Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How To Ruin A Life

Last year, I had a conversation with a woman on staff at a homeless shelter. She was working with a homeless man in his early 20s. He was on the sex offender registry because as a teenager, he had mooned a group of people at a party.

I thought to myself "we have created a new leper class." I was also reflecting on the fact that if this person had access to resources and a decent attorney, he would not be on the registry. But he was poor, and so he is registered as s sex offender.

The ease with which people are placed on the sex offender registry is deeply troubling. The consequences are long lasting and life devastating. I am not defending pedophiles. I am saying that the registry has become so broad; it is failing to serve its purpose. I am saying that by registering teenagers who moon people,along with eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year olds who have consensual sex with fifteen year olds, we are creating a leper class of untouchables. These people have trouble finding employment, they are restricted in where they may live, and they must wear a scarlet letter of public shame. In cases like these, the offenders are extremely unlikely to become repeat offenders. This is different from pedophiles who have a high propensity for repeat offenses.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them." Luke 7:22

One of the greatest sins of humanity is our propensity to dehumanize others. In Jesus' day, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and the poor were believed to have brought such things upon themselves by sinning against God. Jesus was not having it- they were included in the circle of God's love. As Christians, we continue to be called to this high standard of love and inclusion, even for those on the sex offender registry, and even for those who are pedophiles on the registry. The sex offender registry process needs revision. Appropriate safeguards for children are very important. But no one is beyond the scope of God's love. That is the good news for us all.

Below is a piece written by Jeanine Kleimo, who is the chair of the board for a local shelter (Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing).

How To Ruin A Life

I deal with sex offenders every day.  “Ugh!” is the likely reaction of many readers.  
Rapists!  Perverts! Pedophiles!

There are violent and emotional reactions to the mere notion of a sex offender.

Keep calm and keep reading.  

Here is a story that is illustrative of many branded as sex offenders:

Two fifteen-year-old girls sneaked out of their houses to attend a party.  They were forbidden to attend, as it was being held by older teens without proof of parental supervision.

They were excited about being in the presence of older, more “mature” boys whom they perceived as different from their male peers at school.  When two of the boys invited them upstairs to the bedrooms, they went along.  Both boys were 18.  The girls told them that they were 16 going on 17 and looked the part, as they had dressed in their most sophisticated clothes and wore makeup.
Both couples had sex.  When the girls attempted to sneak back home, one was caught.  Her furious father argued with her until she admitted her sexual escapade and revealed the name of her partner.
Her father pressed charges. The young man—whom we will call Joe—went to prison for a year.  His plans for college were derailed.

When released from prison, Joe learned that he was on the Sex Offender Registry for life as a Tier Three offender.  He would be required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet so that the Department of Corrections could monitor his whereabouts at all times.  For the privilege, he pays about $6 each day.  He has a curfew from 10:00PM to 6:00AM, during which time he must be at the home whose address is registered with the Police and with his probation officer, with whom he must have weekly appointments.  His neighbors would be informed that a Sex Offender lived nearby.

He was informed that he cannot have contact with individuals under the age of 18, so he may not attend school or work in a setting in which there are children.

He cannot attend his younger brother’s sporting events.

He cannot belong to the Youth Group at his church.

Everyone he knows is aware of his status as a SEX OFFENDER.  It is the Scarlet Letter of today.
No one wants to hire him.

His status as a SEX OFFENDER is a matter of public record, and anyone (friend, potential employer or landlord) may determine his status readily on the computer.

Frustrated and depressed, he turns to drugs and away from God, as no one at his church is supportive of his new situation (though his family’s pastor offers to keep him in his prayers.)

Did Joe do the wrong thing? Yes, of course.

Did his girlfriend-for-an-evening do the wrong thing?

Was this really a criminal act?

Do we want to prevent Joe from becoming a productive citizen?  

Do we want to spend state resources to incarcerate him?

An older man named Tom committed a similar “crime” in his youth in Delaware. He served time and went on to be a highly-placed professional in his community in the Philadelphia area.  He married, supported a wife and children, owned a home, and was active in his family’s life and in his children’s school.

One day, he returned home to a letter from Delaware advising him that he was required to return to the state and to register as a Tier Three Sex Offender, with similar restrictions to those of young Joe.  He had to abandon his career, his home, and his family to comply with the law.

Now, he is homeless, bound by an ankle bracelet and the restrictions of the Sex Offender Registry, and is trying to recover from the deep depression and dependence on drugs that were the immediate impact of this most-unexpected event.  He wants to work again so that he can contribute to his family—whom he is forbidden to see.

Is this right?

Let me be clear: I am not saying that pedophiles who harm children should escape consequences. On a related topic, I have been angry and outraged by the ways the Church, especially the Catholic church, has covered up egregious abuse. I am in no way defending such behavior. I am saying that the registry has become too broad and the swath of its destruction is ruining lives.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Compassion, Drug Abuse, and Violence

This morning, listening to news coverage of how different the Republican candidates of today sound from Republicans of the past as it relates to drug addiction has me thinking and wanting to write. (My point here is about compassion and drug abuse, not so much politics.)

The coverage compared comments made by President Bush (1) and Jeb Bush, the candidate, as well as Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina. The President, in the 1990s, was very hard core about convicting and imprisoning drug offenders. He sought an additional $1B+ in funds to build more courts and prisons. The candidates today, however, all have very personal experience with drug addition affecting family and friends.

The result is compassion. Personal experience leads to compassion. That old saying "we want mercy for ourselves and justice for others" came to mind.

When drug abuse and addiction was not hitting very close to home for the politicians of decades past, it was much easier to call for harsh treatment. I haven't gone back and checked the record, but I think it is safe to bet this approach was common across the political spectrum.

Now that drug abuse has become epidemic across the socioeconomic and geographic spectrum, the conversation is changing. I am glad it is changing.

But it leaves me thinking about the importance of compassion, and relationship. It also leaves me thinking about the power of human denial.

I am a child of the 1970s & 1980s and a young adult of the 1990s. I thought of the movie Boyz in the Hood (1991). Near the end of the movie, after the violence of the inner city has been portrayed as the subject of the movie, is this scene. Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. are sitting on a porch after the character portrayed by Ice Cube looses his brother to drug related gun violence. He turns on the news the next day, and sees coverage discussing what a violent world this is. All of the coverage is about foreign locales. No coverage of his brother can be found. No mention of the hood. Ice Cube laments "Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care."

That has always stayed with me. I am the product of an upper middle class upbringing, with no personal knowledge of violence or drugs in inner cities.

I am also a disciple of Jesus Christ. By the grace of God, compassion is one of the spiritual gifts God gives. By the grace of God, I haven't needed a personal experience with addiction and violence to believe deeply in the need for a compassionate, humane approach.

Denial is also a choice, the product of free will. So often, our human response is to erect walls of denial around issues that don't personally touch us. We allow compassion fatigue to overtake God given compassion.

I am glad that the walls of denial are coming down around the issue of drug addiction. I am sad that for the most part, it requires personal experience to make this happen. Compassion could do this instead, if we would allow God to do this work in us.

May it be so.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Colossians 3:12New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Independence Day, Gay Marriage, and the Mission of God

This morning, I preached for the first time following the gay marriage ruling by the Supreme Court. What I shared is written below. 

July 5, 2015
Mark 6: 1-13

As many of you know,
    I was on vacation last week…
We had a lovely time in Florida
    and I was so grateful to be able to spend the time
      with my family and friends

It also happened to be one of the most active news cycles
     we have seen lately…
     some commentators have reflected
     that with the shooting in Charleston
      and the supreme court rulings on the Affordable Care Act
     and gay marriage
It may have been one of the most historic two weeks of my lifetime..
   time will tell

Before vacation,
    we reflected in worship upon the shooting in Charleston
      and now that several black churches have also been burned
    we need to continue to keep this issue before us
    through prayer and action

I was out of the pulpit
   immediately following the gay marriage ruling
    and on this weekend when we celebrate and give thanks
    for our nation, it seems an appropriate time to pause
   not only to give thanks for our nation,
   but to reflect upon the happenings in our great land

“The fact of the matter is
      that we are a divided nation,
          a divided people.
 In today’s culture,
       every possible division between people
          is emphasized and expanded
        and exaggerated and exploited.
Everything is turned into an “either/or” scenario.
       Either you agree with me, or you’re a bigot.
            Either you agree with me, or you’re completely immoral.

This week, there are people who,
       in the midst of their story and their struggle
          are celebrating equality.
But this week, there are also people who disagree,
         people who have a different story
           and a different experience.
The reality is
      that there are not “two sides” on this issue.

There’s not a singular gay experience
         or a singular straight experience.
Each of us has a different story,
     unique experiences, particular struggles,
       and when we make anything a simple “either/or,”
          we miss the mark.
When we proclaim from our soapboxes
        that you’re either in favor of this decision
         or you’re a hateful bigot,
            we’re being shortsighted.
When we say you’re either against this decision
       or you’re championing immorality,
         we’re failing to understand the complex reality
            in which we find ourselves.

What I’m feeling this morning
       in such a divided time and cultural landscape,
           is a deep sense of gratefulness
            that I believe in a God who loves all people.
I’m thankful to be part of a church
           that has an open table:
             all people are invited to sit at God’s table.
Which means, by the way,
          that people with whom I strongly disagree
           are loved by God
      and invited to sit at God’s table.

 People who are and have been hurtful to me
          are loved by God and invited to sit at God’s table.
After all, Jesus died for bigots.
     Jesus died for the immoral.
Jesus died for all of us.[1]

Our gospel lesson for us this morning
   has, as always, an important word for us this morning…

It is the story of Jesus returning to his hometown
   and finding no welcome there
The social conventions of the day
    proved more powerful than the good news Jesus brought
Jesus was appalled by their unbelief

So Jesus shook the dust from his feet,
    and he set off for the surrounding villages…
     he went looking for the places that were ready to hear
     a Word from the Lord

He refocused upon the mission before him..
    and he redoubled his efforts to share the love of God’s kingdom
  He sent the disciples out in pairs
     with instructions to trust radically in God
      by taking nothing for the journey
    He charged them with sharing the gospel of healing and peace

Whether you are dismayed by this week’s ruling on gay marriage
   or heartened by it, as I am,
    I submit to you that the word from the Lord this morning is the same:
We are to go out, two by two in community,
   to proclaim the gospel of love and peace

I am so grateful for this community of faith..

As I begin my fifth year of service as your lead pastor,
    I have been thinking about
         what God has taught me through you

You have given me deeper appreciation
    for what love for God and country looks like
You, my church, have given me my most significant experiences
    with active duty and retired military service men and women
Before being sent among you,
    I was not blessed with so many experiences
      in such abundance
  You continue to witness to me about courage, duty, honor,
      respect for authority, and diversity.
What you have witnessed to me about diversity
   has been the biggest blessing…
   we are a church that knows how to tolerate differences of perspective
    and opinion
At its core,
   this is of course a fruit of the Spirit…
      because loving our sisters and brothers,
    even when they disagree with us,
     is rooted in love and commitment….

  Here, you have shown me that tolerance for difference of opinion
      is reinforced by military service…
   So long as we are all focused upon the same mission,
        we will find a way to get there together…

The gospel of Mark reminds us this morning
   of the importance of remaining focused upon our mission
 We are to shake the dust from our feet
       and share the gospel of healing and peace
   We are taught to do this together,
       in community

We are a diverse church in many ways…
    theologically, socioeconomically, racially, and in sexual orientation
 we are a beautiful mixture of perspectives
    held together by the same Lord

We have a diversity of reactions to the gay marriage ruling….
  I know that for many,
     hearing your pastor say that I am supportive of the gay marriage ruling
    are very hard words to hear…
  While others celebrate the ruling

Regardless of your reaction,
   I hope that you will hear the words from Mark
Inviting us to shake the dust from our feet
       and share the gospel of healing and peace
 and to do this together, in community

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism,
     published a sermon entitled Catholic Spirit.
John Wesley has an important word for us to hear…

The sermon is based on Jehu’s question to Jehonadab in 2 Kings 10;
       ‘Is thine heart right,
             as my heart is with thy heart?’
And Jehonadab answered:
          ‘It is. If it be, give me thine hand.’

 While acknowledging that Jehu was not exactly a model saint,
        Wesley urges that his example here
            is one that every Christian should imitate.

Jehu’s question is not about Jehonadab’s opinions
        but about his spirit,
              his attitude and his affections.
How does he regard his neighbour?
         In a word, is there love in his heart?
 And then Wesley writes a glorious sentence,
        pleading that even allowing our differences of opinions,
             we must not let this stand in the way of brotherly affection.
 ‘Though we can’t think alike,
       may we not love alike?’

John Wesley wrote much in defense
         of that understanding of Christian sanctification
              that he understood as love perfected,
                and this sentence is as good a practical summary
       of it as anything he argued elsewhere.

Wesley taught and preached the essentials of the Christian faith..
   and yet in a time when people being executed for their faith
    as a part of recent history in England,
    he urged unity across a diversity of theological perspectives..
   focusing upon unity in the love offered to us
    from the Cross of Christ
‘Though we can’t think alike,
       may we not love alike?’

The Supreme Court ruling
          does not directly address how pastors, churches,  
              and individual Christians must or should view
           the issue of same-sex marriage. 
Pastors and churches are still permitted
         to refuse to marry same-sex couples,
   and indeed in the United Methodist Church,
    I continue to be barred from performing these marriages
As an ordained elder,
     I have vowed to follow the Discipline of our Church
         and the Discipline specifically prohibits clergy
    from performing these ceremonies

And yet, even as I grieve that I cannot provide
    this kind of pastoral care
    to members and family of Wesley Church
     (and yes, I have been asked)
  I trust that God is at work in all of us…
       and that we see through a mirror dimly
    as the Apostle Paul reminds us

I trust that even though we may not think alike
    we can love alike…

Even as we struggle with knowing God’s will concerning same- sex marriage
    I trust that if we are faithful,
     Jesus will not be amazed at our unbelief
      as he was in his hometown,
    but that he will send us out,
      two by two,
     to love, and teach, and heal…

Even as I find it persuasive
    to understand scripture as complicated and sometimes contradictory
  I hold Scripture as the normative Word for my life
    and for our lives together

“Within its pages we learn of the heart, character, and will of God,
         but we also find on its pages things that we might question. 
Things that seem to reflect the culture and times
         the biblical authors lived in
                 more than the timeless will of God.
We find that women were often seen as second class
           in much of the Bible.
Concubinage and polygamy
       and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth
         were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament.
 Slavery was found to be morally acceptable
      in the Old Testament
          and slave-owning Christians in the early church
           were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free.

Priests were commanded
        to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes,
         and rebellious children were to be stoned to death.

Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist.

 And when Israel went off to war
       she believed God called her to destroy
       every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—
         what today we call genocide. 
The writer of some of the Epistles teaches
        that women are to pray
           with their heads covered
               and to not wear their hair in braids. 
They are not permitted to teach a man,
          and Corinthians notes that it was “shameful”
             for a woman to even speak in church.

 The Bible, in its writing, content, and canonization,
          is wonderfully complex
            and we do not do it justice,
              nor are we always able to discern God’s will,
                simply by quoting a handful of verses. 
If it worked this way we’d still embrace
        slavery, polygamy, and concubinage. 
Victims of rape would still be forced to wed their rapists.”[2]
Yet, even as I find this persuasive,
    I respect and admire many faithful Christians and staff members
     who feel very very differently about gay marriage..
   and I say to our whole community

And so to all of us
  Though we can’t think alike,
       may we not love alike?’
  We agree on the main points of Christian teaching
       we are all sinners saved by grace
       we are all dependent on God’s healing love
and we are all sent out by the same Lord
   to shake the dust from our feet
       and share the gospel of healing and peace
 and to do this together, in community

On this weekend of celebration our nation’s independence
    let us not only focus upon the overarching truth that
      we are all loved by the same Lord…
Let us also remember
    that we are blessed to live in this nation
      which enables us to live peacefully
   among a diversity of opinions and perspectives
     united by the truth that we are all Americans

For truly, though we may not think alike,
    surely we can love alike
To this truth we must hold fast..
    for God has work for us to do

[1] Travis Garner, UMC Pastor
[2] Adam Hamilton, UMC Pastor 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reflections on Sunday September 15, 1963 by Jim O'Quinn

I was born in 1971, about eight years after this happened. I have always felt the presence and blessing of the Civil Rights movement in my life. Here is a reflection written by a clergy colleague in Virginia. He was a first grader in Birmingham the day of the Sixteenth Street Bombing. He wrote this sermon on the anniversary of that event. 

Reflections on Sunday September 15, 1963.

On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. This murderous act shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement. Even as a child, that heinous act shaped my thinking about the nature and purpose of the church and the destructive power of hate. I was sitting in the sanctuary of North Highlands Methodist Church that morning when I heard ‘there was trouble down the hill.’

Our family lived about one mile from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I had just started the first grade at Martin School in the North Highlands community of Birmingham. I have my first grade class photo hanging upstairs in my personal study. Little Jimmy O’Quinn is there sitting in his desk hands folded and looking quite mischievous. When I look at that photograph I do wonder what happened to all the other children. I wonder if they have the same feelings that I do about that tumultuous year. The world as those little first grade children knew it would change. Few of us would say that 1963 was a good year.
In 1963, Birmingham was known as one of the South's most segregated cities. That same year, newly-elected Gov. George Wallace physically barred two African-American students from entering the University of Alabama and Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, sparked controversy with his use of fire hoses and attack dogs to disperse civil rights protesters.
On Good Friday, April 12, Martin Luther King was arrested with Ralph Abernathy by Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor for demonstrating in support of the garbage workers for the City of Birmingham. During the eleven days he spent in jail, MLK wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in a response to a call by prominent white clergy for patience. Also in 1963, John F. Kennedy would be assassinated on November 22nd. Civil unrest and violence were the norm in 1963 Birmingham. It is September 15th that has the most meaning for me.
My father was pastor of North Highlands Methodist Church, which was located on what was also known as ‘Dynamite Hill’ because of the Klan activity that year. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a well-known meeting place for civil rights activists, where Martin Luther King Jr. and others planned marches, sit-ins and other nonviolent protests. That fact made the church building a target, but no one expected an attack to come during the crowded Sunday morning services.
One memory from that Sunday was that the doors of North Highland Methodist Church were locked during the church service. As a six year old, I knew this was an unusual step for a church. I learned since, several other churches locked their doors during their Sunday service. There was a lot of fear that morning. At the moment sitting inside a locked building, we didn’t know what we feared only that there had been some trouble down the hill.
The nation later learned fourteen-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie May Collins, as well as 11-year-old Denise McNair, were killed in a church washroom when the bomb detonated. Twenty-two others were injured. I reflect on the ages of these children because I had just turned six-years-old the day before. The news of other children not living to adulthood seemed poignant. That act of terrorism also drove home that even being in a church building isn’t a true refuge from those who hate.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan were immediately suspected -- a 1965 FBI memo to agency director J. Edgar Hoover named Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, all locals and alleged Klansmen, as possible culprits. But the FBI closed its investigation in 1968 without filing any charges. A 1980 Justice Dept. investigation concluded that Hoover prevented agents from disclosing their findings to prosecutors.
Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the investigation in 1971, but it took him half a decade to bring charges against suspect Robert Chambliss because the FBI refused to cooperate for years. The watershed moment in the Chambliss trial came on Nov. 15, 1977, when Chambliss' niece, The Rev. Elizabeth Cobbs testified that her uncle had made comments to her suggested his involvement in the bombing. Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence until he died in 1985.
As a pre-ministerial student at Birmingham-Southern College, I had several close friends. Elizabeth Cobbs, in college now 36 was one of my dear friends. We were just a handful of students who were also serving as student local pastors. Libby, was married with two children and was a pastor of a small United Methodist church near Legion Field in Birmingham. We often spoke of lectures and celebrated our work as beginning pastors. I treasure those memories with her and our other friend, Paul Tucker. Paul and I went on to seminary together. Paul is now married and serves in Memphis, Tennessee.
Libby had a different course. The Klan harassed her until her marriage broke and she left the United Methodist Church. She was relocated to Texas and lived under an assumed name. Paul told me she sold real estate. Later, we learned she died of cancer. Libby Cobb was a hero in life and in death. I am a better person for knowing her.
Even fifty years after the bombing; it is a quick and powerful reflection that the church should be open to all instead of restricted to the approved few. My mind contrasts the locking of the doors on Sunday September 15th, 1963 with the old southern evangelical expression for an altar call being referred to as the opening the doors of the church.

Separate water fountains and restrooms are a memory. Debates if the race of a teacher changed the quality of a child’s education are past. Yet, the effects of sin remain. On my trips to Birmingham, Alabama I often drive by the former site of North Highlands Church (it closed and was paved over just two years later to be an exit ramp to I-65) I will drive through the neighborhood to look at the old parsonage and pray for the people who now live there. I conclude my trip down the steep hill past Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I remember seeing Libby standing at the reconstructed site of the blast. My wandering North Birmingham It is a reflection of a spiritual journey I did not know I was on until later in my life. My memory is my journey.

I can remember other things about North Highlands Church. Mr. Benson was a man who seemed to be 106 to me as a six year old. Every Sunday he had something for the children in the church. I recall getting a car and I remember a postcard with the drawing of buffalo stampeding as Indians were in wait with bows and arrows. I remember his praying in church for what seemed like forever. I recall his favorite song: The Lilly of the Valley. I remember him because he paid attention to this little six-year-old boy who was stuck in church. Mr. Benson wanted me to feel good about being in church. That was his message to me and the other children in the church.

The most powerful message from these reflections is that we should not underestimate what our children are learning in those adult moments of ours. God is speaking and the children are listening. Understanding may not happen for decades. I am unsure of the meaning of the lesson I learned at age six. Now fifty years later, I am closer than I was in knowing the meaning, but there is still so much to filter through. God’s message is planted in each of us, even with the child. It is up to us to wrestle the full meaning for the rest of our life. We have to filter through it all until it becomes clear.

My prayer is that we finally find the clarity we need to live, work and breathe in a world so tenacious in its hate that children are blown up. We may not know what our world will be like at the 100th commemoration of September 15, or of the other acts of 1963. We may not be able to make sense of our 9-11-2001 memories. We may not make sense of gassings and bombings in Syria and currently in the news. Yet somewhere, even if it is in the heart of a six-year old sitting in a church; God is planting a seed.

My September 15th is significant to my calling to church life and ministry. What is the date of your calling?

-          Jim O’Quinn

Saturday, July 06, 2013

God and the Poor

On Sunday morning, I am preaching the third in a five part series on God's Purpose for our life. The overarching focus is:
1. Loving God in response to God's love for us
2. Using our Spiritual Gifts wherever we find ourselves day to day
3. Caring for the overlooked
4. Caring for creation
5. Thereby making disciples of all the world.

As I was reviewing my sermon, I came across this web page. I was doing a search about how many times the bible mentions care for the poor (answer: more than 300).

This page alone is rather challenging, wouldn't you say? Sitting here feeling convicted....

The Bible on the Poor

The Bible contains more than 300 verses on the poor, social justice, and God's deep concern for both. This page contains a wide sample of them, and some reflections. It's aimed at anyone who takes the Bible seriously.
As you read these passages, you will very likely feel a good deal of resistance (possibly at first manifesting itself as indifference). American churches have departed strongly from Biblical values in these areas, and even created a rationalization-- "prosperity theology"-- for rejecting them. It takes time and reflection to get past this misteaching.
But try to get past the resistance. Spiritual growth doesn't come from what goes down easily, or what we like to hear and read. It comes from what's different, and even difficult.
This page can easily be used as the basis for a Bible study. I tried writing it like one, but ultimately decided that web pages just don't work that way. It makes a smashing good one, though; if you want to try, replace the commentary with questions. The best questions to ask are those without a fixed answer (e.g. "Why does Jesus say this?" or "What did you learn from these verses?").

God's concern for the poor

In this section we are not yet concerned with what the believer should think or do for the poor, but with God's thoughts. Though we often forget poverty and oppression, it is clear from the Bible that they are always on God's mind.
Deut. 26:5-9. The Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to... this land flowing with milk and honey.Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read... "The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD... Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Ps. 140:12. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.
Is. 25:4. For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress.
Ps. 10:14. The unfortunate commits himself to You; You have been the helper of the orphan... O LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed.
Is 41:17. The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them.
Luke 6:20-21. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
James 2:5. Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?
Commentary: I think it's fair to say that American attitudes toward the poor-- and perhaps not just in America-- are mostly disdain and fear. They're dangerous and different. Sometimes there's a suspicion that their condition is their own fault, that they're simply lazy or inferior. Other Americans are more kind-hearted, but prefer not to look at the poor too closely; it's depressing, and they're surely not fun people to be with.
These attitudes are a world away from God's attitudes, as described in these verses. Neediness arouses compassion in God-- and action.
We may think: "Of course God loves the poor; he loves everybody." But it's not so simple as that; God's character is presented as a model for our own. If God values the poor, we have to think about what that means for us.

God's commands concerning the poor

This section collects some specific commands from Old and New Testaments on serving the poor.
Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.Deut. 26:12. When you have finished paying the complete tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, that they may eat in your towns, and be satisfied.
Lev. 19:19ff. Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.
Prov. 31:8ff. [Commandment to kings.] Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.
Is. 58:66ff. Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Jer. 22:3. Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
Luke 12:33. "Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys."
Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, "Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise."
Mt. 5:42. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
Commentary: The message here is really very simple: help the needy. It's not hard to understand; it's just hard to do.
And the message is continuous. It's in the Torah; it's in the Prophets and Psalms; it's in the Gospels; it's in the Epistles. How many churches emphasize serving the poor as much as the Bible itself does? Would the world look the way it does if all believers followed these commands?
Another thing to note about these verses is the lack of caveats-- the lack of excuses. None of them add "...once a year" or "...when you feel you can" or "...if they're moral" or "...unless they're black" or "...if they speak English". We have plenty of reasons (I'm sure you can think of a dozen) why we can't go out and feed the hungry, why we have to turn away the needy borrower-- and God help us, how many of us have sold so much as a lawnmower in order to have money to give away? But all those reasons belong to our sinful human nature, not to God. God just wants those needy people helped.
If you wanted to be a Biblical one-issue voter, you'd do well to make that one issue serving the poor.

Blessings on those who serve the poor

Serving poor may be The Right Thing To Do; but the Bible also associates it with material and spiritual reward. Here we'll look at the benefits promised to those who serve the poor; in the next section we'll examine the consequences of not doing so.
Prov. 22:9 He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.Jer. 22:16 "Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is that not what it means to know Me?" declares the LORD.
Deut. 15:10. You shall give generously to [your poor brother], and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.
Prov. 19:17. He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.
Jer. 7:5-7. "For, if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever."
Is. 58:10. "And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail."
Luke 14:12-14. "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Luke 12:44. "Sell your possessions and give alms; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Mt. 19:20ff. The young man said to Him, "All these commands I have kept; what am I still lacking?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
Commentary: Americans like money; the American dream is about being rich. No wonder we're susceptible to religious quacks who promise riches to those who believe in God.
We do find promises of reward in the Bible-- to those who serve the poor. God's making a very simple proposal here: "You help the poor, and I'll repay it."
Full disclosure: there's a little bait-and-switch going on. Jesus promises treasure in heaven. In the sociology of religion game, we call this spiritualization. In plain English, it means that Jesus is asking us to go way past our comfort level in giving things away. And in not getting them back.
Who are the poor, by the way? Among our rationalizations is the feeling that the actual poor aren't people we really have to pay attention to. They may be of different races, or not speak our language, or aren't moral enough for us; they may be illegal immigrants. (Imagine that, a class of human beings that are illegal. Imagine explaining that to God.)
God doesn't want to hear these excuses; he specifically commands us to help the stranger, the alien, the sojourner. Jesus' command on dinner parties couldn't be clearer: the people you need to help are not the people like you, the people you like, the people who can repay you. As for racial prejudice, note that the first person in the gospel of John to whom Jesus clearly confesses to being the Messiah is a Samaritan; Samaritans were despised by the orthodox Jews of the time. (And for that matter, she was a woman, and an adulterer.)
Can you give too much? We believe in moderation in all things. Unfortunately, we get this idea from the Greeks, not the Bible. Jesus asks for immoderate giving.

Consequences of not serving the poor

As there are blessings for those who serve the poor, there are consequences for those who oppress them... or who simply ignore them.
Ezek. 16:49ff. "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it."Is. 10:1-3. "Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who continually record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights... Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar?"
Luke 1:52ff. [Mary's Magnificat.] "He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were hungry. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed."
Ezek. 22:29,31. "The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice... Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads," declares the Lord GOD.
Jer. 5:28f. "[The wicked] do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan, that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor. Shall I not punish these people?" declares the LORD. "On such a nation as this, shall I not avenge myself?"
James 5:1-6. Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. ...Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and with you have withheld, cries out against you; and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
Luke 6:24. "But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full."
Luke 16:19-25. "Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.
And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.'
But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony...'"
Commentary: Many Evangelicals worry what might happen to our country if sexual immorality flourishes. Now, the sexual morality the Bible tells us to be worried about is our own, but that's another discussion. A more serious worry is what will happen to us, our churches, our nation, if we don't serve the poor.
Obviously, adding to the misery of the poor is bad-- exploiting workers, oppressing immigrants, robbing the needy. But it doesn't stop there. Merely ignoring the poor is a crime. Sodom wasn't destroyed because of sexual immorality; it was destroyed because it "had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease"-- and isn't that a pretty good description of America?-- and it "did not help the poor and needy".
There isn't the least suggestion that the rich man being punished in hell was responsible for Lazarus's condition... except in the most general sense: he was responsible as a fellow human being, as a man who was aware of the one suffering at his door and did nothing to help.
"Pleading the cause" of the poor, being their advocate and defender, is simply something a righteous person does. Are you someone who, when others are silent, advocates for the poor in your company, your church, your nation, your political party?

Biblical attitudes for believers toward the poor

So far we've examined only the surface God's commands concerning the poor, what happens if we obey or if we don't. Here we consider the spirit in which we respond. Without some of these correctives, we might make many mistakes serving the poor.
Prov. 29:7. The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern.1 John 3:17. But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
Luke 6:33ff. "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same."
2 Cor 9:7. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.
Mt. 6:2-4. "When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
Mt. 6:24. "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money."
1 Tim. 6:10. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang.
Gal. 2:9ff. Recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John... gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor-- the very thing I also was eager to do.
Lev. 19:15. "You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly."
Acts 2:44. All those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began to sell their property and possessions, and share them with all, as anyone might have need.
Acts 4:32-35. And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.
Eph. 4:28. Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.
Commentary: Some unimpressive ways to give:
  • With a big frown on your face
  • Back to those who've given you things
  • Showing others that you're giving
How do you tell if you're worshiping Money? Well, how do you tell if you're worshiping anyone? What do you spend your time on; what do you worry and talk about the most; what do you make sacrifices for? I often wonder how people can read these verses on Sunday, and on Tuesday go vote for the Money Party. James and Peter and John don't exhort Paul to remember the tax cuts.
Acts 4 is a mini-description of the proverbial Christian Nation. There was not a needy person among them. Why isn't that said about us? We have a lot more resources than a mob of mostly poor first-century Palestinians.
Another excuse sometimes used to ignore passages like this is Dispensationalism-- roughly, the idea that since we have Scripture, we can ignore large parts of Scripture. It doesn't make much sense when you state it in plain English, does it? There are some good reasons that we need not follow the Jewish Law; but the obligation to help the needy has not been repealed. It's found throughout the New Testament, with a good deal more emphasis than many subjects that Christians prefer to focus on.
With the prohibition on stealing, we may feel that we're on more familiar ground. But note the actual advice; it's not "Build so many jails that you rival the worst dictatorships for the percentage of your population in prison." Simply let the thieves stop stealing and do honest work.
When you think "thieves", by the way, do you picture a poor person? The Bible doesn't assume that the poor are especially prone to sin; on the contrary. Rich thieves as well should put aside their thievery: accountants swindling stockholders, corporations cheating taxpayers, CEOs making millions while their companies fail, presidents spending money they don't have to benefit their wealthiest contributors.

God's identification with the poor

Like a good king, the Lord is concerned with his poor subjects. In the passages below, we see that His heart goes deeper still: he identifies with the poor; he puts himself in their place.
2 Cor. 8:9. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.Prov. 19:17. He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.
Prov. 14:31. He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.
Mt. 25:31-46. "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'
And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'
Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.'
Then they themselves will also answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?'
Then He will answer them, saying, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Commentary: God isn't a conservative; he's a revolutionary. He not only takes the side of the poor; he puts himself in their place. In the very alarming parable of the sheep and the goats he speaks of salvation as depending on how we treat the poorest and the most afflicted.
According to prosperity theology (and according to the best Pharisaical opinion) Jesus should have come as a lord, a tycoon, a cult leader. Some of his followers today act as, presumably, they felt Jesus should have acted, building multi-million-dollar cathedrals. But Jesus came as a poor man.
There's all sorts of meaning in that, but at the very least we can say that Jesus takes the issue of poverty personally. A church or a nation that ignores its poor or places stumbling blocks in their way, whose supreme good is Money, is very far from the spirit of God.

Based on a 1989 compilation by myself, Andrés Tapia, and Arnie Fishman.