Today we follow the request of TEAR Australia to focus in our worship on the challenge of meeting the global millennium Development Goals which commit the developed nations of the world to halving absolute global poverty by 2015. We use the suggested readings: Micah 6.1-8 and 2 Cor 5.1-15, and the RCL Gospel reading, Luke 17.11-19.
One of the very best British movies I’ve seen in recent years stars Bill Nighy as a painfully shy, aging senior public servant who falls quite improbably in love with a young woman he happens to meet while looking for a seat in a cafe. Neither of them are good at flirting – or indeed any good at talking to people full stop – but a cup of tea leads to a meal and eventually to an invitation to come along on a weekend trip to Iceland where the leaders of the G8 group of nations happen to be holding a conference on global poverty.
This is one completely mis-matched couple. Nighy’s character – the spindly old bachelor, Lawrence, lives and breathes public policy. He cares passionately about public service – and his passion shows through even when he tries to dismissively sum up to Gina what he does for a living by saying, well, it’s just boring reports and spreadsheets. But when he begins to talk about the purpose of the trip, and the chance to actually make a difference to the hundreds of millions of people in our world who live without any prospect of sufficient food, education or medical care for their children – Lawrence is clearly consumed by the career that has taken over his life. Gina on the other hand is a young woman who has been dealt some blows in her life, who finds it hard to believe in herself any more – and who is carrying some secrets she can’t bring herself to share with Lawrence.
The movie of course has a message, a pointed and uncomfortable message about the obscenity of poverty that just happens to be wrapped in an off-beat and off-balance love story. And in the end it is the characters in their fragile imperfection, not the international delegations with their set-piece speeches and their carefully thought out policy decisions, who are best able to explain why fighting against poverty actually matters – because poverty isn’t about numbers or budgets or government policy but about the everyday lives of human beings, about the awkward mix of insecurity and the hope that makes us frail and foolish and infinitely loveable in the eyes of God.
Like the prophet Micah, Gina gets angry. With Lawrence desperately wishing the ground would open up and swallow him, Gina tells off the assembled leaders of the most powerful nations of the earth, and what makes her so angry is the contradiction between the diplomatic phrases and the carefully constructed agreements and the simple fact that every day, 30,000 children die of hunger and preventable childhood diseases. Like the prophet Micah, what gets Gina so angry is the hypocrisy of leaders who actually know what is right but who serve a system that makes its own power the highest priority. Everybody ends up deeply embarrassed, security is called, nobody likes to be told what they already know.
Micah is writing eight centuries before Christ, at a time when God’s people were divided into two nations, when the realities of international politics meant that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah relied on a fragile web of treaties with the superpowers of Egypt and Assyria, and where subservience to the values of Empire over-rode the needs of the poor. And Micah calls the ruling elites back to repentance, he reminds them of what they already know and he points out the obvious – your security is not in the great and powerful nation of Assyria, it is in God who demands justice and humility and mercy.
The connection with the realities of our own day, and with the call for the eradication of global poverty, is obvious. Ten years ago, with the great hope of a new century, the developed nations of the world, including our own, joined together in agreeing to the Millennium Development Goals – eight over-riding goals by which they committed themselves to concrete and specific action to halve global poverty by the end of 2015. This year, in fact last month, a review summit in New York met to think about what progress has been made. And there has been some progress, with child mortality, for example, having been reduced overall by about 25%. Which means that today only 22,000 children die every day from hunger and preventable diseases, down from 30,000 ten years ago. Since 1981, the percentage of the world’s population living in what the UN defines as extreme poverty has halved. This is good news, it is significant progress - but it is still an obscenity, for example when our own wealthy country ignores the Millennium Goal commitment of 0.7% of national income spent on foreign aid and instead commits itself to increasing our foreign aid spending from its current level of 0.3% up to 0.5% by 2015. It means we still put domestic self-interest and domestic politics ahead of the needs of the world’s poor. And so TEAR Australia, the consortium of Australian church organisations holding governments to account through the international Micah Challenge campaign, asks Australian churches today to pray for renewed commitment to this important work which actually we understand as the central priority of God. Micah reminds us that God does not care about our worship, God does not care about our theology or hear our prayers or take pleasure in our hymns, God doesn’t care how many times we celebrate the Eucharist if we fail to practice compassion. That the right worship, the only right theology, is the practice of kindness and mercy and humility. Like Gina, like Micah, the role of the Church is to confront hypocrisy in ourselves and in the powers of the world, to point out what we already know and to refuse to accept the contradiction between weasel words and reality. The role of the Church, in other words, your role and mine, is to be annoying.
Our second reading brings it a little closer to home. Because we can reassure ourselves with the logic that we are just ordinary folk, that we don’t have much influence, that global poverty is bigger than us. I think the movie begs to differ, making the gentle point that justice isn’t just the work of governments and economists, justice prevails only when ordinary men and women believe in it and are prepared to demand it. I think in the movie Gina and Lawrence also end up teaching each other something about why they matter, why what they believe about the world matters. In the letter to the Corinthians, St Paul teaches us something about the connection between who we are as a church and how we understand our responsibility to the poor. The context is the need to raise some money for the impoverished church in Jerusalem – the sort of ABM appeal we are familiar with in our own time, and Paul makes the simple point that as Christians we participate in the generosity of God. He reminds the fairly worldly Corinthians that their brothers and sisters in Macedonia gave generously even when they themselves were living in poverty – he holds up the example of the Christian generosity of others – but he says the bottom line is that it is the poverty of God that enriches us. The freely chosen self-emptying love of God that we see revealed in Jesus, that fills us. It is the paradox of Christianity, the very main point – that in giving of ourselves we participate in the richness of God’s own life.
And St Paul makes three quick points that we need to notice. First that the generosity of God is contagious. The year before he had told the Macedonians about the generosity of the Corinthian church – now the way the church of Macedonia had given out of the little that they had was an inspiration and a challenge to the more wealthy Corinthians. Secondly that as Christians we are enriched by the gift we give. There is no point in giving reluctantly or begrudgingly, because Christian giving can only be an expression of love and an acknowledgement of the gift we have ourselves received. Paul doesn’t only want to raise money for the Jerusalem church, he also wants the Corinthian church – and us – to see that by empowering and giving dignity to others we are participating in the generosity of God. Finally, St Paul reminds us that Christian giving is not just an individual decision but an act of corporate commitment. It defines who we are as a church and it raises our horizons above our own local self-interest.
So, how do we respond to the Micah Challenge? First and foremost, I believe, by taking it personally, by taking it as a challenge to get involved as individuals, to be involved as a church. A challenge to actively look for ways of giving financial support and to increase the financial support we are already giving, for example through organisations like Care Australia, World Vision or ABM. A challenge to make a nuisance of ourselves, by writing to our local member or the local newspaper. A challenge to learn more, to be involved with community organisations like LINC Cannington who demonstrate on a daily basis what love of neighbour really means. A challenge, also, to ask how our life as a worshipping community reflects the priorities of God.