Does Jesus Have a Preference for the Middle Class?
As a pastor I have been involved in many weddings. It is common for the planners to spend as much time selecting the seating chart for the reception, as the bride and groom do thinking about being married. There's just so many ways that you can go wrong with seating. People have high expectations and hope to be treated with respect in these formal settings.
It makes you wonder how things will be when we go to the big banquet in heaven. How on earth will folks get sorted? What can we begin to expect? We know that grace comes without qualification, and yet how can God fail to honor the Saints and martyrs who gone before us?
I suppose the word of praise about the new ballpark might be especially true in heaven, “There is not a bad seat in the house.” Better to be in the lowliest place among the saints, than a place of honor among the damned.
Even as I say all of that, we know that a good reputation is a valuable and functionally useful part of human life. That may well be even more true in small town America. It is just easier to get along, if you have the respect of your neighbors.
As we talked about social status, it quickly became apparent that at least in this area, folks have their own perspective on status. The bridge club people are admired for their brains. The various competitions at the Sandwich Fair each have their own favorites. I asked if the various men’s coffee gatherings; the barbershop, Country Kitchen, the Body Shop are the ones I know about, I wondered if there was a hierarchy to those gatherings. All I got was nervous laughter.
My wife Martha has had a shift in her sensitivity to people’s opinion through this season’s bout of the teacher and School Board salary negotiations. Both the Board and the teachers have had cantankerous individuals complicating what - in the past - has often been a relatively simple process. I think it is a sign of the times that some folks feel they are not able to make their point unless they use confrontational language and pose as if compromise were the same as losing all of their integrity.
In these situations Martha is prone to say, “I don’t care what people think. I just have to do what I understand is right.”
Here the point is not that she does not care what people think, it is that she prefers to be known for her integrity and not spend extra time worrying about each person’s emotional reaction. The focus is on integrity and not courting the favor of the loudest voices. This points us at the message of Luke’s gospel this morning, and reflects the intent of the passage from Hebrews.
Let us not chase after prestige for the sake of flattering our egos. It is easy to poke fun at the vanity we see in the news each day. It is hard to try to pray for those whose behavior demonstrates not just bad taste, but proposes to make America into a place where compassion and equality are no longer valued.
I admit that in my own mind, I have felt the political process of the last 30 years has been corrupted by the influence of big money. It seems apparent that both major political parties have manipulated the laws so that corruption and bribery are now legal, at least for big business and its movers and shakers, even though it remains unethical.
I am a child of the 50’s, a baby boomer who believes that the culture was at its best when the sense of civic pride was right on the surface in our communities, and that a strong middle class provided the tax base to do great community projects and create opportunities for advancement. The compression of the Middle Class is at the core of our unbalanced budgets, fear of immigrants, failure of the American Dream.
This week, my personal bubble with its USA sticker got pierced by a well written article in the Washington Post* that I encountered on Facebook, written in part by Miroslav Volf, a Catholic theologian, that reminded me that true Christian values begin with promoting the needs the poor, the homeless, the outcasts and refugees.
To run a political campaign promising to restore the middle class and middle class values appeals to the baby boomer in me, but it truly does fall short of Christian values. Like the ALS Ice Bucket challenge of a couple of years ago, I was startled by the obvious truth in the article, and also startled that I had appropriated the claim for honorable intentions for my middle class - first world woes - and missed the big picture of the gospel. I might be the pastor, but I still need a helping hand to see past my own self interests.
What can we do as a people to feed the hungry, rescue the refugees, and protect the Dakota Indian Tribes from oil pipelines that threaten their reservations, and fail to bring them any benefits - while they absorb the risks? What can we do to give hope to communities where minimum wage jobs only promise a lifetime of debt and lack of status? How can we call American Christianity back from the trap of the Prosperity Gospel, to the good news of Jesus the Christ?
To reclaim our integrity as Christians, we have to stick close to Jesus and the message he gave us. “ But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When we let those words sink in, we leave ourselves little room to prioritize our self-interests. Our self-interest might best be expressed in our opening hymn, “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?” That would truly put us on pace to enter the kingdom of heaven. That is our greatest need, to find a means of service that benefits others, and makes use of the gifts God has given us.
Our greatest need we have as a congregation, is to identify closely with the gospel’s call to serve those who are not able to help themselves. As we collectively identify and share missions that meet the priority of the gospel, we grow in the power of the Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite examples of a generous spirit comes from the Ottawa UCC church. One of the church leaders was a man, who owned a carpet and drapery store in town. He was a kind and gentle man. At one point in his life, he decided to open an office to give financial advice. Martha and I asked to talk with him, and began a better relationship with him.
His business office was in one the bank buildings in town. I later learned, he was the major stockholder in the bank. I also learned he had been teaching a night class on business practices at Northwestern University for many years. He was also the Chief Financial Officer for a significant urban ministry designed to give poor African-Americans help in achieving educational and cultural goals.
After he and his wife died, they established a fund to support the cost of seminary that was administered by the congregation, and directly benefitted me. In life and in death, he and his wife generously provided new ways for me to understand what service might look like when you use the gifts God gave you.
At one point in another church, the congregation received a contribution from the estate of a former member. The Council was asked to consider “tithing” this unexpected windfall. It turned out to be a great educational moment for the congregation as they wrestled with the thought. It took a couple of months before the Council was ready to make that decision.
They ended up taking 10% of the gift, and dividing it among the charities that were already supported in the budget. The checks were in addition to the budgeted amounts. It was a bonus or windfall for the charities, just as the contribution had been a surprise to the congregation. The conversation at the Council, and around the congregation, helped folks to understand tithing in a whole new way.
When the gospel says that Jesus cares for the poor, it is a not too subtle reminder that we are expected to give, not from the left-overs, but from the first fruits of the harvest. We put charitable organizations in our budget, in order to give them priority, a rightful place in our financial life as a community of faith. Our personal budgets should do the same kind of thing, although in my own practice, the lion’s share of the tithe is dedicated to the church to support the work and mission of the church.
I encountered this snippet of poetry from William Blake that brings home the blessings we are afforded when we stop trying to make the world revolve around our own personal interests. “I sought my soul but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.” Amen.
*By Ryan McAnnally-Linz and Miroslav Volf - August 15 Washington Post