He told me my indictment should have been against the rich and not the middle class of which he was a solidly established member. In some ways I think his comment was probably one of the best compliments ever made to my preaching, no matter the grade it was obvious I had struck home.
You might be wondering about my taking on an economic class in a sermon. Let me assure you that I don't think there is anything innately evil or sinful about having money, being rich or middle class. In fact it has been my goal to help every poor person I know to become middle class, at least. I would wish all of my church members, all or my family, all of my friends to be millionaires, and to at least tithe faithfully.
However, as I read the Bible I realize that God calls us to a deeper level of commitment and sacrifice than I believe is generally seen in today's Evangelical church. While I see that I also see the great and dismal disparity between the people of the suburban/hipster urban middle class church and the poor in our country. It is not just the disparity in income or life style, it is also the choices that those who can afford to make those choices continue to make. The choice to isolate one self from the poor, to isolate one self from communities of need, to protect and isolate our children from bad schools and bad children, to focus our congregational giving on our own church buildings and trappings, to continue to give our congregations more toys, more ambiance, more convenience.
It is as if we are corporately banging on the gate of Eden to get back to an idyllic life, to somehow realize the Millennium through affluence.
I am writing this soon after the massacre that took place in the suburban community of Newtown, CT where so many children were killed. It was a horrible thing on a horrible day and my comments here are not meant in anyway to diminish the evil and pain of it. But it might teach at least one lesson, and that is that there really are no safe places. My call is to the people of God's Church to go ahead and risk what might come to you anyway, to pursue those who need you instead of running away from them.
Why not go after (rebuke, condemn, etc) the rich? OK, if you are rich consider yourself gone after but I would venture to mention that we seem to have a lot more middle class church members than we do rich ones, and it is not just your money that I seek. I want your body, your skills, you social skills, your connections, your energy and physical strength, your education. I want them to be shared with the poor and not just indulged for yourself.
What about my quality of life, what about the the responsibility I have to raise a Covenant family, what about the freedom to enjoy my hard work and that I was diligent, or my parents were thrifty and stayed together in marriage and gave me the blessings of a decent life? Why should I have to share with those who parents were unfaithful, who produced illegitimate children, with those who did not discipline themselves to study, did not finish school, and refused to learn how to work hard? Why can't I find a decent neighborhood, don't I deserve it if I have worked for it?
I have no practical arguments to make, only Biblical ones. I only have models and examples of Jesus, I only have the concern of God. I condemn no one for hard work or effort. I condemn no one for thrift, for self-discipline, for faithfulness in marriage, for study and achievement. In fact all of these things are necessary for the poor to eventually truly change their lives. I only wonder who will teach them, who will model for them these things, who will be able to help them change their value systems or to value what is better than simply trying to survive day to day?
I think the Evangelical middle class is too secure in its justification of self-centeredness. What you deserve is not the same as what you should do, or how you should live, not if you have decided to follow Jesus. Doesn't he call on us to give up ourselves, to take up our cross, to lay down our lives? If the argument against this is that we all can't be heroes, and that the normal Christian life should be church attendance and faithful service in the choir, and that it is even wrong to load ourselves with guilt about trying to change the world then somewhere I think we read from different Bibles.
I don't think the answer to poverty is the work of a few brave inner city martyrs, who sell out their lives to live among the poor and become professional Christian radicals. We need some of them, but even a few of them can be irritating. We need a generalized radical attitude among ordinary Christians. We need whole congregations who desire to include the poor among their ranks. We need middle class churches willing to share their budgets with inner city congregations; not to give them pretty curtains, but help to feel the needy among them. We need tutors, we need mentors, we need those who will create industry and business that is labor intensive, we need friends of children who will help them through their lives. I speak to black and white Christians here, since we have plenty of both races who are middle class and have become irrelevant in their life style for changing anything or anybody.
I understand that a process is necessary, that first we have mercy tourism, "mercy drive-bys" as it were in which Christians get a taste of different communities. If our mercy efforts remain that then it is voyeurism, and not ministry. We need to grow from mercy involvement, to mercy effectiveness, to developmental change. This has to be done with submission and respect to indigenous leadership and not with paternalistic and patronizing attitudes. It has to come with sharing of our resources.
The Lord calls on Pastors to command those who are rich in this present world to be rich in good deeds. Only Jesus can call on a rich man to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and to follow Christ. I have been happy to know a few rich folks who are extremely generous, who take their discretionary wealth and target large sums of it to help the poor and to facilitate ministry among the poor. Most of us don't have that kind of money. But we all certainly have some discretion, about our money and about our time, and about where and how we do ministry. I think we all will have to think beyond just the discretionary to the sacrificial if we are really going to spread the Kingdom among the poor. This is as true for the rich as for the middle class.
Radicalizing the middle class means middle class people begin to understand ministry to, among, and for the poor is not optional. Preaching the Gospel to the poor is not optional, it is the commission of Jesus. Loving them and defending them is not optional and not a life style choice, it is obedience.
Oh, there it is, being radical is simply being obedient to the One who bids us to come and follow Him.