God’s Preferential Option -- A Sermon
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Do you remember when the two businessmen visited Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve hoping that he would chip in with a nice charitable contribution to provide meals for the poor at Christmas? Now, Scrooge has no interest in contributing to their cause. For one thing, as far as he’s concerned, Christmas is a humbug. Besides, he really doesn’t care about the fate of the poor. After all, despite his wealth, he won’t even spare a few cents so his beleaguered clerk can get a bit of coal to warm himself with, and besides that he’s already paid taxes to support the workhouses and the prisons – let the poor go there.
Later in the play, just before he leaves Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his robe to reveal two children – “Ignorance and Want.” Scrooge is appalled at their appearance, and asks the ghost: Are these your children? The Ghost replies: “No, they’re Humanity’s.” Scrooge asks: "Have they no refuge or resource?" To which the ghost responds with Scrooge’s own words: “Are there no prisons?” “Are their no workhouses?”
By the end of the story Scrooge has a conversion experience, and he changes his tune. He finally understands that God does care for those living on the margins of society.
Many years ago I was introduced to the phrase: “God’s preferential option for the poor.” This phrase is used in Roman Catholic circles to describe a major element of their Social Teaching, and it reflects the message of scripture. If you look closely at the biblical story, you’ll discover that God seems to favor those who are poor and defenseless. You find this message prominently displayed in the prophets and in the words and actions of Jesus. Of course this message has political implications. If God is on the side of the poor, shouldn’t this be true of God’s people as well?
This morning the word of the Lord comes to us from the Book of Proverbs. It’s a book of wisdom that offers words of guidance about practical living. Be wise, and things will go well for you. But what does it mean to be wise in our daily living? Doesn’t that involve seeking to do as God does?
As you know proverbs can take the form of a story, but we often find them in the form of straightforward propositional statements that are easily remembered. And so we have these statements to remember:
First: A good name is more important than wealth.
Second, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you still have the same Creator. That means we’re all equal in the eyes of God. God’s not impressed with mansions.
Third, the path of injustice may seem profitable, but it’s not. In the end, injustice leads to calamity. Sort of like – you reap what you sow.
I want to come back in a moment to the fourth statement, which talks about the blessings that come from sharing with others, especially the poor.
Finally, there’s another warning: Don’t mess with the poor because they’re poor. Don’t think that because they’re defenseless that you can exploit them. Why? Because God has taken up their case – and God “will exact life for life.”
So, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, black or white, red or yellow – we’re all one human species, with one Creator. That means that we’re all one big family – and families take care of their family members – right? Each of these statements has its own power, but I’m especially drawn to verse nine, which states:
The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.
So, here’s the big question – do you see yourself among the generous or among the poor? Whichever place you see yourself, are you ready to share?
There are two words that seem to say the same thing, but I think there’s a difference. Think about it – do the words “give” and “share” have the same meaning? Can’t you give without really sharing? Doesn’t the word “share” have an attitudinal difference to it? You can give your money but you share your self.
When we share, we recognize that we’re all in this together. Whether it’s through giving to charity or paying taxes we help provide a safety net for the poor and the marginalized. While, churches and non profits play a big part in caring for those in need, the job is much bigger than we can handle alone. What a government can do is marshal the resources of all the people. So, maybe we should see our taxes as an act of sharing?
Think of Medicaid, for instance – we often think of it as providing health care for those in poverty, and it does that. It also supports millions of seniors living in nursing homes. It also provides medical care for many people with disabilities. If we think about it, every one of us has family members who have made use or are making use of these funds, which are being threatened with major cuts. As a former President said the other night – I don’t where these folks are going to go.
But there are many ways in which we can share. Yesterday, for instance a number of us participated in the final event in the 2012 Gospel in Action Detroit effort. We joined with other Disciples, with Presbyterians, Muslims, and members of the neighborhood to share our time and energy to help others in need. We fixed up yards, painted porches and railings, and the sides of houses, and much more. There are many stories to tell. While I came home early for Greg and Melissa’s wedding, I did some weeding and trimming. The lady who owns this house where I was working, was so pleased with my efforts that she gave me a bag of green peppers and green tomatoes from her garden. Now that’s called sharing!
In preparation for this sermon I began thinking back to the 1930s. Back then our nation was experiencing even deeper economic troubles than today. Some of you remember those days because you lived them, and as the son of people who grew up in that era, I’ve heard the stories.
So, as I was thinking about the way in which God stands on the side of the poor and those living on the margins, I decided to check out what this church’s founding pastor, Edgar DeWitt Jones, was preaching about back in the 1930s. So, I found a book of his sermons published in 1934, and in it is a sermon entitled”How Many Loaves Have You?”
In this sermon that takes its lead from the story of the feeding of the 5000, Dr. Jones declares:
These are troublesome times. Thousands are out of work. Many are hungry. Hard times come a-knocking at the door. . . . It is a time of depression, industrial, commercial, agrarian. What can be done to better these conditions? Has religion no answer? Have the people of the churches no solution, nothing to offer?
In answer, he points to those five loaves and two fish, which the disciples rounded up. It’s not much, but for Jesus it is enough – but it requires a good bit of sharing! Dr. Jones goes on to say:
There is only one answer to this question – sound the note of faith, raise the banner of loyalty, bring the loaves of mind and heart, whatever gifts you have, purpose, hope, patience, courage, and place them on the altar, the high altar.
Make your gifts available to God, and God will do what only God can do.
I don’t know what year Dr. Jones preached this sermon, but times were difficult, and it took a very long time for the nation – indeed the world – to emerge from this season of economic crisis. Like I said – some of you here today have stories to tell about how you survived because people shared. Neighbors, churches, non-profits, and yes, even the government, pitched in and shared.
Dr. Jones asked the question: “What is your capital and how do you purpose to use it?” He then declares: “Our failure is not due to the fact that we have so little but to the tragedy that we are often unwilling to invest that little in life.” [Edgar Dewitt Jones, The Pulpit Stairs, (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1934), pp. 109-112]
And as the writer of this Proverb declares: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.” Yes, and if people choose to oppress the poor because they’re poor, God will take up their case. And who wants to face God in the courts?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2012