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Jesus Answers the Headline News: Generosity

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16

Listen to these recent headlines on poverty in the United States:


“Poverty rates soared in 2022 as aid ended and prices rose.”


“Long-run decline in US poverty continued in recent years despite pandemic, new report shows.”


“Did Poverty Soar Last Year? It Depends How You Measure It”


The news on the national level in terms of poverty is often a tug of war between opposing world views, various political positions, and hidden agendas. The facts are shaped to fit the objective of the one presenting them. There is an argument over how bad or good it is, who should solve the challenge, and even over the different nature of poverty in our time verses that of previous centuries. Though important questions, we will explore none of these. 


Poverty is not an abstract notion in our city. We can see people on the street, the shelters are full, and healthcare, housing, and food prices are stratospheric. The solutions are not clear because the problems are complex. If you and I are pressed by inflation imagine what it means for hourly and gig workers.


The greatest increased health risk for those in poverty is not hunger but depression. It is easy to understand the depression for there is also an increased risk for obesity, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and mortality rates. The maze many of the working poor have to navigate to obtain medicine and food is staggering. Compound that with lack of transportation and lack of flexibility at work, the mere thought of dealing with a crisis would be enough to drive me into immediate despair.


As Christians in some ways, we aren’t called to debate the data, for as long as there is one person who experiences the debilitating effects of poverty Jesus’ heart steams and bleeds.


More than anyone, Jesus understands perhaps the greatest harm of poverty: it erodes the human not only in body, not only in mind, but in spirit. It erodes a sense of self-worth and most tragically can lead one to feel neglected and judged by God; to believe their life is less valuable in the eyes of society and the eyes of God. The belief that the poor are either inferior or cursed by God has been a common thread through history. Phrases like “God bless you” and “It means so much to know that someone cares” from those receiving help disclose the deep pain it causes.


One of Jesus’ answers to poverty came in Luke. He described a key part of his mission in Luke 4:18 – bring “good news to the poor.”  Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount He tells the crowd that the poor are blessed, that they are loved and treasured by God, not cursed, not inferior, but loved. In that sermon He laid out a vision for a world in which earth reflects the values of heaven and made it the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 


In fact, this is Jesus’ answer to all the challenges in the headline news: build the Kingdom of God here on earth; and His Kingdom-shaped answer to poverty is generosity.


Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms the journey to the Kingdom of Heaven, to eternal life runs through love of neighbor. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus tells the lawyer that eternal life is found through love of God and love of neighbor. Then He proceeds, through the parable, to explain our neighbor is anyone in need. 


We note that the Samaritan did not do the least required, to bandage the man and get him to safety, but he put him on his donkey, brought him to an inn, took care of him some more, then promised enough money for even more care. He was generous with his own safety (after all the robbers may not be far), with his time, and with his money.


Of course, part of the point of this story is the Samaritan knows the man in the ditch does not like him, in fact likely has contempt for him and despises him, and the Samaritan may despise the man in ditch as well. Listen to a little bit of the history between the two:


“When the Samaritans wanted to join in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, their assistance was rejected. You will find this in the Book of Ezra, Chapter Four….”



This means Jesus has redefined neighbor to include everyone – even our enemies! In fact,it was one of the reasons the authorities sought to kill Him. In Luke’s gospel Jesus explains the times when God sent His prophets to heal those outside of Israel and this was the response of the people in the temple:


“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:28-30)


We see the same judgement in today’s politics when someone joins with the other team to bring about change they are excoriated by their own people. But compassion knows no boundaries as St. Augustine said, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”


As a congregation we have sought several paths to live out St Augustine’s sentiment. We give grants to key organizations that combat poverty like Common Pantry, Grassroots Groceries, and we have a meal ministry on Tuesdays.

The impact is considerable, but is there another place Jesus is calling us to be generous? Something to create a more systemic shift?


I remember on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. We helped with medical care (I did surgery!) and education, but the path to education did not always bring a better job. One year a businessman went on the trip. He befriended one of translators and they shared a bit about their backgrounds and family situations. This Dominican apparently had family land but with no resources to develop it had lain fallow for years. 


Fast forward five years. 


That land was producing an abundance of avocados with a market in the United States. That businessman did not know how to administer medicine or dig ditches, but he did know how to start a business. And his Dominican friend is now employing others to help work his land. And the prosperity is spreading.


It was a conversation two years ago with Ruben Nuno, the former pastor of Church of the Living Hope, that reminded me of this story. He was so appreciative of the people of Brick helping construct a lovely garden, to sort food, to paint a fence. He truly was but he also said, “What about your people’s real gifts?” After all, he knew we are not a congregation of painters but of entrepreneurs, educators, and financiers. 


That comment has stayed with me. Jesus’ call to be generous is not only about money (it is about money but not only money!) but to be generous with our gifts. The Brick Church, perhaps as much or more than any other congregation in the country, has an enormous pool of people who have learned how to successfully navigate our society: how can we share that?


It can be hard for us to imagine how our gifts can combat the great challenges of our times. Admittedly our most frequent response to poverty is to throw up our hands, close our hearts, or assume someone else is conquering it. But as you can imagine from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, this is not acceptable. It is a frightening indictment. Am I a sheep or a goat? Have I clothed the naked, fed the hungry? Have I been good news to the poor? Frankly this parable scares me. And I think that is what Jesus wanted. For me and you to know how important this is.


But He does not want us to stay in fear.


Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, an evangelical organization devoted to combatting poverty, delivered the baccalaureate address at Stanford University several years back. In it he said, “I believe the real battle, the biggest struggle of our times, is the fundamental struggle between cynicism and hope. For those of us who believe in the good news of Jesus Christ we must always choose hope. Hope that people can be better. Hope that we can get along as a planet.” Wallis said, “The antidote to cynicism is not optimism but action. And action is finally born of hope.” Knowing your gifts and your generosity I am filled with hope that God will use all of us in ways yet we cannot see to follow the path of our Lord and to become good news to the poor, all in the name of His grace and His love. Amen.

 

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