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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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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Worth of a Person, Part 2

Continued from Part 1, the previous post.

Ephesians 1:3-14

During Black History Month, it is important to realize there is another way that the question of what a person is worth lurks just beyond our attention everyday.  That is in the modern-day revival of slavery.  Often nowadays it is called human trafficking.  Observers tell us that large international criminal organizations now operate with their eye on the market and on their bottom line.  They follow the same logic of legal multinational corporations.  They don’t really care what they buy, sell, and trade, so long as they are making the highest profit available.  The move is away from specializing in a certain illegal product, such as drugs.  Drug cartels now also trade weapons or human beings, whatever the market is asking for.
What is a trafficked human being worth?  In South Asia, a desperately poor family may sell a child for slave labor for as little as $150.  Across the globe, some sources say the average price of a slave is around $400, but others say even less.  The average income to be made by the use of slave labor is above $10,000 per year, so the profit motive is powerful.  In the selling of sex, a teenage girl or young woman may cost a buyer $1900, but the same girl or woman may make that slave owner profits of $2400 a month.  Bought for a pittance, the modern slave fills the pockets of manufacturers, agriculturalists, and pimps.  In Africa, child slaves work the cocoa plantations of Ghana, the poor work in sweatshops making clothes in Lesotho, and throughout Central Africa children are kidnapped and forced to become soldiers.  In Asia, manufacturers contract with U.S. corporations to make clothes, electronics, and household goods in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and many other lands, staffing their sweatshop factories with wage-slaves working under hazardous conditions.  In Latin America, companies enslave workers for mines and large agricultural plantations.  Haitian children are sold and exported to the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere to be household slaves.  And all sorts of slavery exist just beyond our notice in the very land where we live.  But if the productivity declines from injury, illness, or exhaustion, their lives may be worth little or nothing to those who have used and abused them.  Murdering a troublesome slave may at times be a cost of business, since a replacement is so cheap.  Trading in human flesh, making commerce and commodity of someone’s daughter or son, someone’s mother or father, someone’s brother or sister, trading God’s beloved child for a handful of silver—this evil flies in the face of a loving God.  Whether it brings us cheap chocolate bars, cheap tomatoes, cheap shirts and pants, or in the back allies or penthouses, cheap sex with disposable people, such commerce makes God sick, angry, and sad.
What is the worth of a person?  We are living in a time when the worth of most people is diminishing steadily in the eyes of the powerful, the violent, and the unscrupulous.  These are harsh words.  They are hard to say, and hard to hear.  They are the words of despair, the words of death.  But they are not the only words I came by to say to you today.
The Letter to the Ephesians also has some things to say to us about what a person is worth.  We already realize that what someone thinks about the worth of a person may depend on how closely connected the people are.  Remote, invisible sick people may not seem worth a few extra dollars in taxes, but one’s mom or dad, brother or sister, wife, daughter or son may be of immeasurable worth.  A person’s bias and prejudice may lead one to assign low value to the lives of some people.  A slave trader may reduce a human being down to hard cash and potential profits.  But Paul tells the Ephesians a few things about what they are worth in this opening chapter.
First, in verse four he tells them that God considers them worth choosing.  God has chosen us.  God did not need to create the world.  God did not need to populate the Earth with human beings.  God could have looked upon humanity and rejected us for all our failings.  But verse 4 says God chose us.  Choosing us means God has drawn us near.  God wants to be with us.  God wants to share fellowship with us.  God has loved us with an everlasting love.  Being chosen by God entails God’s blessing us with all that heaven has to offer.  The goodness of God is poured out for us.  What is a person worth?  We are worth enough to God that God chose us.
God chose us for a purpose.  God did not choose us to wallow in the mud of our sinfulness.  God did not choose us to remain stagnant and settle for mediocrity, to let our shortcomings take root and grow up like weeds.  No, it says that God chose us to be holy and blameless.  God chose us in Christ.  He saw in Christ what all of us are destined to become.  Our true natures, united to the New Adam, Jesus Christ, are to be set aside for God’s purpose.  We are to turn away from sinning and live as Jesus lived, blameless before God.  And above all, our lives are to be awash with love.  Our way of being in the world is to be a loving way.  Love one another, as I have loved you, said Jesus.  Love God and love your neighbor.  That is our purpose.  That is why God chose us.  God saw in us the value, the worth, that could make that loving way happen.  In God’s scales, we are worth our weight in love.
Going on to verse 5 it says that God judged us to be worth adoption.  Having gone astray, having turned to our own way, living like orphans in the world, God came to give us a family, a home, and a heritage.  God did not merely want us as a trophy or a curiosity on a knick-knack shelf.  God adopted us to sit at the dinner table together.  We are in the family.  God took on responsibility for us.  No longer strays, left to scrounge out a life, now we have a home in God. 
At home with God, we have some responsibilities assigned.  We need to carry our load, but it says God has given us abundant grace to do so.  We need to maintain the family reputation, and we look to Jesus to know how to live up to God’s expectations for us.  We ought to live with gratitude, praising God for the unmerited gifts bestowed on us.  We don’t have to keep on wandering.  We don’t have to wonder where our provision will come from.  God is our provider.  He looked at us and saw people worth adopting.  Now forevermore we are in God’s family.
Finally, according to verse 7, God looked upon us in all of our sins, and evaluated our worth.  God judged us to be worth redeeming, even at a cost.  The cost was God’s willing entry into our condition, taking on human form and flesh.  God came into the world as a baby.  This Jesus grew to be a leader among the Israelites, offering hope to all who were marginalized and oppressed.  The longer Jesus persisted in standing up for justice, the more he put himself in danger.  But he continued to the end because he saw worth in us.
When the world could no longer put up with Jesus’ challenges, the political powers banded together to arrest and execute him.  People who knew him conspired to sell him to the powerful for forty pieces of silver.  This good and loving man, sent from God, very God of very God, was beaten, humiliated, marched to a place of death, pierced and hung from a cross.  There, his life ebbed away.  The blood that had coursed through his body giving life to his cells and strength for his work, poured out because of his faithfulness to his mission.  God found us worth redeeming through the blood of Jesus Christ.  Ephesians explains that Jesus’ sacrificial death came to signify the forgiveness of our sins, for even as he hung there on the cross he had prayed forgiveness for his murderers.  What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?  Oh, sometimes is causes me to tremble.  The letter says God has emptied out his riches of grace and lavished them upon us.
You might give a check to your grandson on his birthday.  You might buy a fancy dress for your granddaughter at Easter.  But what about all those scraggly kids out in the street who don’t seem to know their heads from a hole in the ground?  That’s who we were, and God opened up the treasures of heaven and gave us all more than we can handle.  The redeeming work of Christ has revised our assessment.  Whatever it seemed we were worth in the eyes of the world, God had declared us worthy of grace upon grace.  We share an inheritance with Christ.  We are blessed beyond measure.
Knowing how God assesses our worth, we cannot merely stand by and let the world treat people like they are a dime a dozen.  Having been chosen, adopted, and redeemed by God, we have a responsibility to stand up for the worth of our brothers and sisters, be they the sick, factory workers, or modern slaves.  We need to look around our neighborhood, our schools, and our workplaces to see people according to the worth that God has endowed them with.  Love as God loves, and draw all God’s children into the family. 
I’m not going to go into detail about what to do about health care for all, about supporting oppressed workers, and about taking on the scourge of human trafficking.  Maybe that’s not fair, you say, now that I’ve stirred you up about it.  The Lott Carey Convention is working against human trafficking.  Rev. Barber and Durham CAN are leading efforts to improve jobs and health care.  Getting into the details will have to wait for another opportunity.
But the gospel message I want to bring to you today is that God has judged you worthy, and doing so has embraced you with a love that is boundless and steadfast.  Live in that love.  Sit down at God’s table.  Run around the house like you belong there, because you are one of the family.  Rest assured that God has judged you worthy of the ultimate sacrifice, the redeeming work of Jesus who went all the way to the cross.
If you have not yet realized that God has measured your worth and chosen you, adopted you, and redeemed you, we invite you today to hear and accept God’s calling to you to become part of the family.  Accept the saving work of Christ and follow Jesus today into a new way of life.
Others of you may have let yourself forget that God loves you with an everlasting love.  There is no need to wander in the wilderness any longer.  Let today be a day of returning to the embrace of the one who has adopted you into the family.  Renew your commitment to live as God has called you, holy and blameless before him in love. 
Perhaps you live in Durham but have not united with a church.  Mount Level is striving to be a faithful community of God’s people, a branch of God’s family, here in this city.  If the Spirit is urging you to unite with us in our mission to serve God, then don’t wait any longer.  Follow the Spirit’s leading and become part of this fellowship today.

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