Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - To Those who Have

Psalm 1
Matthew 13:10-17
Luke 19: 12-26

               “To those who have, much will be given and to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.”  This seems like such a cruel statement.  Why would God do this?  Take away from those who have not and give only to those who already have?  I do not believe that this is a statement about what God does.  Those sentences that say things like “God helps those who…” and “God loves those who…” fail to see the amazing grace of God that extends to everyone.  So what then is this about? 
Statements such as “to those who have, much will be given and to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away” are unfortunately very accurate description of the world today.  And I think when Jesus is making these statements, he is pointing out the backwardness of human societies.  Look around you.  The truth is that those who have have a very easy time getting more.  And those who have not have a very hard time getting even their basic needs met.  We know that the rich are getting richer while the poor in our country are getting poorer.  We know this, we hear about it. We probably are unaware of exactly how much this is true, but the medium family income has significantly dropped versus the cost of living over the last few years, the bottom 90% of the people in this country, the bottom 90% have only 23% of the nation’s wealth.  That means the top 10% own 77% of the wealth in this country.  And that gap continues to grow.  The top .1% in this country own 25% of the country’s wealth. This is a significant change in the last few years.  The gap is growing.  And frankly, we probably experience it in our own lives. The more you have to invest, the higher interest you can make on what you invest. The more properties you own, the more likely you can own “one more”.  If you have a lot of money, you get a lower percentage on loans.  The more money you put down on a house, the lower your loan interest percentage.  The faster you are able to pay off a loan, the lower the percentage of interest you need to pay.  It should be the opposite – those who need the loans the most should get a lower percentage so they are more able to actually pay it back, but that’s not how it works. 
I’ve found myself thinking about this in terms of those who have been traumatized by the fire.  Money has been pouring out to help those who’ve lost their homes in the fires.  One website said 1.4 million dollars had been donated just through them.  Another site I saw was a Red Cross website that actually said, “we have as much money as we can handle to help these folk.  If you still want to give money, send it through another organization.  Ironically, the other organization said the same thing in reverse, “we have enough.  Please send it to Red Cross…”  The outpouring around this has been amazing, and a truly wonderful sign of the caring that people can give.  People should step up and they have.  But I have found myself wondering, if we are able to raise this much money in this short a time for the victims of the fires, why are we not able to raise the same amount for those who struggle every day, before the fires and after the fires, to obtain enough to eat?  With the amount of money that has come forward to help those in the fires, we could actually wipe out homelessness in CA and more.  Why are we not doing that?  Why are we not able to eradicate homelessness for the children in our country?  While 40% of the homeless population in the United States are children, the poverty level in our country for all children is 22%.  22% of the children in the United States, which is a higher percentage than in any other industrialized country, are so poor they have trouble finding enough to eat.  22%.  Why can we not raise the same amount of money and give towards programs that target families struggling to get back on their feet as we are for those who’ve lost their homes in these fires?  I think one reason is that poverty is seen as a chronic problem whereas the fire burning houses is seen as a one-time problem.  But also, people become afraid that those who are poor will somehow “misuse” the money given to them whereas we tend to trust those who are “just like us”, people who have homes.  We can sympathize more easily with those who have lost their homes to a fire than those who are on the street because they never had homes in the first place.  We have come to believe that the poor are untrustworthy.  Truthfully, most of us at some level blame the poor for their own poverty, and we treat them as such.  I doubt any of us would hesitate when out to eat with a friend to offer to pay for their meal.  And yet, how hard is it to buy a meal for a person on the street who really needs it? And again, the biblical phrase comes to mind once more:  “To those who have, more will be given, but to those who have little, even what they have will be taken away.”
               I admit, I became especially aware of the reality of the “for those who have more will be given and for those who have not even what they have will be taken away” when we were struggling to find a house out here.  Without an address and without proof of residency I couldn’t even register the kids for school.  I found myself thinking about this many times during the weeks that we were, in essence, homeless.  We blame the poor for their own poverty.  And yet, how do we expect those kids who’ve been raise in homeless situations and therefore can’t even register to go to school to somehow raise themselves out of that poverty?  How, without food or resources or a network of support or education, is that even POSSIBLE?  When we consider that 22% of the children in our country are living in poverty, we also have to recognize that these 22% of our children are uneducated if they are educated at all.
               An example of a different kind.  I have a good friend who struggles with clinical depression.  There are times when she is so down that she cannot get out of bed.  It is during those hard times that she is least likely to get the support she needs from her friends.  She has a harder time reaching out during those times.  But additionally, when she is depressed her friends get tired and depressed being around her.  With mental illness too we tend to blame the victims, not recognizing their need or the ways we could support and help them through it.
               When we look at the international situation, the refugees, those most in need around the world are the ones who again have the hardest time getting what they need.  People and countries become afraid of what the presence of these strangers will do to us, to me, to you and I and they close their doors to those in need.
Where is the Good News in that?                             
Well, as I said before, the God that I know is not a God who makes the poor poorer and the rich richer.  The God I meet in scripture, through Jesus and through those around me is a God who points out this reality in order to change it.  The God I know does not go away, leaving us to use our resources however we will, nor does this God celebrate or even condone the fact that to those who have more is given and to those who have not even what they have is taken away.
  Instead the God I know is a God of love.  The God I meet in Jesus is one who gives and gives, especially to those who lack and are poor. This God does not ask if you are worthy or trustworthy.  This is a God of grace who continues to give and love despite the fact that ALL of us fall short, and ALL of us have areas in which we “have not” or are lacking. The God Jesus talks about never leaves, but is with us always, guiding, holding, comforting us along our paths.  And the God of the Gospels is selfless, even to the point of risking and experiencing death because of us.  And even then that same God’s love does not stop but grows to the point at which it overcomes even death and returns again and again with open arms still full of love, hope, and grace.  The God we worship and trust is the God who invites us and calls us to become a part of creating God’s reign on earth.

And this is where the gospel stories returns.  Because in order to be a part of bringing heaven to earth, we do have to be willing to listen, even when the words are hard, to hear the truth in the parables and stories Jesus shares with us.  In order to be a piece of God’s kingdom, we have to trust God, depend on God, use what we have been given to serve in gratitude the God who gave us everything!  God’s kingdom is here and now.  But we are called to be part of ushering that in. 
When we choose, like the slave with the one talent in Luke’s story, to see God as greedy and punishing, we exclude ourselves from the life God offers us. Fearing that we will lose all, we take no risks.  We imprison ourselves when we choose not to see God’s light, God’s miracles, God’s beauteous renewing of creation every day.
The slaves with the ten pounds and five pounds saw and believed in a master who was loving and good.  They risked because they trusted.  And in return, they found the love they expected, they were met by a generous master, and they shared in God’s kingdom.  The slave with the one talent didn’t just have less.  He chose to see and believe in a harsh master and in fear he lost everything.
As loving and merciful as God is, this is a choice we make.  Do we choose to hide and protect what we have, believing in an angry, jealous, harsh God?  Or do we see the God of love who has given us everything we have and out of gratitude do we then help bring about the kingdom of God for ourselves and those around us?  Do we offer those in need the things they need, giving more to those who have not than those who have?  From a place of trust and faith then we can risk offering a homeless person food, we can stop and say a kind word to someone who is alone, we can take a few minutes to listen to someone’s story.  Out of our abundance, we can be part of creating a world of abundance, even out of nothing.
That’s not to say it’s easy.  From those who have, much is expected.  We who have are expected to give more in order to fully be part of God’s kingdom.  It is also not to say that bad things won’t happen.  God is not a magic fairy whom you can pray to and expect to have your wishes granted.  God is generous, but God doesn’t stop the world from playing out, often with bad things.  But God is present with us, holding us, loving us in the midst of those challenging times and situations.  And God calls us to be part of creating the kingdom on earth with the resources and gifts we have: God calls us, invites us to be part of this no matter what is going on in our lives.
A young boy and his grandmother were walking along the sea shore when a huge wave appeared out of nowhere, sweeping the child out to sea.  The horrified woman fell to her knees, raised her eyes to the heavens and begged God to return her beloved grandson.  Amazingly, another wave reared up and deposited the stunned child on the sand before her.  The grandmother looked the boy over carefully.  He was fine.  But still she stared up angrily towards the heavens.  “When we came,” she snapped indignantly, “he had a hat!”
Which God do we see?  The God who saved the child?  Or the God who did not rescue the boy’s hat?  Which world do we choose to be a part of?  A world in which everyone else is out to get us and we just have to hold on and take care of our own?  Or a world in which, when we share and give and love, God gives back ten fold?  God invites us to be part of God’s new and glorious creation.  God hopes for us to trust, and love and live and be joyful.  God calls us to be God’s heaven on earth and to share it with others.

We pray, God, that a little at a time, you would lead us to risk and enter the kingdom which you have prepared for us and which is, by your great grace and love, all around us, all the time. Amen.