Sunday, September 06, 2015

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment: PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, JAMES 2:1-17

This morning's lectionary passages fit neatly with some of the trouble we see in the world around us today. We're looking at Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and James 2:1-17.




Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
9/6/15

“God helps those who help themselves.” This sounds like pretty solid advice. It’s strong advice – advice about being self-reliant. It’s good old fashioned “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of advice. You want something? Get it yourself. If you don’t have things. . . it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. Those who have have because they are hard workers and those who don’t have don’t have because they didn’t work hard enough. It’s a pretty simple system.
But it’s not how the world works, and it’s completely unscriptural.  The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is often quoted as being from the Bible, but it’s not. It’s found in ancient Greek literature. A similar phrase is found in the Quran[1], but it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible.
It’s not found in the Bible because that’s simply not how the world works. We are never in the Bible called to judge why the rich are rich and the poor are poor. There are plenty of people who work several jobs day and night just to pay the rent and get the basic food on the table. There are others who are just sort of handed what they need because they were born in the right place at the right time. There are places in the world where being poor means that you don’t have the latest smartphone, and there are places in the world where being rich means you have enough to eat. And it’s not that one place in the world is just full of more industrious people and other parts are full of lazy people.
The US holds over 25% of the world’s wealth, but fewer than 5% of the world’s population. That doesn’t mean this country is simply full of people who are harder working than the single mother of four in Uganda who works several jobs just to put rice in the bellies of her children. It just means we’re all pretty darn lucky to live here.  
Even in just our own country, the US shows wider gaps between the richest and the poorest citizens than any other developed country in the world. In a country that holds such a large portion of the world’s wealth, almost 10% of children are in homes that are considered “food insecure.” That means that they don’t have reliable access to nutritious food because they live in poverty and/or in neighborhoods where there is simply nowhere to buy food other than fast food restaurants. They call these areas “food deserts.”
All over the news lately, we’ve seen heartbreaking stories of refugees trying to help themselves - trying to escape the war and drought poverty and terror of their own countries – and dying in the process, being jailed in the process, being sent back to the poverty and violence they are trying to escape. The twin sins of inequality and favoritism have crept into the world and have caused havoc, oppression, and sorrow. All over the place.
Proverbs says that God made us all – rich or poor. God made the people with smartphones and the people with barely enough food on the table. God made the citizens and the refugees. God wants all to experience real Christian love. In 2 Chronicles, God even says that the Israelites are to “give the foreigner whatever they want” so that they might come to know God. That’s how much God cares about the poor and the outcast – the refugee and the foreigner. Give them what they want – help them fulfill their daily needs so that they might come to know God.
            But hundreds of years later, when James writes – long after the time of the Proverbs and Chronicles – we see the problem isn’t gone. It’s still lurking in the background. The poor are still not being taken care of and the refugees are still being pushed out to the edges of society.  
There are a group of books in the Old Testament called “Wisdom Literature” and Proverbs falls into that category. James is actually considered by some to be the one book of wisdom in the New Testament. Much like Proverbs, it is a “this is what a wise person looks like” book. This favoritism that the Israelites used to show, that the early Christians were showing, that the world even today still participates fully in – that’s not what a wise person looks like. It’s foolish.
The rich have a responsibility not to question why the “Have-nots” have not, but to help provide for their daily needs. The wealthy – the smart phone holding, car driving, four walls and a roof and food in the kitchen wealthy – have a special responsibility to care for those who don’t have clothing or food or shelter. James goes so far as to say if you say you have faith, but don’t care about the daily needs of all people, you’re missing the point and your faith isn’t going to get you very far.
            God created everyone. God didn’t just create some and not others. God didn’t create some more than others. In spite of the evil inequalities that plague our world, God is still the maker of us all. And just as those who are able but not willing to share their wealth – those who plant injustice in the world – will ultimately find themselves in a load of hot water, those who are generous will be blessed for their kindness and their love. They might not be blessed with material riches – that’s not the kind of blessing God’s worried about here, nor is it the kind of blessing we should be worried about – but they will be blessed richly by God in their faith, in their relationships, and in the honor that comes with having a good name – a name that when people hear it, they say, “That is a great person right there.” A name that is said with fondness by all. It is a name that maintains its integrity and compassion in a world lacking in integrity and compassion.
            The same is true when a community is known by a name associated with compassion and integrity. I read an article yesterday about a church in Berlin where many formerly Muslim refugees from Syria have converted to Christianity because of the love they’ve been shown by the church there welcoming them with open arms.
We can work toward better balance in the world. In fact, that’s part of our calling as Christians – part of what God has prepared for us to do. We can do so by being good stewards of our abundance – not just good stewards, but ridiculously, over the top, generous stewards of our resources – inviting people in and providing for their daily needs no matter who they are and why they are in need. As individuals and as a congregation, our top financial priority should be to make sure that we are giving to those who have less than we do. Whether we feel like it or not, we live in a ridiculously wealthy part of the world. That means we have a special obligation to give generously to the church in order to spread the Word of God and that we have a special obligation to give to those who aren’t so lucky – those children who don’t have any other meals to rely on aside from their school lunch, those who are struggling to provide a good life for their kids, the mentally ill who can’t seem to keep a home or job, those who struggling with addiction, the guy who is just terminally and inexplicably out of work. Because mercy triumphs over judgment. Judgment is not our business – it’s God’s, and any of us who have messed up so much as once, have messed up. There’s no “better than” in God’s eyes. So judgment is not our business – mercy is.
It can feel at times like a lost cause – like no matter how much we do, the world still keeps crushing down around us. It feels like we can speak out, we can take a stand as a church against injustice and poverty, we can send money, give food, donate clothing and it hardly seems to scratch the surface. But it’s not just about the work, the action. It’s about how the action and faith happen together. They are intimately tied to one another.
I read a story in one of my commentaries this week that exemplifies what we’re doing here and why we are meant to continue acting out our faith even when it doesn’t seem to make any Earthly change around us. “Abraham Johannes Muste (was) a pacifist and worked with many activist groups. . .” As a pacifist, he worked with many anti-war groups, he met with leaders in Vietnam and in the United states. When he wasn’t meeting with leaders and other groups, “Muste stood many nights in Washington holding a candle in silent protest outside of the White House. When asked by an incredulous reporter if he thought this would really change U.S. policy on Vietnam, Muste replied: ‘Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.’”[2] I don’t share this story to argue about whether the Vietnam War, or any war, was acceptable or not, but rather to illustrate why we must continue to live out our faith, speak up against injustice, work to battle poverty, even when it seems on the surface like it’s not helping. Injustice, poverty, favoritism. . . these are all in direct opposition of our faith and a faith that does not speak out, stand up, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, welcome the refugee, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, educate the child is not the same faith as that which is placed in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning, we celebrate communion. We remember Jesus’ mercy for us. His body broken for us. His blood shed for us. We didn’t deserve that, dear ones. And yet, he showed mercy. Let us not take that lightly after we have celebrated that sacrament this morning, after we have reflected on these words of scripture challenging us to be merciful and loving, let’s not go out unchanged or inactive.
This faith, my friends, is about mercy. Mercy without judgment. Mercy, remembering that we are all deserving of judgment, and yet we are all forgiven. Mercy doesn’t judge, it doesn’t question the need, it fills the need. Just as God fills our needs, in spite of our sins. We must continue to act in mercy and fairness and love and charity not because we ourselves can change the world, but because when we act in mercy and fairness and love and charity, we refuse to let the world change who we are as Christians. We bring honor to our Lord Jesus Christ and to the name of the church. Through caring about the provision of needs for all, we point the world to God.





[1] 11:13 “For each one are successive [angels] before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah . Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron.”
[2] Henry-Crowe, S. T. (2009). Pastoral Perspective on Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 4, pp. 28–30). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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