Isaiah 45: 1-7
Psalm 96: 1-9
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22
Several weeks ago when I was traveling, a friend strongly endorsed Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore and put a copy in my hand. It is the story of the highly unlikely friendship of a modern day slave and an international art dealer and the woman who bound them together. They met because Ron Hall and his wife Deborah volunteered at the Union Gospel Mission, a shelter for the homeless in Ft. Worth. In the beginning, it was a reluctant friendship at best. Denver the homeless man who had lived on the streets for over thirty years could not imagine why a rich white man would want his friendship, while Ron almost gave up trying for it after several rebuffs. Ron, because of his riches, thought he could improve Denver’s life by treating him to the local diversions that only money could buy; meals at fine restaurants, tickets to cultural events, etc., and Denver thought he could open the eyes of this rich white volunteer to the real hardship of homelessness. But while each was able to give to the other these things, their friendship which slowly evolved over years, transformed them. They became different people, radically changed, as close as brothers. Ron became an unflinching advocate for the homeless who used his wealth and social clout to open the eyes of the residents of Ft. Worth to the plight of these men, women and children in their midst. Denver, who was superbly Gospel literate but had never had a day of schooling in his life, became the director of a new Gospel Mission. Both became far more as individuals than they ever would have been without their mutual friendship. I hope you will have a chance to read their story and take its message to heart. There is someone out there homeless who desperately needs as much as you need them.
After the U.S. Civil War this country witnessed spectacular growth and a long period of peace that lasted except for the brief interlude of the Spanish American War until World War I. During that period our country experienced the rise of capitalism unfettered by Federal regulation or labor laws to protect the workers. Cities across America grew and took on their modern shape and appearance, linked for the first time by a national network of railroads. The public school system as we know it provided a free and uniform education in most areas and immigration reached its greatest volume during this era. It was a time when the rich grew richer and the unprotected poor suffered terribly. Economic and political corruption was rife at all levels and the power of the moguls of industry overshadowed and deeply influenced government. Then a major reaction set in to curb the power of the rich and protect the poor. The philosophical idea of a democratic commonwealth was used to create a new, unified America, one in which every citizen had a part to play. All had a responsibility for making it a reality and livable cities were to lead the way in producing a new citizenry where all benefit. Leadership from both major political parties contributed to the establishment and growth of the democratic commonwealth that culminated in the far-reaching social programs of FDR’s New Deal. While the overall effect of this movement was highly beneficial, some of its social engineering did not work well, and after World War II there was a gradual reaction to efforts to keep the concept of the democratic commonwealth alive. In recent years each successive Presidential administration has pulled back until we are almost back to where we were a hundred years ago.
If nothing else, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent storms that have devastated the Gulf coast have revealed the extent and defenselessness of the poor in this country. And this is not limited to some horrible, long-term miscarriage of justice down south. Our cities are crumbling. All one needs to be assured of this is to look at the condition of public schools in our cities, those in Boston’s Dorchester or Roxbury, for example. Notice the current miserable levels of unemployment, the sorry state of housing for the poor, their lack of access to adequate health care. These are indicators of the extent American voters and the federal and state governments no longer support the idea of a democratic commonwealth. We have become polarized by fear and the privileged and entitled in this generation no longer have any sense of responsibility for the poor.
After an initial upsurge of outrage voiced by both political parties for the degree of poverty revealed by the hurricanes, it now appears that nothing substantial and lasting will be done by our government to eradicate it. The poor will be left to take are of themselves as best they can. The sense of responsibility of those with power to make changes that would alleviate suffering and improve the condition of the poor in this country appears to be no longer there. Instead of help for the poor through major federal and state programs, the rich in their gated communities fear them. Big government seems bent on recreating the economic environment of 100 years ago where the rich benefit and the poor suffer. These days our government spends more on building new jails and housing prisoners than it does on public education. The bright spots in recovery have come from the volunteer efforts of private groups such as churches and individuals to help out.
We may well ask ourselves the troubling questions why in this the richest nation in the world is there no universal system of health care coverage and why is the percentage of unemployment so high? If one listens closely one hears people say the abject poor are not their responsibility or question why these unfortunates can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. These arguments are coming from whites who have no first hand understanding of the hardships of racism in this country, for those whose greatest handicap still is dark skin. And because of these perilous economic times we may soon be seeing homeless people from a different social stratum. What will we do for them?
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. He had experienced at first hand the exploitation of a two tiered taxation system demanded by the Roman government and its local collaborators, the Herodian puppet kings, that left farm villages such as Nazareth impoverished and often without enough food to sustain life. From what archeologists have been able to determine about Nazareth, Joseph the father of Jesus was the village artisan who also farmed. He was probably poorer than his neighbors who farmed exclusively and had more land. Jesus knew from experience how “Caesar” in all its forms could crush the poverty stricken and unprotected. He was poor and knew the desperation of the weak.
What was his meaning when he replied so enigmatically to the Pharisees, the residents of the gated communities of his day? What are our responsibilities to God? Perhaps what he meant is best illustrated by the song we associate with his mother. God lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, God will come to their help and show mercy and he does this through you and me, the way we are to respond to them. The rich on the other hand are scattered in their conceit and sent away empty.
If we allow the current situation to continue, the scandalous contempt for the poor at all levels, we collude with evil. Our responsibility to God and to the poor is to break the silence and do what we can to help those who need help. But how can we as individuals do anything of lasting value, what can we do to help? By connecting with the poor as individuals, by regarding them as made in the image of God, by eye contact that shows that we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, by living in such a way that we strive for peace and justice among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Each of us has the power to bring about change. If we listen, the Spirit will show us the way.
One of the lessons we have learned from the Gospel lessons these past few weeks is that God is merciful to those who show mercy. He forgives those who forgive others. But for those who are not merciful to others God demands justice.
If we give way to apathy or shirk the responsibility to intervene for the poor, we will be liable to God’s justice. Let us listen and be alert for opportunities to help. In way God will work through us.
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The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.