After my sermon last Sunday, with all the kids kept running up to me in fellowship hour asking “when are we leaving for ice cream,” and a visitor sharing a really difficult story of his last two years, one of you smiled and said, “I’m a capitalist too. And I’m pretty impressed: you actually found two biblical texts that explicitly question capitalist assumptions.”
Acts 4, like Acts 2, suggests that early Christian faith couldn’t find room for private property. And Matthew 10 pictures every worker receiving the same pay.
It’s curious that these biblical texts are surprising. Everyone knows that “somewhere in the Bible there are things written” to support patriarchy and to condemn homosexuality. We may not know where to find there verses. Or how to handle them. Or agree with how others use them.
But we are much less aware of an other and far greater commitment of the biblical witness. The Bible is much louder and strident against our disregard for the poor and the widow and the foreigner in our midst. It never advocates one economic system over another, (or one party over another). But its testimony is deafening: one cannot claim to follow God and choose to overlook a needy neighbor. And anyone who is in need is your neighbor.
Why then are we so deaf to the Bible’s loud preaching about this? Our understanding of the Bible proves once again, if it needed to be proved, that context is everything. We hear, see, understand, read, value what our situation enables us to. We miss, overlook, can’t even imagine things (and people!) our experiences do not lend themselves to.
Capitalism, even its negative aspects and failures, aren’t in any danger, much less question. But sexism and homophobia are part of a great cultural divide, or better a cultural war that is swirling all around us. Why, I wonder, do humans find it so hard to imagine any suggestion, even from the Bible, that all our hierarchical orderings of importance aren’t appropriate for creatures God created as sacred?
As I said, the Bible clearly never sides with one economic system or party over another. It simply states that a society will be judged by how well it cares for its most vulnerable.
Rick Warren, the Purpose-Driven pastor whose Easter interview prompted last Sunday’s sermon, admits there are over two thousand times the Bible advocates for the poor. If you look them up, you’ll find that many of its challenges are actually to those of who are more comfortable. The verses condemn our disregard and neglect for “those who are less fortunate.” In the logic of Scripture, there is a “hubris” or arrogance to believing that one can maintain a surplus or advantage while one’s neighbor goes without.
Clearly in the Parable of the Laborers and the Hours, Jesus was not offering an employer-employee relations manual. Or any theory for a new economic system. Instead, he was providing a graphic illustration of how grace works– freely offered to all, not according to anyone’s desserts, but from God’s largesse.
Still, in Jesus’ employment of an everyday illustration, he recognized the importance of work in a way that might suggest Karl Marx was plagiarizing! And Jesus could make Rev. Warren proud with his insistence that people need a purpose and a place to work in order to know the abundance of life. In the idiom of the parable, they need someone, or maybe life itself, to hire them.
As one of the almost forty congregations that make up the faith-based community organization POWER (Philadelphian Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), Old First is making employment a major part of our purpose. It’s wonderful that we do what we can to offer food and clothing and shelter to some of the city’s urban poor. But wouldn’t work be better? Wouldn’t it be best if everyone could buy for him or herself what they need to eat, to wear and to live safely and with dignity?
POWER’s 10,000 jobs campaign suggests that when we put people to work, only then, our city will work.
For the next couple of weeks, we will be concentrating on an initial, first-step effort in this campaign. It’s a little foot forward in a much bigger march towards winning work for more of our neighbors. But I hope you will help.
We need our city council to feel some pressure. To know that people all around the metro. area are watching. Wanting to find a way to put more of our unemployed and underemployed workers back to worker. Waiting on city council to take leadership.
What work are we asking of you?
Along with folks at Arch Street UMC and Mother Bethel AME, we are collecting as many postcards as possible letting Councilman Squilla know that people at Old First, and people associated with us!, want:
1) him to meet with us in mid-June at our Center City Cluster Assembly, and
2) in the meantime, to block any movement on the airport expansion– either a bond issue or real estate purchases (both of which need city council approval) — until there is a jobs agreement in place. We need some commitment that the largest public works project in our region will work for the city, particularly for its most vulnerable. They need training. And living wage jobs.
Postcards will be available this Sunday. I hope you will fill out a postcard and take a whole bunch for your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues to fill out to. We’re going to deliver them to Councilman Squilla on Monday, May 14 (let Stirling or me know if you want to be part of that “delivery party”).
See you in church,
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