As much as I sometimes wish to offer easy-going, non-controversial sermons, the beauty of the scriptures and the immediacy of our social struggles collide demanding the full attention of our souls and our minds, and it is hard to provide respite and peace in the words I feel I need to give you.
The reading from the Book of Proverbs lays bare the demand for social justice in the ancient justice system which thousands of years ago reflected a bias for the rich. “Do not rob the poor because they are poor or crush the afflicted at the gate.” In biblical Israel, gates weren't just doorways into and out of a city. These entry ways were where prophets cried out and kings judged, and people met. People coming and going from a city could be witnesses to a verbal contract or the judgement of an accused criminal. If someone was mis-judged, there were witnesses to support the accused, or if someone was sentenced to die, the crowd could take part in the execution. Jerusalem had eight gates. The Eastern Gate was known as the Golden Gate or the Gate of Mercy. It is believed Jesus entered Jerusalem through the Eastern Gate on Palm Sunday. Judges would sit at their assigned gate where the community and travelers would gather to seek justice and to see justice carried out.
The Book of Proverbs, a collection of wisdom writings, became the bedrock of the social justice for prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and these were the writings that inspired Blessed Elizabeth, Blessed Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus, James the Apostle, Frederick Douglas and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The foundation of these teachings is understanding “God loves the poor”. Our lecturer at Codrington College would say, “God has a penchant for the poor.” Now, it is very important not to view poverty as a temporary state of being or just being an underdog. The film industry has created a genre where we, the audience, gravitate to the “Joe” that is suffering through some hard times, and then fights his way to success. In the real world the poor rarely win. One of my favorite calypsos laments is, “poverty is hell”.
We mustn’t romanticize poverty. There is little to glorify when mothers come to our church desperately looking for school supplies and asking for food when their Food Stamps have been stretched to the limited, or when mothers and fathers come to learn English or earn a GED because they can’t find decent jobs without skills or credentials. These parents want to break out of the cycle of poverty for their children’s sake and in the Gospel of Mark, we meet such a woman; a woman who would do anything to ensure her child survives and escapes from the life the rich have designated them to live. This woman offers all of herself, to Jesus.
The poor are not only bereft of money and things; they, this woman, also lack self-worth, hope and the will and the tools to change their circumstance. The #MeToo movement has given women the voice and courage to admit to what they suffered to take care of their families and themselves. Jesus sets an example where, as a man with powers, he encounters a desperate woman and responds with the gifts of faith and the truest love.
For too long Christianity has turned its back on a portion of us for whom Jesus was sent to save. Our churches glorify in handouts but look askance at the poor on Sundays. Jesus’ life was an ongoing dedication to help the poor and the persecuted. Often when Christians gather for Good Friday observations, we fail to fully appreciate Jesus was tortured and killed to make a bold statement about his penchant for the poor, and this lack of understanding His sacrifice signals to the poor, “see what you get for thinking you can break out of your assigned place.” These Good Friday celebrations continue to be observances for the rich and powerful to continue to remind the poor of their space even in today’s society. It is so sad when the church relegates Good Friday, Easter or Christmas to shallow holidays and not spend this time to develop a deeper understanding of the world’s hatred of the poor and powerless and of God’s love for those who continue to need our open hands and our open hearts all year round.
Within our communities we struggle when we see drug dealers using illicit means to break the cycle of their poverty, if only for a brief period, while Wall Street gains, received from slave plantations, are passed on to generations. Black men go to prison and Wall Street traders go to penthouses. The Gospel story depicts the woman struggling at the feet of Jesus until He bends down, picks her up and says, “Its ok.” There is not one story where Jesus gives a poor man or woman money or throws coins into the cup of a blind, sick child. It is through His sacrifices He lifts up the poor, gives them hope and makes them feel their full worth. He lets them know God loves them. He does this by entering their brokenness to heal and restore.
The primary goal of the church is to follow the path of Jesus Christ, not how the church has collaborated in oppressing the poor in the past, but now in the name of Jesus, hold out our hand and ask the poor for forgiveness. While the accomplishment of this goal remains elusive, it remains God’s challenge to us today. Can St. Elizabeth’s reach out to lift the poor and dispirited in our community? Can the Episcopal church turn around and like Jesus say, “Let’s make it right. It will be ok.” Until Christianity within our churches assumes this posture, then we must go back to the proverbial gate and plead for God’s mercy.
My friends in Christ, the foundation of Christianity is God’s love for the poor and lifting up the downtrodden. The world likes to blur lines to further its agenda of “The rich get richer.” Jesus ignored the blurry traditional thinking moved into clarity and by the time he was challenged, he could lay claim to His higher calling. The history of humanity is written by those who struggled through those blurred lines to get to the shore of clarity and declared, “I have seen God in all His glory and He is the embodiment of love declaring no matter who you are, I love you.