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God's Poor – Br. David Vryhof

I won’t ask for a show of hands this morning, but I’m wondering how many of us know a person or a family who is living below the poverty line.  The U.S. Census Bureau defines that as a single person who makes less than $11,491 per year, or a family of four that earns less than $23,018 annually.  In 2010, the Census Bureau tells us, over 15% of the people in the United States were below the poverty line (15.3%).  The percentage for children was even higher:  21.6% of children living in the United States in 2010 were living below the poverty line – that’s one in every five children in one of the wealthiest nations on earth.  If you know a person or persons who live with this kind of poverty, I’d like you to picture them and keep them in mind for the next few minutes.

Our lessons today have something to say to us about our relationship to these people who live in poverty, whom we may rightly call “God’s poor.”  I say “God’s poor” because our scriptures tell us clearly and often that God has a special concern for them, that God loves them and declares himself to be their Helper and Defender, and that we who wish to be numbered among God’s people should share in God’s concern.  What is important to God must also be important to us.

The first thing we are told is that we are to treat God’s poor with dignity and respect.  The Letter of James could not be clearer: in the Christian assembly “a poor person in dirty clothes” should be treated no differently than “a person with gold rings and in fine clothes” (James 2:1-4).  Each is to be welcomed and embraced.  Showing partiality, James tells us, is a sin (v.9).

We affirm this in our Baptismal Covenant, where we promise “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” and where we pledge ourselves to “strive for justice and peace among all people… [respecting the dignity of every human being” (BCP, 305, italics mine).  To fulfill these promises we have, first of all, to withhold judgment and avoid showing partiality.

Making judgments about other people is something we do naturally and often.  It is so easy, with just one look, to draw any number of conclusions about a person we have just encountered.  We affix a label, and we respond accordingly.  The challenge for us is to resist our tendency to label, to remain open to the one who stands before us, to look for the image of God in them.  Every human being bears this image, without exception.  “The rich and poor have this in common,” Proverbs tells us, “the Lord is maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2).

Apparently even Jesus was subject to this human tendency to make distinctions.  In today’s gospel lesson he meets a woman who is a Gentile, a Syro-Phonecian.  The religious purity code of his day forbade him to interact with such a person, and he initially refuses her request for help.  But her faith stirs and challenges him, perhaps prompting him to recall God’s concern for widows and orphans so frequently expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and he changes his mind and gives her what she asks.

“Seeking and serving Christ in all persons” and “respecting the dignity of every human being” call us to be slow to judge, eager to listen and understand, determined to see others as God sees them, in the beauty of their potential, no matter what their current state.

There’s a lovely story that illustrates for me what this respect looks like.  It’s found in the opening pages of Robert Coles’ biography of Dorothy Day, the Co-Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.  After obtaining Dorothy’s permission to write her story, Coles tells us he traveled to New York City, to the Catholic Worker House on the Lower East Side, to meet the famous Christian activist.  When he entered the house, he noticed Dorothy Day across the room engaged in an animated conversation with an unkempt woman who was clearly drunk.  The conversation was nonsensical, with Dorothy Day calmly asking for further information and the woman reeling off again and again on crazy tangents.  After a time, Dorothy excused herself from the conversation and crossed the room to meet Robert Coles.  She looked at him, smiled, and asked, “Are you waiting to speak with one of us?”

“Are you waiting to speak with one of us?”  Those few words speak volumes about Dorothy Day’s ability to withhold judgment, to exercise patience, and to recognize the dignity of one of God’s poor.

The Jews of Jesus’ day considered themselves “children” and likened others, such as this Syro-Phonecian woman, as “dogs.”  The story challenges us to ask ourselves, “Who are the people we are most likely to overlook or ignore?  Who are the people we tend to prefer?  Who, for us, would be the “children” and who would be the “dogs”?”

Do not make distinctions among those you meet.  Show no partiality.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Treat them as you would like to be treated.  Respect them as you would like them to respect you.

We are being urged by these lessons to recognize the dignity of every human being, and especially those who belong to God’s poor.  But our responsibility does not end there, according to the author of James.  We must also take action to relieve their suffering.  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”  (James 2:15)

We are not only to honor the dignity of God’s poor, we are also to be their advocates in every way, taking bold and appropriate action to relieve their suffering and to improve their circumstances.  “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:16)

Sometimes that will mean speaking up and coming to their defense, when we hear God’s poor being taunted or disparaged.  We have in recent years become more aware of the serious effects of bullying among young people in our society.  The problem seems to be exacerbated by new technologies, which permit bullies to badger and humiliate their victims anonymously through cyber-space.   What should the response of Christians be?  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  But I want to challenge you to go an ‘extra mile.’  The highest rates of suicide among young people in our society are among gay, bisexual and transgendered youth, who are the victims of cruel attacks which often draw little or no notice from those in authority.  Few people would opening support bullying, but it seems that, for some, it is considered acceptable to bully certain types of children and young people.  We will look the other way if this person belongs to a group we do not like or of which we do not approve.  I say that they belong to God’s poor, and that we should take very, very seriously our promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

Desmond Tutu, former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, has said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

We have so far been speaking of our responsibility towards God’s poor, but we should not overlook the benefits of acting generously towards them.  In our Rule of Life, we Brothers recognize that “we continue to be privileged by our education, our access to power, and our material security” (Ch.6) and that “the security we enjoy as a community makes us strangers to the precariousness and destitution that are the lot of the poor” (Ch.7).  “Therefore,” the Rule tells us, “we come to the poor in need of their witness to what it means to be powerless and to put one’s trust entirely in God.” (Ch.7)  We have much to learn from God’s poor, and as much to receive from them as we have to give.  It is nearly always our experience, isn’t it, that when we try to do something for those less fortunate than ourselves we end up receiving far more than we offered.  God knows the blessing that will be ours when we extend our hands to the needy.  They have much to give us in return.

At the beginning of this sermon I asked you if you knew someone who lived below the poverty line, and if you did, if you would hold the image of that person in your mind.  Now listen to the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual leader of India in the 20th century:

“Imagine the poorest person you know,” Gandhi said, “then ask yourself, ‘Will your next action make a difference for her?’”

It’s a worthy question to keep in mind as we consider how we will use our time and resources, how we will order our priorities, and in this election year, how we will cast our votes.  “Will our actions make a difference in the lives of God’s poor?”

This is good news.  The Gospel, no matter how demanding it may seem to us, is always good news.

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16 Comments

  1. Cheryl Barbeau on July 26, 2017 at 18:37

    What do we do with the pain we feel when serving the poor?

  2. Patricia Laurie-Hermes on July 26, 2017 at 17:34

    I absolutely agree that everyone bears the image of God within. The Upanishads, part of the Hindu scriptures, describes this as “the ancient, effulgent being, the indwelling Spirit, subtle, deep-hidden in the lotus of the heart . . . ” (tr. Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester).

    Another thought given by our priest at St. Martin in the Fields, 29 Palms, CA, Rev. Peggy Ventris, is that whenever we point our finger at someone we have three fingers pointing back at ourselves!

    So the message is: don’t point fingers. Don’t label, but try to understand ‘how come that person got that way’?We all have the full complement of bad stuff ( as well as the full compliment of good stuff) inside us. Were it not for God giving us rich and full lives, full of His grace and love and not putting us to the test, what kind of bad things would we do? “But for the grace of God, there go I.”

  3. Richard Dixon on July 26, 2017 at 09:37

    Please don’t condemn me – but I think I would be hard put to look for the image of God in the Isis member who is about to throw a gay man from the fourth floor of a building. is it me?

    • anne on July 26, 2017 at 19:39

      Dear Richard, yes indeed, how hard it would be to look for the image of God in the one who would kill you, or me. What preparation would be needed, to achieve that!
      Though there was a man who did prepare… Christian de Cherge, prior of a monastery in Algeria, who wrote a letter to be read in the event of his death, which came to pass as he foresaw. In his letter he thought of the one who would kill him, and hoped for their meeting beyond death as ‘happy thieves’ in paradise. So it can be done, clearly the fruit of much discipline (and to be honest, could I?)
      There is a powerful film about Christian, his brothers and the Muslim/Algerian community in which they lived.

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  5. MAUREEN DOYLE on August 4, 2016 at 14:53

    Brother David and fellow commentators, you offer wonderful food for thought and action.
    There is so much in here: non-judgments; call to action; respect for all; personal and political reaching out; white and educated privilege.
    As a woman who became disabled and unable to work half way through my life, my disabilities, pain, and living on Social Security put me in a poor class in some ways. However, I am tended by wonderful women who help me greatly.
    One, an orphan who could attend school only sporadically, showers me and helps around my apartment. She has taught herself to read, write, and perform basic match. Her husband left her so he could continue relationships with multiple women, and so she is raising two boys on her own.
    She has helped organize my life and living space. She sings beautifully. She brings joy to the lives of all she meets.
    I help her with forms from everything from renewing her car’s registration and financing to interpreting school reports for her boys. Today she asked if I could be an emergency contact for her little one. I agreed but asked if she wouldn’t want to put someone who owned a car and could drive.
    “I wish I knew you when you were younger and working,” she lamented. Then added, “but then you wouldn’t have so much time to help me, would you?” Sadly, she’s right.
    We worked together to to help her pass her citizenship test and become a citizen. She liked me to quiz her because white people usually rattle her and my asking would help her learn to take a test with a white person.
    She was sworn in as a citizen in late spring. She wanted it badly so, Rhodes, she can vote for the elephant’s nemesis.

    • Rhode on July 26, 2017 at 09:59

      I just read this almost one year later…Maureen, thank you for doing what Christ asks us to do…be the blessing in whatever situation or capacity. Your reply is inspiring as was the message.
      May we who are not physically impaired be unafraid to get close and personal, willing to listen, to really try and understand what is being said and done, to pray, and then help in some way for others to find access to what they need to really live. You prove the verse…’not by might ..nor by power, but by (in) my spirit says the Lord.’ Perhaps a rephrase… not by mice, nor by elephants …but by the willing power of the Holy Spirit to help us move the mountains in our way…says the Lord.

      • Maureen Doyle on July 28, 2017 at 01:08

        Thank you, Rhodes. Enough of us mice may eventually bring down a cruel elephant.
        I often wonder if the current president knew down into his bones and through his soul, just how much he’s loved by God, if he would need to flex muscles to hurt those at his mercy.

  6. Rhode on July 13, 2016 at 06:57

    Right now the elephant is not only on the tail of the mouse he has promised to stomp on it and is gathering his friends all across this nation to do the same. This elephant could be elected President soon. What part of the gospel tells us to build bigger and higher walls, throw out people with children asking to work, refuse entry to those who have absolutely nothing and nowhere to go? To be nuetral is to be the oppressor. To sit around the dinner table and shake our heads about the state of the world is exactly the same as we did when millions were being gassed in WWII and we thought it could not happen. It is happening right now. It always starts when we refuse to help because we feel people need to help themselves. Yes, it will cost us dearly to follow the gospel, or not.

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  8. Ruth West on August 26, 2015 at 13:40

    Thanks for this very significant message. I think of a lady who is definitely below the poverty line.
    She is a bit mentally affected, but has a heart of gold. She writes to me often. I have tried to be of help to her, but I know I could have and can do more. I don’t get out much, but want to become more conscious of the poor around me. As you pointed out, Jesus loves us all. He is no respecter of persons. May God bless you in your ministry to all people.

  9. Frank McNair on August 19, 2015 at 09:51

    I do believe God has a preferential option for the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised.

    Even so, I wonder if a better quote for “Brother, Give us a Word” might be:

    “Will our actions make a difference in the lives of God’s PEOPLE?”

  10. Diane on August 19, 2015 at 09:47

    I’m a cradle Lutheran who became an Episcopalian 10+ years ago but have been attending People’s Church (ELCA) in Bemidji, MN for over 2 years. To answer you’re unasked question, “Yes I know people who are not only below the poverty level but are homeless.” The majority of people gathering on a Sunday for an AGAPE meal at noon and service at 1:00 are very poor. The mission of People’s Church is 100% involved in this ministry. Shelter is provided (24/7) for 6 months of the year to men, women and children so that they will not die on the streets and overnight shelter is provided for the rest of the year. Unlike most homeless shelters, we don’t turn away those who are under the influence of alchohol or drugs as long as they don’t disturb others. Our Pastor keeps track of those who end up in jail, and brings them back to us when they’re released. Each year we loose a few of our people and we mourn their passing. Yet, with the help of many who are sympathetic to this work, we continue – sheltering, feeding, clothing, visiting and welcoming the poorest and neediest. Every Sunday feeds my soul.

    Interested in learning more? Look for our Website and Facebook page.

  11. N on August 19, 2015 at 09:00

    Thank you for this. The quote from Bishop Tutu is wonderful: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

  12. Tudy Hill on August 19, 2015 at 09:00

    I just finished the book, ‘Deep River’, by the Japanese author Endo…this message about God’s poor is exactly what he writes, using hauntingly effective fictional characters. Thank you very much, Brother David, for speaking out. I especially like Dorothy Day’s comment!

  13. Renee on October 21, 2012 at 08:37

    This post touched my soul this morning- Thank you Bro. Voihof.
    I work for a non-profit in NC that educates and provides services for the poor. It is overwhelming at times for I feel I can never do enough to help. However, I can lead by example and encourage others to find the light of Christ within themselves. Then, spread that light by taking action to help those in need and give dignity to the poor in mind, body or soul; we are all precious children of God!

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