Our faith journey is filled with epiphanies, which can excite and challenge us. Just when I have this faith stuff figured out, I will read a book or encounter a person, who pushes me to another level of this Godly road we travel.
One of my earliest epiphanies came when I encountered a rewriting of the text we heard this morning. I was barely 20, a sophomore in college, attempting to find a connection between the traditional values of the church I loved and a counterculture which both frightened and intrigued me.
My father, with whom I engaged in many a political debate, never discouraged me from exploring the road less taken. Even when I wandered down what I am sure he suspected was a rabbit hole, he always supported my right to be wrong. I shall give him credit for introducing me to this poem by Bob Rowland. It is called Listen Christian.
I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger --- Thank You.
I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar and prayed for my release.
I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.
I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me.
You seem so holy; so close to God. But I am still very hungry, and lonely, and cold.
That sort of “in-your-face” rhetoric perfectly fits the bill of one who wants to save the world before suppertime. The poem has those wonderful components that tweak folks in all the wrong places. Inspired by the poem, I took my very shaky stand against the powers that be and shamelessly asked how a church could preach the words of Jesus and ignore the face of poverty. Ironically my rants were targeted at a small church that was taking giant steps toward addressing both the political and economic issues of the day. Their patience with me was a reflection of both their wisdom and hope that one day, I might strive to better understand the complexities of systemic institutions.
After some years of wandering through my own wilderness, I took their challenge to work within the system rather than simply be amused by tossing inflammatory barbs whenever the spirit might move me.
Part of the educational ritual at a good Presbyterian seminary is to be inundated with the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Brunner, Calvin, or in other words, the ABC’s of a good theological education. It was expected that I have an understanding of the doctrines of Atonement, Creation, Sin, Incarnation, Resurrection, Justification, Sanctification, and all the other “tions”. I learned some fancy words like exegesis, eschatology, ecclesiastical, and a lot of other theological terms that don’t start with the letter “e”. What I did not learn was how to eliminate poverty.
To undertake that journey, it became necessary to encounter folks like Cox, Cone, Campbell, Day, Gutierrez, Soelle, and a host of others. The one thing each of these folks has in common is their insistence that an answer to poverty is probably not going to come from those who have never experienced poverty. While that eliminates a lot of folks whose hearts are in the right place, I came to understand the wisdom of their words.
What is most important to you? We could all make a pretty impressive list. High on that list would be family, followed closely by our health. Many of you are concerned how the economy might affect your investments, while the rest of us wish we had investments to worry over. We have worked hard to get where we are and we are concerned about catastrophes that might cripple those plans.
So what are our basic theological concerns? According to Christianity Today, the big question dominating conversations about God centers on defining sin and salvation. In other words, who is in and who is out?
I go to Presbytery meetings and much of the discussion revolves around what is a sin and what is not a sin. I read articles about Bishops in the Catholic Church discussing the complexities of being a single adult. Who is sinning and who is not?
But, what about poverty? What about racism? What about immigration? What about prisons? What about abusive behavior? What about….the list could go on forever. Are not these also theological issues about sin and salvation, at least from a broader perspective? Why do these matters consistently get pushed out of our collective consciousness until finally we don’t think about them at all? The answer is painfully obvious. I am not poor, I am not discriminated against, I am not an immigrant, I am not in prison, and I am not being abused. But, I can still broaden my horizons.
Matthew’s gospel doesn’t begin in a stable. Joseph is a well-known carpenter, who is highly respected by his fellow citizens in the city of Bethlehem. He has his eye on Mary until he discovers she is pregnant. In a dream, Joseph is convinced by the Holy Spirit to do more than what is socially acceptable and bring the young woman into his house. In the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus happens to a couple refugees, who give birth in the worst of situations. It doesn’t surprise us that Luke’s story elevates the plight of the poor. But in Matthew’s gospel, it is kings, not shepherds who visit the Christ Child. Matthew’s gospel is KINGDOM BOUND from the beginning. The Sermon on the Mount is a retelling of the Ten Commandments. Most of the parables in Matthew begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Jesus is seen as a rabbi, an interpreter of the law. Finally, at the death of Jesus in Matthew’s, the main accusation against Jesus is he claims to be King of the Jews.
We understand the Gospel of Matthew. It is the law and order gospel. It is the gospel that most consistently points us to the kingdom of heaven. Its primary motif would seem to echo our chief concern; what is sin and what is salvation?
The first 25 chapters of the Gospel of Matthew elevate the teaching of Jesus. In Chapter 26, Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem. Most good orators save their best story for the end. If we are to remember one thought, it is usually wrapped up in that last illustration that captures the moment so perfectly. What is it that Matthew wants us to remember about Jesus’ teachings? What is Jesus’ primary concern as to how we are to live our lives?
“When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me. When I was naked, you gave me clothing. When I was in prison, you visited me. When you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me.”
This church has had an interesting relationship with a family a couple miles up the road. When they were thirsty, some of you dug a ditch and repaired a water line. When they were cold, some of you carried wood up the hill to their house. When the wind blew too hard, some of you replaced the windows. When the rain came through the ceiling, some of you put on a new roof. Peggy and Otis, both hearing disabled, have lived a hard life. Otis was able to work most of his life, but his jobs paid him under the table in order that he might avoid taxes and social security. The deed to the home is held by Charles, the brother who resides up the hill.
Peggy is dying. Right now she is at UVA, and it is unlikely that she will return home. When she dies, Otis will no longer have a place to live. Even if he is able to find housing in an apartment for folks with disabilities, Otis will have no income. His failure to comply with tax and social security regulations has caught up with him. What he did was not only shortsighted, but also wrong. When Otis made those choices, he believed his actions were necessary. Who has time to plan for heaven when you are living in hell?
Such is the face of poverty. Yes, bad choices were made. Yes, his brother-in-law is less than human. Yes, every conceivable thing that could have gone wrong went wrong. But worst of all, this is not an isolated story. No one has an answer for the plight of Otis and the hundreds of others like Otis who reside in Nelson County.
Forty-five years after being inspired by a paraphrase of Matthew 25, it seems like I am right back where I started. The poverty, the hunger, the sickness of this world is still overwhelming. All the education and theological education I received has changed very little. In fact, the only thing different today than in 1970 might be my eyesight. Today, I see you delivering wood. I see you volunteering for the Rescue Squad. I see you filling baskets of food. I see you supporting and when necessary, challenging those support agencies that are on the battle lines. I see you visiting the sick. I see you making sure the face and words of Jesus are not hidden or forgotten. Your commitment to value the life of every human is the centerpiece of our ministry here.
What is salvation? It is touching another heart with love. It is caring about another human being, even when they can barely care for themselves. Salvation is when we stop from obsessing about ourselves and begin to worry and respond to the needs of others.
Yes, poverty is systemic. Yes, most stories don’t have happy endings. But if we get discouraged, if we lose our way, if we fail to see Jesus in every person we meet, sin will win, and I dare say, no one here wants that to happen.
Wednesday, some of us were lucky enough to take a load of wood to Otis. It might be our last trip up that hill. As we got ready to leave, Otis embraced Sam and from his heart uttered the holiest words of salvation. “Thank you.”