Bringing Matthew 25 into Focus, Part 3

Bringing Matthew 25 into Focus, Part Three: Eradicate Systemic Poverty
Deuteronomy 15:4-5, Matthew 26:10-12, Luke 4:18-19

I received feedback on my last two sermons that some people may have heard what I said as pointing fingers and calling some of you racist. My intent was not to call you racist, but to talk about the systemic racism that exists in our government, social and even church systems and to help us all reflect on how we might unconsciously or inadvertently be part of the problem. Too often we don't acknowledge or pay much attention to all of this because most of us are not directly affected. My purpose is to share what the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to be and do, and to lift up the resources offered by the denomination in order to challenge us to think more deeply about the issues raised in Matthew 25.
Today, I’ll be talking about Eradicating Systemic Poverty. I’m not going to ask you to increase your giving or try to make you feel guilty for having more than other people get by on. I hope you’ll hear what I’m actually trying to say, not what might make you uncomfortable. Much of this information comes directly from the PC(USA) website.
In the Presbyterian Church USA’s vision of being a Matthew 25 church — being actively involved in the world around us — one of the key themes is eradicating systemic poverty. As we seek to end poverty and instead build community well-being, we incorporate these concerns in all areas of our common church life. The Presbyterian Hunger Program offers resources to engage in issues related to poverty and community well-being through worship, education, partner relationships, avenues for action and sharing resources. Each of these areas is one for practice — knowing we’ll never get it exactly right, but we keep trying. Each of these is deeply spiritual — as we navigate worship, learning, relationships, action and sharing resources. The PC(USA) suggests five spiritual practices to end poverty, the five puzzle pieces on the sermon title slide. Worship, Learn, Share, Act, and Relate.
#1 Worship
In our worship, prayers and faith life, we incorporate confessional, biblical, theological and church-related understandings of poverty. Some suggestions are:
Begin to reach out, listen, build relationships and open conversations with other congregations and community partners to explore some possible shared worship times together around eradicating poverty and building communities of well-being.
Find and use worship resources, including sample prayers, the 10 Commandments of Food, and a bulletin insert created to celebrate the Food Week of Action each October.
#2 Learn
In our Christian education and personal learning, we seek to understand the intersectional, systemic and root causes of poverty. Possible steps:
Invite local partner organizations to speak to the congregation about the root causes of poverty that they seek to address.
Study the story of Joseph and learn about some modern-day solutions to hunger by  downloading the Presbyterian Hunger Program Bible Study.
Watch videos about the work of our grant partners around the world and hunger-related issues. Many other resources are available through PC(USA).
Read books about poverty and hunger. I’ll be talking about the book Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor by Dr. Rev. Liz Theoharis, a Presbyterian minister, after I finish talking about the five pieces.
#3 Share
Recognizing that all gifts come from God and are to be shared, we share financial, building, time and other resources to create fair access and to right historical wrongs. We might:
Plan and then host congregational asset-mapping to know what assets we have to share in the community. Volunteer in the community to address community needs, such as hunger, education, access to transportation, tutoring, and offer space in the church for community organizations.
Presbyterian Hunger Program partners PRODEK and RELUFA are two organizations that fight hunger and poverty by mobilizing resources within communities to meet income generation and food and nutrition needs.
#4 Act
We prioritize listening to, and responding alongside, communities as they identify needs, organize for solutions and engage in advocacy for change. Some possibilities are:
Identify trusted, community-based, anti-poverty local organizations and leaders to join their campaigns and follow their lead on calls to actions and community meetings — not just politicians, but school social workers, health-care providers, community organizers, pastors in different denominations and various sectors of the community. Advocate for legislation that helps to end poverty locally, in Colorado, nationally or internationally.
Here are some statistics about poverty here in Colorado. Almost ten percent of Coloradans live in poverty, and almost 10,000 people are homeless. When adjusted for inflation, the 2023 minimum wage in the U.S. is around 40% lower than the minimum wage was in 1970. The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, while the state minimum wage is $13.65/hour. That’s better than some other states, but still means that families with children can end up struggling. We can be proud of our support of Community Ministries, which helps low-income families stay fed and clothed.
Part of our call as Christians is to organize and to advocate for the changes we believe are needed in the world. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar but restructuring the system that produces beggars.”
#5 Relate
We engage in genuine, humble, mutual and equi­table relationships across divisions, social status and groups as Jesus modeled.
Study and then practice models of community organizing and/or asset-based community development. For example, for more than 20 years, the Joining Hands initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program has challenged global systems that generate hunger, poverty and injustice with the understanding that our own liberation is intrinsically tied to the liberation of our siblings around the world. It is with this understanding that we continue to deepen our relationships and solidarity with peoples in front line communities who have had their environment and health polluted, and been forcibly displaced from their lands and fallen into deeper poverty.


Now let’s look at Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis’ book, Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She says that Jesus’ most often quoted words relating to poverty are in Matt. 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you,” which is taken out of context and used as an excuse to ignore and perpetuate the problems of poverty.
When Jesus said this, he was in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper with his disciples. Interestingly, Bethany means “House of the Poor.” Jesus was violating Jewish law by visiting a leper, and would have been labeled as unclean himself as a result, but He didn’t care. An unnamed woman came in and anointed Jesus’ feet with nard worth a whole year’s wages. The disciples got upset, saying that the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus told them to leave her alone. “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.” Not only did she anoint him for burial, but anointing has a double meaning, burial and kingship. The Greek word for “anointed one” is “Christ.” So she anointed him the Christ. The disciples didn’t get that Jesus is priceless and how soon they would lose him.
The author suggests that Jesus may have been saying something different about the poor here, not that poverty is inevitable, but suffering and being poor in spirit is.
Our third scripture lesson this morning from Luke 4 is what Jesus said when he began his ministry about being anointed to bring good news to the poor. Jesus would have been familiar with Deuteronomy 15 as well, which states that “there will be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.”
In other words, if you are diligently seeking God’s will and following God’s commands to forgive debts, release slaves, and lend money even when you know you won’t be paid back, there will be no needy among you. Jesus reminds us that God hates poverty and wants us to end it by forgiving debts, outlawing slavery, and restructuring society to provide for the needs of the poor. We can only follow these commands personally and as a group if we all trust God to provide for our needs.
One of my heroes is Helen Keller, who lost her sight and hearing at 19 months old, but overcame that to be the first deaf/blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, wrote 14 books plus essays and toured the country giving speeches and advocating for the disabled. I love this optimistic quote from her:
“I am one, but still I am one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;
And just because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
         I believe that eradicating poverty is possible with God’s help, our faith, and cooperation among people, but it will still be very difficult because of those who don’t believe in or trust God. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying. It means we should do what we feel God leading us to do, one day at a time, one step at a time, doing our part to follow in the steps of Jesus. With God, all things are possible.

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