October 28, 2018 — Rev. Shirley Bowen
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” Pow! What an extraordinary idea! Tithing Justice, mercy and faith! What would that look like if faith communities and in our individual lives we tithed justice, mercy and faith. This morning I want to raise up tithing in the context of the Commonwealth of Heaven.
Justice, mercy and faith are covenant commitments that, through Jesus, creates a larger social vision. Those leaders weren’t just spiritual leaders; because they were allied with Rome, they participated in political, social and economically oppressive systems. Jesus was demanding their attention away from their collaboration and self-serving interpretation of the texts to the expanded theological insights of his teachings.
So, what does it mean to tithe justice, mercy and faith? Can we just make our regular weekly, monthly or annual pledges to the church (whether it be 10%, 5%, or whatever we decide upon) and feel secure that we are faithfully living Jesus’ command? I think not. The clue comes in the phrase “It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” Yes, the church needs our treasure to insure we have educated clergy needing to receive a living, and to provide some sort of physical space in which to gather as community for the sustenance necessary to be the body of Christ in the world. But so much more is demanded of us. Generally, this is expressed as time and talent. Alongside our financial pledge must be the ways in which we give of our time and the gifts which will benefit others.
I am regularly in awe of our volunteers at Seeds of Hope, most of whom work a day/week – 5 hours/day in serving our neighbors. One even volunteers 3 days/week and fills in anytime something special is needed. Everyone of them could be enjoying some other form of enjoyment in their retirement or free time which wouldn’t involve endless boiling of eggs, sorting and hanging up clothes, or occasionally intervening with inappropriate behavior. But they, each of them, understand that the the mission of Seeds of Hope is based on the principles of mercy and justice and that there are so many needs in our community that can only be met by people loving people directly.
I have learned from our volunteers. I work with those same neighbors every day. It can be hard, emotional, and taxing work and I love nearly every minute of it. But with all the hours and energy I give, it is my job. I’m paid to do this work. Outside of work I have been more selfish. But I’ve realized that it was my turn to find a place where, as Frederick Beuchner refers to as “the place where the world’s deep hunger and my deep passion meet.” I have found that in working with Veterans. The more I hear their stories, the more convicted I become and the more I listen to ways in which I can be of some assistance. And that’s where the scripture passage and my life have intersected. I understand it more now than ever. And as I age, it becomes even more powerful. I have a feeling of urgency. There is so much pain and suffering in our world.
Do you realize that when we hosted the homeless survey for northern York County last January there were 17 adults and 1 child living outside – in January, with another 22 and 4 unstable, meaning couch surfing or sleeping in abandoned buildings. And after 8 pm there are no public bathrooms, running water or safe places in which to camp? And recently I received a report which I am trying to verify that in our school system up to 50 children are homeless.
You may ask, why can’t we get these people into housing? Isn’t there a program to provide support for low income individuals? There is, through the Biddeford Housing Authority. But do you know how long the waiting list is for a Section 8 voucher? 8-10 years in Biddeford. And people with vouchers are increasingly unable to find landlords that will take the vouchers because as Biddeford entices new businesses and professionals, landlords can upgrade marginal units and receive higher rents. And what about food insecurity? You all had a program to learn more about that. Just under half of all school-age children in our state qualify for free or reduced breakfast &/or lunch. At SOH we serve 400+ meals per week, but recognize there is still a need, as there are no free meals on the weekend.
And as we turn on the news every – single – day there is another story of hate and violence and divisiveness. This morning when I opened my iPad the headline I saw was A week of hate. We see elevating fear in our young women, in persons of color, in religious minorities, in immigrants and LGBTQ individuals. But why? Why do we keep allowing our leaders, our neighbors, ourselves devolve into such terrible behavior? I believe it was Mother Teresa who had an answer. She said that we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
As I approach 60, I have been surprised to find that I don’t think about retirement any more. It could be possible in 6 years, and yet I can’t imagine stopping that soon. As long as my body and mind hold up, and with the continued support of my fabulous husband, I think I will always work. I may slow down and still enjoy some travel or other forms of sabbath, and will increasingly require less pay, but I must do all that I can with my life to end the suffering of others, including helping to raise up new activists. That’s what Jesus’ message means to me.
But it is different for all of us. I’m not holding up our volunteers or my own path as a prescription. I am just proclaiming the Gospel as I have heard it, and hope to be just another voice nurturing your existing dedication as the body of Christ – his hands and feet in the world. Union Church has been an exemplary partner with Seeds of Hope and other safety-net programs in our communities. I regularly use Union Church as an example to new organizations who are interested in supporting our work. Your generosity is both broad and deep. And it is deeply, deeply appreciated.
I would like to close with the words of one of the Bishops of the Episcopal Church – Bishop Steven Charleston, his words summarize my urgency and have become an anthem for action. They are also a wonderful lead-in the the next musical offering.
“They are listening. The poor are listening for the word of justice to give them hope. The lonely are listening for the sound of a caring heart. The abused and broken are listening for the healing sound of mercy. The fearful are listening for a word of truth that can set them free. So many people listening, but what are they hearing? Break their silence with the sound of the words the Spirit has given you. Speak hope and mercy, speak justice and truth, say what you believe that will heal and help. Now is not the time to be quiet, for there is an ocean of listening all around you, waiting for the word of life.”