Apr 16, 2007

Sermon Title: "Poverty: So What?"

Nicholas Weber
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
First Place, April 2007 Round

Let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”1

This morning, we consider what it means to be a church to the fallen, broken world that we live in. No elaborate proofs or logical arguments are needed; we need only go to the local homeless shelter or walk down one of the streets of the city to see that this earth is broken in some fundamental way. Let us consider the Church’s role in the fight against poverty, the Church’s treasure, and what should be done with this treasure. In order to better understand what the Church’s response should be to the penniless and destitute, let us look at our Gospel lesson. On the face of it, the reading doesn’t seem to point to Good News at all. We are informed of our duties by Jesus: feed the poor, give water to the thirsty, be welcoming and hospitable, and visit those in prison. He threatens us with the prospect of eternal damnation if we do not do these things. Where is the Gospel in that? Put aside your indignation at the difficulty of these saying for a moment. Instead, try to look at this passage from the perspective of someone who is hungry, thirsty, in need of shelter or is in prison. Isn’t this section good news to them? Is it not the promise of care and compassion to the needy by the followers of Christ? Indeed, this passage is good news to those in need. Not only that, it is good news to those of us blessed in our own lives with the resources to help others. The gospel lesson shows us who are blessed how to be a blessing to others. In order to further understand the role of scripture, the Church, and the members of the Church in the eradication of poverty and its causes, let us look at a branch of theology dedicated to this task: liberation theology.

My brief history of liberation theology is indebted to the article on the subject in the New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology. Liberation theology started in Latin America in the 1960s. It came about as a result of many factors: the defeat of democratic governments in military coups, raised hopes for a better economic future, the decline of Roman Catholicism, and the increased social awareness caused by Vatican II among Roman Catholic priests, monks and nuns.2 The term was first coined by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Roman Catholic theologian in his article “Toward a Theology of Liberation,” printed in 1968.3 This is the point at which liberation theology began to be defined and have an impact on the lives of those in Latin America.

You might say, “That’s great, but what is liberation theology?” It is “. . . a theology whose main thrust is precisely to understand and nurture [the struggle of the poor against oppression] in light of the Christian faith, and to illuminate and deepen the Christian faith with the challenges of that specific life experience.”4 In other words, when viewing the world this way, “real life” informs theological reflection and vice versa. As Luther says, “It is by living, no – more – by dying and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian, not by knowing, reading, or speculating.”5 With this outlook, thinking about God and the church does not happen in a vacuum. A Christian’s visit to a home, workplace or business should shape his or her reflection in the study and reading of the Bible. This duty of theological reflection is not excluded to clergy: it is the calling of every Christian in their respective communities. So, liberation theology in a nutshell: the theology that uses a lens of what is liberating to view the Bible, theology and history. It doesn’t come about by sitting in a study, reading about it, but rather by reaching out to those in pain and suffering. Liberation theology has done great things by reminding the church that it exists not to exist, but to serve.

For all the good it has done, liberation theology has a fatal flaw. Gutiérrez illuminates it with his words, “. . . charity has been fruitfully rediscovered as the center of the Christian life.”6 Here we must depart from liberation theology: charity should not be the center of the Christian life, or the life of the church.

The life of Christ refutes the idea that the aim of the Christian life is to escape or be liberated from earthly suffering, the idea of liberation theology. The God-man who called his followers to “take up their crosses and follow”7 is clearly not promising liberation from oppressive rulers and powers: he promises the opposite! The coming of Palm Sunday also points us away from the conclusions of liberation theology: the crowds looked for a political leader to free them from the oppression of the Romans. Instead, they got a sovereign on a donkey, a king on a cross.

Nor can we recruit Paul to support our ideas of flight from earthly troubles. He writes, “. . . everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . .”8 This is hardly a promise of freedom from earthly suffering. Nor can we recruit the martyrs to our cause: they did not try to slowly reform the Roman Empire to be more congenial to their religion; rather they embraced the persecution and paid the ultimate price.

We cannot pretend that we can liberate the world on our own, either. Despite how many programs we start or how many people we feed, we still fall short. As Paul says in our second lesson, “For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.”9 By this we see that we cannot do good works on our own, we need God to come and save us from our sins.

All this begs the question, “What should the center of life be?” According to the 62nd of Luther’s 95 theses, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”10 Therefore, the center of life both in the church and in an individual Christian’s life must be that treasure – the gospel found in Jesus Christ.

What, then, does the gospel of Jesus Christ mean? It means that with all our faults, our oppression of others, our passivity in helping those who are suffering, we have forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not by what we do, but by what Christ has already done for us. Our first lesson points to this with the words:

For this is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a cloudy, dark day. I will bring them out from among the peoples and gather them from foreign countries; I will bring them to their own land.11

This shows us God’s care for His people, that he retrieves them from the places they were scattered and nurtures them. In the same way, God cares for and nurtures us, and rescues us from sin through Christ.

Thus we see the shortcomings of liberation theology and the true treasure of the church. Here is the good news: by what Jesus has already done, we have eternal life and can begin the walk of discipleship with Christ.

However, by tossing in our lot with Jesus, we become involved in taking up our crosses and following him. These crosses involve some difficult things: being called to share the good news with those who might not wish to hear, suffering for that good news, and serving others (the poor and those oppressed).

To some, it might seem like I have just played a mean trick. You might say, “You’re right back where you were before you went off on that Gospel rant!” On the contrary, it is very important that we put gospel, not works (even the good work of eradicating poverty and advocating for the oppressed) at the center of life. It is like a car: if we toss out the engine, we can’t power the wheels. However, if we keep the engine, we can have the wheels as well. The gospel of Jesus is the engine of church: by it we are powered.

Martin Luther once defined this paradox with the following: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and “a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”12 In other words, our freedom in the gospel is to be used as an occasion to serve. Luther points out that we should not live for ourselves, but for all people. As Christ served others, so are Christians called to serve. Acts of service should be a natural and joyful response to what God has done for us, not to earn our salvation.

Indeed, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Weight of Glory, each human is an eternal being. This concern with eternity must lead the church and its members to preach the news of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ to others.

Looking at Psalm 100 in this light, we can see that we are made by God, and do not make ourselves. This fact must urge us to care for all people as ones made and shaped by God, not self-made people whom we can ignore. Our life must also point to God with our joyful praise.

By this view, we can now regain the witness of Paul: he lived for Christ and because he lived for Christ, he lived for others. He was not afraid to exhort Philemon to free Onesimus from earthly slavery.13 He also called the Corinthians to give money for the poor in Jerusalem.14 James confronted the hypocrisy of Christians who welcomed the rich warmly, but treated the poor badly with these words:

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor!15

This shows us that we are called to not only serve the poor, but we are also called by God to treat them as brothers and sisters, not as lesser people. Thus, by our Christian freedom, we are called to love and serve others.

So now we seem to be back where we started with our Gospel lesson. Now that we have seen why we are called to serve the poor, we can better respond to Jesus’ call to love and serve others and to also defend them from the difficulties and oppressions they might face. On this day when we consider poverty and service, let us thank God for his gift of saving us from the spiritual poverty of sin and consider how we might use our riches to serve the needs of others. Amen.

1 Psalm 19:14
2 Otto Maduro, “Liberation Theology – Latin American,” in New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, ed. Donald Musser and Joseph Price (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 301.
3 Ibid, 299.
4 Ibid, 300.
5 Qtd. in Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 7.
6 Gustavo Gutiérrez, "Theology: A Critical Reflection," in A Theology of Liberation, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 6.
7 Mark 8:34
8 2 Timothy 3:12
9 Romans 7:18-20.
10 Luther, qtd in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed. Timothy Lull, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 44.
11 Ezekiel 34:11-13.
12 Martin Luther, Three Treatises, 2nd rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1970), 377.
13 Philemon
14 1 Corinthians 16:1-4
15 James 2:1-6