The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 18, Year B
September 9, 2018
The Path of Descent is the Path of Transformation:
A Deeper Reflection on “The Poor”
Last weekend, I was in Albuquerque for the 6th Conspire Conference, with the Center for Action and Contemplation. Over a thousand folks gathered from all over the world to learn from Barbara Holmes, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Mirabai Starr, and our own Barbara Brown Taylor. It was an extraordinary time and space of infusion, a deep transmission of the lineage and wisdom of the Christian contemplative tradition.
The focus of this year’s gathering was “The Path of Descent is the Path of Transformation,” a topic that fostered much reflection on the truth that death, self-denial, self-emptying, loss of control, descent—these are the actual spaces of transformation—not what we may think in terms of success, accomplishment, wealth, material gain, etc. The truth of the Gospel is that we are called to go downward…
As Fr. Richard describes,
True liberation is letting go of our small self, letting go of our cultural biases, and letting go of our fear of loss and death. Freedom is letting go of wanting more and better things, and it is letting go of our need to control and manipulate God and others. It is even letting go of our need to know and our need to be right—which we only discover with maturity. We become free as we let go of our three primary energy centers (As Thomas Keating describes): our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem.
As you can imagine, this isn’t a space that people flock to—not with the Americanized prosperity gospel swirling around out there. But it is, I must affirm for you, the essence of what Jesus was teaching. We must ask ourselves why, if we say we call a man Lord who was crucified, died, was buried, and even after being raised by God the creator carried His woundedness with him—if we dare to confess this Jesus as Lord—why some who call themselves Christian would be concerned with political power or prestige or merely accumulating wealth.
As you may imagine, I couldn’t help but reflect on today’s lectionary readings while I was there. The image and reality of poverty and “the poor” are placed before us today. We hear in Proverbs “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.” We hear from James, “Has not God chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor.”
In the Psalm, we encounter these images of how God loves the struggling stranger—a reality that we persist in either compartmentalizing or blatantly ignoring.
And in the Gospel itself we are convicted by this compelling story of giving preference to one who is clean, wealthy, and prestigious, while making the poor sit at our feet.
These images and these readings weighed heavily on my heart while I was there in New Mexico, listening to stories of separated families and of native people, the indigenous of this land who were misplaced, robbed, taken for granted, and victimized—and who continue to be so.
In Matthew 26 and John 12, Jesus tells those around him “you will always have the poor with you,” and I confess to you that I was taught as a young child by my religious elders that this means—honestly—that some folks are just meant to be poor. It is the way that the world is; therefore, it must be the way that God wants it. The poor will always be here, so let’s take away some of that sting of guilt. Perhaps you were taught this as well. We must reject this lie.
So, I want to reflect today on this question: “How do we understand ‘the poor?’” What do we mean when we say “the poor,” and how do we understand our action toward “the poor” in the world? I must confess that my heart has experienced something of a conversion after being in that deeply reflective space in New Mexico.
First, I notice how often in my life I have considered the poor from a position of power. I rest in my own power, my own control, my own natural favor as a white man in our society today, while I look out at “the other,” the poor. Separate from myself, in a position of lack, of need. They need something that I can give them. I have some answer to their struggle.
“Have a seat here” we say to the wealthy ones “while to the one who is poor we say “stand there” or “sit at my feet” as we hear in the Gospels.
I think of so many conversations with Joy Griffin and Cynthia, with the rich work with the Compass Center here in our community, with United Way. I think of the struggle so many of you have experienced in your work with the Food Pantry, Meals on Wheels, Good News at Noon, Good News Clinic, and many, many other ministries trying to care for those around us who are truly in need.
And yet, if I am honest, there is something in me that keeps myself separate from “them,” from “that other” that is “the poor.”
You know what, I think Fr. Richard and the Contemplative Tradition are right: “The path of descent is the path of transformation.” Here’s where I see this connecting: The moment I place myself in a position of power over and against someone who “lacks” something I have, I must ask myself if what I am holding in my heart is truly compassion. Because, “compassion” means “to suffer with,” to suffer alongside. To recognize my common existence with my brother or sister. As we have said before, to realize there is no “other”—even while we retain our distinctiveness as people. When it comes to me and you, or me and Soldier, the man down the street, or me and one of 500 children still separated from their families, there is not one and not two, but one and two. We are one even when we are distinct. This paradox lies at the heart of our identity as the Body of Christ, and it is easy to ignore when you are in a position of power.
I believe that the key to understanding “the poor” is first to recognize our own powerlessness—to admit it. To admit that our grasping for control lies at the heart of so much of our struggle as a people. So long as someone whips up my fear of “the other,” it keeps affirming my own illusion of control that I crave—and the manipulator gains a warped degree of power over us.
In a meeting last week with Cynthia, Joy Griffin from the United Way made this statement: “the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is the absence of chaos and the presence of peace.” That’s worth meditating on.
If “the opposite of poverty is the absence of chaos,” perhaps we can start to see that what unites us as human beings just may be…I’m going to take a risk here…just may be…the truth that we all, to one degree or another, experience chaos, powerlessness—poverty. We all crave control, and we all fear chaos that could crawl through our window at any time. We are all human beings, struggling, striving, yearning, hoping…each of us experiencing chaos in some part of our lives. Don’t believe me? Here’s a snapshot of the pastoral life of this parish over the past two weeks:
- Members of the parish in the hospital.
- The mother of a vestry member in the hospital.
- A long-time member’s simple funeral with her family.
- Several conversations with folks waiting for test results, wondering what comes next.
- Ongoing, difficult conversations about the struggle of dementia and spouses with three families right now.
- One of the kindest people I have known suddenly killed in a tragic car accident, and her husband recovering from heart surgery.
- Ongoing, serious conversations around mental health and the urge we have to ignore it and pretend that all is ok.
- Deep and serious support of a family here who, over the past five years, has experienced eleven deaths of relatives and close friends either to murder or suicide.
- The constant conversation around opioid addiction.
This is the reality of our community over the past two weeks.
If, as we said, “the absence of poverty is not wealth but the absence of chaos and the presence of peace,” well…perhaps we should spend more time reflecting on the real truth of our lives and stop pretending that everything is alright. And….in that space when we stop pretending and feel the connection we have with one another…we just may experience a transformation. “The path of descent is the path of transformation.” Sounds true to me.
I know that many of you hold dear the sense of the Church—and particularly the liturgy—being a place of dignity, and I understand that. I honor that, but what I want to invite us all to consider is, that the primary focus on dignity for us as followers of Jesus is the call “to respect the dignity of every human being” that we affirm with each and every baptism we celebrate. And that dignity calls us to recognize our common humanity, our connectedness. Perhaps we can put it another way: the beauty we experience here in this space must orient us to honor the beauty we encounter in every person we meet. Why else are we doing this?
Can our hearts meet in this space of shared powerlessness, of shared woundedness? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” we see in Matthew’s Gospel. Interestingly, in Luke, it just reads, “Blessed are the poor.”
What would the world be like if we realized our connectedness in this way, in this downward orientation, this path of descent, rather than what we see in the culture’s fixation of power and control? If we saw the presence of the Crucified One in every person we meet? Every person.
We see our own brokenness, our own woundedness. What Pope Francis calls “the peripheries,” the edges, the margins. In a new book, he describes it this way: “The phrase I like to quote is “Reality is better understood from the peripheries than from the center.” Perhaps when we urge people to care for those on the margins—on the peripheries—we can first ground ourselves in the margins of our own existence.
Can we step into the peripheries of our lives? Better yet, can we be honest and admit that we are living in the peripheries of our lives…and that this existence, this vulnerability, this powerlessness, can connect our hearts to one another in a truly profound way?
Can we be vulnerable and open with each other as a community?
I want to ask you, if you are able, to please stand. And as you stand, take a moment and close your eyes and place your hand on your heart. In a short time of silence, feel your heart beat in your chest. Feel the pulse of your own existence, your own humanity. And now, in a moment of vulnerability, I invite you to chant with me, keeping your hand there, on this single note, this one tone. As you join in the tone, feel the vibration in your chest. Feel the vibration around you from those gathered here. Feel the vibration in your hand as you chant this common tone.
Now, as we let the tone become quiet, we find ourselves standing here together, side by side, in this experience that may be vulnerable to you, foreign, uncomfortable, strange, uncertain. Powerless.
We experience this grounding of our common humanity. Let us start here today and go forward with true compassion.
 I commend to you the website for the Center for Action and Contemplation, where this reference can be found: www.cac.org. This particular one is from an article on the Franciscan tradition, what Fr. Richard and others call “alternative orthodoxy:” https://cac.org/the-path-of-descent-2017-06-21/.
 Pope Francis, A Future of Faith: The Path of Change in Politics and Society (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2018), 31.