We Feed People: On the Road

I had the great fortune to speak at the church where I grew up this past Sunday morning. It was great to see old friends and family and share Union Mission with them. I hope God directs me to take more speaking engagements, not only because it gets me out of my introverted shell, but it also affords me the opportunity about the good work we God is doing at Union Mission.

I thought I would post the text of my "talk" here. This is the printed text I used; it's certainly not verbatim to what I said Sunday morning, but it's close enough. Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll feel let to participate with Union Mission in Helping Hurting People in Jesus Name.

So, the question is: what am I doing here this morning instead of the pastor? I'm here because I want to take a little time to tell you about where I work, but I want to frame it scriptureally and view it in light of where we are as a culture. Then, hopefully, we'll bring it all around to Jesus. Because if we're not talking about Jesus, then was the heck are we doing here?

I now work at Union Mission. I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with the Mission. You've probably seen our bright green and black trucks with the We Feed People logo on the side. And that's exactly what we do, most visibly through our holiday food drives many of you have volunteered for in the past. What you may not be aware of is the full scope of our ministry. When we say we feed people, we're not just talking about physical feeding. At Union Mission, everyone--every single person--that comes through our door for help hears the Gospel. It's a pre-condition of receiving our help. Want a package of diapers for your kids? We'll give it to you...but you're gonna hear about Jesus. Need a refrigerator? You got it...now here's some Jesus.

All of that brings me to the point of what I want to talk about today, and I want to use some scripture to bring the message home. If you will, please turn with me to Luke 4:18. Also, find 1 Peter 1:3-5.

(You can read those passages here.)

Let's look at Jesus' words in Luke 4:18. If you'll recall, here we see Jesus, fresh out of the desert from his 40-day fast. He's new on the scene; he hasn't even gathered any disciples yet. There's this buzz in the air about this new teacher in Galilee, and Jesus comes to the local synagogue and opens the scrolls there to a passage from what we now call the book of Isaiah, chapter 61. And he reads the words recorded both in Isaiah and in Luke chapter 4.

Here's the Messiah, the Christ, and what does he use as the text of his first sermon? To proclaim the good news to who? The poor. To proclaim liberty to who? Captives. Recovering of sight to who? The blind. Certainly some of what Jesus is saying here is metaphorical and speaks to spiritual poverty, spiritual blindness, spiritual oppression. But that's the beauty of Christ's mission here on earth. He knew, just as we should know and practice, that to be effective communicators of the Gospel we need to combine a message of both spiritual and physical, both earthly and eternal. He preached both.

We know this because we know that salvation is a spiritual transaction. His death, burial and resurrection was a spirtual act, done to result in our spiritual renewal. But we also know that Jesus didn't simply preach a spiritual message for spiritual renewal. He preached to those who were physically downtrodden too?

How do we know this? Just look at those with whom Jesus related.

One of his closest friends was Peter. He was known as Simon the Zealot. And what was a Zealots? They were a Jewish sect that advocated violent overthrow of the Roman goverment. Sound familiar? Peter was, in essence, a terrorist! He was a hot-head, quick to speak, quick to anger. Yet it was this man, a simple fisherman, that Jesus built his church upon.

Who else? Of all of the people, to whom did Jesus first reveal his divinity? It was a multiple divorcee who was in an intimate relationship with a man she wasn't married to and who had come out to that well in the middle of the day probably because she was so ostrasized in her own community that it wasn't worth the headache of hearing the gossip of the other women come to draw water in the morning. Oh, and she was a Samartian, which was the lowest social class in Palestine, at least according to the majority Jewish population. Never mind the fact that she was a woman, and I don't have to tell you what the status of women in 1st century Palestine was like. Yet it was this immoral, Samartian woman to whom Jesus first said, in essence, "I am the messiah."

There's more. Zaccheus was a tax collector who cheated his own people out of their scarce money simply to get rich and curry favor with an occupying empire. Being a tax collector was the epitome of a traitor. Yet it was this man, of all of the throngs of people who had gathered to hear Jesus that day, who our Lord chose to dine with.

Just look at those three people. A terrorist. An adultress. A traitor. These were the people Jesus associated with. It's obvious, from scripture, that Jesus had an affinity for the downtrodden. Sure, we know that. We're taught it from the time we are children. But we often take it for granted and miss the point of just how committed to social justice Jesus was both on earth and in heaven. Let's look at Jesus' associations with fresh eyes this morning to get at the truth he would teach us.

Look, Jesus could have come as a conquering king. He was fully in his rights and powers to do so. But he didn't. He chose to enter human history as an orphan born to a poor family in an occupied country, the son of a woman suspected of adultery, pregnant before marriage. He was never rich, probably never owned a home, never physically wrote a book and chose a career as a carpenter in a land without a lot of wood. That's who Jesus came as, so it's no surprise that he "came to preach the gospel to the poor." As a man, that's what he knew.

An interesting thing is happening in our culture today, and to a large extent the Church as well. The world is shrinking because of new modes of communication like the Internet, and we're more aware now than ever before of the plight of poor people. War is rampant, AIDS is epidemic. TB and malaria kill thousands of Third World children every year.

That's why social justice has become this buzz word in our culture. Everyone is into it. Buy a certain color of clothes from the Gap, and they'll donate money to AIDS relief in Africa. American Idol, that most popular of television programs, has for the past two years raised $130 million for global charities. Many churches are pushing this too, preaching a message of social justice from the pulpit. And that's great, but it raises key question: is social justice without Jesus really worth anything?

Look, social justice without Jesus works. It does. If American Idol raised $130 million, someone's life was better after that money was raised than before it. Locally, I can take you to any number of homeless shelters in downtown Charleston where the Gospel is not being preached, and yet people's lives are being changed because of the dedication of people who are not motivated to practice acts of social justice because of their relationship with God, but because they choose to give of themselves for the benefit of others.

So what's the problem? The problem is this: no matter how successful a person's recovery is, without an experience with Jesus Christ, that recovery and success is ultimately fleeting. Scripture points this out: "For what would it profit a man to gain the whole world and, in the end, lose his own soul." That's God's word. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal." That's God's word.

What about social justice with Jesus? First of all, being committed to acts of social justice is not a recommendation. It's a commandment. Jesus told us to do it, and because He is a good God, gave us the Holy Spirit by which to compel us to do so. It's why you pay your tithe on Sunday, why you come to a place like Union Mission to sort canned goods during holiday food giveaways. It's why you spend a weekend in a prison, ministering to men regardless of who they are or what they've done.

Of course, there's a caveat here. Does placing Jesus as the focus of our acts of social justice mean everything's gonna be OK? Surely not! One of the biggest failings of the modern church is this absurd notion that believing in Jesus is like waving a magic wand and that all of your problems will go away once you believe in him. It's absurd and borderline blasphemous. God doesn't promise a bed of roses. But he does give us a savior who will stand with us when the going gets rough. And it will get rough. Guaranteed.

There's so much more to life than what we can see with our two eyes. The difference between doing acts of social justice with Jesus and doing acts of social justice without Jesus is the difference eternity makes. See, changing lives through the power of Christ multiplies its effect exponentially. The payoff is literally eternal!

Remember that passage in Peter? Peter is speaking of an inheritance, not an immediate reward. Through Christ, we are the receivers, always the recipent. We are receivers at each and every point of our relationship to him. We are receivers of his mercy despite our sinfulness. We are receivers of his salvation in our new birth. We are receivers in our resurrection at the end of the age. And, finally, we are receivers in our inheritance of eternal life through Him in heaven.

Of course, this raises a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum. Do we, then, neglect this world, knowing our reward won't be fully realized until we arrive at eternity? Absolutely not! It's a shame that too many Christians have come to believe that church exists for them instead of existing to be the structure through which Christ's work is accomplished in the community. Woe be to the church congregation that treats Sunday worship like a country club gathering with no application outside its doors. But if eternity is the ultimate reward, what is the payoff of doing acts of social justice without guarantee of success?

Jesus is our model here. Remember, he merged the earthly with the eternal, the physical with the spiritual. We are to do the same. Every so often--and not all of the time or even most of the time--men and women escape the bonds of addicition and poverty to live a prosperous life...and they find a relationship with Jesus in the process. That's dual salvation, earthly and eternal. And it does happen. We should all commit ourselves to allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us in responsibly confronting social injustice while keeping the focus on the spiritual transformation in the lives of those who desperately need to know Jesus.