Rev Ron Ham
I was born at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. It has never been clear to me whether or not I was the cause of the Depression! In any case, from 1929 to 1939, when the Second World War began, I lived through my first ten years.
My father was a working man who had a job as a wool salesman’s clerk during those years, but on a small salary. My parents always rented a house, and I remember that it was difficult at the beginning of each year for them to find money for the books which my brother and two sisters and I needed for school.
Judged by today’s general prosperity in Australia, we would have been considered a poor family. But we were not – we had a house to live in, a regular income, clothing, and food always on the table. In addition, we had a network of wider family and friends who shared with us a land untouched by the ravages of war.
Who are the poor today? Today, this day, 800 million people will be chronically hungry (let us think of that as we satisfy our appetite at meals we will eat today!); 6000 children will die today of a preventable disease! That states the extreme, but there are millions of others, many of them in Melbourne – and in Footscray – who live every day with unpaid bills, uncertainty about any regular income, and depressed by worry about insufficient money for nourishing food. They might want their children to have better opportunities but that has fallen off their list of expectations.
Does the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ have anything to teach us about that? When I was growing up, between the age of eleven and twenty, I attended a Baptist Church where I was an attentive listener to sermons in those days of my hunger for God – I cannot remember one sermon that suggested to me that God cared deeply about people who were poor.
We learned that God cared that people should believe in Jesus. That church was very evangelical. But we never learned that God was beside Godself over people who were poor! Did you know that? In my reading of the Psalms, I once highlighted in one of my Bibles every mention of the poor. The Psalms are full of God’s condemnation of those who neglected the poor, and full of God’s love for the poor. And the prophets, particularly Isaiah, Amos and Micah, reflect the same deep concern.
We have heard this morning the answer of Jesus to a man asking about the greatest commandment. Jesus nominated this one: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your entire mind, and with all your strength.” In my church when I was growing up, that commandment was interpreted as getting people to believe in Jesus. And I think that is one of the things this commandment is about – God has come to us in Jesus and invites us to follow him. And who of us, reading seriously the Gospels of the New Testament, does not feel deep down that if God is like Jesus, we could love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength!
But Jesus did not stop there in his answer to the man’s question. Jesus said, “And the second commandment is this – yes, there is a second one! – “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” In my church, loving my neighbour was tied to our response to the first commandment – loving my neighbour was getting her or him to believe in Jesus. Just the spiritual bit of my neighbour was important!
As the years have passed, I have had a rich theological education, and years of study in the Scriptures. I have become appalled at the way I, and the church in which I grew up, had failed to see the domination of the Scriptures by the poor! That is a huge claim to make, but I can no long avoid that conclusion, as I have indicated in my references to the Psalms and the Prophets. Not attention to sanitised poor people whose spiritual bit of their make-up was what we were taught to hone in on. But poor people who were worried about their rejection by society, and their struggle to survive. When my church did not tell me that, they failed me and they failed Jesus – and they failed the poor.
Hear Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor!” And then read the rest of Luke’s Gospel and see if Jesus did not put the cat among the pigeons. We heard from Tim Budge last week about Mark’s account of Jesus being with the ten untouchable lepers – touching them no less! They were poorest of the poor, and although Luke does not have that story, he does have Jesus with lepers. But not the religious establishment; they were obsessed with purity laws, not with people!
See Jesus with ordinary people struggling to survive in a nation that was obsessed by religious correctness, and with social exclusion for not conforming. See Jesus in the temple as an infant to be brought before the Lord. His parents sacrificed “what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two pigeons.’” Wealthy people would bring animals for the sacrifice but the family of Jesus brought the sacrifice of the poor. That’s all they could afford.
Of course Jesus spent time with wealthy and influential people. That was the genius of his ministry – to be with people whatever their status. But the wealthy drew boundaries and the poor were outside their circle. But not outside the circle of Jesus! He told a parable of the rich man who ignored the beggar at his gate. That is a fearful parable because the rich man’s destiny was sealed by his failure to take account of the poor man at his gate.
When any of us speak about and advocate the social implications of the gospel, we are attempting to preach the whole gospel because to love one’s neighbour, which Jesus said is the second commandment, is not only to tell her or him of the love of God for them; it is also to see them whole in all their needs – and even to address those needs whether or not those people respond to the love of God in Jesus.
Today is Anti-Poverty Sunday. In taking account of that, we are taking the side of Jesus. And today this Sunday is linked with the Millennium Development Goals of the UN which had a large number of nations promise in 2000 to attempt to halve world poverty by 2015. The UN reports that many nations are failing in their pursuit of this Goal – Australia among them.
The global Christian community has decided to try and alert nations to their unfulfilled promise. It is called the Micah Challenge, taking the name from the Old Testament prophet, Micah, who asks the question, “What does the Lord require of you?” His answer is, the Lord requires you “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
This morning we invite you to sign the Micah Challenge which aims to get the support of 50,000 Australians so that we can be a voice for justice. We have an address to which we will send the signatures. If you sign it, it could be the beginning of your awakening to the fact that to take seriously the needs of the poor is to be a truly Jesus person. I did not know that in the church in which I grew up. Don’t let anyone say that the Footscray Baptist Church kept that gospel perspective from you.
The Challenge which we invite you to sign, reads:
“This is a moment in history of unique potential, when the stated intentions of world leaders echo something of the mind of the Biblical prophets and the teachings of Jesus concerning the poor, and when we have the means to dramatically reduce poverty.
We commit ourselves, as followers of Jesus, to work together for the holistic transformation of our communities, to pursue justice, be passionate about kindness and to walk humbly with God.
We call on international and national decision-makers of both rich and poor nations, to fulfil their public promise to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and so to halve global poverty by 2015. We call on Christians everywhere to be agents of hope for and with the poor, and to work with others to hold our national and global leaders accountable in securing a more just and merciful world.”