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Cancel the Debt--It's Killing the People

"Are you full? Have you had enough to eat? Are you satisfied? Is there anything else I can get you?" These words were rather familiar to me growing up as they rang through the house whenever guests were invited to the house, our home, coming and going as they pleased, welcome to be part of the family, to share a meal, to enjoy themselves, to find a place of solace and rest. For in the words of Henri Nouwen, "When we enter into a home and feel warmly welcomed, we will soon realize that the love among those who live in that home is what makes that welcome possible." Hospitality is more than an expression of love for the guest; it is also and foremost an expression of love between the hosts. My parents knew this and looking back, I can see that they did their best to live it.

Sure, one needs to honestly admit there were drawbacks to having a house full of guests. I would not deny that, not to mention the need to coordinate who was showering when. Like having to clean your room and your bed, only to find that the reward for doing so meant giving up your bedroom to a strange relative or unknown guest. Or how about dreaming about how much fun it was going to be to connect with the children who would be coming with their parents. Wishful thinking--only to have reality come crashing down when I discovered that the children were much younger than my sisters and I were and instead of being able to do all the cool activities we had planned for the weekend, we had just inherited a baby-sitting job without pay.

And then, there was some distant relative or friend, who when asked by my father or mother to give the blessing for the meal would inevitably go on and on and on and on, so much so that I would silently call on God to kindly take action somehow so that all of us could actually eat.

Ohhh, but the spirit of a house full of people -- I must say there is nothing quite like it.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right for they will be filled." For in the Gospel according to Luke, "Blessed are you that hunger now for you will be satisfied." Now, I do not know about you, but these words of Jesus seem rather strange, out of place, out of date, upside down altogether and they are in a world that teaches us to grab before someone else gets it--whatever "it" is--whether it be good for us or not to possess, to buy more, to be in control of our lives as if that is possible and other people's lives, to keep the fast and busy pace of being productive and efficient. Jesus' words stopped me dead in my tracks for I am asked not to fill but rather to empty myself of all the activity and clutter within my life that keeps me from feeling blessed so that I can, we can, be filled. Truly filled. Fulfilled rather than engaging in a perpetual feeling of being unfulfilled. Instead of avoiding or suppressing the hunger or thirst buried so deep down within us as if avoidance will make it go away. We are experts at this. Jesus tells us to listen to and pay attention to our hunger and our thirst.

This is no easy task. Standing in our hunger and thirst can be excruciatingly painful and uncomfortable, let alone quite unnatural for many of us. For I think it requires not only courage but a vulnerability and an openness to the unknown, the unexpected, to God's surprising ways to perhaps grace itself. In coming to terms with our own hunger and thirst instead of compulsively reacting to it, we can become vessels, instruments of God's grace in the world such that our hunger and thirst grow out of a deeper hunger and thirst for God.

Knowing this, we can dare to live as a blessed people. I am very much aware in my own life and in many people's lives who are close to me that we often do not live as if we are blessed. We live more as if "Am I blessed?" prevails. We live as if "Do I deserve to be blessed?" or "Have I earned God's blessing?" are the norm. We live believing if not questioning, "Am I good enough to be blessed?" But all of these thoughts that haunt me and keep me from being alive and fully living stem from my own human insecurities of not being certain that I am blessed rather than what God wants for you and me which is "Blessed are you."

Paradoxically, I felt the sense of blessedness and at the same time that of real hunger and thirst most poignantly when I was in Africa. For in Africa the spirit was present and moving--a spirit rich in diverse heritage, culture, and music. A spirit unwilling to give up amidst poverty and hunger. A spirit that has seen the cruelty of reality yet will not let bitterness, hatred, and revenge take over its heart. A spirit that sees the sacredness in another person's story and is open to truly listen. A spirit that is not naive but is filled with grace and hope in wanting to see what is real and true. A spirit of I AM because WE ARE. YOU ARE because WE ARE. And we have our troubles that impact all of us but amidst the many problems, we together are not destroyed.

In Africa, it was incredible. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly eye-opening, incredibly painful, incredibly life-changing. What was incredible was the fact that once we as a people take the risk of seeing and experiencing for ourselves the discrepancy between the rich and the poor, the poverty, the hunger, the lack of sufficient medical care and water, the unemployment, the violence and crime, the inequality of land ownership and the effect of war on the everyday working people in Africa and around the world, you and I cannot go back to an attitude of business as usual or deny that we ever saw what we saw. It is not possible nor should it be possible.

As my husband and I walked through the townships or ghettos in Zimbabwe where most of the people live, we noticed that the friends and their neighbors we visited lived in small homes, some with running water, some not, where as many as ten people were in one house. Many of the poor survive on corn flower or maize made into what is called "sadza." For the very poor, "sadza" is eaten as the main staple with soups or sauces three times a day, seven days a week. Most of the people in Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa hardly eat enough calories to survive. To read or hear about something is one thing; to see it in the faces of women, men, and children with one's own eyes is transforming. In my awkwardness, my hesitation, my pain, the African people took me by the hand to show me more, tell me more. "It is good," they said, "that you have come to Africa, but you must go home and tell your people, to cancel the debt. It's killing the people." For what is at stake are people's lives and their very livelihood.

Zimbabwe is a country filled with gold, platinum and other natural resources and yet most of the people live in poverty. Foreign companies with the help of the International Monetary Fund-IMF -- the World Bank, and the corrupt government officials, extract the wealth while workers who have jobs--employment is as high as 50% in some areas--often work six, ten-hour days a week. Structural adjustment programs, SAPS, or as my African colleagues call them, "Strategies Advancing Poverty," are and were put in place by the IMF and the World Bank for the loans they provide. Tragically, the money does not get to the people while at the same time their schools, medical facilities, and other social services are eliminated, leaving a crushing social and economic life for the African people who continue to be forced to pay interest on an unpayable debt.

The Hebrew people found themselves in a similar struggle -- what to do? If God's intent were carried out, there would be no poverty. But the reality was there were the poor, so the community understood that in the seventh year, the sabbatical year, the year of release, the people would cancel the debts of the poor and would not collect debt of one's neighbor. Why do it? The first response in the Deuteronomic text is clear--God has proclaimed the debt canceled, and yet it is in the second response that causes me to see God's hand in the matter, not just because God said so and therefore all is clear, but under the surface, blessedness appears. In fact, reappears reminding the people once again that they are blessed and will be blessed in the land in all their work and in all that they undertake. And yet how this blessing is to come about is not for the people or for us to obtain further financial security and comfort for ourselves but just the opposite. Blessing through the remission and forgiving of debts.

When I was in Africa, I saw giraffes, zebras, and elephants roam freely together, each having a place at the water hole. They were not bound, trapped, caged, humiliated by having to perform tricks for their livelihood nor were they isolated from their surroundings and who and what were around them. In Africa they were alive and free. It was an incredible sight, a gift from God as to how it can be. A living as a "blessed are you" people in God's creation. And in the spirit of receiving God's blessing, let us work to cancel the debt in our poorest countries and let the people live.

Let us pray.

We give thanks and praise, O God, for the children, for all God's children, for every child in his or her own way, shows us how to live, to walk, to run, to jump, to laugh, to cry, to think, to feel, to love, to be. To live knowing you are ever present with us. To walk knowing you are guiding us each step of the way. To run knowing you are the reason we dare to reach for the goal. To jump knowing you are there in the sun, in the rain, in the stars, and in the mud puddle. To laugh knowing you are able to see us as we are--human and continually growing. To cry knowing you are hope in the midst of despair and comfort amidst disappointment. To think knowing you are in the stories and the people that we encounter every day. To feel knowing you are the one who reaches out to us with your outstretched hand. To love knowing you are loved and because we are loved, we can find the courage to love. To be knowing you are calling us to be what you intended each of us to be and no other. Keep us safe, shelter us from the storm, hold us when we fall, teach us to pray, give us bread for the journey, touch us with your Spirit, help us to trust, prune us to grow, open us to your love, grace, and mercy. Amen.