Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rolling Justice; Flowing Righteousness

The current environment in which American families raise their children causes me to tremble.  Instead of justice rolling down like the waters of an ever-flowing stream, it is more like a stagnant little mud-puddle.
And we’re not the first culture with that problem.  Amos was a simple shepherd.  God called him out of Tekoa, a little village in the mountains of southern Judea, to go up and preach to the northern cities of Israel.  (Amos was a good ol’ boy sent up north to preach to the Yankees!)
News traveled slowly back then.  Who knows how much Amos knew of Samaria, Jerusalem and Damascus?  It didn’t take him long to find out, however.  Amos was a simple man; Amos had spent his life in the hills, raising sheep.  His days were all about protecting sheep from wolves and other predators.  He could recognize danger.  A simple man can see injustice – and Amos saw clearly; Amos saw the human predators:
·           At Damascus Amos saw God’s own people buying and selling each other at slavery auctions.
·  At Edom He saw brothers killing each other.
·           At Ammon He saw children ripped from mother’s wombs.
·           At Judah Amos saw pagan worship rituals among people who were supposed to be God’s own.
·           And in Israel he saw oppression of the poor and sexual perversion.[1]
Amos couldn’t believe his eyes; in the midst of all the flagrant sinning, the total disregarding of God’s commands, the people of Israel were still holding their worship services and rituals.  It is amazing how the people were going to worship, praying, and counting on God to answer and provide for them, all the while not giving the slightest attention to doing right, or being obedient…and God said through the prophet, I cannot stand what I see…it doesn’t matter how many prayers you send up here…I’m not having any of it…you get your lives straightened out, and you do it now![2] 
Things have not changed! 
Amos saw then and there, what we see here and now in America!  It is hard to deny that we live in a land where the tide has turned from a safe-haven for Godliness and moral living to seeing the worst humanity has to offer.  Six years ago in the city of New Orleans following the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, we saw and heard the reports of heroism, people stepping-up to help out their neighbors.  But we saw far more of the other reports – looting, crimes against women and children.  We have seen the depravity of humankind on display in full color, live on CNN.
God was not amused in Amos’ day, and He still isn’t; if ever a house-cleaning was needed!  It is no wonder God wanted justice to roll-down like a Tsunami over that bunch…and maybe over America as well.
Are We Better Than That?
The question in American culture…in Randolph County…in Bethany United Methodist Church is:  Are we better than that?  Where are we today in terms of the way we treat the weakest and least protected of our society? 
Amos’ whole ministry was consumed with passion for the underdog, those who had little power.  In our day it is the little ones, children.  How are we doing with caring for the children?
If we took the time to hear all the statistics published by the Children’s Defense Fund[3] these past 20 years of sponsoring Children’s Sabbath days it would fill many hours, sad hours.  Some of the most staggering numbers concern America, one of the most advanced health-care and economically-sound cultures in the history of humankind:
·                    4 children are killed by neglect or abuse every day.
·                    5 children or teens commit suicide every day.
·                    548 children arrested for violent crimes or drug abuse every day.
·                    2,539 high school students drop out daily (one every 10 seconds).
·  17,072 public school students are suspended every day.
How Did We Get Here?
Listen to what I believe are several patterns that are illustrative of moving away from justice…something God’s people cannot ignore.  These three patterns have poverty at the core:
Pattern #1.  Healthcare Dilemma
The spiral against the poor in healthcare can’t be over-exaggerated.  So many people are without access to quality healthcare due to unmanageable costs.  And this problem is not confined to the poorest; in today’s culture nearly one-third are uninsured or under-insured.
The spiral begins with technology advances.  As new and better treatments are developed for disease and fighting the effects of advancing age, the healthcare industry produces more technology and pharmacological approaches to treatment, cure and prevention.  And it isn’t cheap stuff!
New technology always presupposes research costs which result in patents and marketing!  The poor (by definition) cannot participate, except to be guinea pigs in study groups.                                                                                 
Result:  when our healthcare system fails –children suffer.
Pattern #2.  Judicial System Dilemma
It has long been axiomatic that the judicial system in America is slanted against minorities, especially the poor.  Now, poverty itself isn’t sinful.  Jesus said so! 
Prosperity preachers these days tell you you’re a pretty poor excuse for a Christian if you’re not prospering (getting rich like them)!  In Jerusalem’s temple one day, Jesus pointed to a poor widow woman who gave all she had as an offering to God; Jesus called her a spiritual giant.  Poor isn’t sinful!
But while poverty itself isn’t sinful, its effect can leave a person without dignity.  Often people turn to crime because our system of caring for the poor dehumanizes people and robs them of making a worthwhile contribution to society.  I know you do not have to turn to crime, but so often the temptation is great, and many fall victim to the lure of getting out of the hole.  When the hole you’re in robs you of purpose, getting out of the hole becomes your purpose…any way you can!
Adults who turn to crime make that choice of their God-given free will, and they’re also accountable to God and society for their actions.  They also choose to harm their children when that choice means they go to jail. 
Result:  when our legal system fails – the children suffer.
Pattern #3.  Legislative Dilemma
Our legislative bodies pass laws and enact programs that are intended to cure our society’s problems.  Often it turns out to be a band aide on a cancerous tumor; it may look good, but there is no real help. 
A half-dozen years ago our legislators put a band aide on the cancer eating away at the quality of education in North Carolina.  They paved the way for North Carolina’s first public lottery.  The “selling-point” was that the money a lottery will bring in is needed for education. 
Six years ago, before the lottery was a reality I preached this passage and predicted that it “remains to be seen if they will actually spend the money on education, and still continue to fund education with tax money as well – so that education is actually enhanced. 
But – if they do what they did in Florida – funnel in the lotto receipts, but de-fund the education budget from the tax side – you will not have education enhancement…just a regressive lottery tax.  What we will get, regardless of how they handle the tax situation, is more crime (which always accompanies gambling), more taxes to pay for more law enforcement, and a higher incidence of gambling addictions, and the resultant poverty from losses and family breakups.” 
I made those predictions in 2005; today those predictions are being reported as fact.  The News & Record had this to say just last month:
the lottery isn't keeping the promises its supporters made that it would improve public education. Instead, it's become a game of give and take.
Sadly, it continues to take from people who can least afford to give. If the lottery were a tax, it would be the most regressive kind because the poor pay more.
This is confirmed in study after study. Looking at 2009 data, the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh found that the state's top 10 counties for lottery sales had an average poverty rate of 22.8 percent -- much higher than the state average. Looking at similar numbers, Will Wilson, a Duke University professor who studies urban environments, calculated that lottery sales increase by $11 per capita for every percentage point the poverty rate rises.
No wonder the lottery had its best year in 2010. And this year promises to be successful, too, with more North Carolinians falling into poverty. Many see a potential lottery payoff as their best chance to get ahead. Of course, the odds are against them.
The numbers are getting worse for education, too, as the North Carolina Poverty Center report points out. Originally, 37 percent of lottery revenues went to education. That portion fell to 29 percent in 2009-10, with a greater share allotted to prizes in an effort to entice more people to play.
Despite the $2 billion raised for education, the state would be better off without the lottery. The money comes from the pockets of people who could put it to much better use than buying lottery tickets. They could spend it on groceries for their families, for rent, clothing or utilities. And the legislature could return to funding education the way it did before the lottery -- through a progressive tax system that requires people with more money to pay a greater share. That was not only more fair; it also produced more money for schools.[4]
Experience in several states has shown that lottery gambling is always heaviest in segments of society which can least afford it.  Anything that promises great wealth as if it is actually a possibility for most people, yet has odds of 10 or 20 million to one, is dealing in false hope. 
In California a grocery chain carefully surveyed its receipts after installing lottery sales.  Their lottery take was over one million dollars.  But their food sales went down by exactly the same amount.  The game literally takes the food out of poor mouths.  Proverbs 22:16 tells us that a person that gets ahead by oppressing the poor is doing wrong….and will pay the consequences.
Result when adults gamble:  children suffer.
And So What Should We Do?
There is only one Godly response to that question – a commitment, or renewal of a previous commitment to live a lifestyle of seeking justice for children. 
Among Africa’s tribal peoples one culture stands strong and proud – the Masai.  Masai know that the basis for their culture’s future is bound up in their children.  A typical greeting among Masai people is “kasserian ingera”….how are the children[5]  Even Masai warriors, some of the fiercest soldiers on earth, greet each other with kasserian ingera…how are the children?  That’s a good place for us to begin…ask yourself, kasserian ingera…what is the state of the children?
There are some concrete ways you can begin to participate in changing the answer to the question in our country, How are the children?
·  Make Safety a Priority    Our church is committed to the Safe Sanctuary approach.  Everyone who works with children submits to a background criminal check.  Children are suffering; children must be protected.
·  Get Involved   Children’s ministries in this church and our community need help all the time.  I would love to see us start an after-school tutoring program.  If you can read, you can help!  You may not be able to give a lot of time, but together we can make a difference in the lives of children in our part of the world.  Children are suffering.  We can get involved.
·  Support Those Making a Difference   Lynn Groce was a missionary to Ethiopia.  When his child became too ill for them to stay on the mission field, they moved to Gainesville, Florida.  Lynn told me that if he couldn’t stay in Ethiopia then in God’s name he wanted to make a difference wherever God took him.  He developed a ministry bringing churches together with people who needed a helping hand out of poverty.  He partnered successful plumbers, electricians and many others, with those who had no employable skills, but wanted to work.  The program saw many fathers get off the Welfare rolls and keep their families together.  Children stop suffering when families are helped.
So, my friend, ask yourself…In my community, how are the children?
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

[1] Amos 1:3 – 2:7
[2] Amos 5:21-23 my paraphrase
Editorial: Lottery is a loser for state, players, SEPTEMBER 28, 2011 
[5] Look To the Children, a sermon by Rev. Pat Hoertdoerfer

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