Sunday, September 6, 2015

"On God's Side" (James 2:1-5, 14-17)

The stock market has been a little wobbly lately. Over the past five or six years, we’ve had a pretty good run. But about two weeks ago, traders started getting nervous. Stocks dove. Some say this is just the beginning of a down cycle, which isn’t exactly a cause for alarm, but something that just happens every six or seven years.
Nevertheless, it’s big news. It’s big news, because it involves big money.
The truth is, for those with big money, times are good. Incomes are up 15% over the past twenty years. History has shown that even when the stock market takes a tumble, it’s just a momentary speed bump on the path to greater wealth.
But for those without big money, things are not so good.
Middle class incomes have not risen at all. Paychecks have actually shrunk for most Americans. The only people who have actually seen their incomes go up are the extremely wealthy.
In other words, on this Labor Day weekend, those who actually do most of the labor in this country are not able to benefit from the fruits of their labor.
My father – now retired – was a hard-working blue collar employee of the U.S. Postal Service. With the income he earned, he and my mom were able to buy a nice home, the home in which I and my sisters were raised, the home in which my father, 40 years later, still lives in.
A lot of people my age and younger, in similar jobs today, or even some in white collar careers, have all but given up on the dream of owning their own home. And of course, we’re better off than many others. Despite the rising stock market of the past six years and the rising wealth of those at the top, poverty remains high in this country. Poverty rates are higher now than they were six years ago. The wealth that was supposed to trickle down, hasn’t.
In the U.S. today, the top one-tenth percent owns as much as the bottom 90 percent. Our economic policy supports this. And among corporations, the biggest, most profitable among them pay little or no taxes.
Today, the corporate income tax rate is 35%. That sounds like a lot. However, Fortune 500 companies have found ways to pay less. Many pay zero or less than zero … many of the biggest, most profitable companies actually have a negative tax rate, meaning they receive more in subsidies and tax breaks from the government than they pay.
Over the past five years, GE earned $27 billion in profits; meanwhile the company received $3 billion in tax refunds, for an effective tax rate of -11%.
Tenet Healthcare earned $854 million in profits, yet had a tax rate of -6%. How much are you currently paying for health insurance? Given the profit that health insurance companies are making, do you think it’s right that – instead of paying their fair share of taxes – the government pays them?
PG&E has an effective tax rate of -17%, thanks to almost $2 billion in tax breaks from the government. (Where do you sign up for that? I want a tax rate of -17%!) pays no taxes. Priceline CEO Darren Huston makes 300 times the salary of the average Priceline employee. McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson’s salary equals the salary of 644 McDonald’s employees.
And these are the same companies that lobby congress, saying they can’t afford an increase in minimum wage.
I bring this up not because it’s a political issue, but because it’s a biblical issue. It was a biblical issue long before it ever became an issue in American politics.
I bring this up because of what today’s scripture, from the book of James, says: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
I bring this up because James is not alone. Jesus and the prophets all cried out for an end to the oppression of the poor, an end to gross inequality. In fact, in ancient times, the times of the prophets, it was during times of great economic inequality that God called the prophets. Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, and all the rest, were prophets in times of great economic inequality.
When the rich were very rich and the poor were left behind, that’s when God’s prophets were active.
But when the poor were not left behind, when they were cared for, when the gap between rich and poor shrank – there still was a gap, but it wasn’t as big – in those times, the prophets were silent. In those times, God didn’t see the need to call prophets to speak to the people.
The prophets were only active when the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
Biblically speaking, this issue is HUGE.
In the gospel according to Luke, when Jesus began his ministry, the first thing he said was: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”
If Jesus was starting out in ministry today, he’d be holding a sign that says “#PoorLivesMatter.” (And probably one that says “#BlackLivesMatter.”)
By the way, that doesn’t mean that rich lives don’t matter. The people today who are proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” aren’t saying that other lives don’t matter. But God’s focus is on freeing those who are oppressed, whether it’s slavery, economic oppression, or racism. When the Hebrews cried out for help, cried out to be saved from Pharaoh, they were basically saying, “Look at us, God! Our lives matter!”
God didn’t respond, “Well, Egyptian lives matter, too.” But God did focus on helping those who were oppressed, and seeing that they had the same opportunities, the same freedom, the same prosperity, as those oppressed them.
Equality was a defining characteristic of the early church. When people came together for worship, to gather at the Lord’s Table, they put aside their differences. Rich and poor dined together, something that never happened in ancient society.
When the Corinthians forgot this, and the rich started having their own meals, eating separately from the poorer members of the church, this infuriated the apostle Paul. He wrote to them and said, “I do not commend you, because when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you… When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry while another becomes drunk. What!... Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”
Paul then adds, “For this is what I received from the Lord, that which I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you…’ And he took the cup also, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.’”
And then Paul says, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another…”
So at this central meal – the Lord’s Supper – equality is essential.
There are some who say we live in a Christian nation. That’s not true; we live in a nation where all people of all faiths are free to practice their religion.
But if this were a Christian nation, we would ensure that no person goes hungry.
If this were a Christian nation, we would make sure that every person has a seat at the table.
If this were a Christian nation, CEOs would not be making 600 times the pay of their company’s employees, while claiming that they can’t afford a raise in minimum wage.
If this were a Christian nation, those CEOs and the companies they run would contribute their fair share to the running of the government, instead of leaving the burden of paying taxes to the poor and working classes.
This is not a Christian nation. This is actually a nation that worships money. As Pope Francis said recently, “Man is not in charge today. Money is in charge. Money rules.”
It’s important to remember that God fought against the Egyptians on behalf of the poor, oppressed Hebrews. God called Moses, a wealthy prince of Egypt, and then a fairly well-off member of the house of Jethro, to lead his people out of Egypt. God works through rich and poor alike, but because the poor have special vulnerability, God is at work lifting the poor up and casting down those who rich.
U2 is one of the most successful rock bands ever. The members of the band, of course, enjoy all the fame and the wealth that comes from being famous rock stars.
Bono, the lead singer of U2 – a man who has sold millions of songs and made millions of dollars – is also a man of faith, a man who recognizes that the wealthy have a special responsibility to the poor, a responsibility placed on them by God.
In 2006, Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, which means he was a rich man speaking to other rich men and women. This is what he said:

“Whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives. Check Judaism. Check Islam. Check pretty much anyone. I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill… I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff… maybe, maybe not… But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”

Gracious God, we thank you for making one human family of all the peoples of the earth and for creating all the wonderful diversity of cultures.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship and show us your presence in those who differ most from us.
From the bondage of racism that denies the humanity of every human being and the prejudices within us that deny the dignity of those who are oppressed, Lord set us free:
From racism that blinds oppressors to the destruction caused by the spirit and practice of racial injustice, Christ set us free:
From the racism that will not recognize the work of your Spirit in other cultures: Lord set us free:
Forgive those of us who have been silent and apathetic in the face of racial intolerance and bigotry, both overt and subtle, public and private.
And take away the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts.
Break down the walls that separate us.
And help us to find that unity that is the fruit of righteousness and will enable us to become your beloved community.
Empower us to speak boldly for justice and truth and help us to deal with one another without hatred or bitterness, working together with mutual forbearance and respect.
And work through our struggles and confusion to accomplish your purposes.
O God of unconditional love, you who show no partiality in respect to people or nations, we have heard your good news of great joy for all the people, including and especially for those who are poor and oppressed.
We hear that good news, and in hearing, believe.
We know that your sanctuary is a house of worship for all people, with no regard for the color of our skin.
As we worship you, knit us into a people, a seamless garment of many colors.
May we celebrate our unity, made whole in our diversity.
Forgive us for our inability to let our “old selves” die to the world.
We acknowledge that we participate in structures that are inherently racist, and yet we so often do nothing to remedy it.
Show us we fail when we judge others according to the color of their flesh.
God, you are rich in mercy. You love us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace save us and restore us to wholeness. You strengthen us with the power of the Holy Spirit, so that Christ may live in our hearts through faith.


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