What time is it? Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player was asked that question one day and in typical Yogi fashion, he said, “Do you mean, right now?”
What time is it? Over the next four weeks, we’re going to answer that question each Sunday with the response, “It’s not too late!” Say that with me. “It’s not too late!” What time is it? “It’s not too late!”
A couple of years ago, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church established four key areas of focus that deserve our attention. 1) Eliminating Poverty. 2) Eradicating Killer Diseases. 3) Rejuvenating the Church, & 4) Participating in Ministry.
It’s not too late to eliminate, eradicate, rejuvenate, and participate. So to get us started, let’s focus on how it’s not too late to eliminate poverty.
This past week, many of us have heard the remarkable news story about a Columbus homeless man who has become an overnight celebrity. Just days ago Ted Williams was asking for handouts along roads in Columbus when a Columbus Dispatch reporter stopped to talk to him.
As they talked, the reporter noticed that this homeless man who had been sleeping in a makeshift tent behind an abandoned gas station had the perfect radio voice. When a video with him speaking made it on YouTube, he became an overnight sensation.
Because of his golden voice, the Cleveland Cavaliers have offered him a full time announcing job that would include housing. They jokingly told him that he could have Lebron’s old house. He’s also entertaining job offers from NFL films, MTV, ESPN, and Kraft Foods.
On the Today Show this past week, he was asked to share what people should know about people like him who are homeless. He said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover. Each person has their own story of why they have become homeless.”
Here’s one more interesting part of this incredible story. The Columbus Dispatch reporter who started all of this is a member of the New Life United Methodist Church in Columbus. He says that he always helps the homeless because in his words, “It is a part of his faith.”
This feel good story about a homeless man who is now a celebrity has given a face to the homeless and people who live in poverty.
The key that unlocks the gates to a New World? Isaiah says it’s a key chain of charity—acts of justice, mercy, compassion, sacrifice—these are the magic keys that open to a Jubilee world.
The Hebrew term used to define any charitable endeavor is “tzedakah,” which can be translated as “charity” but literally means “righteousness” or “justice.” Every act of “tzedakah,” or “charity” brings a new world closer into existence. It is exactly this action that Isaiah’s words demand of the people in today’s text. The genuineness of prayers and petitions, fasting and faithfulness, were all measured by works, not words.
Isaiah challenges the worshipers in the temple to get off their knees and onto their feet. God doesn’t need their empty praise. God is not honored when they lie about in “sackcloth and ashes.” What honors Yahweh, the Lord, is for them to walk about, actively seeking those who need help, those whose most basic human needs are not being met.
Isaiah defines the new kind of “fast” that the Lord requires:
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover then, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?(v.7)
This is the kind of “charity” or “tzedakah” that defines the biblical understanding of justice.
Of course, not all charitable acts were deemed equal. Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar/jurist/physician, cataloged eight degrees of charitable giving, eight steps that escalated in establishing true justice.
1) He who gives grudgingly.
2) He who gives cheerfully, but not enough.
3) He who gives a sufficient sum but is asked.
4) He who gives before being asked, but directly to the poor man.
5) The poor man knows from whom he takes, but the giver knows not the recipient.
6) The giver knows to whom he gives, but the recipient knows not the giver.
7) The giver knows not to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know from whom he receives.
8) The highest form: To strengthen the hand of the poor by giving him a loan, or to join him in partnership, or to find him work. In brief, to help him out of his poverty, to help him establish himself.
Each successive level of giving demands more participation on the part of the one who gives and more relationship with the one who receives. The final, greatest type of giving is the establishment of a partnership, a binding relationship for mutual aid, between the giver and receiver, the rich and the poor. At that point there really is no longer a “giver” or a “receiver,” a “rich” person and a “poor” person. There is only a newly created relationship within the community. It is that highest form of “charitable” relationship, the charity that is no longer charity, that really transforms the world.
"If you offer you food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then you light shall rise in darkness and your gloom be like the noonday" (v.10).
Arguably America’s greatest living poet, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, has a short story called “The Wild Birds.” The character Burly Coulter says:
“The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows and who don’t.”
Biblical justice, righteousness in action, makes two demands. Both are relational demands, and demand relational justice.
First, it declares that there is no understanding without standing under.
Second, the question asked by God of the faithful is not, “What are you standing for?” but “Whom are you walking with?”
Each is a major shift in thinking from how “justice” ministries are conceived and conducted in most churches today which major in principles and minor in relationships. As the head of a rescue mission said to a visiting pastor recently, “Our biggest problem with Christians is that they all want to take stands for the poor, to come here and visit the poor and view the poor, and to “hand-out” food to the poor — especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But you can shake a stick at the number of Christians who come here wanting a relationship with the poor.”
As Christian author and speaker, Leonard Sweet says, “In our ‘social justice outreach,’ we need less Mother Goose and more Mother Teresa.” We need less Mother Goose glamour and more Mother Teresa grime. The forces of evil are rampant. Like Mother Teresa, you and I are in the good and evil business. You are going out there to battle evil . . . evil forces of ignorance, poverty, racism, substance abuse, hatred. It’s not about feeling good and happy-clappy highs. Like those worshipers in today’s text, we are attracted to the goosebumps, but what happens when the goosebumpiness diminishes and the bumpiness is all that’s left?
How did we get this way?
The modern church was founded on these three words spoken by Martin Luther almost 500 years ago: “Here I stand.”
In fact, you could argue that the whole of modern culture was founded on those three words, “Here I stand.”
First, “Here.” The enlightenment was all about the “here and now,” the existential moment, and shifting our focus from past to present.
Second, “I.” The enlightenment in some ways invented the concept of the individual as we know it today—-an autonomous, self-defined, discreet person who is free to choose a multiplicity of identities and “selves.” You can even hear the individualism of contemporary culture in our technological toys: iTunes, iPods, iToys, iPhones . .. We can’t even do a Wii without two “ii’s!”
Third, “stand.” The modern world focused on an understanding of truth as rational principles and propositions that led one to “bear witness” by “taking stands,” formulating positions, drawing lines, and passing resolutions.
The problem with all this is that each of these words is wrong for our twenty-first century world and our twenty-second century kids.
First, the time zone of modern culture is not the present or the past, but the future. It’s not any longer about being “here.” It’s more about being “there.”
Second, the individualism of modern culture doesn’t need any more focus on the self, but needs more focus on the community. We’ve taken the “I” as far as we can take it. It is not any longer “I” but “we.”
Third, we’ve been “standing” so much that it is time to move, to take a hike. It’s not any longer “stand” but “go.” As someone has observed, two-thirds of the word “God” is “go.”
In short, the words this world needs to hear from the church are not “Here I Stand” but “There We Go.”
The problem with “Here I Stand” justice is that in the Bible love and justice are yoked concepts, and both are perfectly personified in a “There We Go” Jesus. Bible scholars note how in John’s gospel wisdom is personified. But the uniqueness of Christianity is that truth is personified, and not just in John’s gospel. Truth is personified in the person of Jesus. For us Truth is not a set of principles but a person: God Incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us, God-made-flesh.
What if the “Christian position” on the “hot button” issues of the day was less a statement than a stance, less a principle than a posture? Instead of “where do we stand?” why aren’t we talking about “With whom are we walking?” Isn’t it the nature of disciples of Jesus to be known less for certain opinions about an “issue” than to be known for who we are in relationship with? Maybe our real “hot buttons” are less about “issues” anyway than about “relationships.” Wasn’t it Jesus who made our Final Exam not one of “What do you stand for?” but one of “Whom are you standing with?”
Or as Jesus put it directly, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
So: Who are “the least of these” today? If there is no true understanding without standing under, who are those we need to stop standing over or hiding from, and instead start standing under and acknowledging as our own “kin.”
They’re the people who attend our community kitchen lunches. They’re the folks who need a helping hand during the week. He’s the person who stands at the bridge with a cardboard sign. They’re the unprotected children in our community who suffer from abuse.
In short, our “kin” is everyone and especially those who are caught in the cycle of poverty.
In Isaiah, and throughout the Jesus’ ministry, justice and mercy, compassion and righteousness begin at one’s own door, in one’s own neighborhood. We cannot build a new world, when our own backyard is filled with filth.
Over the past twenty years, America has had the highest or near-highest poverty rates for children and families among the 31 so-called “developed” countries.
16 million Americans live in deep, extreme poverty — poverty defined as a family of four with two children and an annual income of less than $9,903.00. And the numbers are growing: 26 percent from 2000 to 2005, a 56 percent faster growth rate than the overall poverty population grew in that same period. (“16 Million American Live in Deep poverty, Census Analysis Finds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 February 2007, A7)
Today is what is known as “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. It’s a day to celebrate when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan and it’s a day to have an opportunity to renew our baptismal vows.
Sometimes people will ask me why Jesus needed to be baptized since he had not sinned and didn’t need forgiveness from God. John the Baptist had the same question but notice how Jesus responded to John.
Jesus said, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus uses the word, “righteousness” to refer to Jesus’ calling and our calling to be involved in ministries that bring justice and hope to all of God’s people, especially to those who are poor.
It was Isaiah’s words that Jesus incarnated to their fullest extent. He offered healing and wholeness, forgiveness and fulfillment, divine love and compassion, to every person he encountered. That is how the “kingdom of God” became both “now” and “not yet,” both present, yet still in the future, for all who follow in his footsteps on “The Way.” Remember, this is how the earliest Christians were known, not as “Christians,” but as “Followers of the Way.” In other words, people who walked the paths of justice and mercy and peace.
Here’s an ancient Jewish story:
I went up to Heaven in a dream and stood at the Gates of Paradise in order to observe the procedure of the Heavenly Tribunal. A learned Rabbi approached and wished to enter. “Day and night,” he said, “I studied the Holy Torah.” “Wait,” said the Angel. “We will investigate whether your study was for its own sake or whether it was a matter of profession or for the sake of honors.”
A Zaddik, the title given to a very devout Jew next approached. “I fasted much,” he said, “I underwent many ablutions; I studied the Zohar (which are commentaries on the first 5 books of the Bible.)” “Wait,” said the Angel, “until we have completed our investigation to learn whether you motives were pure.”
Then a tavern-keeper drew near. “I kept an open door and fed without charge every poor man who came into my inn,” he said.
The Heavenly Portals were opened to him.
Friends, the good news is that it’s not too late to eliminate poverty. It’s not too late to be in ministry with the poor. It’s not too late to step out of our comfort zones to be the church that God is calling us to be for the sake of the world.
As we prepare to come forward to renew our baptism this morning, remember what time it is. Do you know what time it is?
What time is it? It’s not too late!
That’s right! It’s not too late to eliminate poverty. Thanks be to God!
[This sermon is based on a sermon given by Leonard Sweet.]