The Hungry at Our Door

The local news website We Are Iowa reported yesterday that business is booming at local food pantries. When business booms at the mall, I suppose that is a good thing overall (aside from the spiritual morass of consumerism). When business booms at the food pantries, it is disconcerting because it means there are more and more folks who just can’t make ends meet. We started our own food pantry here at Holy Trinity so folks would have one more day a week to access help. We have seen a steady increase in clients for the pantry and our assistance program.

Now, before you wonder about whether these food pantry “customers” deserve the handouts, or are “worthy” of such grace, I would point you to the sculpture of the homeless Jesus on the bench below. The only way you can tell this is Jesus is by the nail scars in his feet (hard to see in this photo). The caption says it all. Jesus stands with the poor, the hungry, the disadvantaged, and even the undeserving. I am as undeserving a character as you’ll see and I have enough to eat. So, as the meme says…

 am-worthy-poor

I expect that this trend toward busier food pantries will continue until our culture, our nation, our leaders manage to pull our collective heads out of… um… ah… the sand about the economy. Look at the way costs associated with living have grown since 1978:

inflation-comparison-growth-1975-2012

Note that food prices have grown 243% in that time period. Now look at what you and your neighbor have likely seen when it comes to paying for that food:

income trends since 1978

If you are fortunate enough to fall into the top 5% of wages, your wages have grown 52%. If you are with 90% of your neighbors and friends, your income has risen only 16%. When it comes to the growing hunger problem, as one former president liked to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Today’s food pantry shopper is not always indigent, living in their car or receiving government assistance. They are, more and more, middle class moms and dads caught in a world where only a handful of folks get better off and the paycheck – which never seems to get bigger – just won’t buy the food the kids need.

We help the hungry in our community through the HTLC Food pantry, support of DMARC and the network of food pantries they support. We help with the Love Lunch program in Ankeny that makes sure hungry kids get lunch in the summer and we work with Backpack Buddies during the school year. We support the ELCA World Hunger Appeal – one of the most efficient hunger organizations in the world – to aid, assist and advocate for people as close as Des Moines and as far away as Africa and Asia. But it looks like we are going to need to push to do more, my sisters and brothers. Especially since the hungry at the door are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

In Matthew 25, Jesus blesses those who saw him hungry and gave him food, even though they had no idea it was Jesus. They didn’t recognize him because he comes to us laying on a park bench, in a soup kitchen and at the food pantry. That we feed any who show up means we heard Jesus’ command to love. That we feed the hungry at the door means we feed Jesus himself, every single time.

The Worthy Poor?

Jesus said, “…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

As the thunder thunders and the rain falls outside, I find myself thinking about this verse from Matthew. If you have water in the basement or a lake where you backyard used to be, you may not think of rain as a blessing right now. Sunshine? Absolutely. Precipitation? Not so much. The point of the verse is that good things (sunshine) and bad things (more rain) come to people regardless of their worth or standing; no matter whether they earned them; and in spite of whether they are good or bad people – however we determine that. Maybe the reason that the verse sprang to my head as the drops fell against the window was because I also have had on my mind the response to poverty in our culture. All too often I hear things like, “We should support the poor, as long as they deserve the help;” or “We don’t want to create dependency in these people and help them too much, after all, they made their bed…” It is a fallacy that there are worthy and unworthy poor people, just as it is a fallacy that there are worthy and unworthy rich people. The sun and the rain fall on everyone.

I encountered a good article on the subject by Scott Dannemiller – check it out: There’s No Such Thing As The Worthy Poor | The Accidental Missionary.

poor jesus statue

Jesus is the one who reminds us how wrong we are when we start judging the worth of other people. The statue of “The Homeless Jesus” (you can only identify the body on the bench by the wounds in the hands and feet) is pulled from Matthew’s gospel too. When we see people who are worthless, Jesus is incarnate in and through them. That’s what he said. “As you do to the least of these you do to me.” “I was hungry and you… I was in prison and you…” The artist has a series of such works:

thumbs_jail-ms-new-thumbnailthumbs_thumbs_whatsoever_you_do

http://www.sculpturebytps.com/large-bronze-statues-and-sculptures/religious-statues/statues-of-jesus/

You see, you can’t dismiss anyone because Jesus died for them and is united in death and resurrection with them. We are all unworthy. It is Christ who grants us worth by sharing himself with us.

Ever since I first saw the Homeless Jesus, I have thought that the forsaken figure should be on the bench in the north side of our church. It would remind us that we don’t only meet Jesus inside the church, but we often walk right past him on the street in the guise f a person we deem unworthy. Today, we would look out and see Jesus on the bench in the pouring rain. I think of that and my heart breaks. Jesus on that bench beckons us to come out in the rain and walk in his reign with him.

We are a congregation that proclaims our “open arms.” Today, that has to lead to a wet embrace. – Peace to you.

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.

SNAP and God’s Concern for the Poor

So, I was thinking as I read about the fact that too many kids in our country don’t have enough to eat; as I noted that we have used up pretty much all the money we had for assisting the poor already this year; as I learned about cuts to the SNAP program; as I read the advice from one pastor that we should not talk about the plight of the poor because it is too political, that God must spend a lot of time weeping.  In an age where we seem very concerned about rights: marriage rights, gun rights, freedom of speech, etc., we don’t seem to spend much time thinking about what Jimmy Carter (among others) called the two most basic human rights: to live in peace and have enough to eat. I was also thinking that life would be easier if I just kept my thoughts to myself…. but, there is this call I received, and vows I took.  So, here’s my thinking today.

Whether we agree with the position of the prophets and Jesus on the poor or not, it is clear that God seems to, on the one hand have infinite concern for the widows, orphans, those aliens in the land who have nothing, the poor, the people who live on the fringes and on the other, gets very impatient with those who have means and don’t take care of the poor.  The prophet Amos says in this week’s lesson “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…” (Amos 8:4)  Is the warning of God’s anger for us? Read through this article from Sojourners about the poor and the SNAP program: Just Picking On the Poor: The Facts and the Faces of Cutting SNAP – Jim Wallis | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.

Now, I know that there are concerns that some programs for the poor create dependency and keep people from work. I support every effort made to find long-term solutions to problems and to help people become the people God calls them to be — which biblically speaking, includes meaningful work. But, as one who meets the people who come in our door desperately searching for help, very few are the “lazy reprobates” everyone seems to fear. They are quite the opposite, in fact.

I also know that government excess is a problem and that “the government” is everyone’s favorite bad guy (even though in a Democracy, the enemy is us). But we can’t be a people who allow the “pain” of fiscal responsibility trickle down so the poor pay the freight.

It comes down to compassion and love, for me. If my God cares about the poor; if my God died to save me as a poor brutalized human; if I am called to love God AND my neighbor (read “humanity” ala the Good Samaritan) then caring for, supporting and giving voice to the poor is a calling for all who call upon the name of Jesus. That’s just what I was thinking today.

Pax Christi, Tim

Blasphemy and the Poor

Congressman Stephen Fincher is preaching, and he should stop. He cites two verses from scripture to defend the notion that aid to the poor in our country should be slashed.  His comments about how the Bible tells us we should cut aid to the poor is irresponsible and just rotten use of scripture. His use is not just one opinion among many, but blasphemy.  Now, I know that is a strong word, but it applies here.

Ted Peters, brilliant Lutheran theologian writes: Blasphemy “involves using the name of God directly or indirectly in order to hide evil behind a veil of righteousness. It is hypocrisy.” (Sin:Radical Evil in Soul and Society, Eerdman’s, 1994, p 217) Congressman, this is blasphemy. God’s call to care for the poor is a central biblical teaching from beginning to end. Read the whole thing, not just twistable verses.  His remarks are also blasphemy because they add to the public characterization of Christians as hateful and lacking compassion, and so it leads people astray.  Here is the article:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-schiffman/congressman-quotes-jesus-in-bid-to-gut-food-stamps_b_3331920.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=3031105b=facebook

Fincher cites Matthew 26:11, which says “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” as a reason to leave people poor, and make them poorer.  The context of course is that Jesus is on his way to death and as a woman anoints his feet with oil as an act of honor and compassion, the disciples complain that the money for the oil should have gone to the poor.  Jesus does not say “Ignore the poor. Pedicures for everyone!”  Jesus, in all of the gospel, stands with the poor – and in fact is poor himself.  C’mon Congressman.  Reading just a few of the 200+ references to the poor in scripture will uncover God’s love for those who are poor and God’s anger with those who make them so.  The Congressman also cites 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  How about we include at least the following verse: “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”  The problem was that some members of the Thessalonian church seem to have been withholding what they could pay, what they could do, what they could share with others and only received.  It was hurting the Church. That is far different than what the Congressman is saying.  Read the other letters of the New Testament and you will, again, find great concern about and responsibility for the poor among us.

Let me suggest just a few Biblical passages to expand the Congressman’s reading list:

Amos 5:11-12  11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.  12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

Luke 4:18-19  18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 6:20-26   20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Matthew 25:41-45   41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

Luke 16:19-25  19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,  21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.  23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’  25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

OK. I’m done for today.  Rant concluded. – Pastor Tim