Friday, November 18, 2016

The Rights of the Poor In the Jesus Administration

This is a message I am sharing at the Sunday evening service of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, where homeless and housed people come together to sing hymns, worship, break bread and seek to follow God's Word together. 
November 20 is a special day in the church calendar in which Christians celebrate Jesus as the king of kings, Lord of Lords, leader of leaders, President of Presidents.
 Right after the election of our President, I went to our nation’s Capitol with around 350 other people of faith to lobby Congress to help reduce long mandatory sentences for those in federal prison. Our theme was “love your neighbor.” Each year thousands of people of faith from all denominations and from all parts of the country come to DC to be a voice of conscience and compassion. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you don’t hear much about our work although we have more influence than you might think.  It’s been a very hard week for those of us who care about the people that Jesus cared about: the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the immigrants. Programs that benefit these groups are coming under fire. Many people are frightened and angry. Tens of thousands are protesting in the streets. Others are working behind the scenes to make a difference.
Where is God in all of this? Where does God stand on issues of poverty and justice? That’s what I’d like to talk about this evening. That’s why I’d like to share with you one of my favorite folk songs, written by Woody Guthrie, a man of the people, who celebrates Christ as President.

Let's have Christ our President
Let us have him for our king
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That you call the Nazarene
The only way we can ever beat
These crooked politician men
Is to run the money changers out of the temple
Put the Carpenter in
O It's Jesus Christ our President
God above our king
With a job and a pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring
Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars
But with the Carpenter on the seat
Way up in the Capital town
The USA would be on the way
Prosperity Bound!

I think Woody Guthrie’s song speaks powerfully to us today. If Christ were our President, we would have a very different society. There would no poor among us, no wars, and no exploitation. We wouldn’t be deporting, we’d be welcoming the foreigners and strangers among us.
We wouldn’t see headlines like the one that appeared this week in our local paper: City Cracks Down on the Homeless. If Jesus were President, we wouldn’t be cracking down on the homeless, we’d be lifting them up and treating them like family.
God has an agenda for the poor that He made very clear in his Book. A couple of years ago, I was given the “Poverty and Justice Bible” that highlights in bright orange passages that relate to justice and poverty and you find such highlights on almost every page. Over and over again we’re told the poor have rights and we are obliged to defend the rights of the poor.  Here are a few key passages.
  • Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9
  • Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Psalm 82:3 
  • Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. Isaiah 1:17 
  • The godly care about the rights of the poor; the wicked don't care at all. –Proverbs 29:7.
  • But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. Luke 14:13-14 
Jesus’ brother James, whose nickname was “The Just,” gave a clear explanation about how we in the church are supposed to treat the poor:
My dear brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, never think some people are more important than others. Suppose someone comes into your church meeting wearing nice clothes and a gold ring. At the same time a poor person comes in wearing old, dirty clothes.  You show special attention to the one wearing nice clothes and say, “Please, sit here in this good seat.” But you say to the poor person, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit on the floor by my feet.”  What are you doing? You are making some people more important than others, and with evil thoughts you are deciding that one person is better.
 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! God chose the poor in the world to be rich with faith and to receive the kingdom God promised to those who love him.  But you show no respect to the poor. The rich are always trying to control your lives. They are the ones who take you to court. And they are the ones who speak against Jesus, who owns you.
This royal law is found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If you obey this law, you are doing right.  But if you treat one person as being more important than another, you are sinning. You are guilty of breaking God’s law. 
The Scripture is so clear, so insistent, that I don’t see why I even need to say more except that most Christians don’t get it. Our country elects leaders who don’t care about the rights of the poor; they are more interested in the rights of the rich, the business interests.  Not all elected officials feel this way. I know many who care deeply about the rights of the poor and we need to support them. Jill has mentioned a City Council woman who allowed permanent affordable housing for homeless families to be built on city land in her district. The Congressional Representative from our district has a heart for immigrants and for the refugee families who came to our country fleeing violence in their homelands. We need leaders like these who care about the people that Jesus cared about.
I know this church cares deeply about the rights of the poor. Some of you went to City Hall to oppose ordinances that would “crack down” on homeless people. Pastor Walter called us “prophets,” and rightly so.  It is the job of the prophet to speak out about the rights of the poor.
After our City Council meeting, Jill and I talked with some of you who are homeless and listened to your stories. A young black man told us: “I never knew anybody cared about us homeless until I went to the City Hall a couple of weeks ago and saw all you guys speaking out on our behalf.”  That’s what Jesus did when he spoke in his hometown synagogue and told them he had come to “preach good news to the poor.” As you remember, his fellow town people didn’t like that message very much and drove him out of town. But his message lives on. As Christians, we are called to preach good news and defend the rights of the poor.
I’d like you to form small groups and make a list of some of the rights that you think homeless people should have.
I am pleased that some organizations are pushing for a Homeless Bill of Rights that would help stop the kind of ordinances that our City just passed. These are just some of the rights that homeless people need. I hope we can do our part to support such efforts.
As the Advent season approaches, and as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, we need to remember that Jesus came not only to preach good news to the poor, but to live among them and defend their rights. When someone asked to follow him, Jesus said, “Foxes have lairs, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus choose to live among the homeless and to live like them.
This statue of Jesus on a park bench has become an icon in many cities.  Its creator is a Canadian sculptor and devout Catholic named Timothy Schmalz. From his studio in Ontario, Schmalz says he understands that his Jesus the Homeless is provocative. "That's essentially what the sculpture is there to do," he says. "It's meant to challenge people.”
Pope Francis has paid homage to this statue and would like to see it in the Vatican.  In other cities, however, the “Homeless Jesus” has been called insulting, demeaning and creepy. Some say its $40,000 price tag is a waste of money and should be used instead for food and shelter. Others have suggested it could attract more homeless people to the area. Some churches called the art sacrilegious and have turned down offers to install the piece on their grounds.
I think that “Homeless Jesus” does what good art is supposed to do, remind us of the truth that makes us uncomfortable. This image of Jesus’ nativity set in a contemporary city also reminds us of another disturbing truth: the “king of Kings” was born not in a palace, but in a barn and that the first people to honor Jesus were not kings but the poor. Fritz Eichenberg, the Quaker artist who made this woodprint, was a good friend of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers, a group that lives with and among the poor. They have led many campaigns championing the rights of the poor.
Friends, it is fitting that we honor Jesus as our King and our President on this post-election day. Jesus is the one who shows us the way to God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Christ our King and our President came not to reign over us, but to reign in our hearts.  He came to free us from our selfishness so we could truly love our neighbor and help bring God’s kingdom down to earth. As Jesus and the Bible make clear, the best way to honor Jesus as our King and as President is to show love and compassion for the needy, and to defend the rights of the poor.

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