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September 20th, 2015

Your work and everything you do will be more meaningful if you share with those who are less fortunate.

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

Shared suffering

Not long ago Linda and I were watching one of those Hallmark movies men enjoy with their wives. A woman in the story was bemoaning the fact that she was ignored and overlooked. I looked up from whatever else I was doing and faked a cry “Wa-wa-wa.” Then I looked over at Linda and realized she was crying. Linda oozes compassion.

If it’s not the Lord or some angel, there’s surely someone among the great cloud of witnesses in heaven who is snickering that Bob Thompson is preaching a sermon on compassion. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Through the years I’ve taken the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis several times. On the “sympathetic v. indifferent” scale I generally score somewhere around the 10th percentile, give or take a few.

Over the years I’ve made some progress in compassion. Why? Some of it, honestly, is just life. I have compassion for people who struggle with weight because I’ve been 65 pounds heavier than I am right now and I know how hard it is to get it off – and even harder to keep it off. I’ve lived long enough to have my own struggles with doubt and prayer and shame and, well, compassion.

In the 1880s, a pastor named Walter Rauschenbusch ministered in a part of New York City called Hell’s Kitchen. Because of the entrenched poverty all around him, he began to emphasize social concern and justice. He also felt that the reason the church historically had de-emphasized compassionate engagement with the poor was they were too concerned about salvation and Bible study. Rauschenbusch played compassion over against evangelism. Others began to push back against his “liberalism,” and the war was on. Since that time, progressive Christians have focused on making people’s lives better in this life. Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have centered on getting people ready for the next life.

At Corinth, we refuse to buy in to the either-or arguments, on either side. Our current sermons are on “Why We Do What We Do.” Last week we lifted up one of our core values as evangelism, sharing the gospel. This week it’s compassion, meeting the physical and social needs of people. You can’t really separate evangelism from compassion or vice versa, but we’re shining a spotlight on each.

Sometimes a pastor passes on his or her strengths and weaknesses to the congregation. That’s particularly true in a long pastorate. Our first Strategic Planning survey indicated that Compassion is not one of our strengths. Yet only 8% of us said Compassion is an area they want us to grow. But compassion is essential.

Why is compassion not optional? For that question we turn for the only time in this sermon series to the Old Testament, to the “second law” (what “Deuteronomy” means). Moses had originally given the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, soon after the children of Israel left Egypt. Now, after forty years of desert wandering, Moses will teach a new generation God’s laws as they prepare to enter their promised land.

The case study for Moses in Deuteronomy 15 is this: Someone in your town is poor. The question is this: Why should you care?

1.     Grace (7, “in the towns the Lord your God is giving you”)

Early this week Pastor Paul handed me a book by Tim Keller. I liked it so much I read it twice then ordered five copies to give to others, including one for the church library. If you don’t think compassion (or justice) is a biblical essential, read this book.

Look at the front of your bulletin for a quote from Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just: “Those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor. To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need” (102).

Moses commands the people in verse 7, “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” The first reason for compassion is grace. The Israelites are about to live in houses they did not build surrounded by city walls they did not construct, farming fields they did not clear or plant. These are “towns the Lord your God is giving you.” All these former slaves will have is a gift. The more you grasp the grace you’ve been given, the more you want to share.

2.     Advantage (8, “whatever he needs”)

Continuing his instruction about the one who is poor, Moses says, “Be openhanded and lend him whatever he needs.” He has needs, and you have what he needs. You have an advantage; don’t hold on to it.

This is where the areas of compassion begin to broaden for me. It’s not just that I have money that others don’t have, or things that money can buy that others don’t have – a home, a car, clothes, food, a pension plan. I have someone to go home to every night, and others live alone. I have physical health and strength, while others suffer. I have mental health and many don’t. I have opportunities that others don’t have – to travel, to learn, to use my gifts. I receive affirmations that others don’t. I have freedom. I have hope for a better life for my children. I have security and safety.

Through this lens I see immigrants and refugees; I have an advantage. I see prisoners and the homeless; I have an advantage. I see those whose marriages are floundering or over; I have an advantage. I see those whose skin is darker than mine; for generation after generation, my people have had an advantage.

Rev. David Roberts, a black pastor who has preached here in a pulpit exchange, reminds me (and others) from time to time that I can walk in a room and people give me the benefit of the doubt. As a large, bald, black man, he walks down the street and even after all our years of social progress and in spite of his winning smile and teddy bear heart, people cross the street or look away or wonder what he’s up to. I have an advantage.

The point is not guilt about what I have. It’s compassion for those who don’t.

3.     Bible (9, “he may then appeal to the Lord against you”)

This verse requires a little explanation and background. Verses 1-6 lay down a category of Jewish law called shemittah, which means “release.” The intent was to avoid creating perpetual generational poverty. If an Israelite borrowed money from a friend – say to plant his crops because the previous year’s harvest had failed – there was always the possibility of another crop failure, or of illness. Rather than let debt mount year after year, God said every seven years all personal debt was to be released. These seven-year cycles have continued ever since. The most recent one began this past Sunday, which was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.[1]

In verse 9, having urged Israelites to give or lend what a poor man needs, Moses says, “Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for shemittah, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.” Lack of compassion is sin, and God will hold you accountable for it.

You may think, “Well, that’s the Old Testament law.” Good luck with that argument. It’s in part due to the reaction to Walter Rauschenbusch that so many Christians think ministries of compassion are not biblical priorities. Here are just a few sample verses in addition to the Law to indicate otherwise:

  • David, hearing a story about a rich man robbing a poor man: “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!” (2 Sam 12:5).
  • Job, defending his innocence: “I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them” (Job 19:12).
  • Solomon, the rich king: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Prov. 14:31).
  • Isaiah, on why God is so angry with his people: “Woe to those who…deprive the poor of their rights and rob my oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (Isa. 10:1-2).
  • Jesus, on why people go to hell: “I was hungry and you have me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me” (Matthew 25:41-43).
  • Paul, on a conflict with Peter: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
  • James, on class prejudice: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5)

The Bible is not only concerned about the existence of poverty, but power systems that keep the poor impoverished. This is what we mean advocating for “justice.”

4.     Blessing (10, “the Lord your God will bless you in all your work”)

Moses comes to the application: “Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (10).

In almost every conversation this week about this text and subject, someone has raised the question about whether we’re enabling poverty by giving to the poor or working for social justice. The question likely arises from the political divide in our day between Republicans and Democrats. Tim Keller does a good job on this topic as well. He notes that both parties believe they’re standing up for what’s right, for solid moral principles – either personal responsibility or social responsibility.

I can concede that how we best care for the poor might be a legitimate debate. But not whether we as a church body or we as individual believers care.

Moses says when you give to the poor, God will bless you. He may or may not bless you with money. But he will bless you with joy and satisfaction. Your work and everything you do will be more meaningful if you share with those who are less fortunate.

5.     Opportunity (11, “there will always be poor”)

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in the land” (11).

Moses was right about there always being poor people. Jesus repeated almost these same words 1500 years later (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8), and it’s no less true today. The goal of shemittah was to eliminate a permanent underclass (see verse 4), but it didn’t work – not in Israel and not in any time and culture. There’s no one answer to poverty and there’s no complex set of answers.

You don’t show compassion to the poor to eradicate poverty. If you do it for that reason, you’ll give up. You don’t give to the poor because they deserve it. If you do it for that reason, you become their judge. You give to the poor because they’re poor. That’s enough reason. It’s not up to you to figure out why that guy is at the exit with a “hungry” sign or whether helping someone with their rent is going to lift them out of poverty. You just love them because they’re there. They’ll always be there, and you don’t know for sure that one day “they” won’t be “you.”

Where to from here

This sermon can heap a boatload of guilt and shame, but that wouldn’t change us. One of the challenges of our world today is that through print media and the Internet we are aware of so much more need than ever before. I’m not asking you to give to all of it. I’m asking you to develop compassion – awareness, empathy, and action.

Pregnancy Care Center models this for me. The pro-life movement started as an anti-abortion movement, and the “awareness” was only about the horrors of abortion. Over the decades the awareness has also become about the needs of women. A woman who goes to PCC now will find a great outpouring of empathy for her situation. A woman who has had an abortion will find empathy there as well. But it’s also about action. PCC looks at the factors in that woman’s life that has her wondering if she can go through with the pregnancy, and helps her choose life.

Let’s look at a few concrete steps forward. What has helped me?

Awareness. Yesterday when I came home from church after preparing for this sermon there was a note from Wayne Miller, who had attended the Wednesday night Bible study on this text. Wayne included a Charlotte Observer column from Thursday morning, “Why poverty data is so confusing,” and he also included a note that read, in part, “This issue of poverty/hunger is a top issue for me and I pray every day for Catawba County kids who don’t get enough to eat.” Wayne cares enough to read about poverty. He won’t run from it. It prompts him to pray.

This past summer I was asked to chair a committee of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ. I knew it would be an interesting experience because most resolutions that come out of those committees are far left politically and theologically. And I’m not. The two resolution assigned to my committee were about systemic racism, what one author has called the New Jim Crow. I don’t have to agree with everyone else in terms of what needs to be done about it, but I can’t be a Christian and not want to learn.

Learn about addiction. Learn about HIV orphans in sub-Sahara Africa. Learn about malnourished villages in Guatemala. Learn about refugees from the Middle East flowing into Europe. Choose awareness.

Empathy. Maybe you’re like me and compassion doesn’t flow naturally. What do you do about that?

If you consider yourself a Christian who believes the Bible, and you’re not yet convinced that the Bible calls you as an individual or us as a church to invest ourselves in ministries of compassion and advocacy for justice, read Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. It’s very accessible and the best book I’ve read on this balance.

The book I’m reading now is by Curt Thompson, who will speak here this fall – The Soul of Shame. Can you imagine what it’s like to have shame hard-wired into your brain from infancy by your parents or others? It’s not like you can choose not to feel it. Apply that same principle to poverty. What’s it like to grow up with parents who choose addiction or irresponsibility? I’m not talking about the parents at the moment, but the child who grows up in that environment.

This has been the most powerful change agent for hard-hearted Bob. I’ve listened to older people. I’ve visited those in nursing homes and in prison. I’ve invested in relationships with African Americans. I’ve heard the stories of those who are divorced or had abortions. I’ve ministered to those with cancer. I’ve sat with those who battle depression or bipolar disorder. One of my most persistent efforts at compassion has been listening to people with same sex attraction. It can’t be about your “position” on a social issue. Just listen with a heart that is asking, “What’s it like to be you?”

Action. Look at your bulletin insert for Cooperative Christian Ministry’s NetworX. We’re committed to providing food and volunteers for one night – October 5. Maybe more after that. We should flood this volunteer list. If you don’t know any actual poor people and don’t have contact with them, here’s a starting place.

Start to dream with us. Two different people in two different Bible studies this week came up with the idea of microloans for people in our community who want a hand up. Why not? The HOPE Garden still needs some help this fall. What can you dream of that we haven’t done yet? What can you do that involves your whole family in action for the poor?

Choose compassion. Amen.

 

[1] Around the time of Christ, the legal scholar Hillel created a procedure called prosbul, which allowed a lender to make a private debt a public matter.

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