Be Careful What You Cut, an Old First Sermon for Children’s Sabbath, 10.21.12

Be Careful What You Cut, an Old First Sermon for Children’s Sabbath, 10.21.12

Religious communities don’t endorse candidates or political parties.
And people in congregations get uncomfortable when church or worship feels “too political.”

But our religious teachings and traditions don’t let the faithful off the hook because their implications might raise eyebrows or make some uncomfortable.

…Or because someone finds a discussion or action “political, not spiritual.”

Or, as I heard recently, because certain issues are too complex for religious people to wade into.

Prophecy’s not what’s popular, but what God says is needed.

Conservative Christians have defined a few social issues to make them THE issues– their line in the sand: how they decide who to support or boycott, and who they’ll vote for, even what they see as “Christian” and what they are sure is not.

Maybe it’s time our side of the aisle gets more clearer and louder about where we stand?

Progressive Christian faith delivers fewer concrete certainties. Rather it’s a way to navigate one’s questions faithfully. Among other things, this fact rarely allows us to view the world in stark black and white. Rather it calls us into the muddle of our world’s complexities as surely as Jesus waded in the midst of our mess… because God loves the world that much.

Still there could be defining themes for our faith and its outlook and prescriptions. How we are to understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. How we can faithfully respond to all the complex situations that we have to stumble through. Even if it must be a broad paint brush.. can’t we say, “as progressive Christians we stand proudly and loudly and powerfully for…

… for extravagant welcome, accepting and respecting everyone as a child of God, especially those people we’d find it easier to, even rather deny.

…for peacemaking with one another and the rest of creation. Our role as faithful stewards often trumps any call to having dominion over the earth and subduing it.

…for justice seeking — God clearly, over and over again, holds us up to this standard. Did we do what we could to redress the inequities and let the captives go free?

When I was visiting Carl Kleis last week, he was telling me about his brother who died last month. Carl explained that he and his brother, though they loved each other deeply, and were both church-going Christians, they didn’t share the same political outlooks. He said there political discussions could be tortured, until finally he had to say:

“I was baptized, confirmed, and eventually ordained. All those were promises that I would stand for certain things… and that I can neither look the other way, nor remain silent about other things…”

We need to be able to be more like Carl: with some confidence and humble assuredness, name and claim and act on the defining issues are for our faith.

There might a wide berth for discussion about exactly what God wills us to be and do, but do you have a sense of where do you believe God wants us to be; what you believe God means for us to do?

I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. But, remaining non-partisan, do I have a choice but to preach what God has said over and over again, right down to the current day?

Did you hear our Scripture readings this morning? Did you hear God’s interest, some would say “preference,” for the downtrodden and dispossessed — the poor, the slave, the resident alien… a concern that even extends to the domestic and wild animals.

I am confident I’m standing on our tradition when I say, God doesn’t mean for the church to remain silent and passive while injustice goes unchecked. In one of the Bible’s most recurrent and consistent themes, poverty unremediated is declared injustice?

Today we’re focusing on a specific group of poor people in our society, in fact the poorest, that is the children.

We don’t hear much about them in the Bible explicitly… until we get to the New Testament when Jesus begins to point to the humanity and the sacredness of the each child (just as he does to women — both of whom were easily overlooked in his time and society, discounted as a man’s property, rather than valued as children of God.)

Church, are we remembering the children? Are we weighing our choices as a nation in terms of our children? Amidst all the ideological and policy arguments, are you as Christians remembering your responsibility to the needs of the children?

It’s worth risking wading into unclear political waters — sort of like baptisms in the muddy waters of the Jordan River — that we might figure out where to stand for the children, how to make a difference in children’s lives today… and in the adults they will become tomorrow.
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Our country is running a staggering debt, about 16 trillion dollars. The interest so far this year alone is already 400 billion dollars.

That’s a lot of early childhood education classrooms and free school lunches that can’t be, because the money that could have funded them had to be dedicated, instead, to interest payments. This isn’t just some cost on paper. It’s poor children going without their basic needs being met, not receiving what they deserve.

Certainly the economic downturn has contributed to the financial hole our nation finds itself in. But a recent study by the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative pointed out that tax cuts are the greatest cause of Clinton’s surplus becoming debt during the Bush and Obama administrations. Followed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Medicare costs.

The problem with national debt isn’t just the current hijacking of money we ought to be investing in our future. It’s amassing a debt that our children and our children’s children may still be dealing with long after we are all gone. We’re borrowing from their future so we can live unsustainably now.

Here’s where it becomes even more sinister.

The debate in our country, about the burden of the national debt, has created an excuse for politicians of both parties to talk about what our country can not afford.

The “sorry, but we just don’t have the money for that” list is long
and has covered a vast array of programs including:

civilian and military pensions,
food stamps,
unemployment and disability compensation,
the earned income and child tax credits,
family support and nutrition,
K-12 education,
public transportation,
public safety and
disaster relief.

Do you notice the common theme in the list of what’s too expensive?
They’re programs that serve or make the greatest difference for poor people.

Ironically, the most “fiscally conservative” advocates alongside this “belt tightening,” are asking for a record expansion of the military budget, money in fact that the pentagon has not even asked for.

Oh, and continued tax cuts for the wealthy, because, we’re told, that’s the only way to spur economic growth and job creation.  

“Be careful what you cut” refers to tax breaks for the rich that the poor pay for in benefits they won’t receive. And a ramping up of the U.S. war machine. Some of you may be dismissing me this morning as “way too political,” but to me, it sounds like the situations in ancient Israel that God had to rant about through the prophets.

From our faith perspective, perhaps the question should not be,
“what can this country not afford?”
Rather, faithfully, we could ask, “what can we not NOT afford?”

The Children’s Defense Fund is running a campaign entitled “Be Careful What You Cut.”

It shows adults who are failing with the challenges of their lives… with a snapshot of the “baby face of promise” that person had been “pasted” on top of the adult body.

A man in an orange prison jump suit with the face of the baby he once was.
A teenage mother with a baby in her arms and another in her belly with the face of the baby she once was.
Somone panhandling on the street, with a cardboard sign detailing all the struggles he’s failing and the face of the baby he once was…

Had they had the help they needed as children…

Cuts to vulnerable children translate to long term damage… for individuals and our society as a whole.

Our Scripture texts are classic Bible teachings on justice. Looking at the whole witness of Scripture, more than what we often and loudly hear “Christians” advocating about family planning and bedroom moralities, God equates righteousness with justice… a nation where everyone’s basic needs are met.

Is that politics? Is that bleeding heart liberalism? Or is being our brothers’ and sisters’ and children’s keepers.. as God expects and faith requires?  

Yes, the whole economic system is interrelated. As we are all interdependent.
So jumpstarting the economy is a worthy goal.
We’d do well to cut the deficit and eliminate the debt.
Getting more people to work helps both individual families and the country as a whole.
The middle class deserves some help too.
And yes, certain breaks and incentives may make policy sense… may have effects that make offering a few some out of the ordinary privileges.  

But the standard that’s at least as old as the prophets is how we treat the least among us.
We should expect our leaders in particular and our society as a whole to protect the most vulnerable, exactly because they are voiceless and voteless. 

How are children faring in the United States?

We have a record 16.4 million poor children in America.
And 7.4 million who live in extreme poverty.
Children under the age of five are the poorest group of people in America.

1 in 4 infants, toddlers and preschoolers live in families with insufficient resources during the years of their children’s greatest brain development.
Only 3% of eligible infants and toddler are served by Early Head Start due to limited funding.

I read in the NYTimes last week an article about the “word deficit” between poor and more privileged children.
It pointed out that the young children of professionals were exposed to approximately 1,500 more words than poor children every hour.
That difference, before they reach kindergarten, is more than 32 million
words — a gap some children never close throughout their whole school career.

Without early childhood intervention, at risk children are 25% more likely to eventually drop out of school.

Eliminating funding for early education for a young boy today increases by 39% the chance that later the man he has grown into will go prison.

Prison costs 3 times more a year than the early education would have.
And that’s just the ridiculously narrow financial calculation of the cost. .

Do we understand the long-term implications of budget cuts?
Are we willing to take such consequences?

Eliminating support sentences vulnerable children,
rather than moving them towards productive lives.

Justice, only justice said the Bible in one of this morning’s lessons.
But also common sense.
And some good social policy.
And the money to translate caring policy into programs that transform lives.
Not just for at risk individuals.
But for the rest of the society that also pays for such failures.

An African American baby boy born in 2001 has a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime. For a Latino boy, it’s a one-in-six risk of the same fate.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Indeed, the United States leads the world in “producing prisoners.”

It’s called the cradle to prison pipeline and it’s fueled by:
pervasive poverty,
racial disparities,
inadequate physical and mental health care,
gaps in early childhood development,
disparate educational opportunities,
chronic abuse and neglect, 
and overburdened and ineffective juvenile justice systems.

Our our apathy and uncaring allows that long list to rob children of their futures.

It sounds like one of God’s Old Testament diatribes about the rich eating the poor?

Don’t we, to be faithful, need to act to redress such inequalities, to effect justice? To replace the cradle to prison pipeline with a pipeline to preparedness for productive lives? Don’t our politicians have to lead our society to invest in children? To protect them from budget cuts?

Doesn’t this nation have to make sure that the wealthiest pay their fair share so that as a whole we can care for the needy and the common good?

If that sounds like a progressive pastor making a political pitch, I’m willing pay the price. Because to me, it sounds like the God of the Hebrew prophets speaking for today.

Children need our help, poor children more so, and they need it now.
This country can afford to give all its children a healthy, safe and fair start in life.
And we can’t afford the uncaring and disregard that we increasing hear advocated and often countenance as unavoidable, harsh realities.

At least that’s what the church professes to believe.
And calls us to work towards.

Do we believe that? Are we using the lives God’s given us to work for such a world?

It makes economic sense.
It’s moral and faithful.
But most deeply, it’s the right thing to do.
The children’s future… our future depends upon it.

Amen.