A Poor Excuse for a Sermon

Delivered May 16, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates.

Sermon Text:
Deuteronomy 15:1-6
1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.
2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel
the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not
require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because
the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.
3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel
any debt your brother owes you.
4 However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the
LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he
will richly bless you,
5 if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to
follow all these commands I am giving you today.
6 For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you
will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule
over many nations but none will rule over you.

Well, yesterday was the Preakness. A lot of people were excited because for the first time in a long time there was the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. In fact, the folks at Trinity Assembly of God are really excited this morning because it was won by “Charismatic.” The Episcopalians in town are not so happy as “Vicar” was an also-ran. We Presbyterians, we don’t really care because we don’t play the horses, right?

Is Central a liberal church or a conservative church? I hope we’ll never define ourselves by using either of those terms because God’s call upon us as a congregation is to be above everything else, a Biblical people. In fact, if we are faithful to that calling, we’re going to look liberal in the eyes of some and we are going to look conservative in the eyes of others. Are we Republicans, or Democrats? I hope our highest allegiance is to neither of those parties. Again, our calling as Biblical Christians is to vote for those persons and that legislation which best seems to line up with the character of God as revealed in Scripture. In fact, how might the character of God inform you and me as to how we ought to relate to the poor? Now that you have graciously given Anne and me the trip to Scotland in September and all the money for that is in and it’s all signed, sealed and delivered I can go ahead and preach this sermon.

Seriously, two weeks ago as we celebrated Jubilee Sunday and Pat Hartsock and I stood here in the chancel and preached a dialogue sermon on the year of Jubilee as it is based on the text in Leviticus 25, I was somewhat uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because Pat and I dealt with that text in a way that you could legitimately deal with it, but to be honest with you, that was a great day of celebration and joy and I didn’t want to throw a wet blanket on the party. I didn’t want that Sunday to come off as a bummer, and so I purposefully avoided the main point of the text; the main point of Jubilee; and that is God’s concern for the poor. In fact, this is a radical economic plan for closing the gap between the rich and the poor – you might call it God’s welfare reform program. But because we are above all else a Biblical congregation and because my chief calling as a preacher is to be faithful to the text, I want us to revisit, in fact, revisit over the next two weeks how God was calling the nation of Israel to live once they arrived in the promised land. And so, over the next two weeks we are going to be looking at the book of Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ sermon to the people of Israel as they were preparing to cross the Jordan and to go into the promised land. And we are going to look at two parts of Deuteronomy 15 as to how the Israelites were to relate to the poor in the promised land. You see, Jubilee is not just about celebration. It is about ensuring the welfare of those who are on the heart of God. And I would invite you this morning to open your hearts, and to open your minds, and to open your Bibles to the book of Deuteronomy, the 15th chapter, and let’s wrestle with verses one through six. This is the word of God.

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done. Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother. Because the Lord’s time for canceling debt has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God has given you to possess as your inheritance, He will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to obey all these commands I am giving you today. The Lord your God will bless you as he has promised. And you will lend to many nations, but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations, but none will rule over you.

Let us pray. And now Father, as my words are true to your word, may they be taken to heart, but as my words should stray from your word, may they be quickly forgotten, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“Hello? Master Card? My name is Mr. Scates. I need to talk to you all. I’ve been with you for about seven years, and you see I have been reading Deuteronomy, the 15th chapter – that’s in the Bible. And I’d like to call your attention particularly to verses one and two as it might pertain to the possibility of your canceling my outstanding balance in full? The Bible. Yeah. You will? You have already gone and done it? Oh, man! Thank you, thank you! Yeah, happy Jubilee to you too!”

Now wouldn’t that be great? But let’s get back to the real world, shall we? I mean our twentieth century North American common sense tells us that what we have read right here in the book of Deuteronomy is nuts! But wait a minute. What if, what if the Bible is truly the inspired, authoritative word of God. Then could it be possible that what we have seen here in the book of Deuteronomy really is the real world? That this is something that you and I need to wrestle with and to take seriously if we are going to follow Jesus Christ in a way that lines up with reality? Now admittedly, these are very difficult verses to hear. They are particularly hard to understand and to take seriously, especially when our lifestyles are prosperous and the Dow Jones is hanging around 11,000 and you and I live in the midst of a talk radio culture and a culture of Social Darwinism that says “The poor? Hey, some people make it and some people don’t. You’ve got to pull your own weight baby. Only the strong survive.”

Why in the world would God lay this crazy economic policy on the Israelites? Well to answer that question, we need to understand the character of God. And we need to ask of this text, is there anything in this text that reveals some of the character of God? And I would say, yes there is. In fact, I think that there are at least four things about the character of God that we can learn from this text. And the first is this, that God hates poverty. Poverty is always the product of sin, either the sin of an individual or a systemic evil in society, it is not always the product of a poor person’s own sin. And we learn that God hates poverty so much that as the Israelites are getting ready to go into the promised land, God apparently does not want poverty to be a part of this new nation of Israel that he is fashioning. And so he lays this economic policy on them in the hopes that they will become a colony of Heaven. They are to have lifestyles set apart from the pagan peoples surrounding them, even down to their economic lives as a visible demonstration of the radical love and grace and providence and trustworthiness of God. God hates poverty.

The second thing that we learn about the character of God from this text is that God does not separate economics from authentic spirituality. In fact, in verses four and five he says that the blessing (and remember that the literal meaning of the Hebrew word blessed means “on the right road”). He says that his blessing on Israel will be directly tied into their obedience in carrying out this debt cancellation program every seven years. Now historically, we know that it never happened. And we’re going to talk about that in just a minute.

But you know, just about everybody in this sanctuary this morning keeps a spiritual journal. It is called a checkbook. You show me your checkbook (remember, you can’t separate your economic life from your spiritual life). You show me your checkbook; how you manage your resources; how you invest your money; and I will tell you about your commitment to Christ.

Thirdly we learn about the character of God, that He is not just a promise maker but he is a promise keeper. If you look at verse six of your text, God promises the nation of Israel that if they follow through on this debt cancellation program and if they keep the Jubilee year they will be taken care of by God both politically and economically. You are not going to have to borrow from other nations. No nation is going to rule over you. But historically, we know that Israel went “belly-up” both economically and politically. We know that they were one day carried off into exile. And they went “belly-up” both economically and politically because they first went “belly-up” spiritually because they never carried out any of these seven year cancelation programs. They never once kept the year of Jubilee.

Fourthly, we learn about the character of God, that He is a liberal democrat – no, I’m just kidding. What we do learn, though, is that God is very intentional about wanting to eradicate poverty particularly within the community of faith. Look at verse three of your text. You can continue to go on and collect on the debts that foreigners owe you, those outside of your community of faith. So you see, what God is doing here is, he is building into Israel’s economic system a radical plan that will close the gap between rich and poor. God does not want poverty to exist, particularly within the family of faith. And so you see, poverty is not a liberal agenda item, it is not a conservative agenda item, it is on God’s agenda as Biblical people. So what does this mean for us? What does this mean for Central Presbyterian Church as a congregation heading into a new millennium? Well I’m not going to sit here this morning and lay a guilt trip on you and say “this is what you ought to be doing and we ought to do this and that and the other thing.” Instead let me invite you to look at what we are already doing in the spirit of Deuteronomy 15.

Three weeks from now we are going to ordain and install a new class of deacons. They make up the Diaconate. What do they do? So much of what they do is behind the scenes, but if you are ever in financial straights, if you are ever in a jam such as your house burns down and it wasn’t insured, I guarantee you, you are going to have the Diaconate of this church gathered around you and help you to put your life back together. Those deacons are continually helping people with food and clothing and medical assistance and infinitum. You see, as a part of the body of Christ, if you ever get into trouble, Central Presbyterian Church will be here for you.

Or let’s take a look at the area of theological education. About every other year I get a call from the denominational headquarters in Louisville, and they sort of chide me “Why aren’t you all a part of the one percent fund?” They want us to give one percent of our budget to help out the well-endowed Presbyterian seminaries. “And why aren’t you interested in theological education?” And I always have the privilege of telling them, “Wait a minute, we are.” In fact, you all contribute thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to seminaries in Pakistan, Indonesia, Africa, India, Bangladesh, third world seminaries that are training poor Christian pastors, because they can’t get the kind of theological education that is available here in the United States.

Well, let’s take a look at a very unique ministry that this congregation fuels. That’s the Christian Community Center downtown which is run by our own Jan and Dave Turnbaugh. A ministry in the inner city which is ministering both to poor Christians and those outside of the community of faith. A visible presence of Jesus Christ there in the inner city, and a place where many of you serve as mentors, tutors, friends to children and adults. Making a difference in the lives of poor and needy people.

Well, what about these facilities? Beautiful sanctuary, brand new building, nice bus sitting out there – our vision for everything we have (I see one of our Youth Advisors out there laughing when I said ‘nice bus’ – it looks nice, sitting out there in the parking lot) is that it is for the greater Kingdom of God. And we invite other churches to use our facilities, especially poorer churches, and some of them take us up on that. Let me tell you about what your Social Action Committee is doing. Back during the Beyond These Walls building campaign, we decided that we would tithe 10% of whatever that building would cost, about 2.4 million dollars, we are going to give about $240,000 to missions on top of what that building was going to cost. And you all did it. And $40,000 of that we decided would go to the poor in the City of Baltimore, because at the time that we were going through the building campaign, welfare reform was taking place, and we became aware that there were going to be a lot of poor Christians dropping through the cracks. And so we thought well, we could take the $40,000 and we could look at what is going on in the inner city, and we could figure out what we think needs to happen with that money. But then the Holy Spirit got hold of your Session (that does happen, folks) and the Session said “Now wait a minute – who are we to go in there and say we understand what’s going on and what needs to be done? What if we took that $40,000 and put it in the hands of a poor inner city urban congregation who is there all the time and who might really know where that money can be best used?” But that’s a risk! When the Social Action Committee took that money, they didn’t just stick it in a bucket in the middle of the road and say come get it, whoever wants it. They, through Project Justice, talked to a lot of churches, and those churches were encouraged to submit a grant proposal so to speak, and out of all of that, your Social Action Committee said we believe that the Agape Fellowship Miracle Life church under the leadership of Dr. Eleanor Bryant, ministering to prostitutes and drug addicts and inner city adults and children, they have a handle on what’s going on, and we are going to just lay that in their laps. And we have done that.

“But wait a minute – what if they don’t use it exactly right? What if that money gets in the hands of the undeserving poor!” Look back at your text. Show me here where God through Moses tells the children of Israel to cancel the debts only of the deserving poor. You are not going to find it! You see, here, you and I get an ultimate glimpse into the very heart of hearts of God. And when we look, what do we find? We find grace. Sheer grace. You see, nobody deserves grace. If you deserve grace, it wouldn’t be grace. And what we have here is God laying out for the children of Israel and for the Centralites of Baltimore in the 20th century his economics of grace – of which you are a recipient if you are a Christian. Because when I came to Christ and when you came to Christ, that was totally unwarranted. We were totally undeserving. Sheer grace. Now lest any of you are sitting there thinking “well you know that guy up there, he is on his high horse, he’s kind of pompous, he’s doing all this poor talk.” Well let me tell you, last week I was in Seattle. What a beautiful city. I was there for a Presbyterian pastors renewal conference. And one afternoon we had some free time, and a group of us went into downtown Seattle, and we were walking around in the touristy shopping district. And I asked our native guide, “Where are all the poor people?” I didn’t see any. And she said, “Well, the police keep them out of this area. Kind of like we do here in Baltimore in the Inner Harbor. Let me be totally honest with you. I liked that! I loved it! Then I could go all through that touristy area merrily on my way, without having to think about reality. The only problem is, I’m a Christian, and God hasn’t called me to be merry. He has called me to be faithful. In fact, he hasn’t even called me to be compassionate for the poor. Heaven help them, if they wait for me to get the right feeling half of them are going to starve to death! But He has called me to be obedient to His commands. And you know what? In the crazy economy of God’s grace when the church practices that economy and reaches out to make sure that poor Christians don’t fall through the cracks, not only are those poor Christians saved, but the church at large, its welfare is taken care of too.

Rodney Stark, last summer writing in the June 15th issue of Christianity Today writes these words:

“Because the church of the ancient world asked much of its members, it followed that it gave much. Because Christians were expected to aid the less fortunate, they could expect to receive such aid, and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they were asked to nurse the sick and dying, they too would receive such mercy. Because they were asked to love others, they in turn would be loved. In similar fashion, Christianity mitigated relations among social classes, and at the very time between rich and poor was growing, it did not preach that everyone could or should be socially or politically equal, but that all were equal in the eyes of God, and that the more fortunate had a responsibility to help those in need.”

Friends, that’s our responsibility as a congregation today. Not because Rodney Stark says so, or because Rush Limbaugh says so, or because Teddy Kennedy says so, but because the Scriptures say so. Our economics, in our own personal lives and in the life of a congregation like this should not be dictated by Robert Rubin or Alan Greenspan, but by the clear Word of God. I mean, after all, it’s only money. And when you think about it, our money is not even our own, it’s God’s. Everything we have, God has given it to us as a gracious gift and God invites you and me to invest in his “Blue Chip Stocks” which crazily enough seems to be poor Christians. After all it is only money, and money can’t buy you everything! It can buy you a bed but it can’t buy you sleep. It can buy you food, but it can’t buy you an appetite. It can buy you amusements, but it can’t buy you happiness. It can buy you a cross, but it can’t buy you a Savior. It can buy you a church pew, but it can’t buy you eternal life. And everything that money can not buy has been given graciously to you and me through Jesus Christ, in Him alone.

And so in God’s crazy economics, we bump up against sheer grace. A college student was asked to do a project in which he had to talk to elementary age children about their concepts of God. And he talked to this one little girl and he writes in his journal, ” A grade school child I talked to said ‘God is like my principal’ and then the student writes in his journal ‘How sad that this child thinks of God as the final enforcer of rules.’ But then the little girl went on and she said, “My principal goes around the school yard at recess making sure that everyone gets a chance to play.” And that my friends, in very real and tangible ways, is what God is doing through Central Presbyterian in the lives of many, many, needy and poor Christians and even those outside the community of faith.

Join me as we pray.
Lord God, you own not only the cattle on a thousand hills, you own every molecule of the universe, and yet you left your throne and became poor, born into poverty, that we might enjoy the privilege of grace. Oh Lord, stir up within us a Biblically realistic attitude towards ministering to those in need. Continue to free up our resources Lord, that people would see us practicing what we preach and would be drawn to Jesus Christ. For we ask it in His strong and saving name. Amen.