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Defending the Poor

 

When Barack Obama was running for president the first time in 2008, he almost didn’t survive the early primaries after a video of his pastor surfaced. Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, preached a sermon on April 13, 2003, entitled “Confusing God and Government.” In it, he went through a long litany of the ways that the United States had failed to do what was just and right. And then he said something that was the equivalent of dropping an F-bomb. He said, “We’re supposed to sing, ‘God bless America?’ No, no, no. Not ‘God bless America.’ ‘God damn America.’”

Dr. Wright was immediately branded a leader of a dangerous hate group and vilified by the press. Barack Obama distanced himself immediately from Dr. Wright and the message, saving his candidacy. This week, I listened to that sermon again, and it seems as relevant today as it was in 2003—maybe even more so. And I heard it echoing in my head and my heart when we heard God’s word spoken through prophet Malachi this morning. Let me read it again. “You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me.” Malachi might as well have said, “God damn Judah.” Malachi was probably vilified too.

But why was the whole nation under a curse? Why couldn’t God bless the nation? Because the nation had failed to bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there would be enough food in God’s temple.

Now, the thing you have to remember is that God had commanded in Deuteronomy 26:12 that the tithes of every third year were to be “given to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns.” The storehouse was similar to  the Chicago Food Depository. The food was donated and then distributed to the Levites (who had no land of their own) and the poor and at-risk groups. It was like a food pantry. But because the people had failed to bring the tithes, these at-risk people were suffering. The people were cheating God because they were cheating God’s people of their God-given rights.  And as a result, the nation was under God’s condemnation.

The principle here is that God cannot – and will not – bless a nation that doesn’t make sure that the rights of the poor are protected and defended, whether that nation is Judah or Israel or the United States.

And let’s be honest. Our nation doesn’t do very well taking care of poor people. Just this week, in the middle of a surge in the cases of COVID-19, our government leaders showed their true colors when they let the $600 federal unemployment benefit expire for over 30 million people and when they let the moratorium on evictions expire. Without the additional unemployment benefits, every unemployed person in Florida will receive $250 a week OR LESS in state unemployment benefits at a time when businesses are being shut down due to the virus. Experts are warning of a “tsunami of evictions.” Without federal protections, more people will fall through the cracks and end up without a place to live.

While people are out of work, facing eviction, and being disqualified for SNAP benefits, the wealthy continue to amass wealth. On the day Illinois shut down due to the pandemic, Forbes published its annual Billionaires Report. On March 18, 2020, the 15 wealthiest people in the US were worth 2.95 trillion dollars. Four months later, Forbes reported that these same people are now worth 3.66 trillion dollars—a 24% increase. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in America, saw his worth increase 60% since March 18. And for the record, he is now worth $181 BILLION dollars. (see https://americansfortaxfairness.org/billionaire-people/)

But while our elected leaders walked out of Washington on Friday without offering any assistance to the poor and vulnerable, they never once discussed rolling back the tax breaks given to the wealthy last year.

If God were speaking to our nation through Malachi, would God say, “God bless America?” or would God say, “When you steal from the poor you are stealing from me! When you have cheated the immigrant, the widows, the orphans, the Levites of their rights, you have cheated me! Bless you? No, I cannot. I can only damn you!

I don’t believe God wants to damn the nation.  God wants to bless the nation.  God says through Malachi, “Bring in the tithe.” God promises abundance for the nation that will distribute the abundance justly. God wants to bless, but God is waiting for us to do what is right for the poor and oppressed.

This week, we buried a civil rights icon: Congressman John Lewis. From the time he was 21 years old, he was a prophet, calling the nation to change its ways. For 60 years, he lifted his voice. His efforts resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that guaranteed the right to vote for every citizen. But he didn’t end there. He became what many people called, “the conscience of the nation.” As a congressman, he was arrested 5 times for advocating for justice for the poor and oppressed. Even in death, he raised his voice. On the day of his funeral, the NY Times published John Lewis’s final word to the nation, written just two days before his death. Entitled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of the Nation,” he expressed his hope for continued change.

 

You are the next generation in line to carry the baton and run the race. In less than 100 days, you and I will have the opportunity to use our vote to make a powerful statement about the change we must have in this nation—a change in the way that we treat the poor – especially those without homes and without jobs;  a change in the way we treat immigrants – especially children and families at the border; and a change in the way we distribute wealth. We must take up the mantle of John Lewis’s prophetic life so that the sick are healed, the hungry are fed and the poor and the oppressed are liberated. Maybe yet God will bless this nation.

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