The only answer to poverty… commit yourself to local church…

The following is
adapted from a message preached at Everyday Kingston as a part of our current
series, Life Works God’s Way

What could King Solomon, the richest man in his day,
possibly have to teach us about poverty? Quite a lot actually. His book of proverbs frequently touches on the subject and yet this collection of
pithy and eminently quotable slices of advice can be bewildering to a first
time reader: there are simply so many of them, and Solomon’s commentary on
poverty doesn’t hold to a style of writing or narrative structure we’re use to
in 21st Century London; reading through from start to finish it’s all too easy for us to miss the big
picture…
The stories of poverty all around us can be similarly
bewildering: the photo of a small boy’s drowned body being carried ashore
sparks an international cry of outrage and a powerful and widespread humanitarian
appeal; newspapers despair at the numerous impending crises – alzheimers, stretched health services, isolation – anticipated
as Brits live longer and longer lives; stories of child abuse, isolation,
depression, homelessness abound. And what about the stories told in statistics – the 85,000
prisoners in England & Wales, the 3.7 million UK children living in
poverty, the more than 1 million people dependant on Foodbanks each year? What
about the stories being played out in our own streets, schools, churches and
homes? Again, it seems reasonable for any individual to be overwhelmed by the
sheer scale and diversity of poverty – how are we to understand it, let alone
respond?
In fact, despite its apparent eclecticism, the book of
Proverbs can work as an amazing road map to help us understand poverty, and
it contains a road map with a clearly signed route to help us respond to those
around us. A couple of weeks ago, in our Life Works God’s Way series, we looked at the
following passage from Proverbs 14 which helpfully points us to three key
dynamics relating to poverty.
In typical Proverbs fashion this collection of apparently
standalone truths actually yields an incredibly helpful overview. In this passage, and
in the whole of Proverbs, Solomon describes the following three dynamics in
relation to poverty.
Firstly, RICH and
POOR:
this is essentially the dynamic of what we have… Poverty, and an unequal distribution of wealth, is as
old as humanity; Jesus (as ever!) was right when he said that the poor would
always be with us. Solomon examines this dynamic of what we have from many different angles throughout the book of
proverbs.
Secondly, and frequently, he considers the dynamic between WISDOM and FOLLY; this dynamic can be
best understood as what we do with what
we have
. Riches are no good to a fool – he’ll lose them! But a person can
be wise when he keeps money, but also wise when he gives it away. Again there is a complexity at work here which can undermine any attempts to create a simple formula for our behaviour.
Finally Solomon here considers the dynamic between GOOD and EVIL, which we might better
understand as – wait for it – why we do what we do with
what we have
… In his ongoing examination of this dynamic we see Solomon’s
deep understanding of the human heart; he warns us in Proverbs 4:23 to guard our hearts, for everything we do flows from it…

These dynamics are not binary, on/off conditions, or states
of being – rather they are ways of living, the streets of life upon which we
all walk. Proverbs, which often describes life as a path or a way, is rich in
advice for any looking to navigate these streets well, but the more we read, the more the picture can seem
to grow in complexity: what happens, for example, when these streets of life
intersect? What happens when rich meets poor, when the foolish meet riches, when
good meets evil? Solomon comments on these intersections with focused wisdom
but the overall picture becomes even more sophisticated and complex… in this complexity though it helpfully mirrors real life
London problems: what should you do when an addict asks you for money which
they’re likely to spend on drink or drugs? How do you help someone who seems
bent on staying in an abusive relationship? Should a person in debt lend to
someone in need? Why are Britons clamouring to offer their houses to refugees while
ignoring the thousands of already homeless and often hopeless people already
living as outcasts in our own streets? Should we be bothered? With such
overwhelming need all around us – in our families, streets, churches, towns,
cities, nation and the world – how should we respond?
Thankfully, Proverbs does have an answer: of all the stories
of life and experience referenced in the book, there is one overarching story
which connects and supersedes them all. You see, the book of Proverbs was never
intended to be a pick and mix, pot-pourri blend of good advice or common sense;
it is intended to point us to the voice and wisdom of God, the creator of all
things, and it’s his story which needs to be our starting point:
GOD’S STORY:

RICH and POOR: what we have. God is, always was and always will be rich – perfectly rich. One God in three persons, not lacking in anything,
created the universe out of the abundance and generosity of his heart; speaking
into darkness, then chaos, he created a rich world of incredible beauty and
gifted it all to mankind, created in his image to share all of the joy and
majesty of creation. God was rich – perfectly rich – and gave everything to us.

WISDOM and FOLLY: what we do with what we have. In our folly we threw away all that God had
given us, even deep knowledge of God himself, in pursuit of something we felt
we lacked. This story, played out at the dawn of creation in the lives of Adam
and Eve, has been replayed in every human life ever since. All of us have in
some ways, and at different times, squandered what we have for what we wanted
but really didn’t need. Resist, for a moment though, the temptation to make
this our story and consider God: this is his story. All of the creators’ gift trampled underfoot
by a foolish, ungrateful creation… How will he respond in his perfect wisdom? The answer is
surprising, outrageous even: it is the wisdom of the cross. Having given
everything to a race which threw it all away, God chooses to give even more –
the Father gives his beloved son; the Son gives his life, his body, his dignity, his
comfort and in that agonising moment of atonement, even his connection to the
Father as he became sin for us. (2
Corinthians 5:21)
 This is amazing, incredible grace… would we ever have done the same? We know
we never would, for only Jesus lived a perfect life and laid it down for love.
Every other one of us has failed at the first hurdle of righteousness; our
folly has yielded only more folly. God’s wisdom and generosity has yielded a
perfect and unimpeachable salvation for anyone who will admit their folly and
turn to him.

GOOD and EVIL: why we do what we do with what we have. God’s motivation in all this? Love – the greatest
of all commodities, and a miracle of divine grace! We can have such a distorted
view of God as distant, a tyrant, a puppet master – all of these lies are
unravelled at the cross where we see Jesus the Son of God, for love, calling on
his Father to forgive the folly and
wilful cruelty of his murderers. For love, good faces evil and triumphs every time, no
question.

This is God’s story. But how does it help us to make sense of
the stories of poverty in proverbs and all around us? None of his decisions make sense in human terms – it’s why the phrase
“to err is human, to forgive divine” is so often quoted, even in our day (note
– unhelpfully quoted when there’s no mention of Jesus who is the only means of forgiveness) – in his goodness, wisdom and riches God simply thinks differently
from the rest of the world, all of the time. The only way to approach poverty is
to get close to the creator of all things, know his heart, hear his instruction and follow his lead. And there is
only one place to do that on the face of the earth – the local church.
As social problems multiply and human responses to these fail
with increasing severity it’s time for Christians to begin to understand and
experience the church as the community, the family, the body it is meant to be.
God is at work primarily through the church and
he is revealed primarily in the church. Is this hyperbole, or exaggeration? Not at all – Ephesians 1 tells us that
Jesus has been appointed head of all things for the church, which is the fullness of him who fills everything in
every way.
The church doesn’t only exist for Jesus, or around him – it is
also in him, joined to him and built and led by him. As the head of the church,
Jesus is responsible for its response to poverty and human suffering – but that
truth shouldn’t breed passivity among his people, it should foster an active,
pioneering, fighting faith which works tirelessly to topple injustice and transform
communities. As members of his body we need to seek his will for us and our communities – trusting that he has given and will give us all we need for the specific tasks he sets before us. Just take a look at the church through the lens of Proverbs on
poverty:
THE CHURCH’S STORY:

RICH and POOR: what we have. Put simply, we have it all: the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ always-on
companionship, purpose within a diverse family of living stones, each uniquely
crafted by the Lord for his church! This reality is incredible, and our hope is
not in vain, but cast solid in Christ…

WISDOM and FOLLY: what we do with what we have. I find I have less and less time for those
who criticise the church nowadays; it might be because I’m a pastor, but I
don’t think so – it’s much more the fruit of understanding how much trust and
faith and joy God himself has invested in the church. This understanding can be
gleaned from the Bible, sure, but it’s also evident throughout human history
where the wisdom of God has been shared with men and women of great faith and
wisdom who have gone on to change the world… the Church has been at the
forefront of healthcare, social care and justice movements since the 1st
Century – dramatic transformation wrought by men and women who knew what they
had in Christ and were wise to live powerfully transformative lives by
committing to follow faith and the Holy Spirit into new and amazing adventures…
 

GOOD and EVIL: why we do what we do with what we have. Our motivation is truly the same as God’s
motivation in all this. Love – not that we love him, but that he loved us and
gave his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin (1 John 4:10); even then,
not love because we are grateful, though that’s true to a degree (as Jesus says in Luke 7, those who have been forgiven much,
love much), but more because Jesus’s death and resurrection have opened the way
for God’s love to flow through us; this is a miracle and a direct answer to Jesus prayer in John 17:26  “that the love you have for me may be in them
and I myself may be in them…”

If you are a Christian you have the answer to poverty right
in front of you, within you even – you yourself are a part of the answer. What do you have? You have it all in
Jesus – what will you do with it? I submit to you that Proverbs, along with all
of the New Testament, calls us to commit everything – time, money and trust –
to the local church because in doing so we are committing everything to God, to Christ
himself, who is the head of the church. Am I saying you should only give to the
church? No – but I am saying that every Christian should look to give their time,
money, trust to the church first. This isn’t a pastor’s plea – it’s a call to make
the church the preoccupation and focus of your energy, just as Jesus did and
still does. Let me set a final vision before you:
These were the amazing scenes in London in 2011, mere months
before these same London streets were filled with the sights and sounds of
arson and looting in the worst riots for a generation. One million people took to
the streets to celebrate the fact that a royal prince had chosen to love and
honour a commoner, making her his bride. The story of Wills & Kate moved
the multitudes in a glorious human tide of joy and celebration…
In 2015 there’s a greater story unfolding; it’s the true
neverending story, the good news of the king of kings who loved a foolish, bankrupt
degenerate people and called and made them to be a loving, glorious, beautiful
bride… this is my story and it’s your story. Surely, with Jesus as our leader,
with the stories of poverty unfolding around us, it’s time for us to take to
the streets… What do you have, and what will you do with what you have? Commit all you have to the church, devote yourselves to prayer and trust Jesus to lead us into works
of love and grace that will bring light and life to a dark and deeply
distressed generation…
‘Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the LORD rises
upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth

    and thick darkness is over the peoples,

but the Lord rises upon you

    and his glory appears over you.’

From Isaiah Chapter 60: surely a song for the church…

Akhtar Shah

Leadership, Social Action, Evangelism.