An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Poverty, borders, and the Meaning of Faith

A sermon on James 2:1-17 & Mark 7:24-37 by Nathan Nettleton

Before I begin, let me bring you greetings from our sisters and brothers at the First Baptist Church in Matanzas, Cuba, where I preached two weeks ago, and from the Central Baptist Church in Bogotá, Colombia, where I visited last Sunday. This beautiful new icon of the Apostle Paul was painted by a member of the church in Cuba, and it is a gift to our church from their church. They already use Spanish translations of a number of prayers from our liturgy, and they are hoping that this icon can contribute further to a relationship of mutual sharing and encouragement. After all, Baptist churches that would welcome the gift of an icon are somewhat rare, and we need to stick together even if we are on opposite sides of the world!

My experiences of travelling in Mexico, Cuba and Colombia over recent weeks inevitably impacted on the way I’ve been hearing the news and the way I heard our readings tonight. One of the dominant stories in the news this week has been the plight of refugees trying to get into Europe, and the images of the little boy who drowned have jolted us towards facing the reality of what is going on in these desperate situations. Of course, our own country here is also facing big questions over our response to refugees and asylum seekers. And in northern Mexico, there is a huge crisis, with tens of thousands of people from Mexico and Central America, many of them unaccompanied children, arriving at the border of the USA and finding themselves faced with a huge fence intended to them out. People are no longer fleeing Cuba with the same desperation, but they were a couple of decades ago when the collapse of Soviet Union left Cuba literally starving.

Our readings tonight speak into these situations in a number of ways, and I will only be able to scratch the surface. In particular, they raise the question of our willingness to love our neighbours and show genuine hospitality to those neighbours we regard as strangers, and whether we really have faith in God and in God’s ways that is able to be expressed in concrete actions when we are approached by these needy strangers. But I want to approach that question by first looking at a related issue that also features strongly in tonight’s readings, and that is our attitudes more generally to wealth and poverty.

Our first reading from the book of Proverbs and our second from the letter of James both spoke very directly about the importance of not discriminating against the poor. And yet much of the immigration policy of our nation is grounded deliberately in discrimination against the poor. The immigrants we want are those who can bring with them some wealth and the capacity to generate more wealth on arrival. There are means tests to determine the desirability of various migrants, and economic factors are the biggest determiners.

Although there are countries in Latin America that are much poorer than the ones I was visiting, there were still some confronting scenes of poverty. I saw people sleeping in the streets and eating from rubbish bins, and although I can see such things here too, it was a more constant and close at hand experience there. Bogotá is a city which is now emerging from decades of violence and poverty and becoming one of the more successful economies in Latin America, and is much more modern and obviously prosperous than most South American cities, but there are still huge numbers of internally displaced people without access to homes or adequate resources. One afternoon there, I was participating in a bike tour of the city, and we stopped at some street food stalls in a very nice city gardens area. As we casually ate our arepas and fruit salads, every container we tossed in the rubbish bin was immediately pulled out again by a hungry man who would clean it out much more thoroughly before disposing of it again. The Syrophoenician woman’s words in our gospel reading about even the dogs getting to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table seemed painfully close to home.

Somehow for me though, it was seeing similar extreme examples of poverty in my couple of days in the USA that was even more disturbing. On most levels, the USA is more like home, and to most of the rest of the world, especially to poorer developing nations, the USA appears to be the promised land of endless wealth and opportunity. But frankly, I would much rather be poor in Colombia or Cuba or Mexico than in the USA. In Colombia and Cuba especially, although there is still a lot of poverty, the situation is vastly improved on what it was a couple of decades ago, and a situation of such improvement is much more hopeful for the poor than the systemic exclusion of the poor that characterises the social policies of Australia and the USA.

I was also reminded during this trip of just how difficult it is to make proper comparisons and judgements about wealth and poverty. Our perceptions are so heavily influenced by the current norms of our own contexts. In Mexico, I stayed for four nights in the home of my friend Elvira. Elvira is quite middle class by most normal measures. She is tertiary educated, has a stable job or four, and has recently travelled overseas. But her house, and all the other houses in her neighbourhood would be looked down on by the Australian middle class as sub-standard hovels. It is perfectly comfortable and liveable, but with an outside kitchen and a toilet that is flushed with a bucket, and bare concrete floors, and a boiler that has to be lit in advance if you want a warm shower, it is not going to make the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. Most Australians would regard that as a form of poverty. But in Elvira’s home, they eat and drink well, and laugh and dance a lot, and the whole village is characterised by a rich and generous family and community life that is anything but poor in comparison to the obsessively private and isolated lives of so many Australians. How do you compare these things? And in Cuba too. There my friends live on monthly wages which are unimaginably low by Australian standards, but housing, health care and education are free, so how do you compare? These things are not simple. And yet we can’t hide behind that complexity and use it as an excuse to turn our backs when desperate peoples fleeing extreme dangers come knocking on the gates at our borders.

If you thought it was legitimate to pluck verses of scripture out of context to justify anything, then in a line of tonight’s gospel reading, you could find words from Jesus that could easily justify our nation’s current policy on asylum seekers and border protection. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is exactly what most people think, most people vote for, and most people believe our stance towards other people in need should be based on. You hear various other versions of it. “Charity begins at home.” “We have to look after our own first.” “Secure Australian jobs first.” “Put your family first.” etc. etc. The main reason that both major political parties in this country maintain such hostile border protection and immigration policies is that the majority of Australian voters firmly believe that we have to protect and secure our own interests and wellbeing before we worry about the welfare of outsiders. We will accept immigrants who will bring money and expertise with them and so contribute to raising our standard of living, but we don’t want to accept those who might be a drain on our resources. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Donald Trump is appealing to the same sentiments in his bid for the American presidency when he says that Mexico is not sending its best people to the US borders, but its violent, its criminal, and its poverty stricken people. Actually, Mexico is not “sending” anyone, but desperate people, many of whom have had their lives and communities torn apart by the drug cartels that are sustained by American demand, are fleeing the violence and looking for hope and opportunity. But the walls and fences grow higher, and the border protection forces grow more militant. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Now, although these words come from Jesus, the whole point of recording them is to show that Jesus promptly renounced them. Different scholars and preachers explain that in different ways. Some are comfortable with the idea that the Syrophoenician woman’s words opened Jesus’s eyes and he repented on the spot. Others say that Jesus was always playfully mocking the very principle he was expressing, and it was always his intention to express it for the purpose of exposing its ungodliness and turning it on its head. But however you think the dynamic worked, the plain fact is that Jesus does not end up championing the idea that we can ignore the plight of others until we have secured the prosperity of those on “our side” of the border or the social divide. At the conclusion of this story it is clear that Jesus accepts that there are no borders to God’s love or God’s concern for the wellbeing of others.

The Apostle James in our other reading brings this same question home to our church gatherings. “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand over there,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” It is important that we hear the local specifics of this. It is no use us sitting back and criticising the national government for its lack of hospitality if we are not putting generous hospitality into practice in the context of our our own homes and our own church community. And James goes on to describe as a “royal law”, the command to “love your neighbour as yourself,” and suggests that acts of partiality in who we will or won’t welcome with generosity and joy are failures to follow the law of God just as serious as adultery or murder. Loving your neighbour, be they friend or stranger, as yourself is so close to the heart of God and so fundamental to the ways and expectations of God, that picking and choosing who we will and won’t love is, according to James, as serious a breach of God’s law as the things we jail people for.

But the Apostle James goes further than that too, and takes it right to the heart of our theology; right to the heart of the good news; right to the heart of the concept of faith. In a passage that infuriated the great reformer Martin Luther, James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

But I think we often make the same mistake that Luther made, and hear this passage as playing faith and works off against each other and choosing for one over and against the other. But I don’t think that is what James is saying. Rather, what James is asking us to see is that there is no such thing as a faith that doesn’t affect our behaviour and our relationships. The way we behave and treat others demonstrates the truth about what we are putting our faith in. If we cling to the idea that it is not right to offer the children’s food to others, and that we should therefore close our borders and our doors and secure our own wellbeing first, we are demonstrating that our faith is really being invested in economic protection and in the maintenance of a privileged in-group. By our actions, we demonstrate that we believe that these are the things that will save us. But if we willingly risk our own prosperity to welcome and feed needy others, then it is clear that we have put our trust in the promises of God that the fulness of life is to be found in giving it away for the life of the world.

There are plenty of people who claim to be putting their faith in Jesus for the salvation of their souls after death who simultaneously demonstrate by their actions that they do not have any faith that following the teachings of Jesus would be a healthy and fulfilling way to live life in the here and now. They have much more faith in money, possessions, armies and border protection forces to secure their lives in the here and now. But neither the Apostle James nor Jesus himself give any support to such an artificial and misguided distinction. A week before I went away, I received an email from a Canadian pastor who regularly visits Cuba with some travel advice for me as a first-timer. I think he thought that perhaps it was my first time travelling outside the wealthy west, but there was a line in his advice that stuck in my head. Speaking of our mutual friends who were to be my hosts in Cuba, he said, “I would trust Orestes and Wanda with my life. You can too. Whatever they tell you, do it.” That’s a pretty perfect description of faith as the Apostle James is depicting it. “You can trust Jesus with your life. Whatever he tells you, do it.” You either put your trust in what Jesus tells you to do to save you for a life worth living, or you continue to put your faith in idols and privileges.

And as frightening as that certainly can be, at its heart, it is stunningly good news. It is the promise that God has now invited all the children to eat at the one table. It is the promise that God wants the absolute best for you and yours and everyone else, and that God has shown us the way into all the fulness of life. It is the promise that your life is not measured by the sum of your possessions but by the image of God that has been given you freely, and which, when given the freedom, expresses itself in love without boundaries and gracious hospitality without borders. It is the promise that when we gather at this table, at the table of our risen Lord, none of us is relegated to picking up the crumbs underneath, but all of us are invited to eat and drink of the best, and to go into all the world with our faith in the ways of the one who gives his life for the life of the world.


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