Back in the early ’90s I was in the market for a new car, and decided, with a family of four, maybe we needed a mini-van. (It was the ’90s!) I saw a used one for sale, a model I was totally unfamiliar with–and Oldsmobile Silhouette. It was very different from all the other minivans, most of which looked like boxes. The Silhouette had a steeply sloped nose, and looked more like a futuristic space pod, something you would see on Star Trek, than a minivan. I test drove it, and told the guy selling it I needed a day or two to make up my mind on buying it.
The next day I had to drive to Charlotte, NC from Durham, a trip of about 150 miles. I probably saw twenty Silhouettes on that trip. They were all over the place! Up to that day, I don’t ever remember seeing one.
That is a common phenomena. Clearly, I had been seeing them before that day, they just did not register on my radar. You have probably had similar experiences. There is actually a name for it–the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Basically what is says is that we have selection attention spans. We pay heed to the things that are important to us, and we filter out the stuff that is not. But when a new thing comes to our attention, like, say, an Oldsmobile Silhouette, then we start to notice it. We bring that into our attention span, and we don’t filter it out.
We all do that. When I was in Germany, I would learn a new vocabulary word, and then suddenly I has hearing that word everywhere. Before I knew the word, I filtered it out. Once it got into my sphere of attention, then I was noticing it.
I had another significant experience like this, but this one happened when I was in college. I was a member of our campus Christian Fellowship, I read the Bible and did frequent Bible studies, I read tons of books about the Bible, but then, in 1978, I did two things that changed my whole outlook on the life of faith. First, I read a book called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider. The book so changed my life, that after I graduated from college, I went to work with Ron for a short while. In the book, Ron goes through many of the biblical passages that call us to care for the poor and needy. The second thing I did was go to Guatemala for a summer mission trip. There I saw the poor and needy up close.
After reading Rich Christians, I could no longer read the Bible and not see all the references to the poor–the widow, the orphan, the immigrant in the land. Nor could I miss how God felt about people who turned a blind eye to the needs of others. It was everywhere I looked. After going to Guatemala, and later Haiti, I could not see the world without also seeing the people who have been traditionally overlooked by people like me.
The words we heard from the first reading this morning, the words of James, are not an anomaly in the Bible. They don’t stand out because they are so unusual. In fact they blend in with the whole biblical message.
All Through the Bible
The message to take care of the poor is a prevalent message that spans throughout the Bible. The word “poor” shows up around 210 times in the Bible, and around 60 percent of those times, it is in the context of taking care of the poor, the widow, and orphan, the traveler in your land. It is about taking care of people who fell through the cracks of the safety net of that day.
For example, in Psalm 72, we find a prayer for the king.
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
Then it goes on to say what makes a godly king in the eyes of God.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
Then it enumerates blessings for the king.
8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust….
11 May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
And why does the King have all these blessings?
12 For [because] he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
That is not exactly how we judge our leaders today. In Israel, the king was first and foremost to the keeper of God’s law. He was to act according to God’s standards. We have a secular government today, so perhaps it is unfair to judge a city councilman, or a Representative or Senator, or even the President by what God demands of the king of Israel. But we can see here what is important to God. And, for our purposes here in the Church, which is the representative of the Kingdom of God here on earth, we see what God is calling us to do, what will make us great in the eyes of God. And what displeases God.
In the book of Genesis, we read the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. What was their sin? Why did God destroy them? The answer may not be what you think. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet tells why God destroyed those cities:
49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters (Gomorrah] had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
James has some sharper words in his letter. In Chapter Five we read:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
By the way, Upton Sinclair read that passage to a convention of pastors and attributed it to Emma Goldman, an infamous anarchist of the time. The pastors voted that whoever wrote this should be expelled from the United States.
“The Poor will always be with you”
What about Jesus’ word, “… you always have the poor with you?” Let’s look at that. Jesus says this a few days before he is going to be arrested and crucified. His time with the disciples is coming to an end, and while he is with them, a woman comes up to him and pours a very expensive anointment on his head. (That was considered an honor back then, not a form of harassment!) The disciples talk about how that is a waste of money, and the money it costs for the anointment could be given to the poor. It is at this point that Jesus says, “… you always have the poor with you.”
Some people take this to mean that Jesus is saying, “It is useless to help the poor. There will always be poor people, and you really cannot do anything about it.” But let’s look at the quote. “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”
Jesus is not making a fatalistic statement about the poor. He is not saying, “There’s poor people everywhere, there will always be poor people, and there is nothing you can do about it.” He is saying, “There is always an opportunity for you to help poor people. And you are right to do so. But I’m going to be gone in a few days, to take advantage of having me around as long as you can.”
Now it is also possible that Jesus here is quoting a verse from Deuteronomy (15:11): There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. Both Jesus and the writer of Deuteronomy see poverty as a chance for people to do good. We may always have poor people among us, and that just means we have that many chances to care for them.
There are two dangers whenever anyone talks about the biblical mandate to care for the poor. The first is to ignore it. It’s one thing to lay aside something in the Bible that you don’t understand. It is quite another to deliberately ignore something that is very important to God.
But I don’t want to dwell on that, and I will tell why a little later.
The second danger is to overemphasize the biblical mandate to help the poor, and make it the standard by which everything is judged. “How can you have such a nice, big sanctuary when there are hungry people in the world. How can you have such an expensive organ, when there are people sleeping on the streets of Medford?” In other words, “How can you enjoy yourself when there are people who are suffering?”
The answer to that is simple–having a ministry to the poor is not the only thing we are called to do. When the woman poured the ointment on Jesus, he accepted it. When we gather here to worship Jesus, when we sing to the beautiful sounds of this organ, when we meet together in fellowship, we are also doing the work of God. If you look carefully at the passage in James, it is clear there are rich and poor in the church. His problem is not that there are rich people there–it is how the rich people treat the poor. In the passage I read earlier about how the rich will have their wealth rot on them, the reason is not because they have wealth; it is because the use their wealth to oppress the poor.
There are a host of thing the Bible calls us to do: worship, fellowship with one another, prayer, study, evangelism, stewardship, taking care of each other, and taking care of the poor and needy. All of these things are important.
A Pat on the Back
I want to end on a very personal note. As I said, these issues have been important to me since my college days. I have struggled with them since the 19070s, and I have worked to help others understand them since I was ordained, almost thirty years ago.
In all that time, I have never been a member of, or been a pastor in a church that took the issue to help the poor and needy as much as this church does. I have never served a church that did as good a job as this church in feeding the hungry, and opening our doors to the needy. When the James passage was read this morning, I hope you thought as I did; THAT IS NOT US! I have seen you welcome all people to this place since I have been here. And you do so with grace and dignity.
In this community we are known for a couple of things; our music program, especially the organ, choir and our Jazz vespers. That is good. But we are also known as a church that helps people.
If I were preaching this sermon in another church, odds are very good that at the end I would say, “And we need to do this here! We need to be more open, and more engaged with the poor in our community.”
But not here. No. Here I am saying, “You are phenomenal! James tells us not to discriminate against the poor, and you take that seriously!
We live here at ground zero when it comes to issues involving the poor, the homeless, people who suffer from food insecurity. It is a challenge, one that you have met “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” We house the largest food bank in Jackson county. We give away around 300 free bag lunches a week. Our Wednesday Night Live program serves children who may not fit into traditional youth groups. During the week our doors are open to those in need. We walk with people who need someone to walk with them.
We care. Not just about the people who can benefit us. We care for all.
I know this is hard. It is easy to say, “God wants us to care for the poor,” but the poor are individual people, many of whom come with a host of problems. Not everybody appreciates what we do here, and that includes some of the people we help. It is a hard task, but you handle it with grace and love.
In a parable, Jesus says that at the end of all things, people will be sorted out. On one side, he says, are those who fed him when he was hungry, who gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, who visited him when he was lonely. Jesus welcomed those people into paradise. There was another group in the parable, a group that did not fare so well, but I don’t need to talk about them, because you are not those people.
I want to close with this, words from Jesus that I want to say, on His behalf, to you today.
“Well done, good and faithful servants.”