Sermon: A Challenge to Remember the Poor

The Rev. Bernard W. Poppe, Rector

The thread that runs through the readings this morning is a call to those who are wealthy, and a challenge to remember the poor. Amos forecasts correctly that the carefree lives of the wealthy in his time would be devastated by the arrival of the Syrians who would drag them away as prisoners and be relocated hundreds of miles away from their homes, with little to no hope of returning or of reclaiming the wealth that once was theirs. Their identification with the poor would take on a very real dimension, as he ominously understates, "the revelry of the loungers shall pass away."

In his first Epistle to Timothy, Paul also addresses the wealthy with a command not to be "haughty" but be generous and "rich in good works." The Gospel is the famous parable of Lazarus and the rich man - a cautionary tale of wealth and responsibility.
Questions emerge in these stories about who is wealthy and who is poor. In a financial sense all of us are wealthy in global statistics. We would probably describe ourselves as "comfortable" rather than wealthy. We can always point to someone else as a standard of wealth, Bill and Melinda Gates being the only exception to that statement. We can drive through parts of cities and see poverty, but the worst levels of the poorest of humanity is not something that most of us have seen. And it's those levels that are the majority in the world.
I've traveled through rural parts of Mexico and seen desperate poverty from the comfort of a bus. A country which I was surprised to learn is ranked in the top third of the wealthiest countries in the world. I also saw deplorable poverty in the townships in South Africa where corrugated steel shacks passed for housing. And as bad as what I saw is, these aren't even the poorest places.
There really is no doubt that we are among the wealthiest people in the world in terms of percentage, more than just comfortable. Lessons like the ones we heard this morning are not unusual in the Bible. The concern for the poor is a constant theme, and Jesus talks more about money than any other single topic, well, perhaps the Kingdom of God edges it out, but not by much.
When I was growing up, there was a common teaching that in polite company one does not discuss money, politics or religion - at least one's own. Those of the person down the street seemed to be fair game. But here we have it all.
There are no simple answers. It's a tough subject and avoiding it doesn't allow us to grow. Wrestling with difficult issues is immensely important and the decisions we make concerning them is crucial and has far reaching impact. And there is more at stake even, than just what we decide to contribute financially to causes and social services.
There are relationships involved. Family relationships are strained if not ruptured occasionally when those with less look to those with more for assistance. Does one help out once? Occasionally? Whenever asked? What is the responsibility of one for the other? Entitlement, envy, resentment, so many conflicts can arise even within families. Similar among neighbors, or segments of society, nations and people's.
Our political parties battle over these issues whether it's taxes to be raised or lowered, social services to be continued or not, health insurance, it's a huge web of conflicting interests, understanding of the issues and solutions.
We don't live on level playing fields. The relative wealth of our families has put us in good stead. We have access that others don't, unless they are very lucky indeed. Education is often cited as a key to advancement. Certainly it is, but no one can claim that equal educational opportunities are available to all children. Many do get left behind.
Our problems are systemic and will not go away any time soon. Even Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you..." I believe the spiritual illness that creeps in the cracks here is that we too often label the poor as lazy or unmotivated, conniving and out to beat the system. Accusations of "fraud" are hurled with great regularity at welfare recipients for example, temporarily forgetting the larger frauds committed by wealthier people. It is a process of dehumanizing the poor in our thinking and in our arguments and defenses as a way of solving the conflict we may feel inside, especially when reading such scriptures. We do this in war and all levels of major conflict. It's easier to attack the human value of those with whom we disagree or are called into challenging relationships. When that happens, we are trapped by spiritual illness.
It's not so much that one is rich and one is poor in the scriptures, it's that one overlooks the humanity of the other that causes the problems. If you're like me when you ride the subway and a panhandler comes by, I'll avoid eye contact. Eye contact is almost a guarantee that some kind of conversation is about to happen, and it's not always a good one. Eye contact establishes relationship and it's much, much stickier. We avoid eye contact, we avoid looking, we avoid acknowledging because we haven't figured out what we should do. There is fear at the heart of that avoidance and a sense of guilt that we're not doing enough. We then have to wrestle with the question, "what is enough, then?"
We're Christians and we look to Jesus for guidance. He helped those he met along the way. He looked them in the eye, held their hands, washed their wounds sometimes and always told them about God's love. He was not afraid to engage their humanity. When we engage the humanity of another, we become more fully human ourselves.
When I went to the townships in South Africa my heart ached at the expanse of suffering. I can't do anything to fix that. And yet I can do something. Im still in communication with some people I met there and financially help some go to school. I care about people I had not known before in a different way. And it's not just giving money. It's having seen their eyes, shaken their hands, embraced and remembered the bond of kinship that we all share in Christ. It's even about Facebooking (horrible as that is) and seeing how they are. It's a lot different than riding by in a bus. There was no human interaction there.
In these lessons this morning I don't see a guilt trip for the rich, or the finger pointing of judgment. I see the warning not to lose sight of the fact that all people are our brothers and sisters and at the very least deserve a look in the eyes and an acknowledgment that they are loved by God. What we do with the internal conflict that may get generated is for us to figure out. But it cannot be from callous disregard or capricious judgment, but honest spiritual wrestling. Our Christian faith doesn't provide easy answers, but somehow is good at posing challenging questions. Our faith gets shaped in that uncomfortable place, as it happens.
The closing hymn this morning is written by Frank Mason North somewhere around 1903. He was a Methodist minister and asked to write a hymn for the Methodist Hymnal. He lived in New York City and wrote of what he saw. Even though it's more than a hundred years old, the words still ring true: Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish greed, we hear thy voice O Son of Man. The poetry continues and finds it's answer in the love of God. And that's where we'll find our answers. Amen.
©2010 St. George's Episcopal Church, Maplewood, NJ