We’re sitting in a mud hut no bigger than a moderate “master bedroom” of America, packed with more than 30 people. I lean forward, raising my elbows slightly and hoping some airflow might reach my armpits. It must be 110 degrees in here.
A Zulu man rises and stands beside the translator who will help us Americans understand the sermon. “I’m going to preach about the same thing as last week.”
My stomach turns. Last week we left church uneasy. Why is it preachers all across the economic spectrum get carried away seeking happy congregations, until the Word of God is unrecognizable? “When you follow Jesus, He blesses you. Sickness and poverty cannot touch you!” he raved last week, like so many around the world.
Something in me goes angry. I could look around at our sisters and brothers and tell a story of sickness and poverty for every life here. Lately, it seems someone in this congregation of 30 people is gone every week for a funeral. One brother used to sit in his wheelchair in the doorway with an umbrella to fend off the blazing sun (no ramps or regulation-wide doors here). He died two weeks ago. Why did death find him, if nothing could touch him?
Many of the youth in the congregation live at an orphanage up the road. Poverty and sickness pocked their entire lives until they came there. But even in their orphanage run by Christians, the pain continues. One of the women who cares for the kids there has HIV. Recently the disease caused her brain to swell, and overnight this young mother went off the edge, as if Alzheimer’s hit her in her prime. Friends found her shouting insanely and smearing honey on her naked body. Her two-year-old son whimpered as he copied his mother, honey oozing down his arms and legs. How could this happen if Jesus fends off every sickness?
Another family in the church, one of the wealthiest, recently bought a car—the first Zulu family to be there every week, carried by their own wheels. But both of them work and the husband drives an extra two hours each day to take the wife to and from work and drop their baby off with a grandma. In North America, this family would definitely have two vehicles—or more. So this is “health and wealth?” This is what Jesus is for? This is why He died and rose again?
I want to stand up and stop the preacher: Don’t you see? If you promise these people that poverty and sickness won’t touch them, they might as well storm out right now! One look around this room of faithful people and we can see that’s a lie.
Instead I glued my eyes on the broken tractor outside and chewed on my cheeks. Children climbed and jumped off the rusted heap. One boy put a little girl on the back of a goat and held her hand as he led it in circles, like something at a county fair in the States.
Then I heard the preacher shouting again. The people were stirring now. Amen. Mm-hm.
“What should we do when poverty comes?” The question hangs heavy in the hot air. He leans forward on a rickety table, fake flowers shaking in their vase.
“Praise God,” he answers in fierce whisper.
The people lean forward. “Amen.”
“What should we do when sickness comes?” He shouts the answer this time. “Praise God!”
He closes with a line from 2 Corinthians, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay.” I stare at the words that follow on the page, written for those first Christians who didn’t have air conditioning either. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:7-8, TNIV). And it goes on.
That Zulu preacher, like Jesus, preached absurdity. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples groaning as I did at the start of a sermon. Jesus stands up in front of a crowd of tattered people with their sick friends on pallets. He says, “I’m gonna preach the same thing again today. Blessed are the poor.”
“Yeah, right,” Peter whispers to James.
Anyone can see that real, dire poverty sucks. It’s not quaint; it’s not adventuresome. It’s not touching to watch a woman go crazy or a child wither away. It hurts.
Jesus knew that and so does that Zulu preacher. These people in this mud hut with chipped blue paint, they know it, too. That’s why we’re here today—it is not to preach to them, solve their problems or bring money. It’s to learn from them. No pews. No pulpit. No seminary-trained pastor. Just people, with faith and the One who said they are blessed, even in poverty and sickness and maybe especially so. We see vibrant faith, vicious worship and obedience in difficulty.
Here in this mud hut, this is treasure in clay, indeed.