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Hard Knocks: Sermon 5

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Sermon, Financial Hard Knocks                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
19 February 2017                                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

In our sermon series on hard knocks, we’re talking about financial hard knocks today.  So did you hear…

The best money managers in the Bible were Noah, who was floating his stock when everyone else was in liquidation, and Pharaoh's daughter, who went down to the bank of the Nile, found Moses, and managed to draw out a little prophet. 

Years ago I attended a hospital seminar on pain and pain management.  Various kinds of physical pain were discussed, and we looked at emotional pain from trauma, hardship, and grief.  Then the presenter surprised me: he introduced another kind of pain I hadn’t thought of in this context: financial pain. All of a sudden, I realized that the distress of not having enough was an identifiable source of real pain, anguish even.  We sometimes call it Feeling the Pinch. I recognized that experience, not so much from my own experience, but from my parents’. 

My parents had many advantages and privileges – they were white, both college graduates, from stable families. Yet that didn’t insulate them from financial pain: my dad suffered from extended periods of unemployment late in life, and my mom had a debilitating physical and mental illnesses. They had a legal judgment against them when my eldest brother stole and crashed a car at age 16.  I often marvel that they managed to pay the rent every month, and put food on the table.

You may, or may not, be familiar with that kind of grinding financial pain.  It’s different from being a bit short some months and having to juggle some bills.  It’s a constant battle to make ends meet, often robbing Peter to pay Paul.  At its extreme, this painful financial condition is poverty.  I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

The Bible has a lot to say about poverty and people who are poor. 

We heard in Leviticus that God calls for generosity – making sure poor people have enough.  (Enough is a concept we’ll come back to.)

In Leviticus, God’s economy was spelled out.  Those with capital (primarily land, in those days) are instructed to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor could come and collect food.  Gleaning, it’s called.  My friend Gary and I gleaned in a friend’s cornfield when we were in college, to raise money for a trip to visit seminaries. 

And there are labor laws, too: Moses commanded that the Hebrews pay a fair wage to their laborers, and always pay workers at the end of each day (otherwise the worker could go hungry that night).  God is clearly concerned about the welfare of the whole community, not just the wealth of some individuals.  It’s right there in the Bible. 

In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to give when someone begs….  We struggle with that today, on the streets, in the subway…

A recent encounter here at church: a man came with $11 in his pocket, needing $69 for a bottle of insulin for his brittle diabetes (just the copay – he actually has insurance, although who knows how long that will last), His next paycheck is 12 days away.  He also needs to raise rent money for a hoped-for new apartment in April for his family, including his wife and twin 13 year olds.  What should he do? 

I gave him what we had in the office to give - $27. 

Clearly, God doesn’t want anybody to be poor and desperate.  And God has provided enough to support all the people in the world – if we would just share it more equitably.  But we don’t. 

God’s view of the money and wealth is really very different from ours.  God doesn’t measure us by the vacations we take or the houses we remodel or the colleges we attend.  God sees us as human beings to be loved, whether we have lots of money or little.  If we really felt God’s love for us as beloved persons, we wouldn’t need so many material trappings in life to prop us up.  We wouldn’t always feel we have to keep up with the neighbors or the inlaws.  We would learn to be content – really happy – if we just have enough. 

Enough.  Everybody should have enough. 

If we looked at people from God’s point of view, we would also have more love for people who truly have too little to live on, because God loves them as God loves us.  Our thankfulness for our own lives would blossom into greater generosity for other people.  Jesus calls us to give to people who beg, lend to those who need to borrow, leave enough in the fields for the poor to eat; to love our neighbors, and even our enemies. 

Jesus calls us to a life of Modesty, Thankfulness, Generosity.  I don’t think Jesus hates wealth – he enjoyed the pleasures of the earth, of good food and wine.  (He did note that wealth would make it harder for people to enter the Kingdom of God….)  Jesus didn’t want poverty for anybody – he saw how the majority of people in his world were beaten down by taxes, landlords, and unjust systems. 

The Good News for those of us who do suffer financial pain is that money is not how God measures us.  Only the world measures a person by his money.  God’s abundant love disregards that.  (It still pains me to think of my dad’s deep shame when he couldn’t find a job!)  It can really help us when we stop trying to live up to someone else’s expectations, and start living modestly, thankfully, generously, for God. 

And God wants to free us from all that binds us, including financial hardship.  Not to make us rich, but to make us whole.  Our cult of wealth is so damaging to our country!  God depends on all of us to make the world fairer, more compassionate on people who are struggling.  Financial pain is real, but we know how to reduce it.  God will rejoice, not when everybody is rich, but when everybody has enough, when we stop hoarding and start sharing, when we all come to God’s banquet table as one human family.  AMEN.  


 

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Hard Knocks: Sermon 4

Posted 4:09 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 5A                                                                  Jeffrey B. MacKnight
5 Feb 2017                                                                                 St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

The NYT Magazine has a column called “The Ethicist.”  A couple of experts respond to queries of all kinds.  A few recent ones:  What is I obligation when I am told that someone has gotten married simply for green card?  Am I obliged to tell my friend if I find out her husband is cheating on her?  What should I do if I witness a parent abusing a child in a public place?  When a coworker sabotages a colleague at work? 

We make ethical decisions all the time.  At the moment, many of us will make judgment calls as we prepare our taxes – what income must be declared, what deductions we can claim. 

And we face ethical decisions in the public sphere too.  When we witness injustice, what is our obligation to respond?  To protest?  The assist and advocate for the injured?  To try to get laws and policy changed? 

The prophet Isaiah railed against the religious folk of his time, for maintaining all their religious fasts, but failing to act with righteousness in their worldly affairs.  “Look…you oppress all your workers…you quarrel and fight….  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry….?”  Isaiah declared that God wants righteousness – moral behavior – not just religious talk and ceremonies! 

That’s still a problem for us.  But sometimes, we get it right.  There is a long history of the churches fighting injustice by fighting for political change.  The church fought slavery and helped to end it in this country.  The churches fought for civil rights, and against wars.  Many churches lead in the environmental movement.  Our neighbors in the Roman Catholic Church are adamant about fighting abortion and capital punishment as violating the sanctity of human life.  We may or may not agree, but they have the right to fight for their beliefs in the political arena.  

Many this last week are alarmed about the president’s directive to stop all refugees from entering the U.S., as well as other drastic travel restrictions on legal residents of our country.  Our Episcopal Church leaders have led the way, with clear statements from Michael Curry, our presiding bishop, and Mariann Budde, our own bishop: 

“All Christian Americans should be offended that President Trump has decided that some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet are not welcome here because they are of the Muslim faith, but that Christians from the seven troubled countries that the President has named are to receive favored treatment. Such favoritism is an insult to Christians. I stand proudly with other Christians and interfaith leaders to protest this order, express solidarity with one another, and together call our nation to the highest of our common spiritual and civic values.  Scripture could not be clearer: we are called to welcome the stranger.”

Why?  Because we are all strangers ourselves…in Scripture, God reminds the Hebrews that they themselves were strangers in Egypt, so they’d better treat other strangers with respect.  The United States is uniquely a land of strangers, of immigrants.  Nobody can claim to be a native except native peoples – American Indians.  All the rest of us are of immigrant stock – I myself am the progeny of Scotch-Irish horse thieves, as near as I can tell.  We are all strangers; we all need a welcome in this world.  What could be a more basic human aspiration than to find a home, a safe, secure place for our families? 

St. Dunstan’s began a refugee ministry months ago, and we’ll continue it, adjusting for whatever realities come.  We put up a banner, “Help us help refugees,” last week, to show our commitment to the strangers seeking safety on our shores.  I got a call last week from a neighbor who said he was offended by that.  He said that it was a blatant political act, considering the timing of the banner.  He said he had not seen banners about other crises, such as the bombing of Aleppo.  He also said he himself was an immigrant to the U.S. and appreciated the welcome he received here.  Go figure. 

While I don’t back down from St. Dunstan’s right to display banners, this man, who wouldn’t identify himself, did make me think.  Many other humanitarian crises we have lamented, but let go by without taking a public stand.  Why?  What is our ethical obligation here?  How do we choose which causes to fight for? 

Christian ethicists have a number of criteria to apply to situations:  What principles are at stake?  What are our obligations to the parties involved?  Do we have the capability to make a difference in the outcome? 

Each of us must decide what to do, how to stand up for what we believe in.  We all must make that choice, because doing nothing is a choice too, and we are responsible for that choice.  As a congregation, we have responsibilities to live out what we say we believe about justice, equality, and the dignity of every human being.  We claim that we seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.  Do we live that way?  Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  Salt can sting; it’s not always comfortable.  Light can reveal things we may rather keep hidden.  Refugees and immigrants may remind us that we were once just like them. 

I have a feeling that our Christian values will be challenged again and again in the world we live in today.  Will we be salt and light, or will we hide in the shadows, hoping our comfortable lives are not too much disturbed?   Isaiah, and Jesus, both call us to put our money, and our actions, where our mouths are.  I hope in the end God will judge that we have let our light shine brightly in this troubled world, working for justice and compassion for all our fellow human beings.  AMEN.  


 

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