This sermon was given on June 29th, 2014 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem, Oregon. Colleen’s visit to the church was a part of a longer tour that her and her family went on in the summer of 2014. You can read more about that tour here.
Matthew 10:40-42 – Jesus said,
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Thank you for welcoming me to join you in worship this morning. I attended seminary with Rev. Fayette and know that she is a remarkable and gifted priest. I’m excited to be able to witness her in action again. I grew up in Marietta, Georgia and was formed at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church. My mother was raised Episcopal and my father grew up Pentecostal, so they met in the middle and raised me Methodist. My husband always adds that since I’m Methodist and he’s Catholic our children ought to be Episcopal.
An important part of that formation at Wesley Chapel was our mission work. Our youth group would serve in soup kitchens in Atlanta, sort donated school supplies in the suburbs, and travel on mission trips to rural areas in North Georgia and Tennessee. I am here today because I learned two things from this work. First, that poverty is pervasive, crossing racial and ethnic lines, geographies, family types, and political parties. I also learned that poverty is not what God desires for us. God finds poverty unacceptable and calls us to wipe this scourge from the Earth.
Determined to make a difference, after college I worked for a non-profit providing affordable housing and support services to those in or near homelessness. My job was to organize the tenants to fight for more affordable housing, better access to livable jobs, and fairer treatment from neighbors and police. But it seemed that no matter how hard we worked, conditions continued to worsen. When we would open doors to take housing applications, hundreds of families would line up around the building and down the block hoping to get one of the few new vacancies. My husband John, who worked for the same organization, and I found ourselves in a crisis of faith, struggling to reconcile what we thought was necessary and what we were finding possible. So together we brought our questions to Union Theological Seminary.
What does it mean to really end poverty, rather than merely patching up pieces of it? What is the role of religious leaders and people of conscience in this work? What does it mean for the poor themselves to lead the way in building a social movement to transform society? It turned out there were others there asking the same questions. Just a few months before we arrived, a group of students and community leaders had formed the Poverty Initiative, seeing from decades of experience organizing among the poor that a social movement to end poverty necessitated finding these answers.
Reading today’s passage from Matthew 10 reminded me of one particular day, one moment really, that shifted my life’s course. I was about sixteen and with my church youth group on one of the mission trips to Rabun County, rural North Georgia. We’d mow lawns for people who couldn’t get around like they used to, repair porch steps, underpin trailers to keep the critters out, tar roofs and build wheel chair ramps. We’d attempt to do whatever people couldn’t afford to have done properly. We’d start out from camp with our set of directions that often included instructions like, “when the paved road turns to dirt go two more miles and turn left at the well” or “when you pass the house with the blue barn—you’ll know it when you see it—turn right and head up the mountain.” These families lived in trailers and small old houses tucked into the Appalachians—all over the region—and they were all struggling to survive. Each day we’d go to a new assignment, down different roads, past more and more families living—trying to live—all far from our nation’s sight and consciousness.
While clearing a patch of briars with a shuttle blade on one of those days, a nest of yellow jackets convinced me to take a break. That’s when I met Sarah. She was about five, the age of my son now, and lived there with her parents and grandfather. We walked around and talked for a little while, checked out the hog, and then she asked me, “wanna play princess?” I agreed and she led me inside her house to her ‘space.’ It wasn’t a room, just a mattress in the corner of the kitchen where I imagine a kitchen table used to be. And when I say mattress, I really mean just a mattress. There was no box-spring or frame. Just a mattress, blanket and pillow on the floor next to the stove. She hopped into the room past the kitchen and came back in lugging an old box fan which she plugged in and perched facing the mattress. Sarah told me to sit on the edge of the mattress, and I obliged. She turned the fan on and adjusted it so it was blowing air right at me, she sat down next to me, and she scratched my back. “This is what momma does,” she said, “this is how we play princess.” Her mother didn’t have much to offer her by way of material things, but she took time and she took care to show Sarah she was worthy and loved. I never met Sarah’s mother, who was at work that day. But I will never forget her.
I remember that day for lots of reasons. I often think of Sarah when I hear statistics about the pervasiveness of poverty in the US. I think of Sarah when there is silence about poverty in the United States. I think about Sarah and her mother playing princess whenever I hear the assumption that poor people are bad parents. I remember Sarah and the way she carefully adjusted that fan to face me when I’m trying to understand God’s grace. Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
We often receive more than we give when we engage in missional work. But was that day with Sarah, my work on the mission trip, really about my eternal reward? This has been a struggle throughout the history of the church, with almsgiving to the poor being a spiritual benefit to the rich. The poor became the salvation of the rich through the profit making on poverty wages in fields and factories, and this relationship was made holy by giving poverty a spiritual currency in the pews and pulpits, with almsgiving to the poor being a spiritual benefit to the rich. Today we talk about service and mission in the same way.
But when this is the purpose of the relationship I think we miss the point of the Gospel. We could read Matthew this way, and many do. If I serve, the rewards of heaven will be mine. But the gospel calls us not just to service but to relationships. When we come together in service of one another we have the opportunity to break down divisions between ourselves. That is the call of Christ to love one another, yes as an ideal, yes with those most like ourselves, but also in the midst of life where it is not easy or what we expect or with whom we expect.
Of course it is possible to get to know those we are serving and walk away with our suspicions and stereotypes confirmed. That day when I came away forever changed by Sarah and her mother, on the ride back to camp one of the youth ministers told us what he took away from the time with that family. He saw the grandfather wait on the porch for the mail to come and eagerly jump in his truck when a check from the government arrived as expected. There was a condescension in his voice. And that I remember as clearly as I remember Sarah. Looking back now I wonder how he was so certain that that was what arrived in the mail. And if it was, wasn’t it likely social security? And whatever it was, they needed it. They were clearly working hard and it still wasn’t enough.
It isn’t enough then to just come in contact with people who we think are different from us. Sometimes we are transformed and sometimes we see only what we already know. The difference is whether we are seeking community, what we have in common, and shared responsibility for each other, or whether we seek to feel good about serving someone who is out there, other than me, whose life and destiny is not tied up with my own.
These days we hear so many stories where hard work and perseverance leads to great success, but also where hard work and perseverance is rewarded with heartbreak and insecurity. Our children and grandchildren can no longer assume that they will live better than their parents. My generation finds itself back at our parents’ houses too often. My friends and family members end up taking jobs for which they are overqualified. Even for those who are not poor, economic security cannot be taken for granted. And so perhaps it’s not surprising that two surveys were recently released, one by Pew and one by Wall St. Journal/NBC showing that while twenty years ago most people, including the youth pastor, believed that poverty was primarily due to a lack of effort on the part of the poor, now half of us believe that poverty is due to factors beyond individual initiative.
In 2012 the official poverty rate was 15 percent, but an additional 33 percent of the US population lives below twice the poverty line, one lost job or health crisis away from poverty. Taken together this means that half of us are poor or low-income. Yet this is not how we talk about “the poor”. The call of Christ here is not to serve someone different from us, but to build community through service to one another, with our futures tied up together.
In the two decades since I met Sarah I have spent time learning about the many fronts of poverty across the United States and world, including learning about the leadership and genius among the poor. Those who like Sarah’s mother make ways out of no way. Those like the farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida who organized against slavery rings and won a penny more a pound by analyzing the supply chains to find decision makers and by revolutionizing the use of the internet in community organizing. Those like the high school students of the Philadelphia Student Union who have claimed their right to a future, using analysis and study to envision the education they need and organizing to achieve it for all of Philadelphia and beyond.
These are some of the many groups who have heard the call to take a leading role in building a movement to end poverty. We are told in so many ways that the poor are pitiful or criminal, yet hidden from view are the ways in which they find decency in indecent conditions and seek justice in hardship.
I have learned not that I am more blessed by my service, but that we have so much in common. We are blessed by the discovery of that commonality. God desires for us to be together as God’s children, not as those who serve and those who are served, but as those who thrive together. This foundational Christian principal is one that we know and don’t know at the same time. We agree with it, but we don’t organize our lives around it. In Matthew 10 we are called with the disciples to organize our lives around it. Christ sends the disciples out to take part in the good news to the poor, to heal the sick and give water to the least of these. This is the call to us as well, to build the community of God through service to each other, not as others apart from our own destinies, but as sharing a future together.