(Prepared to go along with a sermon on James 1:9-11)
‘Privilege’ is a word which gets thrown around a lot these days. Sometimes I think it is used to put down the accomplishments of others or to cloak envy. The truth of the matter is, that all of us who live in this country – no matter what our background is, our economic situation or what side of the tracks we were born on – are tremendously privileged. Compared to people who lived in previous generations we are very blessed. We take for granted things which in times past even kings or the most wealthy people on earth did not have access to.
For example, take antibiotics, or even something as simple as an aspirin. The Pharaohs of Egypt couldn’t take an aspirin for their headaches. When we get sick, the doctor prescribes an antibiotic and a few days later we’re well again. Alexander the Great died from a bacterial disease. Though he was the conqueror of the world and was attended by the best physicians of the age, they couldn’t cure him.
Another thing we take for granted is instant communication. We think of something we’d like to tell someone and we can immediately text or phone him. Do you realize that one of the bloodiest battles of the war of 1812 was fought because neither side knew that the peace treaty ending the war had already been signed a couple of weeks previously? There was no way to communicate the news to the armies.
And how about entertainment? If we want to hear a song or an orchestra, all we have to do is press a few buttons. If our spouse wants to hear something different, she can press a few buttons of her own. We can both be listening simultaneously to our own private play-list. It’s like the band was playing just for us. In the past, only the rich could afford to keep musicians at their beck and call – and even so, they did not have access to the rich variety of music which is available to us.
We can deplore the state of the schools all we want. The truth is that our children have access to more knowledge and education than people at any time in history. In the past, the ability to read and write was by no means common. Now everyone has the opportunity to learn – provided they want to do so.
In the past, a very rich man might have a 100 books in his private library. A couple of hundred books gathered in one place was cause for wonder and amazement. Today, everyone has access to millions of volumes, for free!
Do you realize what a miracle it is to be able to buy out-of-season produce when you go to the grocery store? And the variety of food which is available! When I read older books – for example, the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books – I’m amazed at how monotonous their diet was. They couldn’t just walk down the street and get something from the food-court if they wanted something different. Most likely, they didn’t even realize that there were different kinds of food.
We hear a lot about poverty. I think it is fascinating that the biggest health problem among the poor in this country is obesity. I grew up in a third-world country. In the city where my family lived there was a lot of animal transport. Women and children would go along the streets sweeping up the manure. They used some of it for fuel. Cow chips burn hot and efficiently. Some of it went into plaster to resurface their mud houses. But there was another reason to collect cow manure. I have seen women picking through it to separate out the undigested grain so they would have something to feed their children. Compared to that, all of us, no matter how poor we think we are, are very privileged. And, I’m grateful that we are.
Now suppose you wanted to help those less privileged than you and lift them out of their poverty. Where a lot of attempts to help go astray is that those doing the helping don’t really understand the people they are trying to help. As a result, their solutions don’t address the actual problems and the aid program fails to achieve its purpose.
It takes living among and sharing the life situations of the people you are trying to serve, to truly understand and come to grips with the problems. Serving another requires giving up your own privilege. This is one reason missionaries go to live among the people they want to serve.
I know from personal experience how much missionaries sacrifice in order to serve people. Yet, even though they give up a lot, often there is still an almost unbridgeable gap between them and those they are trying to help. In the eyes of the locals, the missionary is still unbelievably wealthy. He has resources the local people can only dream about. The differences not only lead to misunderstandings, they can create barriers between the missionary and the people he’s trying to help.
The greatest missionary of all is Jesus. It order to help us He sacrificed far more than most missionaries do today. He didn’t give up just part of his wealth and position, He gave it all. Paul writes to the Philippians that Jesus gave up equality with God and made Himself nothing (Philippians 2:6). It was not an easy thing to do. Jesus longed for the glory He left behind. In His prayer just before going to the cross He said, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:5 NIV) Nobody forced Jesus to give up His glory, but He did it voluntarily because it was the only way for Him to understand our need and provide the solution for it. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way, “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18 NIV)
Every Sunday we come together to remember the sacrifices Jesus made for us and to thank Him for the help He gave us. We live because He gave everything He had on our behalf. The Apostle Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9 NIV) Today as we eat the bread in memory of His body which He sacrificed for us, and as we drink the cup in memory of His blood which cleanses us from sin, let’s not only thank Him for lifting us out of our spiritual poverty, let’s also think about how we can follow His example – how we can sacrifice our privilege in order to serve others.