Sunday, September 29, 2019

Helping the Poor (and the complexities of economic justice)

[9/29/19]  Amos 6:1, 4-7    Ps 146   1 Tim 6:6-19   Lk 16:19-31

Once again I recommend reading the book of Amos. Listen to God pour out His heart. Amos says God will judge the powerful because they are not grieved over the ruin of [Joseph] God’s People. The life styles of the rich and famous offends YHWH. Amos promises they will lose everything.

The Jewish prophets proclaim His word—trust God, love God, obey God and act justly. Prophets remind His people of the Torah and the offer of blessing and curse. The Jews believed that there will be a Judgement Day when God and His Messiah will rule the earth, but the prophets make clear that God acts already and the unjust societies will not stand. Amos declares doom for Israel, but also for the neighboring nations. God declares that they will fall for the evil they have done. Moral corruption produces a bitter fruit which poisons a nation. Nature and other people are potent weapons to lay low even the greatest nation. What was true then is still true today. We will reap what we sow.

This is why Amos is frightening. Trampling the poor is just an accepted part of the global economy. God despises injustice, and we live in a time where the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. It is not enough to virtue signal, as if talking about the sins of others somehow makes us good. We must repent, but economics is complex. Poor people aren’t always victims and the well-off are not always villains. Not so long ago a cobbler could sell shoes to his village and make a living. In our own time, Nike sells shoes to the world and makes $39 billion. Almost half the world’s nations have a lower GNP than NIKE. The scope of the problem takes away one's breath. 

Fortunately, Jesus makes the problem concrete and more manageable. The rich man is held responsible for ignoring Lazarus, who lay at his gate. He is not accused of ignoring the world, the nation, or even the city—just ignoring the one guy he sees each day. Jesus says, look around you and touch those who are in reach of your hand.

St. Andrew's outreach is simply that, reaching those whom we can touch. We support an orphanage in Haiti because otherwise those children would literally die in the streets, like Lazarus. We provide medical care for the working poor, support to the homeless, old and financially disabled. We help heal veterans of their war wounds and provide respite for families suffering with the effects of dementia. The bulk of our support is to agencies and ministries which daily face more need than they can supply, but have the expertise to make a difference.

We also experience that hands on ministry. Our phones ring every day. People who are hungry, under threat of eviction or having their utilities cut off turn to us, some of them regularly. It is sad because many of them work, and usually they are mothers with children but no other support. We know them. We pray with them. Lately we have had not funds, so we can only listen to them. We also grieve over the ruin of God’s people.

Sixteen hundred years ago St. Augustine preached a sermon on this topic: "We can understand that we have to give alms and that we must not really pick and choose to whom we give them, because we are unable to sift through people's hearts. When you give alms to all different types of people, then you will reach a few who deserve them. you are hospitable and you keep your house ready for strangers. Let in the unworthy, in case the worthy might be excluded. You cannot be a judge and sifter of hearts." (Ancient Church Commentary, Luke, p255)  

Jesus did not say whether Lazarus was deserving. 
Jesus didn’t explain why Lazarus ended up in that gutter.
Jesus did say that Lazarus laid in the street, dogs licked his wounds, and the rich man went to hell for ignoring him....

The Word of God we heard today:

Amos tells us to care about society and repent of materialism and indifference to the poor.
Jesus said to stop ignoring the needy within your reach.

We have been offered a share in the Kingdom of God, eternal peace, but the Kingdom is justice for all. The kingdom is in our midst. Those who love the Lord will serve the poor..

As I worked and reworked the homily for the last three weeks, the image of the village cobbler came to mind. It is easier to speak of fair wages and justice on the level of one man and one village. Thinking of shoe sales today, I ended up looking at NIKE which led me to further reflection on justice. A few days later down I pondered the social justice marketing around Colin Kaepernick. That gets really complex. The cobbler charging fair prices and providing a good product is fairly manageable. The multi-national shoe company which involves thousands of people and billions of dollars is not so easy. 
This timeline depicts Nike's revenue worldwide from 2005 to 2019. In 2019, Nike's global revenue amounted to about 39.1 billion U.S. dollars.

The issue of low wages and poor working conditions turned up in many articles, but there was also a question about whose standards apply? The moral ambiguities continue. Most of the Nike shoes which came up on the computer cost $150--$200, yet the workers reportedly make less than a living wage, only dollars a day. On the other hand, if the workers are poor, we hear from some, they were poorer before and now they have jobs. The clothing industry has generated a huge influx of jobs into the region which has created an economic boom. To further complicate it, Colin Kaepernick, with a net worth of $22 million in 2016, received a large cash settlement from the NFL and then signed a lucrative contract with Nike as a spokesman (both are in the $ millions). Some say he is an icon of a courageous man who lost everything speaking out for justice. Others think that he made out fine. Some ask “justice” for whom? What of the workers making dollars a day so that others make millions? How do you determine what each person should make? If spokesmen generate millions more in sales are they are worth millions more than the exchangeable humans who put the shoes together? However, divine economics declare that each human, exchangeable or not, deserves dignity. How does one construct a world economy where billions of people in very diverse situations are all treated fairly, when "what is enough" is not clear at all?

Jesus provides one option, until we can answer these big questions. Love the ones around you, the ones who you see and hear. Do something…  

Monday, September 23, 2019

loving the poor like you are one

Amos 8:4-7   +Psalm 113   +1 Tim 2:1-7   +Luke 16:1-13

Psalm 113 is a song of praise and revelation. We who pray it are identified as servants, which should govern our relationship with God.  Praise is “now and always” from “east to west”—always and everywhere—and God is transcendent. High above the nations! High above the heavens and earth. So we pray each Sunday: “Glory to God in the highest!” 

The transcendent God “stoops to behold” what is below. The Hebrew word, ‘shaphel’ [to humble, abase, or make oneself small] reminds us that God must “empty Himself” anytime He reaches out to us. Salvation is very concrete, He raises the "weak" out of the dust and lifts up the "poor" from the ashes*. The relationship of salvation and creation centers on the word ‘aphar/dust’ which is used in Genesis 2. God forms the 'adam from the 'aphar' so we can say He literally 'raised a man out of the dust.' As God makes us from inert particles, so will He also raise us from the ash heap of death. We are all included in the poor and needy because of our absolute dependence. 

God loves the poor, and this is echoed in Amos' preaching. The powerless are easily abused. Amos shares their fringe status because he is an unwelcome outsider from the Southern Kingdom of Judah who preaches his visions of doom to the powerful in the Northern Kingdom called Israel. Amos declares that “Divine Economics” centers on the value of every human life. When the rich get richer++ while the poor get poorer the Lord brings judgment. As the Virgin Mary** said, “[the Lord] has mercy…He has cast down the mighty…and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry…and the rich He has sent away empty.”

Jesus teaches us how to make money holy. His parable illustrates a devious and self centered man. Jesus wants us to be as clever serving God as he was serving himself. Jesus says, “Don’t only use money to makes friends for earthly needs, but use your wealth to make friends who will welcome us into a (skene) “tent” that lasts forever.

Back to Psalm 113.

Praise the Lord! Our Lord humbles Himself to see the needy and raise them up and make them His royal children (theosis!!).

Blessed is he who raises the poor out of the dust…
Blessed is she who befriends the needy…
Blessed are they who glorify God by blessing the weak…

For they shall dwell in the tents of the Lord forever.
You can never be too generous serving the Lord.

some references and things to ponder 

*[This same sentence (including sitting with princes) appears verbatum in the Canticle of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2:8, which shares many features in common with the canticle of Mary (He has looked with favor on His lowly servant). God’s salvation is expressed in her miraculous pregnancy. Her son, Samuel, will be one of Israel’s greatest figures. Both women are poor and lowly, and each is a ‘barren’ women who becomes the happy mother of a son Ps 113:9. Their sons will be God’s act of lifting the poor out of the dust and ash heap!] 

++The issue of what to do about poverty, beyond personal generosity, is very challenging. In an earlier version of this sermon I actually looked at current income distribution in the USA. If you rank by income and divide the nation into five equal sized groups, currently the bottom 20% make 3.1% of the total wealth while the next makes 8.2%, and the next makes 14.3%. All three groups have a seen a significantly lower share compared to 1970, which is a very troubling trend. ++When the top twenty percent makes more than double what the bottom sixty percent does, one should listen to the words of Amos.
I do not know what the just answer is, though I do know that whatever we do, it will not solve the problems to everyone's satisfcation and it will generate new problems in the days ahead. 

Concerning reparations and income redistribution. If it were possible would it help change things longs term? We must remember that wealth is fluid and  can quickly be transfered through spending and saving practices. If we could redistribute all the wealth equally among our citizens, is there any doubt that in ten years we would see a similar pattern repeat itself? For example Sports Illustrated did a study which found that 80% of Football and 60% of basketball players are in some type of financial distress within a decade of leaving professional sports. In other words, it is possible to quickly spend hundreds of thousands, millions, even tens of millions of dollars--with nothing to show for it.
Even so, God's word will not allow us to do nothing. Therein lies the challenge. 


Income levels demonstrate the concentration of wealth. The obligation of the rich to the poor is made very clear in Scipture.

The top .1% ($2.7mill) 1% ($700,000) 5% ($300,000) 
10% ($118,000)

However, the reality is the cost of child care and their education, or medical care, or support of adult family members especially parents, can quickly consume even extremely high income. In addition, saving for retirement requires very large sums of money each year.

Sunday, September 8, 2019


Jesus judges not only people but also our human institutions. A homily on
Deuteronomy 30:15-20    Psalm 1    Philemon 1-21   Luke 14:25-53

An “institution” is an intentional organization or society or an established law, custom or practice. Human institutions order our common life, but human institutions are “fallen” so they are always a mix of good and evil. We were created by God to share in His perfect life, but we live far from Him, ruled by sin and death. He defeats sin by forgiveness and death by resurrection. That healing is already in process and we can choose to cooperate.

We were created for freedom, so the human institution of slavery is obviously very evil. God’s judgement on slavery is at the heart of the “exodus story.” God patiently tried to convince Pharaoh “to let my people go,” but Pharaoh chose to reject His request. The cost of Israel’s salvation is the death of Egypt’s firstborn sons, a God literally does unto Egypt, what Egypt had done to Israel. The escape from Egypt is the first stage of freedom, the next step is choice. It is the freedom to choose which makes a person free. Choices, however, have consequences. God says: I lay before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose Life.

Freedom has a requirement: "loving the Lord your God, obeying Him and holding fast to Him." Too often we reduce freedom to “doing as I want,” not realizing that this merely makes us slaves to my wants, passions and desire. Paradoxically, when we serve God we become truly free.

This is why Paul’s request, “receive [Onesimus] back, not as a slave, but as a brother," is an historical turning point. It frees both slave and owner from an evil institution.  

Jesus brings judgement on the failings of every human institution—not just the obviously evil ones like slavery. He judges every human institution, and reminds us of the priority of God. He places Himself above Rome, the Law and the Temple, and tell us that the world will pass away, He warns us against wealth, He calls us to carry a cross and follow Him---so it should be no surprise when He judges the human institution of the family.

The demand to "hate" family and self is hyperbole—Jesus is saying that family loyalty, like perverted self-love, can become idolatry. We must remember the family in the ancient world was the sole source of identity. The authority of the father was unquestioned. Jesus replaces loyalty to a human family with membership in the family of God. If your family wants to take you to Hell, then you "hate" them (all the while loving them).

The centrality of love to Christianity cannot be overstated. What would a person of love be driven to hate? If a son overdoses we would hate the drug trade, if a daughter was a sex slave, we would hate human trafficking. The word “hate” as Jesus uses it is symbolic. It is the declaration that anything which keeps us from the love of God and fellowship with Him is the enemy. Discipleship does not await parental approval. If a choice must be made, we must love God and “hate” whatever institution would stand in the way.
Today we are also confronted with a choice: life or death?
We must choose to cling to God in love and obedience.
We must not choose any human institution, not even family, not even ourselves, over Him.
Choose wisely!


For further reflection

Taken literally, the words of Jesus sound like a "depressed adolescent" transitioning, through self loathing and hostility toward parents, into adulthood. I think such a reading is in error, and below I have provided ample references in which to interpret "hate."
Mt 22:39 love your neighbor as yourself
Lk 6:32 if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.
John 12:34 a new command I give you, love one another as I loved you.
John 13:35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
John 15:12 This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you
Romans 12: 9-10 let love be one another with brotherly affection.
I Corinthians 13 "if I have not love"... basically I am nothing of value.
and dozens of other declarations of love or exhortations to love
On the issue of hate
Luke 6:27 Love your enemies
16:13 no one can serve two masters, they will love one and hate the other... You cannot serve God and Mammon (money/wealth)
hate I more regularly aimed at the disciples. 16:13 blessed are you when men hate you for my sake and 21:17 you will be hated by all for my sake.
Ephesian 5:29 Paul writes "no one hates his own flesh"
I John 2:9 whoever hates his brother is in darkness, 2:11 whoever hates his brother walks in darkness and is blind, 3:15 the one who hates is a murderer

On the issue of relationship to family: Luke's Gospel begins with two "families" the parents of John the Baptist and Jesus. The angel promises (Lk 1:17) John the Baptist is going "to turn the hearts of parents to their children." In Lk 11:11, in His instruction on prayer, Jesus asks, "What father among you, if his son asks for a fish instead of a fish would give him a serpent?...if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father..." In 12:49-53, Luke quotes Jesus on His impact--I have not brought peace but division; parents and children will be against one another. Related to this, 14:12-14 Jesus suggests inviting the poor and needy to the banquet, rather than family, friends and the wealthy. Also, recall 9:57-62 where Jesus asserts the priority of His call to the demands of family piety.

The parallel in Matthew 10:37-39 offers a softer version of Jesus' hard saying, "He who loves father of mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."

Mt 19:29 (//Lk 18:29) "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my names sake, will receive one hundred-fold, and inherit eternal life."
Mt 23:9 "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven."