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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