Sunday, August 28, 2011

Poor Folk Won’t Always Be Forgotten

Isaiah 10:1-4 / James 5:1-6 / Psalm 10

August 28, 2011

Series: Can You Believe That’s in the Bible?

William G. Carter

The sermon series this summer has asked, “Can You Believe That’s in the Bible?” I have enjoyed working on it and conclude today. We have traveled through a lot of foreign territory and it is good to have companions such as you.

The final text is the conclusion of a poem from the prophet Isaiah. In four stanzas, Isaiah denounces the people who make God angry. These include people who are arrogant, politicians and preachers who lie, and those who devour their neighbors. And then this part of the poem is spoken:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes,

to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!

What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?

To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth,

so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?

For all this (God’s) anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still.

Like a lot of people younger than me, I get a share of my evening news from Jon Stewart. For those who don’t stay up so late, Stewart puts together a summary of hard-to-believe headlines each weeknight. Then he proceeds to make fun of them. It helps me gain some perspective on the strangeness of the days.

Just over a week ago, the billionaire investor Warren Buffett made the news. He wrote a New York Times article to suggest that wealthy people like him ought to pay more taxes. Why, he declared, his secretary pays a higher tax rate than him!

So I tuned in to see what Jon Stewart would do with that. It turns out he didn’t do much at all. What he did, however, was to report all the negative responses to Mr. Buffett’s suggestion. He showed news clip after news clip from one particular television channel. One pundit after another carried on a harangue – not against Mr. Buffett, but against the poor.

To hear them speak, the real problem in America was not that five percent of the population has 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The real problem is all those poor people with all their “entitlements,” paying little or no tax, and getting a free ride. One man came on camera, absolutely scandalized. He bellowed, “Did you know that 99.6 percent of the poor in America have refrigerators?!?” He was absolutely outraged – those people have refrigerators!

That was his question. Well, here’s the question that Isaiah would ask: why would anybody hate the poor.

I remember Fred Craddock, the great preacher, speak about serving his first congregation in rural Tennessee. He grew up on an Appalachian farm in the Depression and his family lost the farm. His mother went to work for the Brown Shoe Company, and her job was to put the Buster Brown sticker on the soles of a pair of shoes. God called him into the ministry. He studied and struggled, then got ordained to preach.

He was serving out in the hills somewhere, and the congregation was really poor. Maybe some of them had small pension from the railroad. They would go into town and buy trinkets and flower seeds. He would stand up in the pulpit and fuss at them, and say, “Why are you buying trinkets and flower seed? You should be spending your money beans, potatoes, and pork.” They would glower at him, then look down.

Finally one of the older ladies pulled him aside, tired of his tirades. She said, “Craddock, even the poor have a right to their pretties.”[1] They aren’t animals. They are children of God. That is why they are worthy of respect, why they are worthy of self-respect.

Biblically speaking, who are the poor? They are the people in need. That’s the definition. Those who are most vulnerable. Those who do not have the means to make a lot of life choices. Those who are considered most disposable. Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[2] He turned the whole economic system on its head. Read the sixth chapter of Luke sometime. He says, “Woe to you who are rich . . . blessed are you who are poor.”

I think one reason why he speaks up for them is because nobody else speaks up for them. Did you ever stop and realize how many people we take for granted? The lady without a pension who works the drive-through window? The young man who mows your yard because his father had to decide between sending the kid to college or having a clot removed from his lung? Jesus blesses those whom the rest of the world overlooks. He is in a venerable tradition of Israel’s prophets.

As we heard in the poem from Isaiah, God pays attention to those otherwise ignored. The scripture often characterized them as “the widow and the orphan.” That’s because widows and orphans had no means of income in that society. They were totally dependant on the mercy of others. They were specific representatives of more generalized categories like “the poor” and “needy.” However characterized, these were people entrapped by an endless cycle of poverty, with no way up and no way out.

The scandal in Isaiah’s day was a glaring selfishness among those who were already well-to-do. Not only did they have a lot of money, they made the policies, they fixed the rules, and somehow the whole system worked to their advantage. Isaiah named this for what it was: “iniquitous decrees” and “oppressive statutes.” The rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor. The prophet said, “That’s not justice. It’s a form of robbery!” And he declared this makes God angry.

Now, to hear a lot of people in our own time talk, they don’t particularly care what God thinks. Or they assume that God agrees with them. Yet the God of the Bible is very consistent on this point. Yahweh, the God of Israel, pays special attention to those who are put down. Yahweh notices those who are deprived and downtrodden

Did you keep up with the psalm for today, Psalm 10? It describes those who live by greed: how they ignore the Lord, how they lurk in the bushes waiting to plunder others, how they fill their mouths with cursing and oppression, how they pounce to seize the poor.

I recall some of the clips and quotes that I saw reported by Jon Stewart. Rich people referred to the poor as “the mooching class.” They proclaimed a war between “the makers and the takers.” One blond beauty shouted, “Welfare will make generations of utterly irresponsible animals.” How pathetic, to spew hatred on those who have so little!

The Psalmist says, “But Lord, you do see! The helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan.” Then the Psalmist prays, “Lord, break the arm of the wicked and the evildoers!” (Psalm 10:15). That’s so they won’t be able to grab and plunder anything else.

The Bible is remarkable consistent about this. There are harsh words given repeatedly to the greedy. In a country like ours, the richest in the world, the gap between the wealthy and poor is growing exponentially. The lower 50 percent of Americans make 2.5% of our nation’s wealth. In 2009 alone, the pay of America’s highest earners quintupled,[3] while more Americans found themselves on the food stamps program than ever before. And those of us on the food stamps program are earning exponentially more than the beggars of Kolkata or the prostitutes in Soweto.

What scripture warns is that this won’t stand. God won’t have it. God cares infinitely about every one of his children; and those who plunder and demean their neighbors could have their arms broken.

Can you believe this is in the Bible? I can. It’s there on the third page of our Bible,
all the way back to the story of God’s first grandchildren. God made Adam and Eve, and then Adam and Eve made two sons named Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, and God said, “What did you do with your brother Abel?”

Remember how Cain responded? He asked, “How should I know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

The question still dangles in the air. Are we to keep our brothers and our sisters? Well, if it’s keeping against discarding, I think the answer is “yes.”

Maybe you, like me, have been shaped by family stories. My grandmother tells what it was like to give birth to my mother during the Great Depression. Grandpa was on the road as a salesman, money was very tight. It has shaped a certain kind of caution. When I call her on my cell phone with the unlimited minutes plan, she still says to me, “You had better hang up soon, because this is costing you an arm and a leg.”

At the same time, she says everybody looked out for everybody else. Food was shared. Nothing was wasted. As many people as possible were cared for.

My mother tells me what it was like to be poor. She gave birth to me when my father was in engineering college on the G.I. Bill. Oh, the stories: they lived in a trailer park, they ate rice and beans. It was all they could afford. I used to hear the stories and say, “Sure, right.”

Years ago, I was speaking at a conference about five miles from the town in northern Indiana where I was born. I had never been back there. On a free afternoon, I got in the rental car and drove over there. I saw the factory where Mom worked until my birth. I drove by the oil tanks where Dad carried a part-time job while studying. Then I found the trailer park, just three blocks from the hospital where I was born. It was stunning.

Then I went over the hospital and walked in. I went upstairs and asked where the birthing rooms were; there were two birthing rooms, currently unoccupied. Could I step into each one of them, just to be sure? It was a profound, speechless moment. I went back to where I came from. The stories were all true. I decided that I wasn’t superior to anybody else; I may have been raised in privilege, but I was born in poverty. In fact, I was so poor, I was born without any clothes on.

How dare anybody think they are better than anybody else? The truth is, we are more alike than different. None of us are superior to anybody else. All of us were born without any clothes on, and all of us will depart this world some day and leave our clothing behind. That’s the truth. You know it’s the truth.

So it matters how we treat one another. How we regard one another. How we participate in one another’s lives. This is why mission trips are so important, especially in shaping what it means to be Christian people. We go beyond these church doors to do mission, not simply because it’s a way to do nice things for people in need, but because it removes every wall of isolation. We learn again to keep one another.

I listened carefully to my sixteen-year-old daughter after she went with our church’s youth to Mahanoy City, a small town about seventy minutes south of here. I asked, “What were the most important moments, Meg?” She said, “I got to know two old men who were in World War 2. We wire-brushed their iron railing to prep it for painting. They told us about the war, which was the biggest achievement in their lives.”

What else happened, Meg? She said, “We played with some children in the park. One of them wrapped her arms around my waist and wouldn’t let go. I asked if I could take her to the dollar store, and she said she didn’t have enough money. So I asked if I could get something for her and it made her day.”

She said, “You know, I didn’t miss my cell phone. I really enjoyed the trip. I could see living there some day, in a place like that. Maybe I could help them somehow.”

I prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for helping her. Thank you for shortening her arms and opening her heart. Make it stick as long as possible.”

Isn’t that what we need? Especially in a town like this.

You know, we can squabble all we want about politics, about who gets the tax breaks and who makes the money. We can grumble about the greedy, how they hoard their billions rather than create real jobs that pay a living wage. We can complain about the poor, how they buy refrigerators and cell phones and flat screen TVs and flower seeds. But when the dust of discontent settles, life is all about loving God and loving the neighbors that God gives us. The real neighbors, not the cardboard imitations.

Say what we want, but that’s the issue. That is almost always the issue. Either we do the hard work of being the human family, working for the mutual flourishing of all the people that God has made, or we turn in upon ourselves – which is really the definition of sin.

Isaiah decrees the wrath of God on the greedy, whoever they are. As someone notes, this kind of wrath is an expression of God’s love. It’s an expression of God’s deep concern for God’s people, all God’s people.[4] What God wants from us is to take care of one another, with special concern for those most vulnerable and at greatest risk. God wills the well-faring, the well-fare, of the largest possible group of people. That would be heaven on earth.

God’s kingdom comes in the mystery of caring for those who are most in need. Let me close with some wisdom from Jean Vanier, a Canadian Christian who spent his adult life creating communities of the developmentally disabled:

Poor people have a mysterious power: in their weakness they are able to open hardened hearts and reveal the sources of living water within them. It is the tiny hand of the fearless child which can slip through the bars of the prison of egoism. That is the one who can open the lock and set free. And God hides himself in the child. The poor teach us how to live the Gospel. That is why they are the treasures of the Church.[5]

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001) 125.

[2] Luke 6:20

[4] Bernhard W. Anderson, The Eighth Century Prophets (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) 82.

[5] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, Revised Edition, pg. 96

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