Render Unto Caesar – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

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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  1. Anders on March 6, 2013 at 06:12

    The era you speak of between the Civil and WWI was known for both the spectacularly wealthy robber barons as well as progressivism, in which the church played an active role. Ditto for the civil rights era.

    Over the last generation, I believe the church in the US has largely turned its back on the poor, citing scripture such as Matthew “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, that wealth is a virtue, not evil. I believe that much is driven by a fear-induced media, because fear is good economics. We in the church, on the other hand, are called to break down barriers and to live in and out our fears.

  2. Melanie Zybala on February 20, 2013 at 20:05

    Your meditation stirred readers: Look at how many impassioned responses you
    received! Just a tiny pedantic point: Joseph, according to some recent
    research, may not have been an “artisan” and “farmer”, but, instead, a landless peasant who worked land owned by others, and a laborer with woodworking
    skills, rather than an artisan with his own “shop”. If so, Jesus’ passion for
    the poor would have been all the more meaningful and real.

  3. Margo on February 11, 2013 at 11:57

    First thank you for a sermon that recognizes material need as poverty.
    What is different in the current American highly priviledged 1-5% golden age to the previous one, we are now 7 billion people in the world. “Go forth and multiple” we’ve done it. Surely the Spirit whisphers to us “Sustainability”
    This goes too, for an economy bassed on an eternal presumption of growth
    and “free trade” practised in part only in the US but controlled by WTO and NAFTA. Ask peasant farmers in Mexico what they think of ‘free trade’.
    Who is Lee Kyung Hae?
    Then Ayn Rand attitudes have filtered through into entertainment arena where most people develope thier ethics. Love your neighbor as yourself has been replaced by rational ethical egoism couched in black humor! Very popular.
    To probagate the Christian message don’t we have to live it?
    Isn’t being clergy more than being a professional demanding a ‘professional’ salary? Couldn’t we live on what we need rather than accepting secular criteria of worth. If no clergy person accepted more than the medain salary or below for their area wouldn’t the identification with the person of Christ in the least of these my brethern be a more authentic and attractive witness?
    Although gathered around worship not doctrine couldn’t the “we” who believe call for a just taxation system and a liveable minimum wage for adults and emancipated teenagers as a minimal response moving towards more hopeful living for all?
    I recommend reading “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel for an evolving world picture.

  4. Ruth West on February 9, 2013 at 21:20

    Thank God, there are exceptions to the generalized statement that the rich and privileged no longer feel responsibility for the poor and homeless. My town is an example. There are 600 homeless in this city of less than 100,000 people. But through concentrated community efforts of many wealthy and not-so-wealthy, we have a facility called “Food and Shelter” where they can sleep, eat, wash their clothing and be accepted. If there
    is a special need, there will be a notice in the local paper, and the local people respond immediately. Also, they have more volunteers than they need, I was told. Thanks be to God. REW

  5. Anne Coke on February 9, 2013 at 14:27

    Once years ago I took a friend who had not been there to the soup kitchen one noon to put on an apron and help dish out the food. I told her, “When you serve their bowls be sure you give them eye contact, smile and look them in the eye.” She replied, “They aint dead they got feelings..” To me her reply was profound.

  6. Willa Grant on February 9, 2013 at 10:57

    As one of the poor I can tell you that churches can be the worst offenders. I live well below the poverty line but am not homeless, yet. I find nothing but elitism in the form of coldness & rudeness in the churches. I don’t dress properly, I have :gasp: tattoos. I am clearly not OK to help even though I volunteer. It is sad that the one place I feel I should be equal, being that we are all sinners is the church, but it is no different than anywhere else.

    • Leslie on October 12, 2014 at 08:54

      Willa, I am sorry that has happened to you. “In the imagination of my heart”, I think it is not like that in my worshipping community. Your words give me a new lens with which to critically examine the culture of my church.

  7. george miller on February 9, 2013 at 09:01

    Dear Brother Pendleton….for further reading on the subject I would recommend Milton Freidman’s book—Free to Choose….thank you

  8. Maureen Doyle on November 21, 2012 at 20:23

    Last week I listened to a troubled man on the subway. It happened that he is homeless. As I exited the train, he tried giving ME a dollar. Another day I tried putting money in the cup of a women huddled against the cold. Looking at me, she kindly told me that I too needed it.
    In comparison, I read the angry posts of those distressed with the outcomes of the election. I and others who fail to contribute to our country’s welfare put in our candidates so we could get money and benefits. I compared the two encounters-one with “entitled” (poor) people-the other with the haves.

    • Maureen Doyle on November 21, 2012 at 20:26

      Benefits. I compared the two encounters-one with “entitled” (poor) people-the other with the haves.

  9. Jean Ann Schulte on November 19, 2012 at 08:36

    I have never heard Brother Eldridge’s voice, yet it came through so clearly in this sermon. I am taking a copy with me this week while I return to my roots in rural Kentucky. He offers much to reflect on as I compare the sense of commonweal there among a community that has so little, with what is happening here in Boston, and I ponder how best to use my talents and good fortune to make a difference here in my chosen home.

  10. george miller on November 19, 2012 at 05:29

    Please consider another point of view. A free market would help the poor make progress more rapidly. Experience proves this point. The poor need strong economic growth in order to acheive wage increases. Strong economic growth occurs when government takes less from the private economy. If you look at per capita (not household–per capita) income growth, it is always stronger for longer when tax rates (not taxes,but marginal rates) are lowered, and kept there. thanks

    • CMAC on October 12, 2014 at 08:57

      That’s provided they can have jobs. Many don’t, or cannot work at sustainable employment. For example – schizophrenic sufferers – with many of them, it is not a case of WON’T but their health means CAN’T. They aren’t the only ones.

  11. Ivy Freeman on August 27, 2011 at 04:39

    Thanks you so much for this message. It is frustrating that people of faith do not seem to be speaking out about injustice. Your voice is much appreciated. Ivy Freeman

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