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A Tale of Two Poverties

Written by Bruce Van Voorhis
January 10, 2014

Epistle:                                    1 Corinthians 3:1–11, 16–17

Gospel:                                    Matthew 26:6–13

Spirit of love and compassion, Spirit of justice and peace, may the meditations of my heart, of my mind and of my spirit be acceptable and pleasing to you, and may they be a faithful witness to the wisdom you have gifted to us. In your Son’s name, we pray. Amen.

Like the 19th century novel by Charles Dickens—A Tale of Two Cities—that inspired today’s sermon title—“A Tale of Two Poverties”—my message this morning is also about the poor. While Dickens was depicting the destitute in Paris and London around the time of the French Revolution in 1789, today’s sermon will be closer to home in both time and space.

As well as this work by Dickens, another inspiration for today’s topic is found in our Gospel reading this morning, specifically verse 11 of Matt. 26 and the phrase “for you always have the poor with you.” As we know from reading the whole passage, Jesus utters these words to rebuke his disciples for their criticism of the woman for pouring expensive ointment on Jesus’ head as a way of expressing her respect and admiration for him.

I have always had problems, however, with this passage, or at least this phrase, because it seems like Jesus is condemning some people to a life of poverty and that, no matter how hard one tries, there will always be poor people. The reality, of course, is that from Biblical times to 18th century France and England in Dickens’s novel to our own era there have undeniably always been the poor among us. But does it have to be so, and is it the will of God?

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that my trouble with this passage is not the phrase itself, but rather, it is the way this phrase has been used periodically over the years to justify poverty, for I have read from time to time this phrase used by some Christians to pacify the poor by telling them not to worry about their impoverished lives in this world as they will experience joy in the next world when they die. I have no doubt that the poor will, indeed, enjoy the love of God and the pure joy of heaven, but my difficulty with the use of this phrase by some Christians is that it is used at times to keep the poor silent, to curtail any attempt by the poor and others who seek to at least minimize poverty from taking any action to bring about social change. It is used, in effect, to justify poverty, to make poverty appear to be a normal part of life as if it is a natural phenomenon instead of a man-made social construction.

I cannot believe, however, that this is the intent of Jesus based on his ministry for the poor and oppressed, and it is not the overall message that one takes away after reflecting on the teachings of the Bible. Rather, the words of the Bible are filled with the love of God for all people, announcing that everyone is equal, that every person is a child of God. Thus, God would never intend for people to suffer from the economic violence of poverty that strips them every day of their human dignity and negates their identity as a child of God. Naturally, when one reads the whole passage, it is clear that Jesus is not condoning poverty.

As you know, our sermon topic today is about two forms of poverty. We have already discussed the first form—material or physical poverty—that in 2008 afflicted nearly 1.4 billion people, or about 24 percent of the world’s population, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), based on an income of less than $1.25 per day.

What about, however, the second form of poverty?

In keeping with our previous discussion of material or physical poverty, let us continue to focus on the phrase “for you always have the poor with you” in Matt. 26:11. Let us change though the reference of the word poverty from one’s economic and social well-being to one’s spiritual well-being. In doing so, I can accept, and I hope you can too, that, indeed, we will always have the poor with us in the spiritual sense, for it is not easy to become spiritually rich. It takes a great deal of time, energy and effort that most of us are not willing to exert.

We only need to scrutinize our present world to assess our spiritual health today, for I believe that the state of our world is a reflection of the state of our collective spiritual health as well.

Returning to our earlier conversation about material poverty, not only is approximately one-quarter of the world’s population classified as economically and socially poor, but there is an ever widening chasm between the rich and the poor. A report released in May this year by Oxfam notes that the rich have hidden at least $18.5 trillion in tax havens around the world, resulting in the loss of more than $156 billion in tax revenue for governments worldwide. Oxfam adds that this sum in lost tax revenue—$156 billion—is twice the amount required for every person in the world to live above the extreme poverty threshold of $1.25 per day. Is this a reflection of a spiritually healthy world?

Moreover, in other economic news in May about income disparity, it was reported that the average pay of CEOs in America last year was $9.7 million. This figure, I repeat, is their average salary—a sum that is 350 times more than the pay of the average U.S. worker in 2012.

At the global level, we can perhaps better understand and comprehend these abstract statistics, how they were achieved and what they reflect regarding our scrutiny of our spiritual health by recalling the tragic incident of the garment factory workers in Bangladesh. You will remember that in April the nine-story Rana Plaza near the capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. It was a news story that did not need to happen. The day prior to the structure’s collapse cracks had been discovered in the building, but the building owner and the owners of the garment factories in the building were indifferent to the safety of the structure, and the workers were told the next morning to go to work and produce garments for some of the world’s leading Western clothing retailers. Moreover, this fatal episode had been preceded by a factory fire near Dhaka in November last year that took the lives of at least 112 employees. Locked exits and the decision of factory managers that workers should continue working when the fire alarm went off contributed to this tragedy. Most of the victims in both deadly incidents were women workers from the rural areas of the country who had migrated to the capital to make a better life for themselves and their families. They were members of the working poor in a country where the minimum wage is about $37 per month and their labor generates $20 billion per year for the garment industry in Bangladesh.

While structural defects and inadequate escape routes are some of the discernible causes of these calamities, I believe a major invisible contributing factor to these needless deaths is greed. The owners and managers of these factories worship the god of money rather than respect the value of life. Money, revenue, profits were more important to them than the workers who generated the wealth for them and their companies.

Sadly, these misplaced priorities are not confined to these two events. Land-grabbing, or forced evictions, in the name of development rob typically poor families of their land, homes and livelihood in many parts of Asia, such as Cambodia where it is a perpetual problem. Those who acquire the land reap sizeable wealth while those who lose their land must find the means to dig themselves out from ever deeper levels of poverty. Meanwhile, activists in the Philippines, including members of the clergy and church workers, have been the victims of thousands of extrajudicial killings and hundreds of disappearances in the past nine years because they have challenged those who wield political and economic power in the country. For questioning the policies and actions of the elite, they have lost their lives.

I could go on and on about the spiritual poverty of our world—the gang rape of a university student on a bus in New Delhi in December, violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka in the past year, the shooting of students and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, and the brutal killing of a British soldier, not on a battlefield, but on the streets of a London suburb in May.

All of these incidents are different and take place in different parts of the world, although I have used mainly examples from Asia where I serve. However, what unites them, I believe, is that the underlying cause of these issues is money as the motivating factor in life and violence as a means to decide conflicts. In short, they reflect our collective spiritual poverty. Our relationship with God has been ruptured; our egos have gone wild; life is no longer precious; people are no longer children of God.

How and where then do we change and transform our societies, our world?

For me, the answer begins with the face reflected in the mirror every morning—with me—and with those to whom I relate—today with you.

How though do we begin?

We can take inspiration and direction from a portion of our epistle reading today in 1 Cor. 3:6–9:

“I planted, Apol’los watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the person who plants nor the person who waters is anything but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters are equal, and each shall receive their wages according to their labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

From this passage, we see that we each have a role to play, a role that may be different from the person next to us based on our talents and skills, but there is a part for you and for me in God’s plan to construct a different world than the present one. As the scripture notes, we are all “God’s fellow workers.” What unites us in this endeavor is God.

To better prepare ourselves as “God’s fellow workers,” we may turn to the practice of meditation—a part of the mystic tradition of our Christian faith that has largely been forgotten for several hundred years. The last verses of our epistle lesson this morning—verses 16 and 17 of chapter 3 of 1 Corinthians—remind us that the Holy Spirit is present within each of us: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? . . . God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” God invites us to come home to the Divine in us, and meditation is merely a means of listening to the Divine Spirit that yearns to be our companion in life. We simply need to remove the obstruction that is our ego that blocks our path to God in us.

By now, you may be wondering how to meditate? Can I meditate? Will God listen to me, which should be rephrased differently: Will I listen to God?

As for meditating, it is as simple as breathing; for whether you follow the Christian practice of someone like the Benedictine monk John Main or the Zen Buddhist tradition of a teacher such as Thich Nhat Hanh, you can meditate. Meditation only requires a quiet place, the awareness of your breath by focusing on a word or phrase and your commitment and time.

When we meditate, we are giving ourselves wholly to the Holy Spirit, to God within us. In the silence, we are giving God an opportunity to speak to us. We are listening. We are allowing God to guide us. We are surrendering ourselves to God. In these  moments, we become more joined to God as “God’s fellow worker.”

Through this process, we begin to erode the spiritual poverty within us. Our relationship with God and with each other begins to become transformed. By connecting our being closer with the source of love and life, by encountering the divine within us, our own sense of love is heightened; our reverence for life is deepened.

By addressing the spiritual poverty that we each bear, we are better equipped to attend to the material poverty and violence in our world. By transforming ourselves, we have taken the first step toward transforming our societies. It is a challenge that God gives to each of us as Christians.

As we meditate, let us breathe in the love and compassion, the justice and peace, the wisdom and grace, of the Holy Spirit. May we hold it and let it fill our souls, fill our being. When we exhale, let us breathe out the love and compassion, justice and peace, wisdom and grace, of the Holy Spirit through our words and deeds in the world to make the Reign of God a reality in our world today. The physical poverty of our world is not inevitable, and it is not God’s will that it be so.  We are “God’s fellow worker” in making this social change a reality today. Amen.

Bruce Van Voorhis, a member of Wellshire Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colorado, serves the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong. He coordinates the interfaith programs.

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