A Plan for Following Jesus.
Faithful Living for Hard Times: Support the Weak.
A sermon preached at The Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on August 20, 2017.
The sixth in a ten part sermon series on our community charge:
Go out into the world in peace;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak,
and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
My newest nephew turns one next month.
Arlo is a bundle of energy and wide-eyed learning these days
That’s kind of what your first year of life is like.
Every day holds a new discovery.
Oh, that’s what it is like to stand on two feet and not fall over.
Why yes, I do look adorable in this collar shirt and bow tie combo
What toddler doesn’t
But wouldn’t it look better garnished with these strained carrots just so?
Wow, these novel sharp things you call teeth sure do hurt my gums
But aren’t they fun to bite with.
Seeing him grow and learn is one of the joys of my life right now.
It reminds me of things I had forgotten with my own kids
And I’m excited to see him get bigger and stronger.
It almost feels natural to want to protect him as he does so.
The infant is almost the definition of the vulnerable:
Unable to care for himself.
Completely dependent on others.
Lacking in the capacity to live independently on his own.
Don’t tell him that, of course.
He’d just coo and smile at you, and your heart would melt,
And you’d forget about that for a while and just want to play with him.
Children are among the most vulnerable among us.
We’re reflecting on this reading from Paul where he’s talking about food
And making choices about what to eat,
And I was thinking about my nephew and my own kids and how fortunate we are.
It reminded me about so many kids who barely have choices
when it comes to food.
Last year, about one in eight households in the US was food insecure,
Which means 15.8 million households, and the children who live in them
don’t know for sure where their meals this week are going to come from.[i]
It’s a little bit better than it was in 2014, when the figure was about one in seven
But that’s still a lot of hungry kids, and their families.
About one of thirty children in the US experienced homelessness in 2014,
That’s almost 2.5 million kids, living in shelters, on the streets, in cars,
On campgrounds, or doubled up with other families in tight spaces.[ii]
This isn’t an abstract matter.
This is happening here, right around us:
According to Newsweek
Kansas ranked 22nd in the nation for homelessness in children.
Missouri at 31st, is worse.
We have programs in place to try to address all of this,
But they are also on thin ice: food banks, like harvesters
School lunch programs (those make a huge difference to many kids)
WIC supplemental nutrition programs,
Community engagement, such as what we’re doing
With center schools and Cherith Brook
and Grace Community Ministries
But these can only go so far to address a growing income gap
And increasing numbers of people who are poor and struggling.
Experts will tell you that the ordinary course of development for kids
Is conditioned upon adequate nutrition, attention, love and empathy
All of which becomes much more difficult in these difficult situations.
Children are resilient, says Barbara Duffield, for instance
The director of policy and programs for at the
National Association of State Coordinators
for Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
But time is of the essence.
Go out into the world in peace.
Hold fast to what is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the fainthearted.
We’ve gathered this rainy Sunday morning to be renewed in our faith
And equipped for our life together as people who follow God
on the way of Jesus Christ.
This sermon series has turned out to be timely.
I’ve had many conversations this week with people who are looking for
What to do.
The events of Charlottesville in particular
Have been water over the bridge for many people facing anxiety and concern
About the state of our communities, and our world.
Its difficult enough, knowing about how precarious life is for children
Or the state of health care in the balance
Or the growing dangers of nuclear saber rattling in foreign affairs
Or a number of other concerns, take your pick…
But to add to that the reminder that long simmering forces of hatred are emboldened
racism and anti Semitism and
resentment of people who are different,
who are considered week and feeble and less than
because of what they look like or who they are
and we are left wondering what we can do to say NO in the face of it.
We have choices:
Do we shut down completely?
Focus anew in our schoolwork or our jobs or our bridge circles or our ipads
And bask in the privilege of not having to deal with it?
Pretend everything is just fine, thank you very much?
Do we jump on the next plane to Boston or New York or Atlanta or Austin
Wherever the next white nationalist and white supremacist rally is going to happen
To stand peaceably with those who would reject such hatred
By putting themselves in harms way
So that others won’t be harmed?
Do we start a book club? Educate ourselves so we can act thoughtfully.
Do we debate it with relatives and friends of friends on facebook?
Do we hunker down in prayer?
What do we do?
This sermon series is giving us some answers to that question:
Some of these things may be just what we are called to do.
But maybe not all of these things will be good:
either for you, or for the world, or for God.
But which things might be? How can you tell?
For that, we seek to cultivate actions based on specific values of the faith.
So: Find ways to pursue peace.
Start small, local: peace with yourself. Then with those around you.
Support those who seek God’s fullness of peace
That’s God’s shalom: a world where
JUSTICE and RECONCILIATION
Come together to make for peace.
Learn from them. Emulate them.
Take comfort from them.
Have courage as you do so, knowing its far too easy to want to just give up.
Hold on to what is good, and return no one evil for the evil that they do.
Strengthen the faint of heart, as Landon preached about last week
Giving encouragement and support to those who are actively working
To make this world a stronger, better, more loving, more just place
Particularly for those who are attacked, for those who are hated.
And today: we consider the Value to Support the Weak.
There are two quite different concepts of “the weak” that we find in scripture.
Both are important. We need to pay attention to each one.
On the one hand,
One of the very real distinctions that made the Hebrew people unique,
Different from their Canaanite neighbors
was a crystal clear call to care
for the weak and vulnerable in their society.
The Old Testament is full of laws and regulations and structures
To protect against false weights in the marketplace[iii]
Or taking advantage of your neighbor’s inability to
Keep their herd straight and confined
You know, just the situation where you can go nab a goat or two
and pretend that they were your own…
These details seem so boring to us sometimes when you read them.
Just go flip through Leviticus or Deuteronomy sometime
And you’ll see what I mean. (A great way to help you get to sleep.)
But they’re really vital for us.
While the rules and laws themselves developed problems over time of their own
The point, at the heart of it, was to protect people from being scammed
and taken advantage of.
Particularly those who didn’t have very much. A few goats, or doves.
The poor of their day.
And even more broadly, the concept of the Jubilee developed[iv]
Where debts were forgiven on a regular basis
Not because we should be wishy washy
about our promises and our obligations
but because no one should live in perpetual debt, perpetual servitude
handed down to their kids and their kids’ kids.
Then there are the protections given to foreigners travelling in the land
Immigrants and sojourners: treat them like your very own kin
These laws, these protections apply to them too.[v]
And when you add it all up, you see a very unique social structure
A different way of living: one that cares for the hurting and the hungry
The weak and the vulnerable.
This would carry on into the New Testament, to the teachings of Jesus
Who would teach and preach and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
For all of us, and particularly for the vulnerable:
Feed the Hungry.
Give water to the thirsty.
Clothe the naked. Visit the imprisoned. Heal the sick.
And in doing this, you do so to Jesus himself, he would say….[vi]
And in what is perhaps the most famous of his teachings,
The beatitudes, which Tabe read for us this morning,
Shows Jesus announcing with a voice of proclamation
God’s abiding blessings for those on the margins:
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are the mourning, the meek,
Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness
The persecuted and reviled.
In this sense, the encouragement to support the weak is about as clear a call
as we can find in Holy Scripture.
The wonderful thing is that, if we’re looking for something to do,
This is also about as simple a thing as there is to find important, lasting,
Useful ways of helping out.
We will build on our work at Center Schools:
focused on helping kids and their families.
We will nurture a relationship with Jewish Vocational Services
And find out how to support immigrants in our midst.
We will give time, energy, resources, and prayers to Cherith Brook
As they give shelter to the homeless and work for a better life
Among the poor of our city.
We will continue to support the Presbyterian Church USA
As together we explore anti-racism efforts and peaceful witness
For God’s inclusive, prodigal love.
Or there are myriad opportunities in your own neighborhood to make a difference
If we have a mind to.
A church is a great place to focus your anxieties and your worries
When times get tough and we are searching to help
This church is committed to supporting the weak
for the sake of God’s shalom.
That’s one way that the scriptures talk about the weak.
The other way is this curious focus of Paul on the nature of the community
of the church. How believers in Christ get along together.
Now, there are parts of Paul’s letters that flow beautifully
And are almost immediately understood: Here are some of my favorites:
Rejoice in the Lord Always! Again, I say, Rejoice![vii]
Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three,
and the greatest of these is love![viii]
In so far as it is possible, live peaceably with all.[ix]
I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God
In Christ Jesus our Lord.[x]
I love it when Paul talks like this. I get it. I can follow without too much thinking.
But then you sometimes get more obscure topics he’s dealing with
Like this strange matter of getting into the middle of the food that people
Are choosing to eat.
And if I’m honest, I don’t want to get involved in that either.
I like my hamburger like most do.
I’ve taken pride in introducing my kids to Kansas City Barbeque
And they’ve now taken a liking to ribs.
This question of people squabbling over what people ate seems
so much more remote and inconsequential to me.
Particularly when worrying about WHAT they ate seems less of a deal
than that they GOT to eat in the first place.
Aren’t there bigger things at stake, Paul?
Well, maybe. Or maybe not.
Its helpful to know that they didn’t have grocery stores like ours back then.
You couldn’t just go to price chopper and buy yourself a steak or chicken breast
If you have the money to do so.
The only place to get meat, if you lived in a major city like Rome or Corinth,
was the temple:
that’d be the temple to one of the Greek or Roman Gods—Zeus, Apollo, Nike
where those animals were sacrificed in religious ceremonies
and then the fat and entrails and nasty parts burned,
the good stuff split between the priests and sold to the public.
Those were the butcher shops. If you ate meat, you ate meat dedicated to an idol.
And so this isn’t an issue of modern day vegetarianism, right.
Its not that some people prefer a luscious salad, and others want a juicy burger.
Buying and eating meat meant that you KNEW it was dedicated to some other God.
And that really bothered some people.
It nagged at their conscience.
It gave them difficulty sitting in the cafeteria when others were eating.
It damaged relationships—friendships, family ties, loved ones.
Paul spent a lot of time dealing with this, actually.
Beyond what we read in Romans today, about four chapters of first Corinthians
Relate as well.
Paul had taught that there really AREN’T other Gods.
That the images and idols of the Greeks and the Romans, or those of our own lives
Aren’t real. They have no power.
They are what we put our faith and trust in falsely.
There is only one God, our God, the one we see in Jesus.
If you understand this, Paul says, then this food ostensibly sacrificed to an idol
Is no different than any other food:
So go and eat, enjoy, cook it up with a nice spice rub
Have at it.
But, and this is a huge caveat,
But you’re missing the point.
The point is the person next to you, the one who can’t quite go there
Who might be really struggling right now,
Trying to Hold on to an idea of God that is helping them
Get through some hard times
And your noshing on that Hamburger in front of them
Isn’t going to help, is it?
You might be right.
You might have the right.
That burger might be cooked oh just right.
But woe to us if we don’t take to heart
what it is we’re doing before this neighbor of ours.
one whom Paul says is weak.
Paul’s basic principle
is that the people who are strong have an obligation to those who are weak.
To whom much is given, much is required,
to paraphrase the Gospel of Luke.[xi]
Its not enough to be confident that we’re right, and act as we want.
Just because you’re right, doesn’t mean you act rightly,
Because there is more going on here than our own desires.
Your neighbor might even be WRONG, in the abstract, or on the merits.
We have to be concerned for the conscience and wellbeing of our neighbor too.
I think this principle will help us in the weeks and years to come
As we seek how to be faithful in the world.
Not only should we support the weak concretely,
Supporting structures and programs, giving of our resources
to meet the material and substantive needs
of the hungry, the hurting, the poor
but we should do so humbly, meekly, generously
reminded of our obligations to look beyond our own rights and desires
and be concerned about the neighbor around us
even when their claims and cries and concerns
do not seem to us to always ring quite right.
We are to move beyond our own indignation, our own self-righteousness,
Our own privilege
And instead do all we can to make those around us stronger and healthier.
Now, that’s so very different than what our culture teaches us to do
Where might makes right
Where I have mine and if you don’t you’re a loser
But it is the way of God in Christ Jesus: to live in relationship with others
And to give ourselves away so that others may thrive.
As I ponder this world we’re living in,
And the world my nephew is growing up in, my kids are growing up in
I am grateful for this lesson, to give and to give generously
And I’m grateful that we can model for each other ways to do this
In an ever more turbulent and self-centered world.
May we continue to witness to God’s self-giving love in our Lord and Savior Jesus
By working to support the weak
And, in so doing, may we know that our own lives
Are constantly supported by the love and the grace of Almighty God.
May it be so.
[i] Data from World Hunger, accessed August 19, 2017: http://www.worldhunger.org/hunger-in-america-2016-united-states-hunger-poverty-facts/
[iii] For instance, see Leviticus 19:35-36, and Deuteronomy 25:13-16. Or Ezekiel 45:9-10. Or Amos 8:4-6. Or Hosea 12:7-8. Or Micah 6:10-14. Or Proverbs 11:1, 16:11, 20:10.
[iv] Leviticus 25
[v] See http://kairosblog.com/2017/01/29/sermon-what-a-blessing/
[vi] Matthew 25:31ff
[vii] Philippians 4
[viii] 1 Corinthians 13
[ix] Romans 12
[x] Romans 8
[xi] See the parable of the faithful servant, Luke 12:36ff
Image from https://storify.com/Groupstorify/group-16-hunger