dump, but we too are trapped. The same systems of injustice, the institutions and ways of doing things that benefit us also curtail our freedom. The people who live in that trash dump can’t escape the economic and political empires that keep them poor – but neither can we. We can’t get away from supporting empire.

When we open our eyes to this, then we can really start to identify with the people suffering in poverty, we can know just a little of their struggle, we can ask hard questions about the systems and empires that trap us all, we can really join with the marginalized people of the world in working for real liberation, not just of Latin America of Africa and Asia, not just of ourselves, but of all of God’s creation.

When we are working for change, when we are wrestling with the magnitude of poverty and hunger and disease, it's easy to lose hope. But hope is there for us. We have good news to inspire us and keep us going – because of Jesus. He was seen as a dangerous revolutionary by the authorities. He was arrested and put to death, executed on the city dump of Jerusalem, just as the dictator’s death squads once brought political prisoners to that dump in Managua and killed them.

But injustice and evil and death did not have the last word. Jesus was raised from death by the power of God, and triumphed over empire, over injustice, over oppression. The message of the resurrection of Jesus is that the systems that keep people in poverty will never win: the God of the poor, the God of surprises, the God who turns human expectations upside down, will have the victory.

Talking to Christians in Nicaragua, I heard the message of hope in the resurrection of Jesus. Vibrant, exciting hope in the midst of poverty. And we can share that joy, that hope for real peace, real justice. Our message is not one of guilt, for God sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it. Our good news is a message of hope, and we are called by God to live out that message, standing with our suffering brothers and sisters in love.

And that hope will be fulfilled, for God promises us that the day Hannah sings about will come. The day will come when the old ways will pass away and everything will be made new. The day will come when God’s realm of love and justice will be complete over all the earth. The day will come when the poor will be raised up from the garbage dump to sit in the places of power. Thanks be to God. And let all God’s people say, Amen.

Photos illustrating this blog post were taken in the city dump of Managua, Nicaragua, in February 2007.

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