When I first met my wife, Barbara back forty some years ago, her mother, Margaret, had a list of rules on her refrigerator that were first . . . sort of funny and then kind of scary. Rule Number One was that ‘The Woman was always right’ . . . Rule Number Two was ‘See Rule Number One’. Rule Number three was that ‘The Rules could change at any time without notice . . . . and if you had questions, again, see Rule Number One’.
Although these rules were meant to be funny, there are some rules that are actually good life tips to follow. One of them that we have always tried to instill on our kids is that ‘Life is Not Fair!’ For if life was fair, then everyone would be equal. Everyone would live in the same kind of house and drive the same kind of car and eat the same kind of food and go to the same kind of school. Our government has been trying its best, as of late, to somehow even the score for many by the redistribution of wealth and through healthcare, welfare, job fairs and affirmative action programs, and through free phones, free food and free housing. But, even after all the money has been spent and all the effort has been exhausted one of the Biblical truths has and always will be true. The poor will always be among us.
Yesterday’s Buffalo News shows us that Buffalo ranks 3rd for children living in poverty in the United Sates. Bu poverty is the world’s greatest problem and there is no easy quick fix known. Poverty in the United States is estimated at 14.1% or nearly five million people and consists for the most part of families with single women with children . . . and it is growing. This is the same group that has always been in the majority of the poor. Poverty in the world scale is estimated in the billions of people. Unfortunately, many middle income American white folks like me have a prejudice that sees only one cause. It would seem that we, the working class for the vast majority of us, see laziness as the cause for being poor. But, poverty has many other root causes.
Back in the days of the prophets, poverty was caused by war, calamity, disease, and death. If these sound familiar, they should, because these are the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These are the horsemen who will one day herald the end of time. In our own history, they have wreaked havoc on humanity from the beginning. If you look at all the countries in the world, the nations with the greatest amount of poverty have in their recent past these four things in common. War begats calamity, the breakdown of family, calamity begats disease, the breakdown of the body, and disease begats death and the cycle continues.
In the United States, where there has not been a war in a long time, so our poverty has other causes. Poverty can be caused by lack of opportunity, lack of education, drugs and alcohol addiction, depression, and mental illness. Poverty also can be caused by gambling, racism, ignorance, and chronic illness. Today in Buffalo, there are hundreds of beds filled with homeless men every night. But these beds represent only the tip of the iceberg to the number of actual homeless people that are sleeping in their cars or roaming the streets of the city at night. Because many poor people suffer from these conditions, they are stigmatized as somehow bringing this on themselves by a self-indulgent lifestyle. People who suffer from AIDS and HIV are stigmatized regardless of how they contacted the disease. People on welfare are also stigmatized as living off the labor of others. People who cannot read (as we have seen firsthand this week) are often stigmatized as lazy and unemployable even though, in many cases, their plight is not entirely their own fault.
Jesus came into the world as one of the poor for many reasons. First, I believe he wanted to show us that to be poor is not a crime. Second, people do not really need worldly possessions in order to be happy and to be fulfilled in life and to be loved by God. Third, he wanted show a parallel between God and man; man being a slave to sin and God being the benign Father leading the way out. And finally, he showed us parallels between slavery to sin and poverty of spirit, and that is what I want to talk about today.
As you know, slavery, in the United States, was abolished after the Civil War. Slavery is when one person owns, as property, another person just like you own your refrigerator or your cat. In our day, slavery is not condoned in any modern nation in the world, even though it still exists in many forms, in many countries, including our own.
Back in the days of the Bible, slavery was considered part of the normal scheme of things. The biblical writers saw nothing wrong with it because it was always the way things were from the beginning. In many ways, I guess, it was part of Rule Number One ‘Life is not Fair’ and it was accepted for what it was. Slavery, in biblical times, had causes in war when the victor enslaved his enemy so that they would not be a threat again. As you know, the Jews were once slaves in Egypt and also Persia and also in Babylon. Slavery was (and still is, in some countries) a way for a family to escape poverty, by selling a child or sibling so that the rest of the family might survive. This happens in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to name a few. The original slaves who came to the Americas may have been men and women who were sold by their own tribal families in Africa. Why they were sold is anyone’s guess, but that appears to be what transpired.
To live as a slave you do not have a lot of choices, but . . . you basically have three options . . . You can try to escape, but you have to be willing to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life because your owner will come after you. Or , , , You can give in, and do whatever it is your master desires. Or . . . You can be bought and emancipated by another rich but benevolent owner. Today, in Africa, there is a program whereby free people have the opportunity to purchase and free slaves. I have only heard of this recently, and to me it seems intriguing.
The Bible tells us that all of us have been born into the slavery of sin. It happened because our forefathers were slaves to sin and their fathers before them and theirs before them all the way back to the first human beings who rejected God and accepted the works of darkness. This is what we call original sin. And just like slavery in third world countries, slavery continues upon birth. Slaves begat slaves who begat slaves which means we, who are living today, have all been born as slaves to sin. We cannot help but sin because that is our nature. Christians believe that it is through Baptism that we are freed from the bonds of slavery and are adopted by God as children of light. Jesus came to buy us back with the price of his own blood. Though many Christians do not live like it, we are indeed set free and need never sin again. But like the Israelites who were freed from slavery after escaping Pharaoh and crossing the Red Sea . . . they had been slaves so long that they didn’t know what to do. So, if you remember, they got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain with a word from God, their liberator, but rather they built for themselves a new god to rule them out of gold, i.e. the golden calf.
And you know, today we do pretty much the same thing. We who have been freed from sin, like the Israelites in the desert, have no idea what to do with our new freedom, so many of us build for ourselves our own version of a golden calf. It may be a house or a career or bank account or a way of life, but just like the golden calf, if it takes the place of the God who saved you, it is no less than the god who enslaved you in the first place. What this causes is a spiritual vacuum in many of us that can lead to depression culminating in a poverty of spirit and in some extreme cases, eventual death by one’ own hand. On the outside we have all the trappings of the redeemed, but on the inside we become spiritually bankrupt. If you remember, this is what Jesus accused the temple priests of becoming.
Because they, like us, were wealthy and self-righteous, living what they perceived as pure and wholesome lives while ignoring the plight of those around them. Where they should have been helping the poor, they were instead accusing them of sinful lives, of laziness and self-indulgence.
Which brings us back to the poor among us. Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. The poor are here to interject Gods goodness and compassion in us so that we might be moved by the Spirit to help them as He helps us. The poor are also here to convict us of self-indulgence and greed in our lives.
That is why Paul, today in our epistle reading exhorts all believers to live by the Spirit . . . and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law . . . but in a word, Paul says you are free.
Jesus does not ask us to go without in order to provide for the poor. He asks us to trust in Him to provide for the poor through Him by our offerings at Church, by our cheerfully paying our income and property taxes and through private giving and lending to anyone in need. God loves a cheerful giver. And what is your reward? Your reward is a life in grace marked by the fruit of the Spirit that lives within everyone who is child of God . . . and the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And it is by these fruits that everyone will know you. Amen.