Sunday, June 5, 2011


My pastor, Bill Bess, always says that every Presbyterian elder ought to have at least one good sermon in his/her head. He followed up on that by asking me to preach on Biblical models of economics today. For better or worse, here is my potentially one (good or bad) sermon.

A Sermon Prepared for the First Presbyterian Church, Havana, Florida, June 4, 2011, by Mark Isaac, Ruling Elder, substituting for Bill Bess, Teaching Elder.

I was born in a home for unwed mothers. Before you crank-up your sympathy, my parents were married. Like many of the GI Bill generation, they bought a house in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, and my Mom’s doctor believed that the best obstetrics facilities in the area were at the Home of Redeeming Love, a home for unwed mothers run by the women of the Free Methodist Church. The facility was already in transition (my birth certificate reads Deaconess Hospital) but the history of the Home of Redeeming Love, stretching back decades, is fascinating. The women of the Free Methodist Church founded and ran the facility for young women who had no access to good natal care because the shotgun didn’t fire and they were abandoned by their families. Initially out in the country, the women of the Church plowed the fields to raise crops both for the Home and for sale for cash.

The story of the Home of Redeeming Love is illustrative of part of the so-called Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism. Although we toss around terms such as “old time religion” we often forget that by 1900 the mainline Protestant churches, including the Presbyterian Church, were heavily influenced by a century of German theological rationalism and materialism. Biblical concepts such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ were viewed as campfire fables invented by church leaders who were decades removed from Jesus of Nazareth. Now if your theology strips out all of the supernatural components of the New Testament, what is left of Christianity? Well one thing that is left is the body of teachings of Jesus as a guide as to how we ought to conduct our daily life both personally and in our communities. The latter focus became a dominant theme of the American and British Social Gospel throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. Among the good results of the Social Gospel were institutions such as the Home of Redeeming Love, the Salvation Army, the YMCA and YWCA, and countless hospitals. (By the way, the American Economics Association was founded as part of the social gospel movement).

But the Social Gospel broke into two strands. One stressed what Christians could do directly to lift the burden of off those who were suffering (the Home of Redeeming Love) and the other stressed what Christians could do to get the federal government to accomplish similar ends. The best example is the famous Methodist Board of Temperance and Prohibition. Temperance was a program of the community helping individuals make good choices; Prohibition was the drive to use the federal government to make those choices by force. In many American Protestant churches, the Prohibition branch eventually won out. (Our own Presbyterian denomination purged our seminaries of traditionalists. Interestingly, these traditionalists, branded with the nickname “Fundamentalists” not only disagreed with the modernists with regards to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, they also believed that it was none of the church’s business to enlist the government to tell a man or woman that they could not settle down with a pleasant single-malt Scotch before bedtime.)

By the 20th century, although alcohol Prohibition was eventually deemed a failure, many of the major Protestant denominations bought into the idea that the government is the primary agency for caring for the poor. This has been codified by our own General Assembly, and no year goes by without some agency of the PCUSA weighing in on minimum wages, health care, smoking, and so on and so forth. Our stated clerk even recently took sides in the partisan fight over collective bargaining in the State of Wisconsin.

If we are going to talk about what economics means in terms of Heaven on Earth, we need to go back and find out more about what the Old and New Covenants were teaching before, during, and after Jesus’ ministry.

First, there is no question that in the Old Testament there is a dual recognition of the right to private property and the responsibility of the owners of that property to act justly and to care for the poor. In the former category are the prohibitions against stealing, against moving boundary markers, and the parts of the law code dealing with damages done to the property of others. In the latter category are the tithing requirements, the various debt forgiveness passages, the commands for honest weights and measures ,and numerous restrictions against unjust lending practices, especially to the poor.

Leviticus 23:22: And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner. I am the Lord Your God.

When we get to the Acts passages, there are some interpreters I have heard, and you probably have too, that suggest that the early church moved in a different direction, abolishing private property. This is clearly not the case. In the the Ananias and Sapphira story, Peter makes clear that the land was theirs to sell or not. This story is about the sin of lying to the community. What is suggested is that the Jerusalem church was a diverse collection of both wealthy individuals and people whom we might consider refugees, living in a world of violent oppression, in which the order of day to day life was clearly in peril. In this world, the wealthy people sold their property to provide funds to care for the poor. “They gave to anyone as he had need.” However, note that, as we will see in a minute that this does not mean some kind of Stalinist/Maoist collectivization of all among all: it becomes clear that “the poor” refers to groups such as widows, and, I suspect, orphans.

I wonder where they got this idea of caring for the poor?

Mark 10: 17-22. And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good-except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.” “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

It is at this point that I wish to turn to a Presbyterian Pastor who gets remarkably little attention in these days: John Calvin. We Presbyterians don’t like to talk much about Calvin. Look around any large city and you’ll see Presbyterian Churches happy to advertise their aerobics classes and high school pancake breakfasts. Putting a lot of John Calvin on the church marquee probably wouldn’t be good for attendance. But we must, at this point, confront a key part of our Reformed Faith: which has been tagged with the horrible phrase “The Total Depravity of Mankind.” The doctrine of the Total Depravity of Mankind most certainly does not mean that we are all sociopaths, incapable of doing good, even sacrificial things. It means something completely different. What it means is that there is no part of our lives that we can put in an imaginary box and say “I do not sin in this part of my life.” It means that even when we are doing what we think of as “good” we remain subject to sin.

I John 1: 8-10 : “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess ours sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

So let us see the operation of sin in the economics of the early church:

Acts 6: 1 – 7: “Now in these days when disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the Twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said: “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word to serve tables. Therefore Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of Wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit; and Philip, and Procurus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus a proselyte from Antioch. These they set before the Apostles, who prayed and laid their hands upon them.”

As Calvinists, we can see the operation of sin even in this most noble of institutions: the distribution to the poor. Either the Hebraic Jews really are discriminating against the Greek-speaking Jews, or the Greek-speaking Jews are bearing false witness against the Hebraic Jews. It doesn’t matter, because in midst of this sin God works His will and the church office of Deacon is born, ordained with specific responsibility to care for the poor.

Now it would be nice to continue on with the evolution of economic institutions in the early church in Jerusalem. But we simply don’t know more, because the Christian Church in Jerusalem was decimated with Jerusalem’s destruction by Rome.

Instead, we turn to a different early Christian tradition: the churches begun by Paul and the other church-planting apostles around the Mediterranean. And we see here something new:

Acts 16: 13- 15 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatria, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God.

When we read the popular history of the Roman Empire, we see very little of merchants, traders, and manufacturers, what we would call the “Middle Class.” Rome was ruled by landed oligarchs and a major source of its “wealth” was plunder from military campaigns. In the midst of this were people who did the ordinary: making goods, trading, etc.. It is important to note that these people were not the respected merchants of Geneva or Amsterdam. Even though trade and manufacturing could provide what was probably a good standard of living, only a few of these folks would be candidates for the Roman Senate: they were equally likely to be slaves, freed slaves, women, illegitimate children of the agricultural or military class, or people living in or emigrating the flyover provinces: The Oklahomas and Nebraskas of the empire. Recent scholarship, which might embarrass some Christians inclined towards liberation theology, suggests that outside of Jerusalem, Christianity became a religion that spread primarily through this proto-middle class of merchants, traders, and artisans. What we continue to see are short but repeated references in Pauls’s letters to his congregations raising money for the poor ---perhaps the poor in the local community but also perhaps the relatively more oppressed Christians in Jerusalem. This suggests that the economic system in Jerusalem, described in the earlier Acts passages, was probably some kind of survival system that was sustainable only with subsidies from the Mediterranean churches, and thus not exported elsewhere in the early church. There’s little reference to this kind of survival communalism in the churches of the epistles.

I hate to say it, but in terms of the Bible, that’s pretty much where we stop. The problem for us is that there’s simply no transition theology to a capitalist world in which the church has ceded to the government the office of primary care for the poor. I suspect that most of you in the congregation today are like most of my students: you cannot conceive of a world in which the Presbyterian Church renounces the government as the primary office of care for the poor. You can’t imagine lines forming to plow fields for unwed mothers. We are like the Jews after the time of the Judges, who, against God’s warning, have merged the identity of God’s people with the coercive power of a centralized government. I suspect that the Home of Redeeming Love, now Deaconess Hospital, is well entwined with Medicare, Medicaid, and so forth. In this, I believe we have before us a very good model for the decline of the Presbyterian Church , the UCC, the Episcopal Church and so forth. If your theology has rejected the supernatural and simply focused on the government as the agent of the material, once that social agenda has been accomplished in the New Deal and the Great Society, what need is there to be a Presbyterian on Sunday morning? The answer from the collapse in our membership from 4.25 million to 2 million in my adult lifetime says that the answer is “not much.”

At the risk of being repetitive, our scripture from Acts demonstrates a fundamental paradox of our Reformed faith: we are called to do good, to bring the Kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” But we must bathe ourselves in the humility that, acting with the best of intentions, we might “miss the mark,” what the Bible calls sin. Therefore, in a world in which our government educational system does a good job for the well-off but a horrible job for the poor, in which the government has been completely ineffective in preventing a dramatic rise in children born out of wedlock (what the Bible would certainly consider fatherless children or “orphans”) I cannot imagine that the Old Testament prophets wouldn’t be screaming that we are differentially hurting the poor and most vulnerable of our society, that we as a society will suffer the consequences of this sin, and that we ought to be thinking about doing something different. I personally believe that the model for this “something different” can be found in the earliest Calvinist communities in Switzerland, but that is a story for another sermon.

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