Luke 4:14-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I entitled today’s sermon: “Good News/Bad News” and this following joke from Pontius’ Puddle may help you understand why. First character: “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why God allows poverty, famine and injustice when God could do something about it.” Second character: “What’s stopping you?” First character: “I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.” (Clergy Coaching Network)
Martin Luther King put it this way: “We must learn that to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition.”
Proverb 31:8-9 says it this way: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”
This story about Mother Teresa puts it in this context: “The story is told of a Franciscan monk in Australia assigned to be the guide and ‘gofer” to Mother Teresa when she visited New South Wales. Thrilled and excited at the prospect of being so close to this great woman, he dreamed of how much he would learn from her and what they would talk about. But during her visit, he became frustrated. Although he was constantly near her, the friar never had the opportunity to say one word to Mother Teresa. There were always other people for her to meet. Finally, her tour was over, and she was due to fly to New Guinea. In desperation, the Franciscan monk spoke to Mother Teresa: If I pay my own fare to New Guinea, can I sit next to you on the plane so I can talk to you and learn from you? Mother Teresa looked at him. ‘You have enough money to pay airfare to New Guinea?’ she asked. Yes, he replied eagerly. ‘Then give that money to the poor,’ she said. ‘You’ll learn more from that than anything I can tell you.’ Mother Teresa understood that Jesus’ ministry was to the poor and she made it hers as well. She knew that they more than anyone else needed good news. (sermon.com)
This past week the community of Las Cruces celebrated the life, ministry and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After worship last Sunday, a few of us from FCC marched with the larger group from City Hall to a plaza downtown – there were perhaps 150 marchers that afternoon. When we got to our destination several speakers noted the day and the need to keep working to continue King’s legacy. Rabbi Larry Karol was asked to say a few words and give the blessing. A simple but powerful gathering.
The next morning there was a breakfast in honor of MLK at Hotel Encanto hosted by the Dona Ana County NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The room was packed with probably 300 people participating. Looking around I was thinking the last time I was in space with such a visually diverse group of people was perhaps when I was at an event in Rhode Island decades ago. I loved it. And I loved that people mingled and introduced themselves. I even sat at the table with Aletta and Bishop Emeritus Ricardo Ramirez and got to meet Xochitl Torres Small who is small but mighty.
There were two speakers that morning who really made the event so much more than a celebratory breakfast honoring Dr. King. The first was a young man by the name of Dominic Alston – winner of the NMSU Poetry Contest. His presentation was breathtaking as were the last words of the poem that spoke of his grandfather’s working for the master while he, the grandson, worked to get his Master’s. In a few short lines he summed up the change in our culture that has taken place over a few generations. Again, very powerful.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Sean Rogers who is the Spachman Professor of Human Resources and Labor Relations, and Acting Research Director of the Charles T. Schmidt Labor Research Center, in the College of Business at the University of Rhode Island. The title of his speech was “Defeat Hate – Vote.” He quoted King as so many others had over the last two days, but King’s words: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear” were the undergirding words to Dr. Rogers’ speech. Much of the attention of his speech was highlighting the work of Dr. King and King’s understanding of the need to expand his focus as he organized the Poor People’s Campaign starting in 1967.
A recent article in the New York Magazine, Intelligencer, states that: “The Poor People’s Campaign was MLK’s pivot ‘from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights,’ and was prescient in anticipating the sharp rise of inequality over the past 50 years. As the economy has soared, real wages have remained stagnant. Rent has gone up faster than income in most American cities; as of 2016, there was no state in the nation in which an employee earning the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum could afford a two-bedroom apartment. The racial wealth gap looks like a decimal error: for every $100 in wealth among white families, black households have only five dollars and four cents.’
Says Al McSurely, a civil-rights lawyer and a veteran of the original PPC. ‘The Poor People’s Campaign has got to have an asterisk on it. The vision was destroyed on April 4 of 1968, when King was killed. Prior to his death, King laid out his groundwork for the eradication of poverty, including a guaranteed annual wage, and the construction of 500,000 low-income housing units per year, backed by a $30 billion package as legislative muscle. But four months to the day after the PPC rollout, he was assassinated in Memphis, where he was supporting a strike by black sanitation workers after two men had been crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck while hiding from the rain.”
The Reverends William Barber and Liz Theoharis, Co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign are working together to revive this movement using Dr. King’s work as a cornerstone for the work that is needed today. By the way, two endorsing partners are the Disciples Justice Action Network and the United Church of Christ. The reality is that poverty is felt across the culture lines but most especially in non-white households. 60% of African Americans today are poor.
Poverty impacts people’s lives: poor education, health care, dental care, nutrition, poor hygiene, safety issues, as well as where and how a life is lived. We can consider that the working poor are also impacted in this way. Homelessness is real and not always a choice. Take some time to visit Community of Hope for a part of a day to get a sense of the reality of living in poverty, of being challenged educationally, with health issues, emotional issues, spiritual issues, prejudice issues. I don’t have the numbers but I wonder just how many children go to bed hungry in the richest nation in the world? That number must be phenomenal if we consider asking that question of every nation. This is a real crisis and it’s a moral crisis.
According to the New York Magazine article: “The mandate of the Poor People’s Campaign is broad – reflective of the bounty of challenges that the 41 million Americans under the poverty line face on a daily basis. The PPC demands access to clean water; an end to mass incarceration; health care as a human right; the re-expansion of voter protection laws; immigration policies that protect families; a cut in military spending to pay for it all; and an expansion of the definition of poverty that takes into account the cost of living. The agenda of the PPC is a moral one, and they seek to reclaim the language of the religious imperative from the white conservative Evangelical.”
In his speech on MLK day, Dr. Rogers’ mantra, “Defeat Hate – Vote” was not only the theme for the morning – but a call to remind us of one of the things we can do to help make important changes in communities.
I close with two stories this morning. James Garrett (God’s Gift, CSS Publishing Company, sermons.com) tells the following story. “One Christmas I received as a gift the book, Holy Sweat, by Tim Hansel. I enjoyed it very much. He tells of a guest preacher in a rather large church who began, ‘There are three points to my sermon.’
Most people yawned at the point. They’d heard that many times before. But he went on. ‘My first point is this. At this time there are approximately two billion people starving to death in the world.’ The reaction through the congregation was about the same, since they’d heard that sort of statement many times before, too.
And then he said, ‘My second point . . .” Everybody sat up. Only 10 or 15 seconds had passed, and he was already on his second point? He paused, then said, ‘My second point is that most of you don’t give a damn!’ He paused again as gasps and rumblings flowed across the congregation, and then said: ‘And my third point is that the real tragedy among Christians today is that many of you are now more concerned that I said ‘damn’ than you are that I said two billion people are starving to death.’
Then he sat down. The whole sermon took less than a minute, but it is in many ways one of the most powerful ones ever given. He was reminding us we are called not to mere piety but to genuine morality. We are called to action, not to fancy words.
Jesus preached a short sermon. But what a sermon! He clearly denotes the kind of ministry he came to pursue. It is to be a ministry to the poor and outcast, the blind and unaffirmed.” And so, “On a Saturday morning, in Nazareth, the town gathered in the synagogue to listen to Jesus read and teach. It was no big surprise. He was well known in the area; it was his hometown. He was raised there. They wanted to learn from him. So when he read from the Isaiah scroll, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor’ everyone understood these words to be the words of Isaiah. It is how that prophet from long ago defined his ministry. When Jesus finished that reading he handed the scroll to the attendant and sat down.” (sermon.com)
This is how Jesus also defined his ministry. And I think this may have defined MLK’s ministry also when he wrote: “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out . . . This is the way I’m going.”
And the invitation to define our ministry is there for us, as well. To repeat Jesus sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. And has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” May it be so. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019