“Matthew 25 Emphasis – Eradicating Systemic Poverty”
Isaiah 58:6-13; I John 3:1-3,11-18
January 24, 2021
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
I John 3:1-3, 11-18
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.
What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure….
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.
We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother.
And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.
Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.
Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers,
and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods
and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
People all over the world are living longer, living healthier, and even living happier lives
than they were 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago.
Did you know that globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty
has declined from 36 per cent in 1990 to only 10 per cent in 2015?! That’s amazing!
That’s wonderful news! That good news ought to be sung from the mountaintops
and shared from every social media source.
All over the world, due to scientific advances and governmental programs,
and steadfast non-profits, and compassionate faith-based initiatives,
the extremely poor regions of the world have been improving, dramatically.
The Agalta Valley in Honduras is a great example of this.
The awareness, work, and finances of this congregation, among many others,
has helped improve dramatically the conditions of the villagers of the Agalta Valley.
Since Honduras Outreach International was founded by a couple of men from Decatur in the early 1990’s,
schools and teachers have been funded, and educational levels vastly improved.
Water projects have been installed and the general health of the people increased.
Thousands of concrete floors have been poured by volunteer groups, and illnesses decreased.
Doctors and nurses and clinics were provided, and the lifespan of the people was raised,
and the number of infant deaths was lowered.
Education for local pastors was offered, and many villagers have deepened their spiritual resources,
living with greater hope and comfort and divine guidance.
These are tangible, on the ground, facts about one particular valley in a particular country, Honduras,
a valley with many loving and gracious people whose generational conditions have been improved
because people of good faith cared about eradicating their extreme poverty.
This happened, at least in part, because of people like Matt Moore and Jim Keith and Suzanne Ault,
and many others of you who traveled to Honduras, and who gave tithes and offerings to this church,
and who made special gifts to support such efforts.
The not so good news is that the pace of global change has begun to decelerate.
Even before the global pandemic, the rate of decline in extreme poverty had begun to slow down.
A year into the COVID-19 crisis, a decade of progress in the fight against poverty is at risk of being lost.
New research…“warns that the economic fallout from the global pandemic
could increase global poverty by as much as half a billion people, or 8% of the total human population.
2020 could be the first year that poverty has increased globally in thirty years, since 1990.”
(un.org, World Institute for Development Economics Research)
The primary causes of extreme poverty in the world include diseases like a corona virus.
Other causes are violent conflicts between people groups, natural disasters,
inequities based on prejudice, and corruption.
Risks from climate change are also extremely dangerous to those who live in extreme poverty.
Climate risks like flooding, rising sea levels, drought, fires, and hurricanes do not affect everyone equally.
The hopeful news is that we, as a human body, can do many things to eradicate poverty.
We cannot control natural disasters, but we can exert some measure of influence on climate risks.
We cannot root out all corruption or violent conflicts,
but we can impact the likelihood of their occurrence.
Before the creation of the United Nations in 1945, no institution had the power to discourage countries
from going to war with each other. While there have been exceptions,
the threat of international sanctions has proven to be an effective deterrent to war,
and avoiding wars between nations has been a huge boon to economic stability
and decreasing the poverty of the most vulnerable. (gatesnotes.com)
Before the pandemic, approximately 10 per cent of the world population, more than 700 million people,
still lived in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per day,
and about one out of five children in the world lived in extreme poverty.
But those numbers have been cut by 2/3 over the past thirty years! Progress has been made.
In the United States, the picture is somewhat different.
We have a very small percentage of persons living in what might be defined as “extreme poverty”,
though a surprising number of our citizens live below the defined poverty level for our developed nation.
$26,200 is the defined federal poverty line for a family of four in the United States.
(as determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
If you divide $26,200 by four family members by 365 days per year,
then the poverty line in our nation is at about $18 per person per day.
Before 2020, the poverty rate in the United States had dropped to almost 9%.
However, due to the pandemic, the poverty rate rose by the end of the year to almost 12%,
representing a total of about 40 million human beings.
What can we do? What should we do?
What can you and I do to eradicate systemic poverty? What can Decatur Presbyterian Church do?
Nelson Mandela, while fighting apartheid in South Africa,
claimed that “it” always seems impossible until “it” is done.
Whatever “it” is, whatever major effort you are facing,
whatever seemingly insurmountable hill you may be climbing,
“it” may always seem impossible until it is done.
Only Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years,
could understand so well the accomplishment of what had seemed entirely impossible.
From prison inmate on the remote Robbin Island to President of South Africa and world leader,
Nelson Mandela’s powerful story is one of hope, persistence, and unflagging resolve.
Last year, I was inspired when I met a man named Jack Partin.
Jack is a successful Atlanta lawyer and an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.
Jack has worked for decades on the issue of homelessness in Atlanta.
Over the last several years, Jack has raised some $25 million from corporations and individuals
to address homelessness, gifts that were matched by the City of Atlanta for a total of $50 million.
Jack is the one who taught me that homelessness is not inevitable.
We can defeat homelessness, he said. It is not a matter of resources; it is more a matter of will.
“By creating a united and coordinated crisis response system across metro Atlanta,
we are poised (in this next decade) to make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring.”
(Cathryn Marchman, Chief Executive Officer, PartnersforHOME.org)
The same could be said for systemic poverty in the United States.
By creating a united and coordinated response, the United States could virtually eliminate poverty.
Our nation holds enough resources to do so,
enough resources for every single person to have their basic needs met.
You have heard me claim many times now that the gap between rich and poor
has widened greatly over the last two generations.
The wealth of the few has skyrocketed; the purchasing power of the middle class has stagnated;
the poor have been left behind.
Today, 59 Americans citizens hold more wealth than half the nation’s population?
59 billionaires have more wealth than HALF of our entire nation!
And get this – the billionaires fortunes have ballooned during the corona virus pandemic,
while the poverty rate has grown by over 10 million souls, including many children.
(The poorest 50 percent of Americans, or roughly 165 million people,
collectively owned about $2.08 trillion in wealth in the second quarter of 2020,
according to Federal Reserve data, less than the net worth of the nation’s 59 richest billionaires.
Noah Manskar, NY Post, October 10, 2020)
The question is how do we go forward?
How do we refresh our structures and our systems in ways that are more equitable?
How do we encourage and provide access to everyone who is able to work to do so?
These questions are complex, with complicated, long term answers.
These questions surrounding poverty are like questions surrounding the roll out of the vaccine.
These are not partisan issues; these are human issues, which affect everyone.
We learned long ago that the problem with world hunger is not lack of food.
The world produces enough food to feed every man, woman, and child in the world.
Nor is the problem one of distribution, the experts tell us.
The problem is one of priorities; the problem is one of will.
Have you heard about the Poor People’s Campaign?
The Poor People’s Campaign is a grassroots movement addressing deep inequities in the United States.
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, is a multi-state movement
that has emerged from more than a decade of work by community and religious leaders.
Their purpose is to end systemic racism, to end poverty,
to change what they call the “war economy” into a “peace economy”,
to bring to an end to environmental destruction, and to address other injustices.
One of their fundamental principles is this:
“We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist.
Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources
to overcome poverty are false narratives…
(these false narratives are) used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality.”
Another principle of Poor Peoples Campaign is that their work will be done “in a non-partisan way—
no elected officials or candidates get the stage or are allowed to serve on State Organizing Committees.”
Their website claims: “This is not about left and right, Democrat or Republican,
but about right and wrong.” (poorpeoplescampaign.org)
Though we have come a long way in addressing global poverty and inequities in the United States,
we have a long way to go. We have certainly not finished this journey.
The nation’s first youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, claimed at the inauguration on Wednesday,
“the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice…
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
Our nation, and every nation of the world, is unfinished. We have much work to do.
As someone claimed the other day, Covid 19 has been like an x-ray,
exposing fractures in the skeletons of the societies which we have built.
Isaiah 10 proclaims: Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Deuteronomy 15 asserts: There need be no poor people among you,
for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance,
he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful
to follow all these commands I am giving you today. (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)
The Proverbs command:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)
Holy Scripture is full of such commands, but also full of hopeful promises for those who assist the poor,
wonderful promises for those who seek to do good.
As our Isaiah passage that Leslie read today proclaims:
If you work to eradicate poverty, then these wonderful promises are for you –
your light shall rise in the darkness, your gloom turn to noonday.
You will be guided continually by the Lord, and your needs in the parched places will be satisfied.
Your bones will be strong; you shall be alive and well and fresh like a watered garden.
You will be like a spring of water which never runs dry, but continually provides life for all.
The Matthew 25 emphasis that we have been discussing, based upon the Matthew 25 scripture
about feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty and clothing the naked
is not so much a “to do list” as it is a mindset, or a life direction.
The Matthew 25 emphases –
building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and eradicating systemic poverty –
all have to do with the feeling of love and responsibility toward our neighbor.
They have to do with whether or not we care about others beyond our own families,
whether or not we share a sense of common humanity with the people of the world,
with the people whom we pass on the sidewalks of Decatur.
Most of all, these emphases have to do with whom it is we are most seeking to please in life.
Are we seeking to please ourselves alone? Or someone else?
Or are we seeking to please the God who made us, who forgave us, who offered us life anew.
As the I John passage for today read:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another…
because we have first been loved by God…
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
To God be the glory as the Church joins ranks with governments and corporations and non-profits
in the effort to eradicate systemic poverty.
To God be the glory as you, and I, and this congregation humbly do our part. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church