Monday, July 29, 2013

Sermon For July 28, 2013

Good News That Connects: Embracing
The community of believers was of one mind and one heart. None of them claimed anything  as their own; rather everything was held in common. The Apostles continued to testify with great power to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they were all given great respect’ nor was anyone needy among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them and give the money to the apostles. It was then distributed to any members who might be in need. Acts 4:32-37
Acts 4:32-35 is good stuff. Or maybe it’s scary stuff -- all this talk about sharing resources and holding common property. For some, it is a call to serious Christianity. I know people who live in what they call intentional Christian communities. People of all ages buy a house, or a cluster of houses. They share an evening meal together each day. Each member is expected to share in household chores. They contribute to a common purse from which the community buys food and household supplies, and pays for utilities. Most of the people who go for this are idealists. They see it as a way to do justice and seek peace in a local neighborhood. For others, sharing property and co-mingling money is a dangerous call to a life of socialism.  So, which is it: Christianity at its most demanding or Karl Marx on steroids? Or neither? Or both?

Acts 4:34 offers the clearest reason why the early church found it necessary to hold everything in common. The leaders of the church were concerned that there was no one needy among them. No one who becomes part of this new Jesus movement should be deprived or disadvantaged. In the church, we take care of our people.

Six little verses from Acts hold up a high bar for us. I think what was true for the early church, in this case, is still true today. No one among us should be needy. I know it’s hard to imagine, because our systems work in ways that minimize or exclude the existence of those who have little or nothing. We tell ourselves that people who are deprived or disadvantaged are that way because it’s their own fault. They did not work hard enough or they have the wrong attitude. The practice of exclusion is not a rare event in our homes, our schools, our work places, our politics, and our international relations, and even our churches. We all exclude others. We see it in the headlines of our newspapers almost daily:
“Islamic Brotherhood: Exclusion breeds Radicalism
“Decorated Marine Captain Resigns Commission—Blames Anti- Gay Sentiment”
“Military Rape Survivor Says Decades of Failure to Improve Sexual Assault Policies Re-Victimizes Woman”  
“Local Groups Call On Company To End Racially Discriminatory Hiring Practices”
Exclusion of others is part of the legacy of the human race. In our time, exclusion and it’s twin cousin, violence, have grown into epidemics that threaten the lives of men, women and children both here and in every corner of our globe. I don’t think it well get better. In future decades, as the human race begins to feel the increasing pinch of economic distress, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and population expansion, exclusion and violence will probably get worse. That is, unless we can do something different – until we can transform exclusion into embrace!

And if we take the stories of our spiritual family tree seriously, then we might want to begin to reverse systems of exclusion by embracing those who are poor. Because there should be no one in need. A careful reading of the Bible reveals over 2,000 clear verses specifying that the people of God must care for the poor.  Most theologians will point out that God has a preference for the poor. And if God has a preference for those who are poor, then shouldn’t that preference also be at the heart of the church's mission and ministry?

The Talmud, the compendium of Jewish civil and ceremonial law, outlines a few ways to help the poor.  Out of all of them, the Talmud states that the least desirable way to help is the all-too-typical handout. People will take a handout when they are desperate, but they sometimes resent the givers. I see this with our Deacons Fund. We have a charitable fund in our church – those yellow envelopes in the pew. We use the money to help people in our church and community who need some immediate financial help.  We use it a lot. It is helpful. But it does not help alleviate need. If we are talking about embracing those in need, let’s call our Deacons Fund an entry-level hug – you know – the polite  hug where people act like they’re trying to hug you without touching you. It is usually accompanied by the ‘polite smile’

According to the Talmud, the first and best way to someone who is poor is to find or create  a real job. That way the person can escape poverty with one’s self-respect intact.  If we can’t create jobs, The Talmud says we should give the poor what they need. But there’s a catch. We should give, but see to it that they have no idea who it was that provided for them.  That’s the story behind the project called 52times52. A couple  resolved to give $52 a week to charitable causes for all 52 weeks of the year. The brilliance of 52times52 is captured in story in which they describe how they spontaneously decide that their gift for the week should be a $52 tip to the waitress who had been serving them in the restaurant. The post on the site says that after they wrote the tip on the credit card receipt, they decided to run away without watching their waitress's expression as she opened the leather folio. This couple have their critics.Their point is to learn how to give with the  intent of blessing others while seeking nothing in return -- no recognition, gratitude or praise. It’s a form of embrace.

I would add one thing. What’s most powerful, to me is embracing within relationships. If giving hand outs is the equivalent of a polite hug, now I’m talking about the Bear Hug. You know what I’m talking about. This the real thing; you wrap your arms around each other and hold on tight. What does this mean? We need each other. I adore you. I couldn’t wait to see you. It’s the essence of our Christian message. It’s good news that connects.

When people begin to embrace those who are poor in our communities, it can have disturbing results. I read about a group of students from a college in Pennsylvania who became deeply involved with the homeless population of Philadelphia. At first, they took food and clothing to those who lived in the streets in an all-too-typical middle-class way of helping the poor. They came with the handout. Soon they recognized that their new homeless friends were victimized by police who harassed them. Business owners wanted the homeless away from their shops. The students championed the cause of the homeless against the city's establishment. When the police tried to keep the homeless from sleeping in public places, these students slept out in the streets with them. They were arrested. Some of them dropped out of school so that they could give more time to helping their new friends. Some who were very talented graduates gave up professional careers to live their lives with these socially disinherited street folks. Together, these young people rented a house in one of the most derelict sections of the city, where they live in community and run a non-profit where the homeless can come for help.

Obviously, this kind of counter-cultural behavior stirs criticisms and concerns. I’m sure their parents weren’t thrilled. Religious leaders of the city became upset. Some churches kept their youth groups away from these radical Christians, lest their young people get what they consider to be the "wrong idea" of what Christianity is all about.

Here’s what I think: Deep down, we know Christianity is not about keeping a nice building, listening to a sermon, and going to a church board meeting. Don’t get me wrong, I like all those things (well, maybe not all the meetings), but the essence of Christianity is embrace – making sure that all are included and none are in need.

Francis of Assisi, the beloved 10th-century saint, embraced what he called Lady Poverty. He actually thought of the poor as sacramental, not just objects of pity.  What Francis meant by the term sacramental is that the eternal Christ somehow infuses those who are poor so that, as we meet face to face, we meet not only a poor person, but the very presence of Christ. It’s how, as Christians, we transforming exclusion to embrace.

Tony Campolo, the Evangelical social activist and sociologist tells a story about an embrace with poverty. He was walking down a street in Philadelphia when a homeless man approached him. Tony says he was a dirty, filthy guy, covered with soot from head to toe. You couldn’t believe what a mess he was. The man had a huge beard and there was rotted food stuck in his whiskers. As he approached Tony, he held out a cup of McDonald’s coffee and said, “Hey mister, want some of my coffee?” Tony looked at this dirty, filthy man and said, “Thanks, but that’s okay,” and he walked by him. The minute Tony passed him, he knew he was doing the wrong thing, so he turned around and said, “Excuse me. I would like some of your coffee.” He took some of the coffee and sipped it and gave it back to the man. Then Tony said, “You’re being generous. How come you’re being so generous today?”

The dirty, filthy-looking, coffee drinking man looked at Tony and he said, “Because the coffee was especially delicious today and I think that when God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people." Tony didn’t know how to handle that, so he said, "Can I give you anything?" He thought that the man would hit him up for five bucks.

The man said, “No.” Then, after a pause, the man said, “Actually, Yeah, yeah. I’ve changed my mind. There is something you can give me. You can give me a hug.”

When Tony tells the story he says, “I was hoping for the five dollars! He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. And as I in my suit and tie and he in his filthy garb hugged each other on the street, I had the strange awareness that I wasn’t hugging a bum, I was hugging Jesus. I found Jesus in that suffering man.”

That’s the bear hug of Christian love. Good news that connects. Good news that embraces. Good news that heals. Good news that says, “The divine in me honors the divine in you. We need each other. I love you. Let there be no one in need among us.”


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