Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
September 9, 2018
Text: James 5:2, O.T.: Psalms 125, N.T.: James 2:1-10
Forty years ago, Pittsburgh Presbytery initiated Northside Common Ministries. The mission outreach was housed in the former home of the Pleasant Valley Presbyterian Church. The congregation had died, despite the overwhelming need for Christ’s mission on the North Side.
One of the founding pastors of Northside Common Ministries was the Reverend Don Dutton. Several years ago, Don said the founding churches’ hope was to see Northside Common Ministries go out of business.
The founding churches looked forward to the day when the hungry would cease to exist – the homeless would have no need for homes. The hungry would be fed and the homeless housed. All in the community would have gainful employment. Life would improve. Poverty would end.
Northside Common Ministries’ founders’ vision never has borne fruit. Poverty remains unresolved. Jay Polziani, the director of Northside Common Ministries, claims the need is greater than 40 years ago. Poverty remains.
Through the years Pittsburgh Presbytery has denounced systemic social causes that lie at the root of poverty. The presbytery has challenged racism, economic injustice, the failure of community and government leaders to elevate the plight of the poor to the public’s concern. It has not been alone.
The Pittsburgh Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Southwestern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Orthodox Church in America – Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the other members of Southwest Christian Associates of Pennsylvania have taken stands against the social causes of poverty.
Tens of thousands of Christians from congregations throughout the region have volunteered at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food pantries, as well as in fund-raisers, walks, runs, rides. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have contributed financially. They’ve donated clothing, food, and household goods.
Presbyterians in Allegheny County alone donated over 20 million dollars over 35 years to overcome poverty’s effects on our region. We’ve offered child centers and job training centers for impoverished single parents and families to find employment. We’ve funded health care clinics and women’s shelters. This amazing outreach was for the welfare of men, women, and children whose lives were and remain bereft of the simple joys we accept as a given every day.
The poor are always with us. But rarely are we aware of being in conversations with people who are experiencing poverty. There are many we’ve known who have experienced hard times. On-going, continual, unrelenting financial poverty that has no obvious resolution remains largely a faceless problem that for the most part is a statistical number. It’s hidden in communities.
For years I served as pastor to the Protestants of Renton, Pennsylvania. Renton was a town that didn’t exist before 1918. It was built by Union Colleries to house laborers and foremen in its new mine.
The community was filled with immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, with a smattering of Scots-Irish and Welsh. Their lives were filled with hardship. Union Colleries tried to create a humane environment for their mining families. But the dangers of work below the ground and the debt accumulated in the company store brought depression and anxiety to Renton’s families.
Despite the best designed community to improve mining conditions the struggle to escape poverty among Renton’s families was difficult. It became worse after a mine explosion left many families grief stricken and unable to trust company officials. Poverty is an elusive problem to solve.
Poverty is as old as human history. It remains in this technological world, regardless of how successful we are cultivating crops, distributing produce, improving health care, and adding jobs in a growing economy. Poverty is part of the God-given condition of the human race.
Jesus states in three of the four Gospels, “The poor you have with you always.” (Mark 12:7; Matthew 26:11; John 12:8) Regardless of our best efforts to combat disease, eliminate famine, and grow the world’s economy – poverty will continue. Its resolution escapes human compassion, wealth, and ingenuity. Poverty is like death and taxes, it is always with us.
If poverty is inescapable, can it serve a positive purpose?
First, poverty compels us to find God. We’re tempted to define poverty as a financial condition. Poverty is greater than that. It’s a condition of the mind and spirit. Depression and anxiety lead us to question God and God’s purposes. None of us has God’s wisdom. None of us knows the entirety of God’s ways.
God works in arenas beyond our knowledge. God’s purposes are deeper than our thoughts. God’s grand design lies beyond our financial security or personal comfort. All are by nature impoverished from the knowledge of God.
Because we don’t have God’s mind, our knowledge and wisdom is impoverished in comparison with God’s wisdom. But this is not simply related to our financial condition. All people are impoverished when it comes to God’s wisdom and knowledge. All people live in poverty. Poverty is always with us.
When we accept our poverty before God, we become aware of our great need for God. Jesus says in his first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Our awareness of our spiritual poverty drives us towards wanting to find God and His Kingdom.
A person who trusts in his own common sense, her own wisdom, their own strength, is a person crippled by pride from discovering God, and God’s wisdom. Yet a person who is aware of how much he or she doesn’t know, is a person who realizes that he or she needs God to face a difficult and challenging world.
One of the first needs identified by the Renton mining families was for faith communities to worship God. Pittsburgh Presbytery was asked by the mining Protestants to begin a mission in Renton. It later became a congregation. The Roman Catholic Church started a mission in Renton that became a congregation. Renton’s families sought to find God when it seemed that God was far away.
God’s distance amid poverty isn’t the result of God’s disinterest in the poor. God’s distance is the product of believing a person survives by relying on themselves. Many Renton families literally fought to survive their poverty. But others discovered Christ’s wisdom helping them to a better future.
When you’re aware of your intellectual poverty in knowing God’s ways, and you’re aware of your spiritual poverty in discovering God’s purpose, you are compelled to find God. Your awareness of your poverty drives you closer to God.
Second, poverty opens our hearts to our God-given obligation to our fellow humans and our willingness to accept that obligation. When we face our poverty and the poverty of others, we come face to face with God’s heart. Poverty makes it impossible for us to avoid God’s own presence in the world.
Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 25:40. He says about offering aid to the poor, “When you do this for the least of these your brothers, you do it unto me.”
In the Renton mine, laborers who spoke different languages realized how much they needed to care for each other’s safety. They discovered a way to overcome the language barrier that separated them so that they could offer aid to each other.
The oldest generation of Plum Borough remembered the days of Renton’s beginning. They also remembered what life was like on the farms surrounding Renton. Everybody lived simply. No one lived better than anyone else. No one had much in those days.
But everyone was happier. They helped one another and cared about one another. Their word was good. If they said they would do something, they did. They knew each other’s families and worked together for a better community.
Renton wasn’t like our neighborhoods today where we don’t know our next door neighbor. In many neighborhoods today, our neighbors come and go to work without talking to each other. Poverty brought people together.
God’s presence is seen in the poor. God identifies personally with the impoverished in this world. Poverty gives a human face to God. I remember being in Bible study with men at the Northside Common Ministry on several evenings. Their stories and searching for God led me to a deeper appreciation of Jesus. Their desire to be in Christ was touching, and humbling.
Jesus’ personal identification with the poor is so great, that He became poor that you and I might be rich in God. The Apostle Paul describes Jesus as becoming poor that we might become rich in II Corinthians 8:9.
The almighty power of God is shown in Christ’s willing embrace of poverty. His self-imposed impoverishment identifies completely with the world’s poor world. His weakness and needy condition upon the Cross for our sake intimately connects us with the poor who surround us who are weak and in need.
Christ’s poverty will either lead us to His feet with tears of compassion. Or it will thrust us away from Him in callous indifference. Tears of compassion for Christ’s compel the hearts of His followers to help the weak and afflicted. Callous indifference before Christ’s poverty rejects the weak and afflicted.
No genuine Christian is indifferent to the needy around us. We may be overwhelmed by the needy. But we can never be indifferent. Our obligation to love Christ pushes us to fulfill His call to His mission – to love our neighbor and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Whether they live in little communities like Renton, in isolation, or in communities teaming with people, like Pittsburgh’s Northside or Bellevue, Christ’s love call us to our obligation to overcome poverty with care for one another.
Poverty is the means by which God transforms us from the world’s lost to salvation’s found. Poverty is the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. We can’t be rich in this world and have the treasures of heaven.
As we give up all that we have and seek God through Jesus Christ we receive the riches of God’s Kingdom. The poor are always with us because neediness is the only posture before the throne of grace that saves us. Amen.