Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Mike Henry's Sermon from July 29, 2012

Last week was an important time for our church. We had many visitors as Prof. Eleazar Fernandez from United Seminary and his wife and daughter attended service here. Prof. Fernandez was our guest speaker and lecturer. One of the reasons for Prof. Fernandez wanting to be here was to meet one of our members, Joy, who is from the same denomination in the Philippines, the U.C.C.P. Other Filipino people attended and folks who saw the advertisement for the event in the newspaper came; it was a great day. Prof. Fernandez preached a powerful and prophetic sermon and Pastor David's prayers that were offered up afterward could have been a sermon in themselves. How is it that Pastor Fernandez sermon was so well received here? Pastor Fernandez couldn't go anywhere and deliver a sermon like he did here. There are many churches that would have taken offense by the words of the pastor.

Well, I think I may have the answer: he had a setup man, just like Jesus had a setup man in the name of John the Baptist. Pastor Fernandez' set up man was Pastor David. Pastor David is a teacher and throughout the years has been bringing this church along with his teachings through his sermons and classes. Not all ministers are teachers. Not all ministers prepare their congregations to hear the prophetic and powerful message of scriptures. Now to make clear, Pastor Eleazar is not Jesus and Pastor David does not wear camel hair and eat wild honey and locusts – well, at least not publicly. But our church here at Plymouth is starting to hear that prophetic message, and we are starting to hear the cry of the poor and in turn are responding in kind. This is no accident.

For more than 30 years I have been trying to figure out how to convey a sense of urgency to the Christian community about the suffering that happens here at home and around the world involving a majority of the people on this earth. At times it seems like an almost unsolvable question. So today I want to take you on a journey with me and reflect on some of the suffering I have witnessed over the last few decades. I have met people who have come along in my life who have allowed me to have the opportunity to understand and see this suffering and what it actually means to live the Gospel. Now, I'm kind of an unorthodox preacher; I like to use metaphor and visuals and you may be saying to yourself after the service, that was a strange man that gave the sermon today. I'm OK with that as long as you are able to take something out of the sermon.

I want to show you a photo taken by a South African man named Kevin Carter. He took this photo in 1993 in the Sudan of a little Sudanese girl trying to make her way to a food tent. Behind her is a vulture. Vultures don't eat living things. They wait until they're dead and then move in. In 1994, Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for this photograph. This photo was also voted one of the top twenty photos of the twentieth century. But despite all the success that this young man received, he later took his life at age 33, in part due to the images that he had witnessed in his short life in the suffering of others.

In order for us to remember the young girl in this picture we are going to have to name her. If we name her we won't forget her. Let's call her Esperanza, which is Spanish for Hope. Little Esperanza is trying to get to the food tent. She is resting for a minute in order to get enough strength back to complete her journey. Esperanza's body may be starting to shut down. Soon, in just a few days, she might not be able to take in food and after that her body will shut down even further. She may not be able to take in water. We just don't know. But what is important for her and for us is that little Esperanza makes it to the food tent.

I want to share a few statistics of the condition of the world. I don't want this to overwhelm you because when we get overwhelmed we sometimes can't see a solution. Stay close because we are taking this journey together. We won't remember all the statistics but let me give you a few. One is that 2.8 billion people on the planet struggle to survive on less than $2 a day and more than 1.7 billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water. It's hard for me to get my arms around such enormous figures when talking about this kind of disparity. We in the United States are around 4% of the world's population and we burn up 25% of the coal, 26% of the oil, and 27% of the world's natural gas. North Americans throw out enough foodstuff in a day to feed the entire world for a week. The average North American generates 52 tons of garbage by age 75. And the average individual daily consumption of water is 159 gallons, while more than half the world's population lives on 25 gallons. I checked that figure from 5 different sources because I found it so hard to believe.

Carlo Carretto writes in his book Letters from the Desert, "If I love, if I really love, how can I tolerate the fact that a third of humanity is menaced with starvation while I enjoy the security of economic stability? If I act in that way I shall perhaps be a good Christian, but I shall certainly not be a saint; and today there are far too many good Christians when the world needs saints. We must learn to accept instability, put ourselves every now and then in the condition of having to say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,' with real anxiety because the (bread box) is empty: have the courage for love of God and one's neighbor, to give until it hurts and, above all, keep open in the wall of the soul the great window of living faith in the Providence of an all-powerful God."

Let me give you another way of looking at the world.

If you look at the globe and you see the equator in the middle of the map and if you look north you will see the 30th parallel, almost half way up. All the countries that live above the 30th parallel – Japan, Korea, the United States, Canada, all of Europe including Eastern Europe, Russia and surrounding countries – make up 24% of the world's population. That 24% percent of the world's population uses 80% of the wealth and resources of the world. Below the 30th parallel you have the continents of Africa, Latin America, the Southern Pacific Rim, and Asia. Those countries house 76% of the world's population and have the 20% that is left of the resources. Where are most of the resources in the world located? In the Southern Hemisphere. What is the biggest resource that the countries of the north seek? Cheap labor. What is the second leading traded commodity in the world after oil? It's coffee, and it is all grown below the 30th parallel.

Jon Sobrino, a well-respected theologian of liberation from El Salvador, quotes from Luke 16:19 and following: "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs would come and lick his sores."

Sobrino states, "The coexistence of Dives and Lazarus, chronic and permanent, tolerated and accepted, should cause all humanity – at least everyone with a heart – even before we ask why, to lower our heads in shame, indignation, and anger. Without these primary emotions there may be no solution for the world. Certainly we must insist on analyzing the causes and seeking solution, but unless we see something deeply wrong in the mere coexistence of Dives and Lazarus – so wrong it means the difference between simple humanity and inhumanity – then there is no solution. In English the word "obscene" harshly describes an unnatural, repulsive situation. The coexistence of Dives and Lazarus is obscene."

It is not only unjust, but obscene, that the affluent world uses 400 times more resources to care for a baby than does Ethiopia. It is obscene that a Salvadoran woman in a sweatshop earns US29 cents to make a shirt that Nike will sell to the NBA for US$45.00. Dives and Lazarus represent an enormous comparative harm in our world. It is an offense to the poor, caused by the mere fact of their poverty alongside the opulence of others.

Even when I was a young person and this passage was read about Dives and Lazarus. it was a little overwhelming for me. Now, many theologians, some economists, and others say that Dives represents the Western world – those countries that live above the 30th parallel – and Lazarus represents the 76% who live below. What does that say to us? In part it means that we need to help little Esperanza get to the food tent.

Stay with me now. We are on this journey together. I want to give you just a few more statistics or obscenities, however you want to view them. Nearly half of the population of the United States now lives in poverty. 400 people in the U.S. have as much wealth as 154 million Americans. The wealthiest 1% of the U.S. Population now has 40% of all wealth. More wealth than 90% of the population. And finally, the 6 heirs to the Walmart fortune hold more wealth than [the bottom] 42% of Americans combined.

James Cone, the leading Afro-American liberation theologian in the country, from Union Seminary in New York, quotes Amos 5:21, "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." And then he goes on to state, "Amos and other prophets contend that Israel will be sent back to servitude, not because the people failed to attend religious services, but because of the economic oppression of the poor."

The same theme of God's solidarity with the victim is found in the New Testament, where it receives a universal expression in the particularity of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The appearance of Jesus as the Oppressed One cautions us against any easy identification with his ministry. By North American standards, Jesus could be considered neither a successful person, nor could he be considered morally respectable. He identified with the prostitutes and drunkards, the unemployed and the poor, not because he felt sorry for them but in order to reveal God's judgment against social and religious structures that oppress the weak. Jesus was born like the poor, he lived with them, and on the cross, he died like them.

I believe we really need to be mindful of the products we consume as well as our over-consumption, because the foods we buy and the clothes we wear and other products we have to have affect the lives of people all over the world. And in some cases, determines whether they live or die.

Sir Victor Golants, a notable author and Jewish man who predicted the Holocaust of the Jews in Germany, who is a man that doesn't mince words, writes, "The plain fact is that we are starving people, not deliberately in the sense that we want them to die, but willfully in the sense that we prefer their death to our own inconvenience."

I moved up to Eau Claire back in April with the help of my Methodist pastor friend Jen Barnet and I wandered into this church one day after seeing it on the Internet. I talked to Pastor David and he encouraged me to attend a service here. I had been to several other churches in the area and was trying to find a church home. After attending here for several weeks I decided that this is where I wanted to stay. I had a really good feeling about the congregation, the warmth of the people here, and your commitment to justice, along with the fact that Pastor David preached the Gospel. Those were all important to me. In essence, I knew that this was a church that could get little Esperanza to the food tent.

Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian who taught at Union Seminary in New York states, "What we need is a life before death and not a life after death. We need to be free from the coercion to sin in our collective life. We are to listen to the cry, to name the need, and to participate in the struggle."

Is this our church participating in street ministry, by hearing the cry, naming the need and participating in the struggle? I believe it was the end of last month when Pastor David, George, and I went out into the streets of Eau Claire on a very hot and humid day. To make a long story short, we were driving in downtown Eau Claire when we saw a woman crouching down, leaning against a building, her heading hanging down. We parked the van, grabbed some water and approached her. We could see she emaciated and severely dehydrated and probably hadn't eaten in 24 hours. She said she had been in this two-block area for the last 48 hours. She survived a thunderstorm and rain the previous night. She had been outside against the building most of the day. She seemed invisible to those walking by her. That was the most striking thing I noticed: that people walked by her and did nothing. One person during the day gave her some money for food, but then moved on. People were going to restaurants and other places in the downtown area but she was invisible to them. Had she been a potted plant I'm sure someone would have gon into a nearby store and asked the owner to water the plant and maybe give it some plant food. But this wasn't a potted plant, this was a human being. Someone could have used their cell phone and called an ambulance or the police to let them know that this lady was in distress and I'm sure some of the people that passed her by considered themselves good citizens and maybe good Christians. The woman had traveled here 3 days earlier from the Twin Cities and seemed to be somewhat disoriented and confused as to why she was here. Pastor David remarked that in another 24 hours she would have been in real trouble and I certainly concurred with that sentiment. We notified 911 and a young police officer responded and was grateful that we called because she was in his territory or zone of influence and he himself had not noticed her during this time.

Last Friday Deb, George, and I went to downtown Eau Claire and we stopped by Sojourners House to hand out water to people that were waiting for the doors to open. There was a pretty sizable crowd waiting outside, and not everyone was going to get shelter that evening. There are only so many beds, so half the people were going to have to lay their heads down outside that night. Deb went over to talk to a lady who called herself Ms _____. She was probably in her early 60's. She had been married for 42 years and when her husband died she lost her house. That was the long and short of her story.

She had been on the street for a year and a half and she wasn't able to qualify for a bed in Sojourners House because she had already stayed there 90 days. Now she was out on the street and had to wait another 90 days in order to reapply [to stay at Sojourners]. Deb stated that she appeared exhausted and weather-beaten, and she feared the coming winter. It's a dangerous life for women to be on the street. Many times they don't sleep at night because of the danger of being sexually assaulted or for fear of someone taking their belongings. The streets can be very dangerous. These events happened here in Eau Claire.

Joy and Derrick can also testify to these occurrences when they were out one Friday doing ministry.

It's easy for me to think of this happening in Chicago because I was a street minister there for 6 years and I had seen these scenes repeated over and over again. But this is Eau Claire, and somehow this just doesn't happen here. Well, you know. Esperanza is everywhere and she still needs to get to the food tent.

Back in the days of Jesus he had seen these same things. Jesus grew up under occupation. like our sisters and brothers in the Philippines are now experiencing. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which was occupied by Romans. He was dedicated at the Temple in Jerusalem, again, under foreign control. He grew up in Egypt, then part of the Roman Empire, later returning to Nazareth before beginning his itinerant teaching. He later died at the hands of Roman leaders, leaving a new movement in the hands of his followers in a Jewish capitol that was under foreign control. Jesus lived his entire earthly life in locations controlled by outside governments. His mother was a Palestinian Jew and she knew the streets. She had to, in order to protect her son. Many of Jesus' disciples were blue collar people and were familiar with the situation under occupation, and also looked after Jesus. Jesus could not travel wherever he wanted to. One of his disciples was Simon the Zealot. Before his calling to follow Christ, Simon was a zealous nationalist who wanted to drive out the Romans from the cities. His group's tactics often resulted in bloody conflict. Simon knew what was happening and also watched after Jesus.

Jesus was a street minister and when you grow up poor you know the streets and the people that live on them. Jesus ministered among the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the homeless and those who were afflicted, and those who were possessed. When you work on the streets, you form relationships with people. You are there to help lift up people's dignity and to walk with them during their suffering, and if they stumble, you're there to pick them up and help them to continue on. Just like Simon the Cyrene, a black man who helped Jesus carry his cross, when Jesus stumbled. People on the streets trusted Jesus and they had his back. When you establish a relationship with folks, they will watch out for you. Jesus tells us in Matthew 21:31, "I tell you the truth that the tax collector and prostitutes will go to heaven before all of you." The suffering people that society back in the day of Jesus and our society now have such a hard time showing mercy to, were the very people that Jesus identified with.

How many churches do you know of that actually do what the Gospel calls them to do and are serving their neighbor outside their walls, handing out water and foodstuff and listening to those that are suffering and lonely? Most ministers worry about attendance at church on Sunday. But wouldn't it be a great day when no one would show up at Plymouth for service on Sunday and a visitor would drop by and ask the pastor, "Where is your congregation?", and the pastor could say, "They are all out seeing to their neighbor, visiting shut ins, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry, giving drink to those who thirst, consoling the lonely, and helping Esperanza get to the food tent."

You see, we really need to find more churches working outside their walls, rather than being locked inside; congregations that do church, rather than just attend. I have always thought that in the average church there are two groups of people that usually get overlooked. One is our seniors and the other is the youth. We figure our seniors have lived long lives and are waiting for the by and by. They are in the twilight of their lives and we should just let them be. But our seniors have so much wisdom to pass on to us. They have seen the hard times. Most of them have lived through the Great Depression; they know how to save, they know how to be resourceful, they know how not to waste, and they could give us tips on how to live our lives in a more efficient way. We should be writing down their oral histories. We really need them in this time and age.

And our youth are so much smarter than we were growing up. They have skills we only wish we had. I gave my son a computer back in the day, one of those first computers that were big and clumsy and ran off a floppy disk. My son had never used a computer before. It came with around eight inches of manuals. I said, "Tom you've got to read the manuals." My son then proceeded to assemble the computer without reading how to do it. In a little while he had it up and working and started to show me what I could do. Never once did he look at the manuals. It is just something that is innate within our children.

They can teach us so much. One thing they might do is look up products that we should be boycotting because they are made in sweatshops. Most major corporations are on the boycott list. All the fast food chains are: Starbucks, Walmart, etc. Most all the clothes we wear are made in sweatshops. Remember, what we consume affects people's lives around the world.

The U of Wisconsin is now suing Adidas for violating their agreement with the people in Malaysia that make tennis shoes for the University. A young woman in an Adidas factory makes pennies producing that shoe, and she may end up with lung disease from breathing in the shoes' fibers. With the cost of material, and her pay, Adidas can produce a pair of shoes for around $6. Who is making all the profit, if the worker isn't? Adidas has shut down some of their factories in Malaysia, have moved them, and have refused to compensate the workers for their lost wages. The students who are part of the sweatshop coalition at the University were the ones who were behind this suit.

Look at Starbucks; they were only paying an Ethiopian coffee grower three cents on a cup of Ethiopian grown coffee. The person serving the coffee at Starbucks makes far more than the farmer and we all know what Starbucks charges for coffee.

Here is another: Coca-Cola. There is a web-site which is easy to remember: "Killer Coke". This site tells of Cokes' atrocities against workers, and child labor, and the killing and disappearance of union leaders. I personally witnessed this in Guatemala in the mid-80s as a human rights worker. Workers were occupying the Coke plant for a year over the killing of their union leaders, and [the government] allowing the military to come in the plant and beat and torture Coke workers. This happened twice in Guatemala at different plants, as well as in El Salvador, Mexico, China, Turkey and India. You see, corporations have no conscience. They have no heart, no soul, just a bottom line, and that is *profit*.

We really have to be intentional in our lives. We can't fall asleep. Those who suffer are depending on us. Esperanza is depending on us.

But putting aside for the moment the enormous suffering that goes on in the world, we don't have to look any further than right here in this sanctuary to understand suffering. Someone back in the day started a myth that life was about being happy. People make large profits writing books on the subject. Actually, life is about struggle; just staying even. We will always have ups and downs and all of us suffer.

Maybe not to the extent that little Esperanza suffers, but all of us bare a heavy heart over something at times, our seniors and our kids included. This could maybe be from when we were young and we lost someone close to us. Maybe we had a relationship that we invested a lot into and then were terribly let down. We might have suffered from a severe trauma of one kind or another. Whatever it is, it is real to us and has caused us suffering and we need to be conscious that all those around us find themselves there. We have to be so mindful of that. It may be even a future event that we haven't experienced yet. When we understand this, then we may be more sensitive to others. What we feel in ourselves can be reflected in our compassion for others.

Well, then, the natural question is, Why does God allow all this suffering to happen? In Exodus 3:7, God says, "I hear the cry of my people, I know they are suffering." Well, I want to try and bring a little insight into that enormous question. This is my own theology and it may sound a little Catholic. I must admit I have been influenced by Roman Catholic missionaries, many who gave up their lives for the suffering poor. Jesus didn't even have the answer to this question back in his day. He would have to learn it for himself. Throughout his ministry he would learn what his mission on earth would be. At the time, he wasn't thinking about dying on the cross at Calvary and I certainly don't think that would have been his first choice. This was something he would learn. Jesus, having been born into poverty and having lived and ministered among the poor and suffering, would begin to learn and understand how his earthly ministry would conclude and what he would have to do in making that ultimate sacrifice. Now stay with me on this.

When Jesus was on the cross, he said goodbye to his mom he made sure she was taken care of, just like she took care of him when he was little. At the very end of his time on the cross, when finally he gave up the spirit to the Father, when he breathed his last breath and the spirit left his body, Jesus turned this world over to us. Can you feel me on this? Jesus spent his life setting an example for us to follow.

When he died he gave us the blueprint and the blueprint said, "Take care of all my suffering people. And p.s., make sure that little Esperanza gets to the food tent." And so we really don't have to ask why Joy's and Pastor Fernandez's peoples, our sisters and brothers in the U.C.C.P, are dying, or why their pastors are being taken from their churches and being tortured and martyred, or why members of their congregations are being murdered. You see, they are following the blueprint that Jesus left: they are living the Gospel. And Jesus didn't say that in living the Gospel you wouldn't suffer persecution for his sake.

Our New Testament reading today, Romans 1:16 -17 reads, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel", (kind of sounds like something Martin Luther King said), "because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith". I am going to add an extra word: and by our witness. You see, in Matthew twenty-five, the last Judgment, no matter how you take that reading, whether you take it literally or figuratively, it's just a story with a central truth. It still means the same thing. But, it is based entirely on what we do for our sisters and brothers, here in this sanctuary, in the streets of Eau Claire and around the world, never forgetting little Esperanza. "What you do for the least of them, my sisters and brothers," Christ says, "you do for me."


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

Webpastor: Pastor David