Sermon preached September 25, 2011
Text: Exodus 17:1-7
So how are you doing? We have been discussing in recent weeks and invitation given by and to churches in our area to be good neighbors, to rediscover the art of neighboring. It begins with the simple act of getting to know those who are your neighbors. If you want to see others who are asking this question go to the site www.buildingblocks.us and enter your address. There are also ideas there for having block parties as a way to get to know each other in your neighborhood.
Some days it is kind of difficult to think about block parties, and not just because it is starting to get cold outside. In many ways this is not the best time in the life of our nation and world to be considering parties. Someone has described the world in which we live as a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous – and he argues that it is likely to continue to be this kind of world, only more so in the future. In this VUCA world we experience a great deal of insecurity. That we have a Department of Homeland Security is itself a testimony to our sense of insecurity. And if we want to discuss insecurity, we cannot ignore the deepening sense of economic insecurity being felt. Do we have a job? What will become of that job? Will our income go down? What about investments? Will my company continue to provide health insurance? We feel it, our neighbors feel it. It is affecting us all, some more than others.
In a time of economic insecurity, as many of us worry about our own economic well-being or the economic well-being of our children or grandchildren, it is easy to close in on ourselves, close down a bit. Becoming overwhelmed with our own concerns, we can easily lose sight of the wider concerns in our world, the concerns of our neighbors near and far. I want to preach a bit about our world this morning and the point of what I want to say is not economic or political, though I will be sharing some about the current state of our political economy, my point is spiritual. I want to speak primarily about our hearts and our souls and our relationship to God.
This past week a number of statistics about poverty were released. Nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty (15.2%) – a record 46.2 million people. The poverty rate is the highest it has been in fifty years. The percent of children living in poverty is 22%. If people in poverty were evenly distributed in our neighborhoods, someone who lives right next to you or across the street from you would be in poverty. It is also helpful to know a bit more what we are talking about. The poverty level is about $22,000 for a family of four. Friday’s Duluth NewsTribune reported poverty statistics for Minnesota. We are doing a little better here – 11.6% with a child poverty rate of 15.2% (an increase of over 1% from 2010). Yet Minnesota’s “good news” is not as good for our county. The poverty rate in St. Louis County is 17.9% and at least one in five people in Duluth lives in poverty.
Behind the numbers are some harsh realities of childhood poverty. Children in poverty suffer asthma at an enhanced rate. When children are malnourished their brain development is affected and the effects can last for years.
Behind the numbers are people and stories. A family in Palatine, Illinois that once earned over $100,000 is struggling to make it. Both husband and wife lost their jobs forcing them to move from their rented home into an apartment and to give up their car. There is the former McDonald’s restaurant manager in New Mexico laid off from his job now living with his wife, who was also laid off from Subway, in a homeless shelter after they had spent time living in their car. There are other stories, many other stories. The Pew Research Center reports that more than 55% of adults in the U.S. labor force have suffered a work-related hardship since the recession began – things like reduction in work hours, pay cut, unpaid leave. Not all have fallen into poverty, but many have.
Amidst all these statistics released this week the one that caught my attention the most, that concerns me the most is this – for the first time in the fifteen years the Pew Research Center has asked about this, the majority of Americans oppose more government spending to help the poor and needy. I know this is a complex issue and I know that we are deep in debt and need to keep that ever before us – yet this response may say something about our hearts and souls. There is a spiritual issue here.
The Israelites have been freed from Egypt and they are on their wilderness journey. It is not a walk in the park. They arrive at Rephidim, a place lacking water. That is a problem, a problem they raise with Moses. It is not the first time they have raised such issues with Moses, issues about water and food. Thus far on the journey, they have been provided for, but they are feeling insecure again. Once we imagined if we work hard, attend to our education, our economic future would be relatively secure. The people are thirst, and Moses is a little tired of their complaining. Moses takes the matter up with God. “What shall I do with this people?” God responds and water is provided, though the place is named “quarrel” and “test.” It was a place where the people wondered if God was still among them. God’s presence is evident, in part, because the need for water was met.
There is a lot to this story. One could use it as a story about whining. So you have a problem – would you like a little cheese with that whine? The people are not exactly portrayed in the most favorable light. They seem whiny, especially given the history of God’s care for them to this point in the larger story.
But the need is real. Without water, people die. The issue is not insignificant. Though perhaps the people come across as kind of whiny in the story, notice God does not take them to task for that. God hears. God hears not a whine but a cry, a cry of the needy, and God responds. That seems to be the character of God.
So, in the midst of deep human need with growing poverty, is prayer the answer? Prayer is appropriate, always appropriate. But there is more. God acts through people to meet the need, instructing Moses to act. We may have a part to play in this.
But I want to take this even further. The character of God is that God hears the cry of the needy. Now hear these words from the New Testament, words of Jesus. Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Be perfect as God is perfect. Perfection isn’t about never making mistakes. Perfection is about wholeness. Perfection may have something to do with a heart and soul open to all of life, even to the cries of the needy, those in poverty, the lonely, the hurting, the marginalized. That kind of perfection is not easy. More than openness, perfection has also to do with our responsiveness, being open to the world and responsive to it. Jesus again, Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate (Luke 6:36). When we read stories that focus on the character of God they are also stories that give us clues as to the kind of people God desires us to be as followers of Jesus Christ – open, responsive, compassionate.
This is heavy stuff. Last week I spoke about another core characteristic of God, grace. That is always in the background. When I am inviting us today to think about where our hearts and souls are at in a suffering world, grace is always in the background. I am not talking about our acceptability to God, and the point here is not guilt. The point is grace and growth in grace. God’s grace is the grace of a warm, supple heart open to the pain of the world, the needs of the world, the hurt of the world. Our growth in grace is keeping our hearts warm, supple, open. Be compassionate as God is compassionate.
When I read that perhaps we as a nation are losing some of our compassion, when we are unwilling to even consider how our government, which is the only way we have of acting together as a nation, might be of help to those who are now in poverty, I am concerned. We cannot dismiss the cries of the hurting as merely whining. I understand where some of this is coming from. We have seen some programs to help the poor mire them deeper in cycles of dysfunction. But that is not true of every such program. If we are managing to get by, we still feel some of the insecurity of our time, and chronic anxiety tends not to bring out our best. That’s why we need to be particularly attentive to what’s going on inside of us. Are our hearts growing in grace? Are our souls open to the world and to the movement of God’s Spirit which takes the needs of the world seriously?
Open hearts and souls don’t solve complex political and economic problems by themselves, but without a willingness to hear the cry of the poor, the hungry, the hurting, the children, we will not muster the will to think about how we can best help – as individuals, as churches and as a nation. As God’s people who follow Jesus listen, respond as best you can with compassion, keep your hearts warm and your souls supple. Amen.