Sermon: THE POOR
November 5th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Luke 6:20-21, 2 Corinthians 8:7-9
Today, as we continue in the series on Living Generously, we focus on how our generosity and our giving expresses itself in caring for the poor. As I’ve been thinking about that this past week, I recalled a relationship I developed with a beggar while we lived in India. The man sat outside the gate of the school campus where our family lived. Each day as I went in and out of the gate, the man would call out, “Amma! Amma!” (which means madam/mam) He was calling out to get my attention in the hope that I would toss a few coins his way. The man was always seated on the ground, in the dirt. His legs were crippled from what appeared to be some kind of birth defect or the result of a disabling disease such as polio early in life. He would use his hands to push himself up and swing his torso forward when he moved along the roadside. I never did drop any coins into his lap. But after a few weeks of hearing him cry, “Amma! Amma!” at me each time I came and went, I began to respond by greeting him with a “Good morning!” or “Good afternoon!” And I started to wonder how I might help him in a way that would not simply perpetuate the indignities of his condition and the humiliations of the way that, in all likelihood, his family used him to gather income.
Christmas was a few weeks away, so as I prepared Christmas cards with a monetary gift inside for those we worked with, I made a card for the beggar at the gate as well. A couple days before Christmas, as I went out of the gate and the man called out yet again, “Amma! Amma!” I went over to him and handed him the card and said, “Happy Christmas!” For the first time I saw a smile light up his face. Later that day, as I returned home, he was still there but instead of calling out, we looked each other in the eye and exchanged the typical Indian sideways nod of head. From that day on, as I came and went through the gate, the beggar man and I would exchange greetings of “Good morning” or “Good afternoon.” As the next holiday approached, the man would occasionally remind me, “Easter is coming” or “Diwali is coming.” On those holidays I would pick a card, tuck in some cash, and give it to him. I don’t know that I made any lasting impression on that man, but I do know that the simple gesture that changed the dynamics of our relating to one another, made an impression on me that I have not forgotten.
We have so much! According to World Bank figures, anyone with an annual income of $10,000 or more is in the top 14% of the world’s richest people. Having an annual income of at least $34,000 will put you into the top 1% globally! That amount is significantly under the median household income in the US last year, which means more than half of Americans (closer to three-quarters of Americans) are among the richest 1% of the world’s population. We are rich! Poverty in America certainly exists, but it’s more hidden than in India or other third world nations. In some of our bigger cities, like New York or Chicago or LA, you may occasionally see people begging at a street corner or in a subway station. In a small town like Delavan or Darien or Elkhorn, people in need are even more hidden.
We have been following the story of a man named Frank, who has been increasingly convicted of his privilege and is beginning to sense God speaking to him about being more generous. After a courtroom dream of being found guilty of loving his money more than God, Frank decided to visit a Soup Kitchen. When he got there, he became uncomfortable and embarrassed. He got out his checkbook, thinking perhaps he could just give and get out, but before he could do that someone put a ladle in Frank’s hand. As he interacted with the other volunteers and with those they were serving, Frank began to see them as individual people with stories rather than an intimidating crowd of the poor and needy. Let’s watch the video that reflects on his experience.
Video – #6 Teaching Moment, “Living Generously” RightNowMedia
The call of discipleship is the call to imitate Jesus. Jesus sets the example for us and invites us to follow him; to do as he did. As the Apostle Paul followed Jesus and made disciples for Jesus, he taught new believers to imitate Jesus by imitating him. He wrote to the church in Philippi, “Put into practice the things you have heard from me and saw me doing. Follow my example.” (Phil.4:9) So when it comes to living a life of generosity as it is expressed in our service to those who are poor, we look to Jesus’ example of how he engaged with the needs around him and with the needy people around him.
We see that Jesus looked down from heaven, checked out the stats on poverty, watched a special report on the evening news, then he wrote a generous check and went back to running the world. Of course not; we know that’s not true. But if you didn’t know better, if all you knew about Jesus is that Christians are people who follow Jesus’ example, that is what you might conclude. But that’s not what Jesus actually did.
All three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all relate the same story of one day in Jesus’ life; probably a typical day in his ministry life. Jesus was surrounded by people who were so overwhelmed with the problems in their lives that they had sought out the guy who everyone was talking about, saying that he was fixing people’s problems. A messenger came to the place where Jesus was teaching, asking him to go to the house of one of the synagogue leaders whose daughter had suddenly become deathly ill. When Jesus and his disciples started walking to the man’s house, the crowds followed along and others joined along the way. Everyone, calling out to him with their needs and worries, trying to get close to Jesus, trying to get his attention. In the midst of the crushing crowd was a woman who was desperately poor. She had a chronic illness that had drained all her bank accounts as she tried different doctors, different treatments, even the crazy experimental things. She couldn’t work or do her part around the house. The strain of her illness had taken a toll on her family relationships. Any support systems she had were falling apart. On that day she was desperate, and she slivered and shoved her way through the pressing crowd with the hope of touching Jesus’ coat and getting some relief.
I have no doubt that Jesus had the power to wave his hand over the whole crowd of sick and suffering people and heal them all at once. I even believe that if he chose to, the Son of God could have smiled down generously from heaven and waved his hand and healed everyone in the world at once and erased all poverty. If he had, I wonder if it might have felt like Re, in the video, said he felt when he was homeless and someone just wanted to fix it so he would go away. If God fixed things from a distance, we might feel like He did that just to get us to shut up.
Jesus didn’t see needs as a whole, but as individuals. He touched people one at a time. If God eliminated poverty and suffering from a distance, there would be no relationship, no real love. Instead God sent his son, sent Jesus, to model for us a relational generosity. So when the woman touched Jesus’ coat, he stopped and looked around. “Who touched my clothes?” he asked. The disciples got that expression on their faces that said, “Are you kidding me? Are you nuts?” What they actually said was, “There’s a crowd of people pressing against you. What do you mean, who touched you?” But Jesus kept looking around. The woman realized Jesus had noticed her. She came forward and shared with Jesus everything that was going on in her life. He listened to her story. He looked her in the eyes. He cared. He treated her like family and said, “Take heart, daughter. Your faith has healed you.”
Generosity cannot just be financial. Generosity must also be relational – getting to know and love the least of these. One of the strengths of this congregation is reflected in the description that is on the front of our worship bulletins each week: a friendly church with a heart for mission. As a community of faith, you have chosen not to just send money to organizations that help those in need, you have also made time to visit those organizations and to volunteer in meaningful ministry to the poor in a variety of ways. Some of you sat at picnic tables in the summer, not just providing breakfast for hungry children, but sitting with them while they ate it. Some of you put food into backpacks of those same children at the local elementary schools during the school year. Some have spent the night here at the church to help staff the homeless shelter or cooked a meal to help feed the guests while they are here. A number of you have jobs in which you serve the sick and the poor and the prisoner. Others of you deliver Meals on Wheels, or ring a bell to raise money for local needs, or have reached out to neighbors in need in tangible ways. Tonight, at our Helpers in Harmony Concert, I hope many of you will come and bring a food item for the Delavan and Darien Food Pantries.
The missions committee and the church board have been exploring how we might use some money that was given to us for a refresh project, a project for a local need. This week I made some progress in planning that mission project. I spoke with the director of Twin Oaks, the shelter located in Darien for families facing homelessness. The details are yet to be confirmed, but it looks like we will have a Saturday mission project day in which many of us can participate in ways that use a variety of skills and abilities. Some will put a refreshing coat of paint on the rooms the families stay in. Others might build shelves for donated linens and supplies. Others can spend time in activities and games with the children at the shelter. While others can cook a meal which will be shared by our work team and the people who are staying at the shelter. A variety of ways to serve, plus an opportunity to sit around a table with those we are serving.
When we look at the poor and those in need from a distance, it is easy to make assumptions about how they got there. To blame bad choices, or laziness; to blame corrupt systems or greedy politicians; to analyze the historical factors involved. And allow ourselves to ignore the daily struggle of those without a home, without food in the frig, without power, without water. After our last week of hosting the homeless shelter in the spring, Patti, who put a lot of time and effort into serving as our shelter coordinator, shared with me that meeting the men, talking with them, hearing their stories, had transformed her ideas about homelessness. She now knew some of the men by name. She had come to care about them. Patti was practicing discipleship of Jesus, doing what Jesus had done, following him. Jesus sees every need on a personal basis; he feels the hurt of each person.
Living generously must be so much more than simply giving money to try to ease our consciences. It must be more than joining anonymous crowd-sourcing to do our part. The goal of generosity is not our comfort, but obedience to God and in the process, bringing comfort to others. Obedience never seeks personal comfort. We have to remove ourselves from the equation. We focus on Jesus, we focus on others, and become servants.
Our scripture reading this morning reminds us that Jesus himself became poor. Jesus had every privilege of being God. Walking on streets of gold, never needing to be hungry or thirsty, never having to be in pain or cold or lonely or worried. But Jesus gave all that up. The Bible reminds us that “Jesus was equal with God. But Jesus didn’t take advantage of that fact. Instead, he made himself nothing. He did this by taking on the nature of a servant. He was made just like human beings. He appeared as a man. He was humble and obeyed God completely. He did this even though it led to his death. Even worse, he died on a cross!” (Phil.2:6-8, NIrV) Jesus emptied himself of his privilege. He emptied himself of any pride. He became poor for the sake of humanity, to give us a way out of the mess we had gotten into.
So we are called to do as Jesus did: we empty ourselves of privilege, we empty ourselves of pride, and we pick up the ladle, the tool of service. We give our time, we give encouragement, we give prayer, we give assistance. We urge one another on, to not become weary of doing good. We do this not for ourselves, but we do this in remembrance of Jesus.
Closing Song: “In Remembrance” & Communion