Re-Forming the Church: Standing up for the Vulnerable 11.12.17

Psalm 146:5-10, Matthew 10:5-10:

For I was hungry and you gave me food.
For I was thirsty and you gave me drink.
For I was sick and you took care of me…

I look at the words plastered on our doors which you used to describe the church last week and I am encouraged. Some of your words clearly describe a body of Christ that must be active in the world. The movement Jesus began was hands on, meeting physical and emotional needs, being the presence of God in the world. This morning we continue to reflect and consider how we are being called to re-shape or re-form this body of Christ today.

When he first sent out the twelve to get to disciple work, Jesus instructed them to teach and to heal. This was not just an evangelizing crusade. This was connecting the good news that the kingdom was near with the hands on healing that people needed. We see right away that healing is part of being a disciple. And not just for the people with money, either. They were to take no money for their healing work. Being healthy is not just for the rich, it is for all of God’s children. Jesus takes special interest in the vulnerable ones of society, the ones who can not simply help themselves, the ones referred to as “the least”. In his day and in ours, they are the widows and the orphans, the single parents, the disabled, the special needs child, the elderly, the unemployed, the ones dealing with life threatening diseases or chronic health issues. Poverty exacerbates it all, often creating a lack of good nutrition, throwing in a constant fear of eviction or loss of a job due to missing work when sick or when a child is sick. Again and again the poor face more difficult odds when it comes to staying healthy.

Scripture does not blame the vulnerable ones for being in that situation. The references simply identify the fact that the least are a part of society and need to be cared for and about. The poor are the responsibility of God, they are the responsibility of the king, they are the responsibility of the non-poor. The words of Psalm 146 clearly identify God as the God of the vulnerable. God who gives bread to people who are starving, God who makes the blind see. God who straightens up those who are bent low, God who helps the orphans and widows. If God is the God of the vulnerable, then surely God’s people are the people who care about and for the vulnerable. We have shifted in our society to often blame the poor for being poor—they have made bad decisions, they have not taken advantage of opportunities, they have not made long term goals and plans. Those of us who are comfortable easily slip into a mindset of: “I have worked hard and made it in society, so why can’t she?” Clearly it is complicated and there is not one single reason people remain in poverty. But we skip over the truth that our entire system is set up so that some benefit from others being poor. We skip over the truth that if some were not disadvantaged, then others would not be advantaged. We skip over the truth that we continue to serve a God who is dedicated to being the God of the poor, and that as disciples of Jesus we are called to use our advantage for others. “When did we see you sick and take care of you?” “When you have done it for the least of these brothers of mine.” What is the church doing about making sure everyone has access to health care?

What have we done as a church to remediate the thirst in Puerto Rico? The weeks have gone by, and there are still people who do not have ready access to clean water because of the hurricane damage. I can’t help but see the difference in response between when Texas or Florida suffers damage. Somehow it seems like Puerto Ricans are deemed second class Americans. All the more reason the church should be stepping up. The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has been active on the ground on the island. We can feel good about that. We support the work of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance through our One Great Hour of Sharing offering every year. But when there are crises calling for extra help, we can give directly to that area through PDA. My friend John Ellis has been actively purchasing water purification systems and gathering funds to ship them to Puerto Rico, even going to help with their installation. His daughter works in Puerto Rico and he has her first hand report regarding specific communities of need. We have a congregation of many Puerto Ricans who meet here on Wednesdays and Saturdays for worship. They have family and friends who are going through difficult times. Thanks to your generosity, we sent $775.00 to Sagua la Grande to help with reconstruction, and that was important. But perhaps it is time for us to contribute financially to those who are still without water and electricity in Puerto Rico. After the hurricanes hit, one of our partners in Rosemont, the Hope Community Ministries on Poplar Grove St., took a special collection to support hurricane victims. Rather than send their donation through the Red Cross, they brought it to us so we could send it through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, confident that it will get to those in need through a channel we trust. “When did we see you thirsty and give you a drink?” “When you have done it for the least of these brothers of mine.” What is the church doing, what are we personally doing to provide fresh drinking water in places that need it?

Hunger stalks our city. You can see it in the line of people waiting to be seen at 40 West Assistance and Referral Center. You can see it in the high need for breakfast and lunch to be provided at schools. 96% of our schools have been identified as sites of concentrated poverty. You can see it in the efforts of the Baltimore City Health Department, which is doing its best to get healthy food into the hands of the vulnerable in our city. Two programs are noteworthy: the Virtual Supermarket enables senior citizens to order groceries online and pick them up at 14 places around the city…many of them are in their own senior residences, or in the nearby library, making grocery store food from ShopRite available without delivery fees, especially in neighborhoods where food access is limited. The other is a three year effort with 18 corner stores in the city to stock and sell fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, low fat milk and dairy, healthier snacks and drinks combined with an educational arm to encourage shoppers to buy the healthier foods from their corner stores.

Hunger is a poverty issue that requires our attention. Helping with providing food for or preparing and serving Thanksgiving meals is a great step. But it is one day out of 365. What are we doing as the church to get at the underlying causes of poverty driven hunger? What are we doing to ensure that the Giant next door does not close? Ever since I have been here in Baltimore I have overheard concerns that it is an underperforming Giant, that it is struggling to stay open to provide fresh food in West Baltimore. If it closed, where would people without cars have to go to shop for groceries?

There is something we can do. Think about where you shop for groceries, where you are using your buying power. The more we support grocery stores outside of the city, the more we contribute to a system of privilege, with the ability to drive our vehicles so that we can fill them with multiple shopping bags, way many more than could ever be carried on a bus. What if Hunting Ridge Presbyterian church members made it a practice to shop at the Giant next door? You drive here for worship. You could drive here to shop just as well as any other store. They may not have all your favorite items. How many choices do you really need? If there are items you are looking for, you can always ask the management to consider stocking them. They want to support the community. We have at least 50 households who join us for worship on this corner. What if 50 more families suddenly began doing their shopping next door? One conscious act by your family could make a big difference when multiplied by a church family. Perhaps caring for the vulnerable means shopping with the vulnerable.

“When did we see you hungry and feed you?” “When you have done it for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.” What is the church doing to feed the hungry?
The violence in our city, and the violence in many cities, is all wrapped up in poverty, in lack of resources and opportunities, in racial disparity and in the prevalence of guns. Homicide is being described as a public health issue. Jesus doesn’t mention the violence specifically, but it is a key ingredient in the life of the vulnerable in any city. It is a deadly mix, as we know only too well. You don’t have to go too far to find someone who knows someone whose family has been touched by violence.

We could add another category to Jesus’ list of concerns….“When did we see you at risk of being victims of violence and support you?” “When you have done it for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”

Thirteen of us joined the human chain during the Baltimore Cease Fire last Sunday. I really felt like we were part of a movement and not an institution as we stood on the curb of Edmondson Avenue in the cloudy mist with our signs for peace. We were much more than Hunting Ridge Presbyterians. We were a part of the body of Christ that is not just Presbyterian, but Catholic and Episcopalian and Baptist and even non-denominational. The body of Christ that is black and white and brown. The body of Christ that is using a cane or pushing a stroller. The body of Christ that braved the threat of rain and stood for peace in a city with way too many murders. The only way a ceasefire will ever really take hold is if we change our culture in this city. If it becomes NOT the norm to pick up a gun. If the norm instead becomes respecting life, period. We have a long way to go. But a gathered group of people taking a stand on a Sunday afternoon makes a statement, raises awareness, lifts the bar just a bit to say, no, this current culture of violence is not ok with us. The pastors of the 40 West churches are working together to begin a very short weekly outdoor prayer service on Edmondson Avenue to continue the witness for peace, to continue to proclaim a need to change our norms. It will be something any of us can participate in.

Jesus is clear. The hungry need food. The thirsty need clean water. The naked need clothing. The sick need medical attention, love, care and medicine. It is a no-brainer to add: All people need to live safely without fear. This is the work of his disciples. This is what he expects of his followers. This is what the church is to be about. We need to hold our feet to the fire and look in the mirror. Where are we falling short? Why does poverty cover so much real estate? What are steps you and I can take to reform the church so that it will look more like Jesus’ expectations? This morning we have moved our time of confession so that we might reflect on Jesus’ mandate. How is Jesus speaking to you today? Where do you see changes need to take place? What will you be doing to bring those changes about? Let us take some time to listen…

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