Beyond Tokenism


Lessons: Deut 15:7-11; 2 Cor 8:1-9, 13-15; St. Mark 5:22-43

We live in a time of tokenism. Two years ago New Jersey was declared a disaster area due to the storms. Politicians showed up and made speeches of support but CBS reported that thousands of our fellow citizens are still without homes. When the Muslims kidnapped the 300 girls in Nigeria the First Lady and other famous people tweeted their support for the girls but nothing was done to free them or to punish their captors. But at least they knew that we cared, that is if they had a twitter account. Last week when 9 Christians were martyred studying God’s Word the overwhelming response was to remove the Confederate flag. Ironically many of those calling on the flag’s removal are the same folks who would argue that pornography has no influence on violence against women and violent video games has no affect on kids, but hate will end if we just get the flag out of the WalMart.

Tokenism. The prevailing ethic these days is that you must show that you care, even if nothing of substance gets done. In fact it doesn’t even seem to matter that nothing of substance gets done as long as people know that you care. Feigned compassion is a new virtue.

We must not allow this ethic to enter the church. As James tells us we must be more than hearers of the Word, we must be doers of the Word. It is not enough to say that we love or that we care. We have to put hands and feet to our love and the lessons today give us very practical examples of that.

First notice that this call to show compassion for others, especially for the poor, in both the Old and New Testament Lessons is free of guilt. It is a call from God; it is not a threat. In fact the Old Testament lesson even contains a promise of blessing if we do what God says.

Last week I watched a YouTube video of a sermon that was preached by the priest that married Beth and me. The sermon addressed the killings in Charleston but he spent the first half of it saying that it was his congregation’s fault because they were not accepting enough of diversity as a church.

I don’t understand this kind of logic but it is used all the time. It is manipulative and therefore wrong. I would agree that we at St. Patrick’s, and I personally, need more work on showing acceptance and love. But I’m not about to take the blame for a wicked maniac racist in South Carolina. False guilt is no more productive in addressing the real problem than tokenism.

Second, notice that this call to show compassion is a voluntary call. St. Paul says, “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuiness of your love….” We must be generous with others as God is generous with us but it should come from the heart. That is why I strongly disagree with the Pope’s recent statements that he would support the government taking money from the wealthy in order to redistribute it to the poor. God calls on us to be generous to the poor but He does not give others, including the government or even Robin Hood, the right to take from you and give it away. That is called stealing.

Imagine that you are in a class in college and you work very hard to make a good grade. What would be your response if the professor announced that to ensure grade equity he has reduced your A to a C and given your points to those with lower grades. You would be rightfully outraged. You should be able to keep that for which you have worked. If you choose to give it away, that is your right, but it is not the right of others to take it from you.

Especially coming from South America, the Pope of all people should realize what an assault his philosophy is on the work ethic. Nearly a third of his nation is below the poverty line. Why? What is their incentive? Who would bother burning the midnight oil to get an A in a class if it was going to be taken away and given to the jocks, some of whom don’t even try or care? I don’t think I would.

Third notice that this call to be generous to the poor comes from a realization that it all comes from God to begin with. The Deuteronomy passage speaks of giving to the poor in any of the towns “within the land that the LORD your God is giving you….” We have what we have because the Lord our God has given it to us and so in giving to the poor we are merely passing on what is His.

Several of us went to a conference where when we came back from lunch we found an envelope on our desks with 3 single dollar bills in it. We were told that we were going to take a few minutes to play a game. The game was that we were to give away the dollar bills and the only rules were that we could not refuse a gift and we could not give to someone who had given to us. People started moving around the room, trying to give their money away and many were receiving money as fast as they were giving it. The room filled with conversation and laughter and after about 20 minutes we were told to sit down. The result was not income equality. Some had given everything away and some ended up with more than $50. When asked why it was so fun to give this money away and why there were no resentments about what others had or did not have, it was obvious that it was because it was not our money to begin with.

Knowing it is not yours to begin with opens to door to generosity. Knowing that it is God’s frees you from the fear of scarcity or worry that there is not enough to go around. The Bible says, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

There us an underlying false concept with the Pope’s suggestion that the government take from some to give to others. The false concept is that there is only a finite amount of wealth and if there is a finite amount of wealth, then it is wrong for some to have disproportionately more than others. Some would even argue that the only way that the wealthy are wealthy is because they have stolen from the poor and so it is only right that the poor get back what should be theirs.

But you do not see this kind of argument in the Scriptures because that is a false concept. There is no end to God’s wealth. It all belongs to God. We have what we have not because we have stolen from anyone but because God has blessed us and He calls upon us to pass the blessings along. If the government followed what the Pope suggests it would actually be robbing us of a blessing and that is the blessing of being a blessing to others.

A fourth observation is that we are to be careful about our attitude toward the poor. We are not to be hard hearted or tight fisted. Deuteronomy says, “Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought…”

The reality, as this text tells us and that Jesus reiterates, is that there will always be poor among us. But this is key. The poor are not a problem to be fixed, they are people to whom we show the love of God, especially if they are our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

But isn’t it the government’s job to care for the poor? The war on poverty in the United States has been going on for 50 years and according to the Heritage Foundation has cost us $22 trillion, that’s trillion with a “t” and yet there are more Americans on food stamps than ever before. How much is a trillion? If you spent $1 million EVERY DAY, since the birth of Jesus, you would not have yet spent $1 trillion. And yet $22 trillion later the government is still working on it. So again, we should not think of the poor as a problem to be fixed but as people to whom we show the love of God.

We also need to dispel any notion that the poor are poor because they want to be. Go to Haiti and you will see some of the worst poverty that you have ever seen. And no one there wants to be poor and they are not poor because they are lazy. That may be true for some in our country and it is also true that many of our programs end up fostering poverty but in many many cases, like the churches in Macedonia, people are poor because they face what St. Paul calls “a severe ordeal of affliction.”

I was there once. I became very ill which started a kind of domino affect in my life and I lost almost everything and I mean everything. I lost my job as pastor of a non denominational church and the loses kept happening until I was down to an old car that I bought for a dollar, my clothes in the back seat of the car and a boom box. That was it. I moved into a converted motel that was a dingy rent-by-the-week room and while I was there I was robbed. They took my boom box and my shoes. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got a call from someone who at the time I wouldn’t have even called a friend, although later he became a great one. He said to me, “The Lord has told me to hire you.” I asked “To do what?” He said, “I don’t know stupid, He hasn’t told me that part yet.”

We met for lunch and I ended up working with him for a season and he even sponsored me to finish my first seminary and later to attend an episcopal seminary. In many ways I am a priest today because he answered God’s call to be generous to someone who suffered “a severe ordeal of affliction.” He didn’t judge me. He didn’t presume I had become poor because of God’s judgment. He didn’t treat me like a problem to be fixed. He responded to God’s call with love and generosity and was a great source of God’s blessing in my life. The joy of doing this is that you have no idea the impact that you are making on their life and the life of countless others when you reach out in love.

A fifth observation is that when we respond to the needs of the poor, we are acting like Jesus. “For you now the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In fact Jesus takes it a step further. He says that not only are we acting like Jesus when we help the poor but we are actually helping Jesus Himself. “As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto Me.” 

It is also important to realize that when we act like Jesus, when we minister to Jesus by ministering to others, it will cost us just as it cost Him. There is more to ministering to others than just writing a check. In fact on some occasions that is precisely the wrong thing to do. Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. He offers us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Ours is an incarnational religion so we need to have flesh in the game.

Last year before our first mission trip to Bolivia we had an important and needed discussion. Some rightfully wondered why we were spending all of the time and money to go down there in person when it seemed like it would more benefit the church in Bolivia if we just sent them a check. But they went down anyway and discovered how much richer their love and support meant to that church than if we had just sent money. When we help our mission team go down to Bolivia, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, we are participating in that ministry with them. But we go in person because God came to us in Person.

The challenge from these lessons today is a challenge for us as a parish and for us as individuals. The challenge is to assess if we are doing all that God has called us to do to impact the lives of others. I know that it has been God’s work to help the Burmese Refugees but is God calling St. Patrick’s to do more? I believe that He is. I don’t think that we have yet impacted this community to the extent that we could or should, particularly when it comes to the poor.

How about us as individuals? Beth and I tithe to this church because the Scripture calls us to bring the tithes to the storehouse, which we believe to be the local congregation where Word and Sacrament are ministered. But the Bible also speaks of tithes AND offerings. Where else is His money going? Whose lives are we impacting, whose needs do we need to meet?

These are questions that no one can answer for us, they must be answered by discernment and prayer. Bottom line is that the world is full of tokenism and impotent compassion. What it needs is for the Church to rise up, and through word and deed, demonstrate the love of God. So rise up ye saints of God! Amen.

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