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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Open Hearts Mean Open Hands, Part 3

This the last part of a sermon continued from the two previous posts.

Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Acts 4:31-35
Durham CAN and other organizations like ours, in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Boston, Washington, D. C., New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and London, England, have decided that it is time to take a stand against usury. The campaign, launched simultaneously in many cities on July 22, is called “10% Is Enough.” We are calling on the CEOs of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Mechanics and Farmers, SunTrust, and other banks to put a cap on consumer interest rates at 10%. We are also calling on Congress to pass a usury law and restore a reasonable cap on consumer interest. Professors like Mt. Level ministers Dr. Turner, Dr. Jennings, Dr. Carter, and I all endorsed a theological statement on the economy, along with professors from nine divinity schools and seminaries in North Carolina and South Carolina. This statement has been sent to bank CEOs and to pastors as part of this campaign. We want the bankers to realize this message is deeply rooted in our tradition. And we Protestant Christian professors do not stand alone.

The social teachings of the Catholic Church have a long history of making a clear stand for economic justice, for example the encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, explicitly implicates usury in what he observed as a growing oppression and exploitation, saying working people “have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide,” and directly quotes from Deuteronomy 15:11 to emphasize the many ways in which we are exhorted to “open wide our hands” to the poor.

Of course, when Christians draw heavily on texts from Deuteronomy or Amos or other texts from the Jewish Scriptures in our efforts to articulate a theology of economic life, we show our indebtedness to and sharing in the narrative of God’s calling of Israel. Over recent months, Jewish Rabbis in North Carolina have joined this conversation about the economy. In this week, the holiest season of the Jewish year, our brothers and sisters of the covenant are reflecting on their lives under the Rule of God, the Maker of heaven and earth. As the season of the new year—Rosh Hashanah has passed and Yom Kippur is coming—it is the time in which the Sabbath year or Jubilee year would be proclaimed. God’s rule over all of life is the concern of liturgy and prayer. Thus this season is linked with economic justice and the plight of the weak and marginalized. The story of God’s deliverance of Isaac when he was bound on the altar is a central text, and we can see in it the symbolic binding of the poor by oppressive economic systems of low wages, inescapable debt, and unattainable basic provisions. These High Holy Days are days of repentance and resolution. Repentance is a leaving behind, but also a taking up. Thus, in the economy it means leaving behind injustice and taking up the cause of those unjustly treated. It is taking up the calling of tikkun olam, to mend the world.

Islam continues in our day to practice an economic system which opposes usury, which in Arabic is called riba. Our Muslim brothers and sisters in North Carolina have also composed a document for reflection in their communities, revealing ways that the Qur’an teaches about justice in economic relations. Rather than loaning at interest, Islamic societies have developed creative ways to allow investment in which benefits and risks are shared by both borrower and lender. This kind of thinking about God’s creation as something shared by all people equally is deeply imbedded in Islamic teaching, and their witness to it reawakens truths in Christian teaching that have been overshadowed by modern economic ideas. To our shame, too many Christians have sold this common birthright for a mess of pottage in the empty promises of modern economics.

The faith communities do not always agree on everything, but we do agree on some things. One, above all, is that God is the ruler of all creation, and that we are responsible to God to live in right relationship with one another according to justice. Moreover, we all agree on the specific admonition that usury, the financial exploitation of the poor and weak, is wrong no matter when or how it is done, or what it is called.

But, why, you ask, does the church bother with such things as interest rates and health care access? Why don’t we just focus on saving souls? I’m glad you asked that, and probably most of you know the answer. We are concerned about economic justice and the health of all people because Jesus came to save whole people, whole communities, the whole of creation. This is not just some obscure ancient Jewish law about the economy that has become irrelevant in Christ. Jesus said he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. He said he came to set at liberty the oppressed. He came to heal. He came to bring abundant life. He came that we might now live in the foretaste of the glory of eternal life.

The passage from Acts which we read helps us to know that this is what Jesus came to do. His earliest followers realized the connection between Deuteronomy 15 and Jesus’ preaching and atoning work. In words which quote from Deuteronomy 15:4, Acts 4:34 says, “There was not a needy person among them.” They saw themselves as living out the promise of God that when we share with one another we can all have what we need. Martin Luther, the great reformer, wrote a treatise against usury in which he said we ought “to be bound . . . to allow no one to suffer want or to beg.”

But again, you may ask, how is it that getting so concerned about economic justice can go together with Christian concern for saving souls? The answer is in understanding that God is a God of grace. God offered Israel a better way of life in Deuteronomy. It was a way of life that would allow them to take on the character of the God who delivered them from oppression, slavery, and perpetual poverty. If they would remember that whatever prosperity they have is the gift of the God who brought them out of Egypt, then they could understand that it is always grace that sustains them. And if God is gracious enough to allow us to prosper, then we ought to become like God and see that others also can prosper. As God has given us blessings, we ought to bless one another.

What a transformation grace can bring in a human being! What a transformation grace can bring to a community! God made us in the divine image, and when we deny our true character and nature by sins of greed, hatred, selfishness, and indifference, God is not satisfied to leave us there. So in the midst of a sinful world system, God comes to deliver us. God wants us to be free of the oppression of others and free of the oppression we impose on ourselves through our sins. God is a gracious God. God loves us too much to let us stew in our own juices. God is a gracious God. God wants us all to know the love that is possible in human community, the love God created us for. God is a gracious God. We are made to love one another. We are made to love one another. We are made to love one another, and in loving one another we are the image of God. In loving one another, God’s grace flows through us, and God’s glory shines forth from us. Let the glory of God shine forth through you. Let the love of God flow to the ones who are struggling with debt, without health care, who are losing their homes. Stand up as a witness of God’s grace in creation that usury is wrong and must be stopped.

Does anybody want to live in the image of God? Does anybody want to receive and give grace as a way of life?

Maybe you are one of the people being swept away in the tide of economic troubles. Powerful forces in the world are dragging you out into deeper waters, and you feel out of control. You aren’t sure what your destiny will be. The God of grace wants to deliver you. After the service, we will collect names and contact information for people who would like to get some guidance in dealing with their financial situations. Both Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church and the Durham County Extension Office will be offering financial training to help with budgeting and indebtedness, to help you work toward financial freedom. We want to facilitate this because we believe that the God of grace wants to deliver you.

Maybe you are struggling with temptations to be selfish and tightfisted. Maybe you are fighting feelings of looking down on people who are in financial difficulty and in need of help. God wants to restore you to your true loving nature. God wants to give you grace to grow into the true divine image, to be a beacon of God’s glory and a vessel of God’s grace.

Open your hearts to God and to one another now. Open your hands to the people in need whom God sends your way. Open hearts mean open hands. May the grace of God be with you all.

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