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Sermon – August 21, 2011 – Some Say

Sermon for August 21, 2011
The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
Some Say

Exodus 1: 8- 2: 10, Romans 12: 1-8, Matthew 16: 13-20
When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” they answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”    Why do people think he might be John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah?
The story of Elijah has him go up into heaven in a chariot of fire instead of dying, so that has left open the possibility that heʼs never died. But if Jesus is Elijah, who is that? Heʼs the prophet who most famously challenged Ahab and Jezebel for using their power and position to kill and rob an innocent neighbor. And if peopleʼs guess that Jesus were John the Baptist were correct, what would that mean? Hereʼs the preaching of John the Baptist, from the third chapter of Luke: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be content with your wages.” See, once John tells everyone to share with the needy, heʼs approached by two different groups–tax collectors and soldiers– who have power over most other people on behalf of the rulers. Their position tempts them to exploit the weakness of others, and thatʼs what John forbids.
What about Jesus as Jeremiah? Hereʼs Jeremiah announcing the reason for Godʼs judgment on Israel, from Jeremiah 5: 25-29 “: …your sins have deprived you of good. For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, and have become fat and sleek. They know no limits in wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?” He sums up their guilt again toward the end of chapter six in these words, “from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain.”
As it turns out, the identity of the Son of Man isnʼt Elijah, or John the Baptist, or Jeremiah, but there is a reason that people expect it to be. Jesus himself has preached against the exploitation of the poor by the powerful. How much of his teaching is of the “woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” variety, however, isnʼt the whole story. The religion of Israel simply expects its representatives of God to stand in this tradition of warning the strong against dominating the weak.
In other words, Jesusʼ peers know Jesus will take the part of the poor, and he does.  Thatʼs part of what makes him popular with the common people and thatʼs part of what makes those who have any kind of privilege resist him.
The rich get rich and the poor get poorer for various commonsense reasons, and this dynamic was working in Bible days just like now. The economy of Israel was based on commerce and capitalism. The possession of money had value, and those who lacked it and needed it paid a premium for its use, and those who had plenty got paid the premiums for letting their poorer neighbors borrow. So right away the poor have to pay for using money, and the monied get paid for having money. Thatʼs a dynamic which was the same in the second century B. C. as it is now.
Another thing thatʼs the same is that some participants in an economy are luckier than others, some are more gifted than others, and some are more ambitious than others. That was true when Jeremiah was a prophet and it will be true tomorrow.
The way the value of the possession of money increases the distance between the wealthiest and the least wealthy is just one of those things, and so is the effect of different circumstances, capacities, and the effects of chance. The Bible doesnʼt necessarily see the gap between prosperous and poor as wrong because of wrongdoing by the rich–though it is alert to the possibility of wrongdoing by the rich. The Bible simply is against too large a gap between economic classes, and it not only discourages exploiting the least powerful, it urges advocacy for the needy and charity for them. It sees big, unchangeable dynamics which tend to make the rich more rich and the poor more miserable, and its solution for that is to appeal to the conscience of those who have means and power to do something about it.
Before giving you some statistics on the concentration of wealth in these United States over the past decades we need to acknowledge some additional reasons that the rich get richer and the poor, poorer    Huge changes in the way people make money, especially the erosion in rich nations of manufacturing and high-margin wages, is part of a global shift of wealth-making from first-world workers to third-world workers. There doesnʼt seem to be any way to alter that fact, given that consumers will want the lowest-priced comparable items, and the fact that the newest manufacturing technologies, along with the lower cost workforce, are in the places to which manufacturing has most recently moved.
As far as I can see there are intractable and inevitable trends contributing to the relative impoverishment of American workers, and to some extent at least, structural reasons for the enrichment of Americaʼs wealthy. Thatʼs the direction things have gone. From 1979 to 2005, the mean after-tax income for the wealthiest one percent of us went up by 176%. The top fifth overall gained by 69%. The sixty-to-eighty per cent of Americans after that saw their wealth go up by 20%, the wealth of the next fifth of Americans–the fortieth to sixtieth percentile–go up by 21%, that of the twenty to forty percent of us lower down went up 17%, and the bottom fifth of us have our wealth increase in those years from 1979 to 2005 by 6%. In that same span the overall share of after-tax income held by the top one percent went from seven and a half to fourteen per cent.
As a result Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world over the past two to three decades and, among wealthier countries, have had the steepest rise in income inequality. Our fellow rich nations have the same factors as ourselves relative to changing global trends for manufacturing, and the influence of capitalism on wealth redistribution, and the varying gifts and values of a large society. There is something about us, however, which makes us more open to the creation of very rich and very poor in our culture, and the reason I am talking about this today is that we should ask ourselves if it is right to accept and even endorse the idea that it is fine for the prosperous to arrogate advantages to themselves and for the poor to receive relatively little. It seems clear that once you factor out the structural economic factors, our accelerating distance between the rich and the poor results from choices we are making. These choices are at least challenged by our religious heritage, which is dominantly Christian and significantly Jewish– the religions owing their vision of society to the Elijahs, Jeremiahs, John the Baptists and Jesuses of our collective past.
The story of the Israelites prior to Moses is a story with good guys and bad guys. The Egyptians fear a subordinate population and so mistreat them. The Egyptians arenʼt alone in this– what society has been so scrupulous about its values that its privileged members donʼt exploit their strength to make life even better for themselves? Our response as readers of the Bible neednʼt be what you call idealistic– God favors the poor not because of any intrinsic merit of poverty, but in order to compensate for human natureʼs tendency to be corrupted by power. What Biblical religion hopes to do is to level up the playing field on which the majority of Godʼs children live.
No political system is going to resolve all the factors which make some of us rich and and some of us poor, but we are a society with some freedoms, and as individuals we have some power to influence the tide of change one way or another. It is worth questioning to what extent it is proper to serve the interests of those who benefit most from the way things are now, and it is worth wondering whether the difficulties of the less prosperous might as often be an opportunity for mercy as for judgment.
Most of us are believers in the same story of God working through history as recorded in the Bible. That means that Paulʼs urging does not apply to us only as individual churches– the advice to have regard for each otherʼs differences, gifts, and limitations, and to be conscientious in respecting and caring for each other. We are to believe in any and every other as a fellow child of God–according to Matthew 25 we are to consider them the presence to us of Christ himself–and so we must not consider them only in terms of victims or benefactors from faceless economic trends– we have to recognize them as persons whose ease or distress also results from our permission, to some degree, that things go on as they have. We should pray that God give us a heart to care about them the way the Bible commends, and then a clear head to think and decide what it is we have the power to do in all our choices, to make the world work better for everyone.

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