These three lessons take us in different directions as we pray they may converge.
Because I am a wimp who has certainly been spared the suffering of life that deserves that name, I have experienced the pain of rehab from knee replacement surgery as a true test. There were times when I simply could not get comfortable enough to rest or sleep or think or contribute anything worthwhile to this world. So I felt lonely and almost hopeless.
The First Lesson, Lamentations 3:22-33, contains that famous defiant announcement of hope: “the Lord’s mercies are new every morning.” But this general blast of optimism comes surrounded by very specific cries of misery. Someone who had experienced years of siege, slaughter and starvation, while sitting next to the Temple, the supposed sure sign of God’s constant care, can say the Lord has shot arrows into his vitals and made him grind his teeth on gravel. Not exactly a Hallmark Card of happy thoughts.
There were plenty of times in my painful recovery from surgery, especially when I reacted poorly to prednisone and felt my thoughts had been well scrambled, that I wanted to throttle the next person who offered helpful advice or a cheery bromide. I wanted only to survive another moment and not lose my mind.
What stayed my hands from such violence was that I knew the mix of Lamentations. I knew the brutal, pure honesty with pain. But I also knew the need for defiant waiting. We never, ever know what a new mercy will look like. That is what makes it new. Yet it comes, somehow.
And for me the most powerful moments were when the pastor lifted the host high and repeated what I had heard a million times before, “Take and eat. This is my body, broken for you.” I could feel the brokenness. I knew the death. But I also felt my existence and identity woven into that promise. And I felt once again the hunger and thirst that comes from realizing that not nearly enough people know that blood and body are theirs.
The Second Reading from 2 Corinthians 8 is most rich and complex. Paul’s focus is on a collection from Greek gentiles on behalf of Palestinian Jewish/Christians who are suffering gravely because of persecution of the whole Jewish population and also probably because of a famine in that part of the world. But Paul’s worldview is much deeper than our own. He knows that poverty and wealth are much more than the amount of stuff we have. It is about being oppressed or in charge of stuff. In other words, do things and circumstances enslave us, or do we have the inner (call it “spiritual”) power that God can give that can enable us to fight off those who want to use us – to manipulate us – to exploit us for the sake of lies and brutality and death?
For Paul there is only one power in this world that upends and unmasks and undoes the power of things over us. Jesus Christ disarms himself and empties himself of every power of exploitation, and thereby he comes to free us. Paul knew that more important than the weight of the silver he could collect in Corinth was the power of the enthusiasm of generosity. A broken world of Jew and Gentile could be made whole by this enthusiasm. Here is the passage that he saw as the key: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
It was after Jesus’ life, and after it became the core of the proclamation of the early church, that believers started to chronicle how it happened. Jesus became poor. This is the unusual way the miracle stories are told to us. Jesus is not the wonder worker who wows the world with his great power. His power flows out of him and we become rich. A climactic miracle in Mark is when a nameless woman who has been let down by every single human in her life, and who is losing her very life-force, her blood, is caught up in a crowd and brushes up against Jesus. He turns and says, “Woman, your faith has made you well.” This isn’t about his wonder working. It is about his making himself poor in order to make her rich.
I feel better today. Just a little better than yesterday. I have less grinding pain in my knee. I can fall asleep. I will never be able to bound up stairs as I used to. I will never have the energy to give to others that I used to have. But a little of Jesus’ poverty has passed to me. Just enough to make me rich.