Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sermon for November 20, 2011, Thanksgiving Sunday

Is Your Cornucopia Half Empty or Half Full?

In economics, there are some people called Cornucopians. A Cornucopian believes that continued progress and provision of material items for humankind can be met by continuing advances in technology. In other words, a Cornucopian believes there is enough matter and energy and human innovation on the Earth to provide for the estimated peak population of about 9.2 billion in 2075. They are definitely the optimists of the economic world. We could say that when they look at the world, their cornucopia is half full.

There are other economists whose cornucopias are half empty. Consider Nobel Laureat economist John Cairns Jr. He thinks we’ve reached an ecological tipping point where the earth’s resources can no longer sustain the population. In his future world, Cairns assumes:
  • No major remedial measures will be taken to reduce greenhouse gases until climate change is beyond human control.
  • The human population will not be stabilized by social action but will be by natural, limiting factors like starvation and disease.
  • Present resource wars will continue until at least 2015, using precious resources to continue fighting rather than sharing resources.
  • The environmental refugee problem will become severe, perhaps unmanageable, because of both inaction on climate change and inadequate prior planning.
  • A pandemic disease that disrupts global society for at least six months will probably disrupt human society.

Where do I stand on all of this? Well, I once read something from someone, somewhere:
Question: "Do you see your glass as half empty or half full?"
Answer: "I'm just happy to have a glass."
That's my sentiment exactly. This Thanksgiving, is my cornucopia half empty or half full? Honestly, I’m just happy to have a cornucopia at all right now My family has packed, moved, and unpacked twice in order to get to Maryland. In the process, Chris and I got worn out by the “clutter” of life. Stuff fills space, gets forgotten and a couple moves later we wonder: “Why did we get all this stuff?” I am blessed with a home in a safe neighborhood with plenty of room to fill, a car and money to fuel it, health benefits, food on my table, happiness and contentment. I don’t have all that I want. But I have enough. More than enough! Most of us throw away food and still there are people in our own towns who often go without food over the entire day. It breaks my heart.

There are more than 37 million people in this country who are hungry and food insecure. According to Marian Wright Edelman, right here in the United States, almost 1 in 4 children don’t know when they will have their next meal. Hunger isn't something they just think about during the holiday season. They live it every day. For many people, Thanksgiving dinner is the largest meal of the year — and by the time they’ve finished that last piece of pie, their stomachs are so full they’ll be physically uncomfortable. But, the UCC’s Mission:1 initiative, our canned food drives, and other pleas for donations this month are a reminder that for too many families, Thanksgiving will be like any other meal: not a time of plenty but a time of want. Several years ago, the Children’s Defense Fund’s pro bono advertising partner created a campaign that updated the moving words of Langston Hughes’s poem “God to Hungry Child”:
Hungry child,
I did not make this world for you.
You didn’t buy stock in my corporation.
You didn’t invest in my mutual fund.
Where were you when my company went public?
I made the world for the rich
And the will–be–rich
And the have–always–been rich.
Not for you,
Hungry child.
As we are giving thanks to God for all our blessings this season, is that really the message God wants us to give to America’s hungry millions?

Actually, from the perspective of national politics, I think it is. Have you been paying attention to the work of Congress’ Super Committee? The Super Committee is supposed to come up with a set of recommendations to reduce the national deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Their deadline is Thanksgiving. And, like everything in Congress right now, the Super Committee is at a stalemate between raising revenue and cutting spending. Many rich Democrats don’t want to give up government safety net programs. Many rich Republicans don’t want to increase corporate taxes. Take, for example, the recent remarks by House Speaker John Boehner who said, "Job creators in America basically are on strike." Businesses, Boehner said, have been, “antagonized by a government that favors bureaucrats over market-based solutions. They've been demoralized by a government that causes despair . . .” Yet again, we see that when the poor take from the rich, it’s called class warfare. When the rich take from the poor, it’s called an economic plan.

The problem with Boehner's speech is that corporations are doing very well. New figures indicate that corporate profits accounted for 14 percent of the total national income in 2010, the highest proportion ever recorded. The previous peak, of 13.6 percent, was set in 1942 when the need for war materials filled the order books of companies.

I have to admit, I used to think the same way. I had a “cornucopia-half-full” view of the world, I used to think that unlimited economic growth was possible if the government would get out of the way of entrepreneurial business. I didn’t matter that such growth might cause a greater rift between the rich and the poor. I used to wonder why government always taxes business innovators and tries to redistribute their wealth. Why should those who did not earn wealth get a share of someone else's? And why should government be involved in giving charity or offering entitlement programs? It’s just a way to hijack wealth and give it to those who don’t deserve it.

One day I looked around and realized that public good doesn’t automatically flow from private virtue. Just because a person is a moral, upright citizen does not mean he or she will serve the cause of justice. Good people do not always challenge the status quo. Moral people to not always take that which is legal and make it more ethical. Upright people do not always speak truth to power or take personal action against evil.

That is what our Scriptures teach us to do, though. Scripture encourage us to look at the world through the eyes of the poor. Consider these words from the Law of Moses. God says:
Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous. Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt (Exodus 23:6-9)
Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah:
Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of their rights, in order that widows may be their spoil, and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3)
The Law of Moses and the Hebrew Prophets clearly called for an institutional way of providing for the poor that did not depend on the good will of any individual. Not only was individual generosity encouraged. As a matter of law, part of everyone's produce or income was to be set aside to aid the poor. The idea is that a poor person does not have to rely on a rich individual for a handout. If I am poor, and I receive charity from an individual, then that person has more power over me. I am now beholden to another. I must abandon my dignity and give away my power in order to eat. When everyone contributes to giving food and justice to those in need, we can protect the worth and dignity of all. We all become beholden to our community, not to the whims of any one individual. As the Jewish Talmud says, “The world is dark for anyone who depends on the table of others.”

I am now at a point in my life where I'm tired of hearing this epic cop-out on the part of Christians who say "I wonder if Jesus meant for the government to feed the poor, or for us to voluntarily give to make sure all the poor people have food. Provision and care for the sick, the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the displaced, the marginalized -- is an individual mandate. Human institutions of government have no business worrying about such things.”

Jesus could not have been clearer as to the things which mattered most to him. The reign of Christ comes to fulfill the words of the Law and the Prophets. Nowhere does he exempt any human institution from his message. We finally come to today’s scripture reading from Matthew 25:31-46:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Jesus' commands to love and care for others were given as universals, without exempting any human organizations or institutions. Individual or private charity can never be enough or do enough. Yes, government programs are inefficient and expensive. But no other organization can relieve human suffering on such a wide scale. The need is great, and the need is growing.

Yes, we are individually held to account for our individual one-on-one acts of charity or the lack thereof, but we are also held to account for how the actions we take influence our society in its treatment of the "least of these.” No more excuses. Dedication to the poor and disadvantaged is a critical part of Christian social teaching, which ceaselessly invites the Christian community to overcome every form of exploitation and oppression. It is a question not only of alleviating the most serious and urgent needs through individual actions here and there, but of uncovering the roots of evil and proposing initiatives to make social, political and economic structures more just and humane.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. When all the nations gather within the reign of Christ, do you really want to hear Jesus say, “I was out of work, and you told me to get a job. I was homeless and you called me dirty. I was destitute, and you said unto me, ‘Helping you would only encourage a big government nanny state. Be patient, for surely my riches will trickle down unto you’ ”?

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we remember that to know God is to do justice. We remember that compassion and justice are companions, not choices. We find ways to help our brothers and sisters not depend on the table of others but rather to eat of their own so that both their bodies and minds may be at ease, and they may live with dignity. Being self-sufficient while also connected to a community is one of the highest forms of righteous living. When we do it unto the least, we do it unto Christ.


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