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Food for the Fight: A Sermon for the “Occupiers”

The proverbial poop has hit the fan.

The most recent stats and figures indicate that the percentage of of our fellow citizens who are poor is at the highest since the Great Depression and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is at an all time high. America is experiencing the train-wreck many have been predicting.

The following sermon was one that I preached at Heritage United Methodist Church in the Ken Caryl area of Littleton, CO in April, 2004. I share it now because the masses have finally awoken from their slumbers and are arising en mass and taking to the streets to try to right the rudder to try to turn this national ship around and get us back onto a more just and sustainable course so that we might have a brighter future. May these words provide food and fodder for the Occupy movement. Many of their participants are people of faith. Effective movements that intend to make a difference tend to peter out unless the activists sense a spiritual component and allow their faith to sustain them during the rough road ahead.

Bottom line. The Occupy movement is a sign of a new Great Awakening. God’s Spirit is alive and well and at work through OWS. May we remember who and Whose we are as we roll up our sleeves to do the work of ushering in peace and justice.

“Peace With Justice: Band-Aids Aren’t Enough!”

Amos 2:6-7a; 4:1-2; 5:7, 10-12; 6:1, 3-7, 12b & 5:24

It’s been said that a Christian pastor’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” and well — as our friends from Texas might put it — I’m fixin’ to do a little bit of both of those things this mornin’!

It seems like my 3-year-old boy Andrew needs Band-Aids all the time!  I’m tellin’ ya, the kid has lots of boo-boos and owies!  Nearly one a day!  And it’s almost always due to him wiping-out in the driveway on the green plastic scooter that a certain set of grandparents bought him!

I could just keep putting those bandages on him day after day, or I could do something to prevent those injuries from taking place in the first place!  I could try to find him some little toddler-sized kneepads. I could buy him some private green plastic scooter lessons!  I could try to make a new rule not allowing him to ride it anymore —Yeah, right! Or, I could “accidentally” forget where that green plastic scooter is one night and then “accidentally” back over it with our minivan the next morning!  Pretty tempting!

The point is, there’re all kinds of options, and I don’t really have to keep on putting those Band-aids on him if I can prevent him from having all of those accidents to begin with!

It reminds me of a parable I know.  A man from a village was standing by a river and he saw a baby floating in the water.  He let out a yell, dove into the water, swam out, grabbed the child, and swam back to shore.  The next day another villager also retrieved a baby from the river.  By the end of the week, the villagers had pulled dozens of babies from out of the water.  It was hard work. It was exhausting work.  And it never seemed to end.  One day, the man who found that first baby started to run up a path — not to the river.  The people yelled, “Where are you going?  We need everyone available to help out!”  He said, “I’m going upstream to see who keeps throwing these babies into the river and try to stop him!”

Powerful story.  It’s about the difference between charity and justice.  Charity is like committing those “random acts of kindness.”   It’s those isolated acts of mercy that respond to certain specific needs, things like giving a warm blanket to a homeless person on the street or serving a meal to a person whose hungry.  Justice is more of a systemic thing. It’s about reforming the societal context and conditions in order to more fairly correct things when the decks are stacked against certain kinds of people.

Metaphorically, charity is like giving Band-aids to people after they’ve had a trauma. Justice is seeking to prevent those traumas from happening in the first place.  And over the years, faithful Jews and Christians have leaned toward each of those two things.  People like Florence Nightingale and Mother Theresa excelled in personal acts of charity and mercy, and people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on prophetic calls for social justice and transformation.

I happen to lean toward the “prophetic justice” side of things and in the spirit of those great persons before me, let me ask us exactly how just is our world today?

Well, here are some facts and figures that suggest some answers to that question:

* Every day, approx. 29,000 people in the world die of hunger, or hunger related diseases.

* 80 million children between the ages of 10-14 work for low wages in often dangerous conditions to supply inexpensive products for citizens of wealthier nations to consume.

* 100 million children from 6-11 years of age are receiving no education and they will likely soon join the 900 million adults who are illiterate round the world.

* 1 billion children do not have clean water or sanitary waste disposal (that’s 1/6th of the world’s population, and that’s just the children!)

* The wealthiest 345 people in the world possess the wealth equivalent to that held by the poorest 40% of the world’s people – that’s over 2 billion people!

* If we were to join the ranks of the 1.5 billion people, half of them children, who are constantly hungry, our diets would consist of 2 oz. of rice a day.

Okay, I know. That’s overwhelming! It’s hard for us to comprehend those things. So, let’s just focus on the country that we happen to live in.

Here’s some truths that we Americans need to know about:  The United States has but 5% of the world’s population and yet we consume over one third of the world’s natural resources and we generate 19% of the world’s waste.  –E Magazine Jan/Feb 99

USA Today snapshot feature this past week stated that the U.S. gives the highest amount of aid for development assistance around the world.  (Fri. June 18, ’04, 1A)  But what that article didn’t mention is that the U.S. is # 20 among nations in the percentage of our national income (GNP) that we give to other nations.  We’re currently giving less than 1/10th of 1% of our national income (GNP) to humanitarian aide.  Luxemburg is # 1 at $352/person — while for the U.S., it’s just $23 per person! ( Yet we’re the wealthiest nation in the world!  In fact, we’re the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.  It’s inexcusable that we’re giving so little.  In fact, for just one penny per American per day, the U.S. could cut hunger in Africa in half by 2015.  We could cut it in half!! But, we don’t, and we aren’t…

Our domestic scene has problems too.  Though, there’s been improvements, female workers in America still earn about 80 cents to every dollar earned by males — I guess it’s even worse at Walmart!

31 million Americans live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. It’s been reported that requests for emergency food assistance in 26 major cities increased for the 15th year in a row, by an average of 18%.  2/3 of all adults requesting assistance were employed.  They’re known as “the working poor.” And that “gap between the haves and the have-nots” is growing.  Our rich are getting richer and our poor are getting poorer and more numerous. The gap in the U.S. between rich and poor families with children is the largest among 18 industrialized nations and our social programs for the poor are less generous.

Most tragic of all, some 40 million Americans — 9 million of whom are children — aren’t covered by any form of health insurance.  I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to raise my son without health insurance!

On a different front, our nation’s criminal justice system is more of a criminal injustice system.  In most every state, the criminal justice institutions have given up on the notion of rehabilitation and the focus is simply on retribution and punishment.  But, from the Christian point of view, the focus of justice should be restorative not retributive.  As a wise student of Christianity, Mahatma Gandhi, put it, “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.”  Christian justice is about restoring wholeness to the souls of both victims and offenders and the goal is restoring both to abundant life in community.  Now this is a high ambition to be sure, but restoration and reconciliation is a majormajor theme in our New Testament.

Some individuals have very hardened hearts or have hard to treat mental illnesses that mean that they really do need to be kept locked away from society, but the goalshould always be to seek as much restoration as possible.

This is why the UMC is opposed to capital punishment as there can be no restoration if you kill the person whom you’re estranged with.  There can be no healing of souls, no transformation of lives. As a denomination we think that God doesn’t want us killing any of the people that God created in God’s image. We think it’s a bit strange for the State to be killing people to teach people that killing people is wrong!

On top of all of those more important reasons 1 out of every 4 African-American males between ages 15-40 are caught up in the criminal justice system — either awaiting trial, incarcerated in jail or prison, or on parole or probation.  A disproportionately high percentage of the people on death rows across this nation are poor people of color!

Let’s face it. We’ve got a lot of social problems. Now I realize that there are legitimate philosophical differences that various people have with one another.  Some folks prefer to raise taxes and spend those tax monies to provide for governmental programs and services, and some of us would rather reduce taxes and allow churches and other religious groups to provide for the social needs of our society,

That’s all fine and well. Frankly, there are so many severe problems that need to be addressed that we need to be supporting both governments and churches a whole lot more than we are!

But there’s another group of people who want to cut taxes and cut governmental social programs, and who merely say that they want the churches to take care of things. I’m talkin’ about the folks who don’t want to pay taxes and who don’t want to give to their churches either!

Originally posted on Patheos.

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