When You Are Poor

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 13, 2022

Luke 6:17-26

There’s an old saying and maybe we’ve said ourselves at one time – “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” I’ve always wondered about that. There have been times in my life when I was broke, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been poor. Being broke is different from living in poverty.

At those various times when I was broke, it was with the realization that I had resources to call upon if need be. Being broke was like a by-product of the life I chose to live.

This section of Luke’s portrait of Jesus compares to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s story. Only in Matthew Jesus is talking about the spirit of the things, whereas Luke is talking about the fact of things. It’s attitude on the one hand and reality on the other.

It seems that Jesus is talking here about financial poverty. Luke is the gospel of the underdog. He writes a story of good news to the actual poor and oppressed. For Luke, Jesus was a champion for basic human dignity. He seems to be saying, “to you who are poor belongs what God has to give. What God intends for humankind, is yours.”

Yet, anyone who is poor, who hears this might be tempted to say, “Thank you just the same, Jesus, but I’d rather not be poor.” It’s the same with other two blessings in this text. “I’d rather not be hungry, and I’d rather not have so much cause to weep.”

Poverty is a delicate subject in our society. There are many myths connected to poverty. One popular myth about poverty is that people who are poor in this country, are rich by comparison to the standards of poverty in the rest of the world. We have so many programs and benefits for the poor that they live like royalty compared to the truly poor of the world.

Maybe so, but when you are poor, you are poor. Poverty places people on the margins of their society; it places limits on their lives. Wealth provides the assumption of a certain level participation in society that is not available to people who live in poverty. We take for granted certain rights and privileges. But it’s not that way for all people.

Another myth is that in this country, anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and succeed. If you’re poor, it’s your own doing, or lack thereof. Therefore, you deserve to be poor. The reality is that there are people who just don’t have the required personal resources, the so-called bootstraps, with which to pull themselves up.

As a church minister, I’ve met people who are so at the end of their rope that they call upon the church for financial help. I remember one woman, Mrs. Washington. She lived in a welfare housing project on Lowry Avenue in Minneapolis. One day she called the church and asked if there was any way that we could help her out with some groceries. I don’t know why she called Peace Presbyterian Church of all places. One wonders if people just call churches at random until they find someone who is willing to help them.

In the grand scheme of things, a few groceries don’t add up to much. She had no means of transportation and asked if there was any way the groceries could be delivered. She didn’t live in what I would call a “safe” neighborhood. I was new in town at the time and didn’t know my way around much. So, I asked a church member to go with me. We delivered the food to her two-room apartment on the ninth floor of the building. She was grateful and thanked us profusely.

Over the years I learned more about Mrs. Washington. She was genuinely poor. She called back many times. She was maybe in her early seventies. She lived alone in her little apartment. She had children who caused her no end of grief. A son and daughter with drug problems that got them into frequent trouble with the law. She had grandchildren who live in poverty. Mrs. Washington was like any grandmother who wants a good life for her grandchildren. They didn’t have much, or much of a chance it seemed. One year at Christmas she asked if we could get some toys for them. We bought some toys and one of our deacons and her two children and I delivered them to Mrs. Washington. She was of course, grateful.

Mrs. Washington had health issue. Asthma, diabetes and congestive heart failure. Her oxygen tank was always close at hand. Sometimes all she wanted  was a little help with a utility bill. One time she needed some plastic pillowcase covers because of her allergies.

Whenever she called, she always opened the conversation with an apology. “I’m sorry for bothering you, pastor, but please just let me talk to you.” And then she would tell me her story. The story was always different, but always the same. Different circumstances, same need. The question was always asked, “can you help me out, just this one last time?” The promise is always made, “I promise I won’t bother you no more.” The time-line was always given, “until Christmas,” or “next year,” or “never again.”

I learned to respond to the promises with, “well, don’t worry about that.” Over the years I tried to do what I could. Usually in fairly paltry amounts, when compared to the need. Forty dollars to the housing authority to stave off eviction. Twenty dollars to the Minnegasco as a good faith gesture. Twenty dollars to the phone company to keep the line open.

I used to ration out my discretionary fund, so everyone who asked could get at least a little help. Someone in church told me not to be stingy with it.  So I wasn’t. In fact, I gave it all away. Some people got more, some got less. Mrs. Washington got some here and there.

Forty dollars went to buy diapers and formula for a woman with five kids, all under the age of eleven.

Fifty dollars went to a guy who worked as church custodian. He was moving tables and one of them fell on his ankle and broke it. Since he couldn’t do the work, they fired him. He was making $24,000 a year at that job. Workers compensation was paying him about a third of his salary and he was a few days from being on the street. His wife couldn’t work because she had a bad heart.

When they came to Peace Church to see if they could get any help, I was out to lunch. So, they waited about a half-hour until I got back. One thing about poor people is, they are used to waiting. If they need medical attention, they sit around the waiting rooms of places like HCMC. Sometimes they sit for hours. It doesn’t matter what kind of pain they’re in; they wait. They wait because they have no other choice. When you are poor, you have fewer choices than when you are not poor.

This couple had an inch-thick stack of medical bills, status reports, and the letter of dismissal from the church. They wanted me to read it so that I wouldn’t think they were trying to con me. One thing they said when I got back from lunch was, “Maybe you don’t remember us, but . . . “ Of course, I remembered them. I had helped them out from time to time, the last time was over a year ago.

But when you’re poor, you get used to fading into the scenery; to being ignored, told to come back some other time. When you go into a department store, no one says, “May I help you?” They watch you to make sure you don’t steal something. You assume that the impression you make on people will soon be forgotten, maybe because people treat you like they would just as soon forget you. They told their story and I gave them the last $50 from the discretionary fund. I also gave them the phone number of a free legal service. They were reluctant to pursue that route, because, “we don’t want to sue the church.”

It has been said that too many poor people have a sense of entitlement; that they believe they somehow have a right to feed at the public trough. More often than not, poverty has a tendency to strip you of the idea that you have any rights. If there is any sense of entitlement, it’s that you become so used to taking what you get, that you come to believe that you deserve you what you get, that what you get is your lot in life, even if it’s bad things.

Jesus said, “. . . .he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In saying, “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he is announcing, “Your circumstances of poverty, captivity and oppression are not what God intends.” He is saying that God hears the cries of the poor, that God weeps for their suffering, that God wants to do something about it. Not only that God wants to do something, but that God will.

He went on to say, “Beware the wealth that grows from self-interest and leads to self-satisfaction. Beware the smug fullness. Beware the indifferent, carefree laughter. If this is you, then you will get your just reward. You will know hunger, you will know heart-break.”

If the kingdom of God is at hand, then it is in our hands. Amen.

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