Sunday, January 21, 2007

Are Our Bibles Full of Holes?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Year C: The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 21, 2007

Nehemiah 8: 2-10
1 Corinthians 12: 12-27
Luke 4: 14-21
Psalm 113

Are Our Bibles Full of Holes?

As many of you know a couple of weeks ago I took what’s called the General Ordination Exam. For each question we had three and a half hours to write a three-page essay – single-spaced. One of the questions pointed out that since early days the Church has taught that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. OK, so far. And then we were asked to explain why this teaching – that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine – might be important for us today. Uh-oh.

I won’t bore you with my whole answer (especially since I haven’t gotten the grade yet) but one of the things I wrote I believe very deeply. The fact that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine tells us some very important things about both God and about us. It tells us that the physical, flesh and blood, material world – the here and now – is very important to God. Sometimes we Christians forget that, I think. Sometimes religious people get our heads up in the clouds. We get so focused on the spiritual world – or on the next life – that we forget that God cares deeply about the here and now, the flesh and blood material world.

The fact that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine also tells us that God cares very deeply about human beings – about all human beings. God cares so much that God becomes present to us in Jesus Christ. Each week we stand and say the creed and I think after a while we can lose the wonder of it – that God, creator of the universe came and lived among us – not in disguise but as a real flesh and blood human being.

So the fact that Jesus is fully human and fully divine tells us that we should care very deeply about God’s creation – the here and now. And the fact that Jesus is fully human and fully divine tells us that we should care very deeply about our brothers and sisters – all of our brothers and sisters. Paul describes this beautifully in his letter to the Corinthians. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.” Paul is telling the Corinthians and us today that we cannot ignore, cut off or throw away anyone. We cannot say to anyone, “I have no need of you.”

And yet, very often we say exactly that. We say, especially to the poor and oppressed, “We have no need of you.” In today’s gospel lesson, Luke describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus has just survived the temptations of the desert and now he has come home to the synagogue in Nazareth. It is no accident that Jesus reads this passage from the prophet Isaiah – notice the words – God’s anointed one has come to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor. Jesus is beginning his ministry with these words of liberation. This is the message and mission of Jesus. And today it must be the message and mission of us, the Church.

You know, there is nothing “spiritual” in these words. Jesus’ head is not up in the clouds. Instead, Jesus is proclaiming a very concrete, here and now, flesh and blood message. And just in case people still don’t get it, Jesus adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today – not some day in the future, not in heaven, but right here and now.

The part of this story that people usually remember is what happens next and wasn’t in today’s reading – the people in the synagogue get angry and almost throw Jesus off a cliff. But if you look carefully at the text, they’re not mad because of what Jesus has just said. They get mad because Jesus tells them that his ministry is for everyone – even foreigners. They get angry because really Jesus tells them you can’t say to anyone – even foreigners – “I have no need of you.”

A few weeks ago on the fourth Sunday of Advent we heard Mary say of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.” Mary and now Jesus are both proclaiming that God cares about the here and now – God cares about the world – God cares about human beings and God especially cares for the poor and oppressed.

In my spare time I have been reading a book called God’s Politics by Jim Wallis. In the book Wallis tries to remind us that God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but God is always on the side of the poor and oppressed. Hopefully this doesn’t come as a newsflash to anyone, but there seem to be lots of people who call themselves Christians who just don’t seem to understand that God really is on the side of the poor and oppressed.

In the book Wallis tells the story of when he was in seminary, as an experiment he and some of his classmates decided to cut out of their bibles every verse that had something to do with the poor. Once they started looking they found several thousand verses in the Bible on the poor and God’s response to injustice. It was the second biggest theme in the Old Testament – after idolatry which is often related. In the gospel of Luke, which we have been reading these past few weeks in church, one out of every seven verses deals with the poor and oppressed. One out of every seven verses! When they were done cutting out the verses about the poor and oppressed these seminarians were left with a Bible full of holes.

So hopefully it’s clear to all of us that the needs of the poor and the oppressed can not be some little side issue for us Christians. The needs of the poor and oppressed can’t be something we’ll get around to someday. James Forbes, the pastor of the Riverside Church in Manhattan has said, “No one gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” When I quoted that line to Sue a few days ago she said it gave her goose bumps. Maybe it should give us all goose bumps. “No one gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

It’s a great line, but Forbes is simply summing up what Jesus himself says in Matthew’s gospel. In some of most well-known Bible verses Jesus says a place in heaven is prepared for those who feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, who welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned. Jesus says those hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned people are in fact Jesus himself. And, Jesus also warns that those who fail to do these things will go to eternal punishment.

So what about us? Is our Bible full of holes because we have ignored God’s call to help the poor and oppressed? Would we get a letter of reference from the poor so we can go to heaven?

I can’t speak for you, of course, but these past few weeks I’ve been wondering and praying about this. Is my Bible full of holes? Would I get a letter of reference from the poor? And I’m embarrassed and a little frightened to stand here and say, I’m not too sure I would get a letter of reference from the poor. Maybe my Bible really is full of holes.

And there’s no excuse for doing nothing. It’s not like we have to look very far to see the poor and oppressed. I looked up the statistics for Jersey City. Nineteen percent of our people live below the poverty line. Even worse, 27 percent of young people under the age of 18 are living in poverty. Those are the official statistics – I’m sure the truth is far worse. I walk between our house and Journal Square all the time and I see desperately poor people every day: The woman who sits on the steps of the Old Bergen Church every day begging for spare change. The man with long dirty gray hair who stands bent over his walker in front of the liquor store on Kennedy Boulevard. The woman – well-dressed and neat – who spends every night sleeping with her suitcases next to the Provident Bank ATM on Bergen Avenue. What do I do for any of these people – my neighbors? Not a thing. People like me say to people like them – I have no need of you. And yet, standing in that Nazareth synagogue long ago Jesus boldly proclaimed that he had come to bring good news to the poor. What good news do we as the Body of Christ in the world bring to the poor today?

One of the excellent points that Jim Wallis makes throughout his book is that budgets are moral documents. How we individually, as a church, and as a nation choose to spend our money says a lot about our morality – what we really believe is right and wrong – what we really think is important.

And so I wonder about all the comforts I enjoy while that man stands bent over his walker on the Boulevard or all those children right here in our city live in poverty. I wonder about our own church’s budget. Last week at the parish meeting as we looked at those numbers, how many of us wondered if we were doing and spending enough to help the poor and the oppressed? I know it didn’t cross my mind. And I wonder about our nation’s budget. Before it’s done we will have spent over a trillion dollars on the Iraq war. A trillion is a million millions! Whether we believe the war was justified or not, as Christians we all have to reflect on the use of so much wealth that could have benefited so many of the poor and oppressed in our country and around the world.

So, where do we go from here? Well, individually and as a church we need to pray and reflect. And we need to act. Are we bringing good news to the poor? Or are we saying, “I have no need of you”? Maybe we commuters could pack a couple of sandwiches in the morning to give to people we see begging in the street. Maybe we could all write to the president and other people in the government saying as Christians we demand that more money be spent for the poor than for war. Maybe we could all take a look at our budgets – maybe we could give a little more to charities that help the poor and oppressed. Maybe here at church we could start a food pantry or a coat drive. Maybe we could take a look at our church budget and ask if we who have so much could give a little more. I’m sure all of you could come up with great ideas.

The good news is it’s still January – it’s not too late for New Year’s resolutions. As we go forward we can promise ourselves and promise God that we will not forget about the here and now – the physical, flesh and blood material world. We can promise that we will never say to any of our brothers and sisters “I have no need of you.” We can make sure that our Bible is not full of holes – that we remember God’s special love and care for the poor and oppressed. The good news is there’s still time to get a letter of reference from the poor.