And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do… —John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
When my grandparents spoke of the Great Depression at all, it was always in barely audible groans, as though they lacked the vocabulary to verbalize something so horrible. As terrible as hurricane Katrina was, the Depression was worse. The millions of refugees John Steinbeck describes had no Red Cross shelters to take them in with promises of new jobs and hot food.
The collapse of the American economy had been unthinkable, until it happened. The American dream crumbled beneath our grandparents’ feet, leaving them with less than nothing.
Katrina was certainly a faith-shaking event. The destruction of the Gulf Coast by a single storm, and then the failure of our government saviors to bring salvation to those poor people appalled us.
In the long arc of history from the Great Depression until now, we have not grown wiser. We still hold to a childlike naiveté that everything will be fine.
We no sooner lift poor Humpty Dumpty back up on his wall when he falls, again. Another disaster is always waiting for us just around the corner.
Is there a country anywhere in the world as prosperous and pampered as Canada? Yet even in that socialist Nirvana, a group of young Muslims — young men unimpressed by western promises of money, power and sex — sank their savings into fertilizer and plotted to destroy Parliament, after first removing the Prime Minister’s head.
Despite our progress, our intelligence, our science and our sophistication, life seems balanced on the edge of a knife. 77 years after the Great Depression, governments are no better equipped to assure us of peace, prosperity and security.
Christ himself lived in a time like this.
If you take the New Testament seriously, the incarnation of God into human history happened at one of the lowest moments in the history of Judaism. Jerusalem was occupied by a brutal and pagan military dictatorship. Roman soldiers patrolled the streets where King David himself had once strolled.
And yet, right beneath the royal nose of the Roman emperor, God gave sight to the blind, taught the crippled to walk, washed lepers clean and raised the dead.
For this, Jesus Christ was honored and feted. Wealthy patrons competed for the chance to have him appear at their dinner parties. Kings sought his advice. He was showered with lavish gifts and dressed in the finest clothes.
Oh, wait. Wrong story; wrong Messiah.
As they were walking along someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you no matter where you go.”
But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but I, the Son of Man, have no home of my own, not even a place to lay my head.” —Luke 9:57,58, NLT
In the famous Beatitudes, preaching in a field in the open countryside, Jesus said:
“God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is given to you.
God blesses you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.
God blesses you who weep now, for the time will come when you will laugh with joy.
God blesses you who are hated and excluded and mocked and cursed because you are identified with me, the Son of Man. When that happens, rejoice! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were also treated that way by your ancestors. —Luke 6:20-22, NLT
He did not promise immunity from economic catastrophe or storms or crazy kids with misguided notions about religious devotion.
He promised his unfailing presence. He promised the peace that comes from oneness with God. He promised blessings in the midst of difficulties; joy in the hardest of circumstances.
“When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there’s no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain.” —John 16:21, The Message
There are times when I find this Gospel quite disturbing, even frightening. I wonder if I really have what it takes to weather the storms. I wonder if I’ll fold like a cheap suit when things get hard.
But then I think about this Messiah who amazed people with his words, and awed them with his miraculous powers — all of this, smack in the middle of the darkest of times.
This Messiah still lives, still heals, still blesses: here, now, in the Year of our Lord 2006.
That’s cause for hope. That’s cause for joy.