It’s Working

Matthew 25:31-35
March 12, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

During the weeks of Lent, I am preaching on the social issues raised in the 25th chapter of Matthew and today I want to address Jesus’ call to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, which for the sake of simplicity, I am going to group together under issues of poverty.  It is no surprise, for example, to discover that Flint, Michigan which has been coping with a polluted water supply is also one of the poorest cities in Michigan.  In 1991, the United Church of Christ did a study comparing the economic levels of US communities to the degree of pollution in those communities’ air, water, and soil, and found that our most polluted neighborhoods are also our poorest.  Industries will often choose impoverished areas as dumping grounds for their waste because those towns are politically and economically powerless.  If a company tried to dump chemical waste in the Hamptons, for example, you can imagine the uproar, so instead, they choose places like Allegany County, or Native American reservations, or Flint, Michigan where political clout is in short supply.  Adequate food supplies and access to clean water, then, are inextricably bound to issues of poverty.

So when Jesus tells us that we as Christians are called to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, he is saying that we should care for those who are poor.

When my son John was about four years old, I began giving him a small allowance and I told him that he could put some of that money in the offering plate at church.  He wanted to know what the church used the money for and I explained that some of the money went to pay staff salaries, including mine, while some went to help poor people.  John looked thoughtful for a moment, and said, “That’s a hard decision.”

“What is a hard decision?” I asked.

He replied, “Whether to give my money to you or to the poor people.”

As a single parent managing day care costs and a new mortgage, I was very much inclined to say to John, “It’s the same thing.”  As I am sure that many of you have experienced during lean years of your life, I faced numerous days when John was little when I looked at my meager bank balance and wondered how I would manage to make it to the end of the month, and yet at the same time, I knew that I couldn’t even joke with my young son about being one of the poor because lean times are not the same as poverty.  John was born in Haiti and as an infant, he had experienced abject poverty and hunger, poverty that he fortunately no longer remembered but that I would not in any way diminish by claiming that I too was one of the poor.  I was wealthy beyond imagination to a family trying to eke out a living in Haiti and even wealthy in comparison to a family on food stamps in Allegany County.  Poverty is not always measured by absolute dollar amounts and arguments about whether a person can really call themselves poor if they have a cell phone or a television miss the point.  Poverty exists anytime a person’s income is unable to provide that person with a reliable and stable source of food, shelter, health services, and the ability to create a sustaining future for themselves and their children in that society.  I might have worried about paying my bills back in those early years of my career but I knew that I would be able to feed my son three meals a day, take care of him when he was sick, and give him what he would need to succeed in his own life as an adult, and so I was not poor.

Those who are not able to do those things — who never know if they will have work from one day to the next, who may have to go to the food pantry to make it through the month, who can’t get to an interview because they can’t afford gas for their car, who drink too much soda because it’s way cheaper than juice, and who end up in the emergency room because they couldn’t afford to go to the doctor — these are people living in poverty.

Moreover, even in our relatively rich nation, there are people who are living in what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty;” those living on less than $1.90 per day.  That’s less than $700 a year.  In 2011, over half a million families in the US were living below the $2 a day mark.  Pockets of extreme poverty persist around our country in cities like Chicago and Cleveland and in the rural southeast — in the Mississippi Delta, and Appalachia — and extreme poverty is an equal opportunity villain, affecting whites and people of color evenly.  How do people in extreme poverty survive on less than $1.90 per day?  Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, authors of “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” traveled around the country, talking with people in extreme poverty, and discovered one very common way people supplement their meager dollars is by selling blood plasma.

“If you are healthy,” Edin said, “you can sell your blood twice a week and average $30 per sale.”  People, they found, will also sell their food stamps in order to get cash to pay their utility bills or to buy school supplies for their children.  In other words, those in extreme poverty often have to choose between hunger and heat; or may literally bleed themselves dry so that their kids have the notebooks they need for school.

Now I could go on and give you lots more statistics about poverty in America and around the globe but piling on more numbers just reinforces the picture that I think you have already gotten which is that there are a lot of poor people in our nation and in the world.  More statistics won’t move you more than you already have been moved by their plight and in fact, I think statistics sometimes do just the opposite:  the size of the numbers sometimes saps us of hope and makes us feel like the problem is too overwhelming.  How could Jesus have expected us to care for the poor when the poor are all around us, and poverty feels so entrenched?

So let me just give you just one more statistic about world poverty.  If you forget all of the rest of the numbers that I have told you today, I want you to remember this one very important fact: when you got up this morning, there were 137,000 fewer people living in extreme poverty than there were yesterday.  That’s right — between yesterday and today, the number of people living in extreme poverty decreased by about 137,000.  The lives of 137,000 people improved just enough that they were able to climb out of extreme poverty.  Not only that but on Saturday, there were about 137,000 fewer people in extreme poverty than there were on Friday, and on Friday, there were about 137,000 fewer people in extreme poverty than there were on Thursday.  According to the World Bank, every day for the past 25 years, the number of people in extreme poverty has been going down by about 137,000 people.  This is even more startling because the global population has been increasing over the past 25 years which means that there are fewer people being born into poverty today than were being born into poverty when your parents were your age.  According to the World Bank, global poverty rates have been cut in half in the past thirty years and are on pace to be cut in half again within the near future.  This is a statistic so startling that our initial inclination is to doubt its truth but the reason it is so important for us to believe this fact is because it is important for us to know that what we are doing is working!  The reason that poverty has decreased around the world is because people in developing countries have more opportunities for jobs, better access to schools and health care and clean water, and the literacy rate around the world has increased.  And in rich countries like ours a stronger safety net is keeping families, and particularly children, out of extreme poverty.  I’m not saying that we don’t have a long way to go and I’m certainly not saying that we can kick back, put our feet up, and rest on our laurels.  What I am saying is that it is important for us to know that we as a people have begun to figure out what really works, what is sustainable, and the kinds of aid that help people in poverty become agents of their own change.  Keeping children healthy, keeping them fed and in school, gives them a chance to improve their lives.  Supporting the work of women in rural communities makes an entire village stronger.  When you give money to Haiti Outreach to dig a well so that people in that village won’t be drinking from the same stream that they are washing in, you can know for a fact that you are making a real difference in the fight against poverty.  The numbers declare it.  When you buy Fair Trade products that support jobs in developing countries, you are making a difference in the fight against poverty.  When you donate money to UNICEF for children’s vaccinations, improving health care, or when you donate a flock of chickens to a family in Bolivia through Heifer Project so that they can sell those eggs and have a sustainable income, you are making a difference in the fight against poverty.  When you fight to preserve and strengthen food stamp programs and Medicaid and job training, you are making a difference in the fight against poverty.  Poverty is complex, and its causes are many, and often what we do feels like trying to empty the ocean with a teacup, but that’s why it is so vital for us to know that all of these things are working.  When we hear Jesus say, “Care for the poor,” and we ask, “But what can we do?” the answer is simple:  keep doing what we have been doing as a church and as individuals, supporting social safety nets and contributing to development programs around the world, because it is working.  It’s lifting 137,000 more people every day out of misery and despair.

And as Christians, we also believe that our compassion for the most vulnerable can bring them a healing that is almost as important as the physical care that we provide: the emotional and spiritual healing that occurs when people discover that they are not alone in their suffering, that someone is paying attention to them and believes that they are worthy of our care.  Every time we reach out to those in poverty without judgment, every time we give without patronizing them from a position of superiority, every time we care for them as equals before God, we lift then not only out of poverty but out of the isolation that poverty causes, restoring them to dignity and grace.

The preacher Tony Campolo was once in Hawaii for a conference, and after a long discussion session, stopped by a diner at 3:00 a.m. to get something to eat.  As he was in there, two women from the red light district came in to eat and with so few people in the diner, Campolo could easily hear the women’s conversation. One of the women said to the other, “Tomorrow is my birthday.”

Her companion jokingly said, “Nobody cares if it’s your birthday.”

She said, “I don’t care. It’s my birthday, and I’m going to celebrate my birthday and I’m going to say happy birthday to myself.”

After they left, Campolo asked the owner of the diner, “Do they come in here all the time?”

The owner said, “Yes, they come in here every single night at about the same time and always order the same thing.”

Campolo said, “Well, it may sound strange but I’m a preacher and I believe the Holy Spirit just spoke to me.  I want to throw a party for that sister who said it was her birthday.”

The owner looked at him and said, “You want to throw a party for a prostitute?”

He said, “I want to throw a party for a prostitute.”

The owner looked skeptical.  “You serve a God who throws a party for a prostitute?”

Campolo said, “Yes.  Listen, I’ll get the cake and I’ll pay for everything. We’re going to throw a party for this sister, because I believe that we should celebrate and alleviate some of the suffering in her life. I don’t know her but we should throw a party.”

Eventually, the owner agreed to help so the owner called her friends and her associates and the other people who usually came to the diner at around that time, and told them they were going to have a surprise party for this woman who worked the street, and at 3:00 am the next day, they were all in the diner hiding in and around behind the counter.  The woman came in and saw streamers and balloons and everyone jumped out of hiding shouting, “Happy Birthday! Surprise!”

The woman was bewildered. They rolled out a huge three tiered cake that said “Happy Birthday” with her name on it and told her to blow out the candles. She blew out the candles, and then started to cry. She wept uncontrollably saying, “No one has ever thrown a party for me. No one has ever told me happy birthday.”

With tears in her eyes, she looked at the owner and Campolo and asked, “Can I take the cake home?” They said yes and that woman hugged the cake and carried it, still in tears, out of the diner.  The people were stunned and didn’t know what to do. Finally, the owner said to Campolo, “Well, preacher. You’ve got us all here together. Maybe we could pray or something.”

Reverend Campolo agreed and they formed a circle, and he suggested that they do a round-robin prayer where each person would say what they are thankful for.  There they were in a circle holding hands: some prostitutes, some drug dealers, some drug addicts, the kinds of people you’d find on a street at 3 am, along with a preacher and the owner of a diner owner.  As they went around the circle, Campolo said, someone prayed, “I’m thankful for a God who throws parties for prostitutes.”  (from  Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair by Otis Moss III) 

Jesus said, “When you feed the hungry and give water to those who thirst — as you do it to the least of these — so too you are doing it for me.”  As Christians, we are called to help relieve the suffering of those who hunger and thirst because we are called to see Christ present in their suffering, not to stand apart from them or above them, but with them, knowing that they are no less worthy of God’s grace than we are.  We serve a God who throws parties for prostitutes, who digs wells in Haitian villages, who distributes chickens to Bolivians, who distributes vaccines to children in India, who works to give families in Appalachia the same opportunities as families in the Hamptons, and who rejoices when we Christ’s people do the same.

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Data for this sermon came primarily from World Bank sites.  For their overview, see http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview