Charity and Justice

Calvert Audrain, a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church, delivered the following sermon on the relationship between charity and justice on Sunday, July 18, 2010 at United Church of Hyde Park where he is an active member.

At the beginning of chapter 8, Amos proclaims, “This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel.’” New Revised Standard Version (NRSV Amos 8:1-2)

Jay Wilcoxen, who writes lectionary studies for Protestants for the Common Good, points out that there is a word play in this scripture. The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” sounds very much like the word for “end.” God is telling Amos that the end has come for his people. God goes a step further and says, “I will never again pass them by.” (NRSV Amos 8:2d)

In other words, no longer will God exclude the Israelites from disaster. The passage continues, elaborating on the impending disaster and ending with a call for silence and a “famine of the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (NRSV Amos 8:11b)

The people are told they will no longer hear from God. Why is this happening?

We find the reason in these words:

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy,

     and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

saying ”When will the new moon be over

     so that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath,

     so that we may offer wheat for sale?

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,

And practice deceit with false balances,

Buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,

     And selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (NRSV Amos 8:4-6)

This is not the only place in the Bible that we hear of God’s wrath at the behavior of the Israelites. What is significant about Amos’ message, is that he says God is angered because of their treatment of the poor. This is a new issue.

God is telling us, through Amos, that if we mistreat the poor, God will turn away from us.

This story takes place during the rule of Jeroboam II, the time when the kingdom of Israel had reached the zenith of its prosperity. The gulf between rich and poor had widened. Therefore, God called Amos from his rural home to remind the rich and powerful of God’s requirement for justice.

Note that Amos was primarily hammering at the merchants, who were cheating their customers. Imagine that! 2,800 years ago they had a problem with deceit in the marketplace or use of false balances. You could take that out of the headlines or off the blogs today—pyramid schemes, embezzling, overcharging, usurious interest rates, etc.

As we know, this is not an issue confined to the Old Testament and the prophets.
Let’s take a look at some contemporary statistics. In his book, The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity and What We Can Do About It, Les Leopold says “In 1970 the top 100 CEOs earned approximately $45 for every dollar earned by the average worker. By last year, it was $1,081 to one.”

Leopold goes on to say, “…the top ten hedge fund managers were averaging $900,000 an hour (this is not a typo) during the worst economic year since the Depression—and paying lower income tax rates than the rest of us&hellip“

Imagine with me for a moment, a scene at the Capitol in Washington. The chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Dodd, announces, “Our next witness will be Amos of Tekoa, a herdsman and pruner of fig trees, bringing us the word of God.”

And, Amos might say:
“Hear this, you who take money from the lobbyists, then put words in legislation that protect the wealthy corporations at the expense of the common people…”

Amos was talking to all of society, not just to individuals.

Eight hundred years after Amos, Jesus came and said we should love our neighbors. The parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37, starts with a question about achieving eternal life, but Jesus talked, instead, about living the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. It’s not really about how to get to heaven, it’s about how we should live, right here, right now, with one another. It’s about how to experience God’s Kingdom here on earth.

In his book, An Historical Perspective on Political Action vs. Individualized Treatment, Clarke A. Chambers notes, “A minister may be priest or prophet; at best [one] is both, but rarely are these talents combined in one holy person. As priest, as shepherd, one serves, one counsels, one conforms, one reconciles, listens, accepts &hellip As prophet, as preacher, one has a harder, more demanding and more lonely role to play&hellipone holds up absolute standards against which the sins of [women and men] and the shortcomings of the world may be measured, and judged; one’s cry is less for charity and compassion than for justiceh&hellip.”

Could anything be clearer, that God calls on us to care for others? In the Old Testament, through the prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and others, God says to care for the poor and the weak and condemns the selfish actions of the rich. In
the gospels, Jesus also calls on us to care for our neighbors.

It is hard to understand this in the abstract, to understand the condition of those in need. When we participate in direct help, we see and become more aware of the depth of the need.

On the third Thursday of each month, several of us from United Church of Hyde Park volunteer with the Night Ministry. The Night Ministry travels by bus to one of the 6 different neighborhoods every evening, year around, and carries food, medical aid, HIV testing and support for homeless and hungry men, women, and youth. We serve soup or hot dogs, juice and home made cookies. And there, when we see the people lined up to get food, when we see them come back for second servings, when we hear them ask to take a bag home to their child, we see needs that are no longer abstract.

These people—and thousands more just like them—need charity. But they also need justice.

As a community of faith, brought together by our belief in God, we are called to ministries of charity and justice. It is important that we commit ourselves to serve others, through outreach programs and each of us individually in our lives, to go beyond charity and become involved in efforts for justice.

One way in which my wife and I work for justice is through our support for Protestants for the Common Good, an organization that seeks to pass or influence legislation that addresses some of the social ills in our society, in prison reform, in the inequities in our drug policies, in health care programs and other areas of need.

PCG helps us see that our legislators can be influenced not just by money but also through voting and through massive amounts of letters, emails and phone calls. It is through larger organizations and through educating the public on the issues that we can influence legislation in the government—at all levels. We need to be involved in these issues. We are God’s people in God’s world.

So, again, work for charity and justice. God calls on all of us to love our neighbors. We should always put others first. Being kind to others should be as natural to us as tying our shoes.

But charity is not enough to truly help people, so we should also work for justice in our society. We can’t sit back and watch. By whatever means fits our particular interests, skills or temperament, we need to be part of the larger efforts in church, in community and government to work for justice.

Charity and justice.

We need to listen to the message of the prophets and of Jesus—to love our neighbor. Then, as individuals and as a community of believers, we need to act on the message and work for justice.

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