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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Texts:  Amos 8: 4-7;  Luke 16: 10-13

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives  “narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food stamp program . . .  that would slash about $39 billion in funding over the next decade, cut aid to about 4 million Americans in the next few years, and shift the burden of providing aid to some of the nation’s poor to state governments.”

I appreciate how complex and persistent is the problem of poverty. I understand that Americans, who are allergic to raising taxes, are simultaneously challenged to reduce poverty and the national debt.  I understand that welfare fraud exists and a few dishonest people inevitably manage to exploit any system designed to help those who cannot help themselves.  Some, therefore, believe that cuts to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are justified. But surely we all see the great gulf growing between the rich and poor. Meanwhile, we continue to prioritize the funding of our war machine and we continue to privilege the privileged.

So in times like these I keep hearing the voice of the outraged prophet Amos booming across the centuries and demanding that our national and state leaders care about the poor: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” warned the prophet Amos in the 8th century BCE.  “Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land,” warns Amos still.  “Hear this, you legislators, who play politics with the lives of the poor.”  “Hear this, you complacent church goers who think someone else is responsible for our political and economic systems.”

Hear this:  Poverty cannot be addressed by charity alone.  Poverty and other social ills require entire systems to be rearranged.  In Amos’s day, for instance, an unfair tax system was enriching the rich while driving the poor into deeper poverty.  In our day, regressive tax laws likewise intensify inequities. That is why we as a faith community need to consider that our response to poverty is not merely a matter of donating to charities or helping out neighbors who have fallen on hard times.  While the Bible certainly encourages alms giving, the Bible also presents examples of prophets who speak to those in authority about correcting unjust social and economic systems.

Amos spoke to the rulers of his day.  You and I can address those in power today:  by voting, contacting our legislators, writing letters to editors, demonstrating peacefully, organizing groups to do likewise. Our charitable dollars can go only so far and can sometimes simply shore up unfair systems by placing Band-Aids on problems that require major surgery.

Charity is often about making me feel that I’m a good person rather than making someone else feel empowered and whole.

Maybe you’ve known someone like a woman I’ll call Amanda. Amanda is a middle-aged professional living in an elite neighborhood.  For twenty years she has employed another woman to clean her home twice a week.  For twenty years Amanda has donated bags of good, used clothing to the woman who meticulously cleans her house. Sometimes she offers her house cleaner used appliances when Amanda upgrades hers.  Amanda has always provided lunch for her “cleaning lady” on the days the house cleaner is working, and has remembered her employee at Christmas with a turkey or ham because she suspects the house cleaner’s family barely scrapes by. Once when her house cleaner was hospitalized for a serious surgery, Amanda visited her in the hospital and brought a huge basket of fruit and flowers.  But Amanda also is proud of the fact that she negotiated exceptionally low wages for her house cleaner.  Whenever the house cleaner has asked for a raise, Amanda has usually convinced her to remain in her employ without a pay increase. Amanda is pleased that she has only had to raise her housekeeper’s hourly wages twice in 20 years.  At the same time, Amanda is quite pleased with herself for always behaving so charitably toward her house cleaner.

One potential problem with the charity of individuals and groups is that it often allows those in more powerful positions to feel better about themselves without having to change the fundamental inequities.  Charity is not always motivated by selfishness or tainted by smugness—but sometimes it is.

When I used to engage my college students in service-learning projects in the community, I was secretly pleased when they wrote in their journals about people they’d served who did not express gratitude.  Those experiences gave my students the opportunity to recognize they’d expected their efforts would be appreciated and praised. This realization helped them acknowledge that maybe one reason they wanted to serve others was to make themselves feel good, perhaps even superior.  Ironically, my students could realize they had in fact learned something important about themselves from those they were serving and thus had themselves been on the receiving end in what was thereafter a more mutual relationship.

Real service in the name of justice equalizes relationships. Service in the name of charity is done to or for others, but service in the name of justice is done WITH others.  Charity, therefore, can deepen the divides, can be imposed onto those in need, can discount the wisdom of the one being served, can let the giver just walk away from the problem. Justice is the only ground on which authentic mutual relationships can be built.

Justice trumps charity for other reasons.  According to William Sloan Coffin, “Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy.” No matter how generously individuals contribute to charities, they cannot give enough to correct an unjust system. Charity can change an individual’s short-term situation, not a long-term or a wide-spread injustice.  In fact, charity can sometimes make an injustice more entrenched.  Regressive tax laws, inhumane immigration laws, unfair marriage laws will keep on disempowering some people and enriching or favoring others—until the laws, the systems themselves, change.

Another important reason to work for justice is also quite practical. Again, as William Sloan Coffin explained, “Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes.”

A well-known story illustrates this point well:

Once upon a time there was a town that was built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water.  They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river.

One body was dead so they buried it.  One was alive, but quite ill, so they put that person into the hospital.  The third turned out to be a healthy child, whom they then placed with a family who cared for it and who took it to school.

From that day on, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river and, every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to hospitals, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead. 

This went on for years.  Each day brought its own quota of bodies, and the townsfolk came not only to expect a number of bodies each day but also worked at developing more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some of the townsfolk became quite generous in tending to these bodies and a few extraordinary ones even gave up their jobs so that they could attend to this concern full-time.  And the town itself felt a certain healthy pride in its generosity. 

However, during all these years and despite all that generosity, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from their sight what was above them, and find out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river. (Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing–suggested by Lella Lowe).

Doesn’t it make more sense to prevent the problem rather than correct it after it has developed?  That’s why education, for instance, is considered such an important tactic for the work of justice.

Can you think of societal ills other than poverty that might be prevented with excellent public education?

Responses from the congregation:

  • Better physical and mental health
  • Care for the environment
  • Reduction of crime

Other than providing quality public education, what are some other means of creating a just society?

Responses from the congregation:

  • Offering the public access to good nutrition, prenatal care, health care, mental health care
  • Caring for our environment
  • Providing good employment opportunities
  • Improving public infrastructures
  • Creating fair and affordable housing
  • Teaching peacemaking in our homes, communities, and world

William Sloan Coffin said, “Had I but one wish for the churches of America, I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice.”

Do WE see the difference between charity and justice?  (We make this distinction in our “Principles for Serving Others” that can be found on our website: This Tuesday we will participate in feeding and hosting overnight several families who currently are without housing.  Is our work with Family Promise an act of charity or justice?

Congregation discusses reasons to name Family Promise as an organization doing justice.

Of course, charity is necessary at times as a stop-gap measure. An act of extraordinary charity might even change the entire course of one person’s life and therefore the many lives that person later affects. Charity is usually a gracious giving of one’s self.

But churches are sometimes reluctant to organize for social justice–partly because these efforts sound so political.  And they are.  But they need not be partisan.  Righting economic and social wrongs involves systemic change, and that requires socio-political action.

We as a new church are supporting several causes of justice but may eventually identify one or a few causes of justice that will become especially dear to us.

Let’s name some of the justice efforts we’re already supporting:

  • Immigration reform
  • Soul of Somanya
  • Justice efforts through the United Church of Christ
  • Befriending a refugee family
  • Environmental activism
  • LGBTQ rights through the We DO Campaign and others
  • Peacemaking

In 2 weeks we will contribute to a special offering our denomination collects to fund projects of justice created by our own UCC churches and organizations.  This offering, called Neighbors in Need, gives churches just like ours the seed money to begin projects that can address injustices and thus go “up river” to the root causes.  These projects emphasize justice over charity.  Let’s continue to pray about unmet needs in our city so that we can then envision a way we are uniquely suited to address injustice.

In time we may identify or create a ministry especially well suited to our gifts and calling. This idea will bubble up from among us. And this project will change us, will galvanize us into action, will draw others to us in the work of social justice, and will deepen us all spiritually through our mutual endeavor and the inner reflection and deepening spirituality it will provoke.

In the meantime, we are even now in this moment being changed as we take time, on Sundays like this, to withdraw from the getting and spending game in order to remember that we “cannot serve both God and wealth,” as Jesus put it.  Wealth can be a means, not an end; a way to serve God; not the thing we devote our lives to.  Here we set aside time that is not dedicated to acquiring things, or making money, or getting caught up in an economic system that will eventually chew us up and spit us out.  We need moments each week to recognize we are more than consumers, more than workers.  We are spiritual beings made to love God, to love the created world, and to love one another.  That is our highest vocation.

PRAYER:  God of the poor, come to our poverty—a poverty that might be material or spiritual.  Enrich our lives with a diverse and loving community that refuses to believe that harmful systems can’t be changed. Amen

Category Prayer, Scripture
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