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Archive for January 24th, 2010

Haiti and Jesus’ Mission Statement

The Spirit led me to a lot of learning this week.  This sermon is a result of that learning.  I am grateful for the writing of Julie Clawson, through her blog at http://julieclawson.com/ and her book Everyday Justice, that greatly resourced my studies this week.

“A Poverty Story”

Luke 4: 14-21

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 24th, 2010

It took an earthquake that killed approximately 50,000 people for me to turn my attention to Haiti.  Lost in the midst of sick children, pressing church needs, and stacks and stacks of laundry, I was completely unaware of what was happening outside of Moore County, let alone Haiti.  This earthquake woke me up, though.  It woke me up and led me to today’s sermon.

I read an unsettling editorial in the New York Times last Friday and its words have been haunting me all week.  Last Friday David Brooks wrote, “On October 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California.  Sixty-three people were killed.  This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.  This is not a natural disaster story.  This is a poverty story.”[1]

This is not a natural disaster story.  This is a poverty story.  Wow.  Those words really hit me this week.  Then, adding to my international wake-up call, this week’s gospel text from Luke seemed to whisper Haiti’s story between every line.

In today’s text Luke has Jesus begin his public ministry with a quick, yet meaningful trip to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  During worship Jesus volunteers to do a reading and asks for the scroll of Isaiah.  Then in front of all those folks who know him best as “Joseph’s little boy” Jesus begins to read,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After reading these words, Jesus then, very matter-of-factly, rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, sits down, and then confidently declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The people are shocked and amazed.  They can do nothing else but stare at Jesus during what must have been a very long and awkward pause in the middle of worship.

Luke rearranges the events of Mark’s gospel in order to place this synagogue scene at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Luke does this because, for him, the words Jesus chooses to read here from the prophet Isaiah best represent the core of Jesus’ mission and ministry.  This is Jesus’ mission statement, if you will.  And so Luke wants it to be front and center.

And just what is Jesus’ mission?  In this text we are reminded that Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to open the eyes of the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is not a natural disaster story, wrote David Brooks.  This is a poverty story.  So with these words, as well as Jesus’ mission statement rolling around in my head, I decided I needed to learn more about Haiti.  I decided I needed to learn more about Haiti because while many of us have been asking “Why, God?” in the midst of this terrible tragedy, I realized that a more appropriate question is, “Why is Haiti so poor?” Why didn’t Haiti have the infrastructure or the public services that could have saved thousands of lives?  Why is Haiti’s land stripped of all its trees?  Why are Haiti’s people so hungry that they eat mud to survive?  Why is Haiti so poor?

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I realize now that these are pretty scary questions to ask.  They are scary because once I started delving into Haiti’s history I came to realize that this country is so poor because it has been so abused, so terrorized, so enslaved, so oppressed, and so neglected by the rest of the world.  Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.  Its people have suffered terribly from colonization and mass killings by the Spanish, by decades of slavery and brutal oppression by the French, by years of political instability, corrupt governments, and occupation by us Americans.  Haiti, this tiny island shared by the Dominican Republic, this beautiful “land of mountains” and this predominantly Catholic people, are the poor, the captive, and the oppressed for whom Jesus has come.

This earthquake has been a terrible, terrible tragedy.  But this earthquake has also highlighted the tragedy of global poverty. It has brought to our awareness things of which we were not aware.  It has opened our blind eyes.  It has helped us to see.  And, I pray, it has motivated us to be more aware, to ask the tough (even scary) questions, and to seek justice and just-living for all of God’s children,

But what can we do?  We might all ask here.  The problems are so huge?  It is certainly easy to feel overwhelmed and useless in the face of such terrible global poverty.  But there are things we can do.  There are lots of ways we can help.  Certainly we can help Haitians meet their immediate, emergency needs by sending our money and by supporting the work of trusted organizations such as Church World Service.  But there are also other ways that we, ordinary citizens, can affect change.

For instance, one of the reasons why many Third World countries cannot escape the cycle of poverty is because they are so in debt to the wealthier Western nations and banks.  “To give a very basic introduction, Third World debt describes the millions of dollars in debt that countries have incurred from loans from other countries, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and from the World Bank.  These loans were (at least theoretically) intended to help the country.  The problem is that many of these loans were either irresponsibly given, acquired (and squandered) illegally by dictators, or are the remains of colonialism and the Cold War.  These are debts that the people of these countries didn’t ask for or approve of (like, for instance, South Africans having to pay back the loans that the apartheid government took and used to fight anti-apartheid efforts), and now some countries, such as Haiti, have to use up to 80 percent of their national budgets to repay these debts and their insane interest rates.

To repay their debts these countries have had to cut public education and health services, and stopped hiring doctors, nurses and teachers.  And the interest rates on the loans are so extreme that many countries see no end to giving away all their money to wealthy Western nations and banks.  For example, Nigeria has borrowed five billion dollars, and to date, it has paid back sixteen billion dollars, but it still owes thirty-two billion dollars.  So the ultimate effect of these debts is that they are keeping the poorest countries in this world in cycles of extreme poverty.”[2]

Now before you think I’ve gone and gotten all political on you, let’s head back to today’s text because Jesus has something to say to us about all this debt.  In today’s text we hear that part of Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a reference to a biblical law in Leviticus 25 that states that every fiftieth year the people of God were to proclaim a year of jubilee where they acknowledged that ultimately all of our resources belong to God.  Therefore, during this year of jubilee the people were to return family property to its original owners, set free their slaves and indentured servants, and forgive each other’s debts.  In this way, the biblical law ensured that all of God’s people would have equal economic opportunity and that they would escape the trap where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.[3]

Jesus was particularly interested in emphasizing this biblical law, or this year of jubilee, because the Herodians had found a way to get around it and were forcing Jesus’ poor, Galilean neighbors deeper and deeper into debt and poverty.

Today a worldwide jubilee movement has grown among people of faith.  Back in the mid-1990’s concerned people of faith, people just like you and me, supported a campaign to declare the year 2000 as a year of jubilee when political and economic powers were asked to forgive the debts of those in the Third World.  The campaign gained clout with 24 million signatures on its petitions, and endorsements from Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and U2 lead singer, Bono.  In response to this campaign world leaders made promises to partially cancel many debts.  And even these partial cancellations resulted in significant change.  “After the relief of their debt, Tanzania was able to eliminate school fees, and 1.5 million children returned to school almost overnight.  And in Mozambique, nearly 500,000 children received vaccinations.”[4]

Through this modern day jubilee movement, ordinary people have helped spur some extraordinary change.  “Pat Pelham and Elaine Van Cleave were simply two soccer moms from Birmingham, Alabama when they first heard about the Third World’s need for debt relief at a church Bible study.  Amazed that such conditions existed in the world today, they became actively involved in local awareness and relief projects.  Wanting to spread the word about these issues, they invited their congressional representative, Spencer Bachus, to attend a hunger-awareness fundraising banquet, where they encouraged him to support legislation to fight the causes of hunger around the world.  The two women, overwhelmed by the thought of ‘ordinary moms’ speaking to a politician, were even more shocked when Representative Bachus contacted them after the event.  Moved by what he had heard, he told them, ‘I doubt that this will win me any votes, but I don’t want to be responsible for even one child going hungry.’ So he began to speak out for justice and worked to introduce bipartisan legislation such as the Jubilee Act that seeks to help end suffering in the world.”[5]

This modern day jubilee movement is still going strong today and we can see its effects in Haiti.  Just last week the International Monetary Fund announced its intention to cancel Haiti’s debt, including canceling the debt that they would have had to incur for accepting loans for emergency assistance after the earthquake.[6] This is good news.  This is news we should celebrate.

I have learned a lot this past week.  I have learned a lot about Haiti, about the needs of the Third World, about international debt relief.  I have learned a lot and I am thankful for what I now know.  I am thankful, because I don’t want to walk through this world blind to the needs of others.  I don’t want to miss opportunities to help because I was so unaware.  I don’t want to live as if I am the only one who matters.  Instead, I want to follow Jesus.  And I want to do whatever I can to help Jesus bring good news to the poor, release the captives, open the eyes of the blind, work for the oppressed, and proclaim the forgiveness of debts.  I am excited about the ways this church has already responded to the needs of our brothers and sisters all across this globe.  I pray that we will continue to seek ways to keep Jesus’ mission statement front and center.

Now to the One who gave us this Jesus and calls upon us to follow him, be all honor, and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Helpful Resources:

Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2009 – this was the book that informed most of this sermon.  Excellent book.  Lots of practical information and tips.  Easy to read.

www.jubileeusa.org — a resource site providing educational materials and activism suggestions related to international debt issues

www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml — Information about how to contact your elected representatives


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/opinion/15brooks.html

[2] Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, Chapter 7: Proclaiming Jubilee to the Nations

[3] Ibid, Everyday Justice.

[4] Ibid, Everyday Justice.

[5] Ibid, Everyday Justice

[6] www.jubileeusa.org

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