June 7, 2020

The Pastor: Remembering the Poor

 613EHnHjnfL._SL1076_…when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

– Galatians 2:9-10

* * *

As Gordon W. Lathrop says in his book, The Pastor: A Spirituality, “‘Remember Jesus Christ’ (2Tim. 2:8) is never far away from ‘remember the poor.'”

The third task of the pastor, along with proclaiming the Word and serving at the Table, is to remember the poor. From the earliest days of the Church, when Paul asked for offerings from mostly Gentile congregations around the Mediterranean to bring relief to their poor brethren in Palestine, pastors have seen to it that collections be taken up and distributed to the poor. Liturgically in the tradition of the Church, this collection has been understood as a necessary corollary to the Lord’s Table. As we, the needy, are fed, so we feed others in need.

Paul’s testimony in Galatians 2 shows that this is a root implication of the Gospel itself. It is the “one thing” the Jerusalem Council urged upon Paul and Barnabas after they agreed upon the unity of Jews and Gentiles under one Gospel. And Paul, his life transformed by the risen Christ, eagerly accepted this calling. In Lathrop’s succinct words: “The Apostle Paul preaches the gospel and remembers the poor.”

This inevitably involves Christians and pastors in political matters. Though I dislike the word and fear the ethos and machinations it so often represents, Lathrop reminds us that the word’s roots are not entangled with political parties and candidates and slogans. Polis simply means the way we organize our life together in communities.

Churches are meant to be part of the communities in which they exist. Too many congregations live in the Christian “bubble” and have little to do with their neighbors or the common life of their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. They may engage in forays out into the community once in awhile on special missions, only to withdraw once more into a “temple” mentality that remains divorced from the world around them.

One of the first marks of the Reformation in Wittenberg and other communities was setting up better ways of caring for the poor and needy. Gordon Lathrop quotes Luther: “As love and support are given to you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones.”

For us today, Lathrop also reminds us that this is not just a matter of taking collections or engaging in special projects: “It also calls the Christian to inhabit, at least with his or her imagination, something of the affliction of our neighbors and of the trauma of the world.” He reminds us that Christians are sent out at the end of the liturgy to “Go in peace and serve the Lord.” We don’t just send our money or goods. We ourselves are sent.

The pastor leads the congregation in this vocation by:

  • Maintaining the well-being of the congregation’s liturgy, which is the source of our continuing vision of Christ and the Good News he came to offer the poor.
  • Faithfully bringing the Word of the Gospel to the congregation, stimulating their imagination toward Christ who feeds us and toward our calling to give ourselves as bread for the hungry. One way he suggests doing this is by making wise use of the liturgical year — especially seasons like Advent and Lent, seasons of reflection and repentance when themes of poverty and need are expressed most clearly.
  • Seeing to a well organized and carefully managed collection that is regularly distributed to meet needs.
  • Remembering that poverty is not only about lack of food or material possessions. There is a poverty of spirit that should be addressed through pastoral care for the weary, fearful, and grieving, practices such as confession and absolution, teaching that guides the ignorant and wayward, and services and acts of healing and reconciliation.

* * *

This is part 5 of a series. Here are links to previous posts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Comments

  1. The question of the church’s reaction to poverty, specifically material poverty, seems a difficult one to me. The emphasis can, as in the post, be placed on remembering the poor, and performing appropriate charitable acts – giving alms, feeding the hungry, offering shelter, clothing, care and so on. Or, as one hears from many progressive Christian voices, our emphasis should be on challenging poverty itself – here, the issue of poverty is often discissued in more global terms, in the vast differences in wealth between the first and third worlds, or in the systems of exploitation that allow the developed world to enjoy cheap goods – tea, coffee, t-shirts – at the expense of the workforce who produced them.

    Both these approaches may have their faults. The call to remember the poor may well, in of itself, ignore the fundamental evils that keep people in poverty – a lack of housing, inequal food distribution, AIDS and other, treatable, preventable diseases, a lack of social mobility, the exploitation of workers, climate-change related poverty, corruption, a lack of education, and so on and so on. Is it enough to simply remember the poor, when there are a range of underlying causes to that poverty that can and should be addressed?

    Reagarding the second approach to poverty, that focuses on eradicating these underlying causes, there is a danger of misunderstanding the gospel. The Gospel is not an exhortation to eradicate poverty, it is the proclamation of God’s kingship, through Jesus Christ, here on Earth, as in Heaven. The struggle against poverty is a natural implication of this gospel; How can inequality, poverty and injustice have a place in God’s kingdom? By focussing too heavily on these goals, we risk losing the heart of the gospel, and the light and energy it provides us for ministry in the world. It also pressuposes that we can, in fact, rid the world of the ills of povetry and inequality, when perhaps, as Jesus states, we will always have the poor with us, until, we presume the end of the age and the full coming of the Kingdom of God.

    I have been impressed by Pope Francis recent condemnations of our capitalist economics, and think that the Church should be more active in critiquing and subverting what is in my opinion a fundamentally flawed and unequal system. However I acknowledge that no system we create can be perfect; nor would I advocate, as some fear Pope Francis favours, an embrace of Marxist economics. Jesus was not, I don’t think, a Marxist. No political system is perfect. But we should not, for that reason, ignore the clear failings in our political systems, especially when they promote and strngethen injustuce, povety, iniequality and greed.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > The question of the church’s reaction to poverty, specifically
      > material poverty, seems a difficult one to me.

      It is a difficult issue, because it is a difficult and many faceted problem. Searching for a ‘tidy’ and ideologically simple response to poverty and human suffering is a fool’s errand; embrace the complexity.

      > The emphasis can, as in the post, be placed on remembering the poor,
      > and performing appropriate charitable acts – giving alms, feeding the
      > hungry, offering shelter, clothing, care and so on.

      One major advantage that the church has over systematic approaches is that “care”. The church, or members of the church, can establish relationships. They can look after people in a way no system can do. And they can *care*, which only individuals can do.

      > Or, as one hears from many progressive Christian voices,

      Such as? This is decried here regularly, but that “progressive” voice – to the extent it was ever prominent in my adult life time [some ~20 years] – it is desperately faint. I’ve heard rumors it lives on in the far east and west – but at least where I am it is operationally extinct.

      I see some Christianity that is piestic and all ‘about caring’. I wouldn’t describe that as “progressive” as there is little emphasis on achieving any kind of progress. It is more nostalgic than anything else. Perhaps in bygone days those churches were “progressive” in this meaning – but they are limping flaccid things now, so why must what they might have been once pollute our conversations today?

      > our emphasis should be on challenging poverty itself – here, the issue
      > of poverty is often discussed in more global terms, in the vast
      > differences in wealth between the first and third worlds, or in the

      Most congregations [all, possibly, if we are honest] do not have the resources or networks to change the condition of third-world poverty in any measurable way what-so-ever. A prominent center-right college in my city [Calvin College] fairly recently issued a study of the effectiveness of ‘short term missions’; it is not pretty. Addressing third-world international issues requires a level of skill and expertise it would be exceedingly rare for a church to have; most are simply using the poor third world as propaganda pieces or being bamboozled out of funds by minions who outclass them by orders of magnitude.

      >ystems of exploitation that allow the developed world to enjoy
      > cheap goods at the expense of the workforce who produced them.

      This itself is a horrendously complicated issue. Our nation at one time toiled producing natural resources and goods primarily for export to the developed European powers. It is both exploitation [evil] and development [good] in a sweaty tangle.

      > Both these approaches may have their faults.

      I reject, utterly and completely, the “both”. Why is everything in the current American mind either-this-or-that? This dichotomy, like right and left, conservative and liberal, is outright – and simply – a lie. There is no need to choose, and honestly, there is no choice to make.

      You cannot care about people and not interact with them, not see them, and not hear them. If you don’t do that – then you do no care [however much you tell yourself you do]. But you cannot interact with people, especially the poor, and not see the systematic and built-infrastructure problems they face; you cannot see those problems and not care – if you care about the people they burden. There is no choice to be made.

      > The call to remember the poor may well, in of itself, ignore the
      > fundamental evils that keep people in poverty – a lack of housing,
      > inequal food distribution, AIDS and other, treatable, preventable
      > diseases, a lack of social mobility, the exploitation of workers,
      > climate-change related poverty, corruption, a lack of education,
      > and so on and so on. Is it enough to simply remember the poor, when
      > there are a range of underlying causes to that poverty that can and
      > should be addressed?

      No, it is not. Because then what does ‘remembering’ them even mean; in that case it is a forcibly divided thing, which indicates the presence of another competing ideology [one whose primary concern is not the welfare of one’s neighbors].

      But here is another common flaw in the current American perception – people think they cannot do anything ‘politically’ about these things. Politics viewed as some high and distant career thing. But they are SO VERY WRONG. As the old adage goes – all politics is local. Fair and safe housing, access to health care, transportation access, school quality and funding… THESE ARE PRIMARILY *LOCAL* ISSUES. Even dreary old zoning rules have a big impact on creating segregated communities and limiting access to resources. These things *CAN BE CHANGED*, provided someone cares enough to bother. They are not a “DC thing”.

      > Reagarding the second approach to poverty, that focuses on eradicating
      > these underlying causes, there is a danger of misunderstanding the
      > gospel.

      Sorry, I think that is rubbish.

      > The Gospel is not an exhortation to eradicate poverty,

      Just about nobody says it is. If somebody does say that, they are wrong, and we are going to let someone who is wrong dictate what should be done by virtue of their wrongness?

      Anyway – don’t you want to reduce poverty and increase prosperity? I mean, really, is that even a question? My friends who are angry atheists want to do that. If someone does not want that they are just a troll. The poor certainly want that. That is called citizenship. And back to those angry atheists, and those on the fence – when Christian’s rail against this “false social gospel” – is it hard to conceive of what that sounds like to *everyone* outside who doesn’t know the code? Frequently it just sounds like racism.

      > it is the proclamation of God’s kingship, through Jesus Christ,
      > here on Earth, as in Heaven.

      Yes.

      > The struggle against poverty is a natural implication of this gospel;

      And a natural implication of not being a self-involved jerk.

      > How can inequality, poverty and injustice have a place in God’s kingdom?

      It doesn’t. But sadly it is a fixture of this kingdom.

      > By focussing too heavily on these goals, we risk losing the heart of
      > the gospel,

      False; because the division of this into separate domains is false.

      > and the light and energy it provides us for ministry in the world.

      We keep that by constantly returning to the Church, the Word, and to Christ.

      > It also pressuposes that we can, in fact, rid the world of the ills
      > of povetry and inequality,

      I’m not sure what “it” is, but netheir concern for the poor, concern for my neighbor, or policital engagement necessarily presupposes anything like that.

      > when perhaps, as Jesus states, we will always have the poor with us,
      > until, we presume the end of the age and the full coming of the Kingdom
      > of God.

      And nobody I have ever met, not the most ardent Socialist, believes that Jesus Christ was wrong on that point. Apparently there is somewhere some ‘progressive’ pastor who said something to that effect, as people keep referring to him [not by name, sadly]. I know I have never met him. Mostly he seems to serve as a kind of boogey man.

      > I have been impressed by Pope Francis recent condemnations of our
      > capitalist economics, and think that the Church should be more active
      > in critiquing and subverting what is in my opinion a fundamentally
      > flawed and unequal system.

      Okay – “the church” is more active when the people of the church are more active.

      > However I acknowledge that no system we create can be perfect; nor
      > would I advocate, as some fear Pope Francis favours, an embrace of
      > Marxist economics. Jesus was not, I don’t think, a Marxist.

      One does not have to study much of Marx to know that EMPHATICALLY ABSOLUTELY that Jesus Christ was ***NOT*** a Marxist. A Marxist has no use for Christ, and a Christian will have little use for Marx [Marx began out of empathy, living in destitute poverty, watching his children die of disease – so a Christian actually does have more use for Marx than vice versa. A Christian could have embraced Marx, listened, and wept with him. Marx, at least in the end, had no place for that].

      > No political system is perfect. But we should not, for that reason,
      > ignore the clear failings in our political systems, especially when they
      > promote and strngethen injustuce, povety, iniequality and greed.

      Ditto. And it is *vital* to look around ourselves. That political system is not some distant impenetrable thing. It is the local sheriff, the mayor, the housing commissioner, and the school board [who are also people, BTW].

      And one possible upside, if the church goer should venture outside of the church… he might meet some cool people and maybe make some friends. That doesn’t suck.

      • Adam,

        Thank you for replying in such detail.

        >I reject, utterly and completely, the “both”.

        Yes, I think that’s fair. I considered putting a caveat in the post, somewhere, explaining that I don’t these are the only two responses to poverty. But the post seemed long enough as it is.

        >Such as? This is decried here regularly, but that “progressive” voice – to the extent it was ever prominent in my adult life time [some ~20 years] – it is desperately faint.

        Again, agreed. I think this idea relied on an image I have of what I have assumed ‘progressive’ Christianity to be. I couldn’t tell you any pastors or writers who specifically state that the gospel is solely about eradicating poverty.

        >But you cannot interact with people, especially the poor, and not see the systematic and built-infrastructure problems they face

        This idea was particularly helpful, in my opinion. It helps reconcile the tension I had in mt mind between ‘helping’ the poor on a local level, and on challenging the structural causes of poverty. I wonder if most of the successful movements to reduce poverty throughout history have come through someone, somewhere, taking the time to engage with, and relate to, the poor.

        I think this comment was an attempt to reconcile two approaches to poverty that I have witnessed, over here in the UK – the local efforts, often practiced by churches (but not exclusively), and the more large scale efforts, which address those structural causes (AIDS, lack of affordable housing, homelessness, famine etc), often, but not exclusively, in the developing world. The latter seem often, at least in my limited experience, to be practiced by NGOs that are not specifically Christian. Eg – The ONE campaign, Comic Relief, Save The Children. (Though there are several prominent Christian organisations that attempt similar things – Christian Aid, Christians Against Poverty, Tearfund etc). The ideas stated in this post were first thoughts, and do not, I admit, constitute a considered, informed approach made of a long period of time. I was trying to articulate questions about how we should respond to poverty, and how those responses relate to what I (at the moment) understand the gospel to be.

        Thankyou again for your reply

    • > Reagarding the second approach to poverty, that focuses on eradicating these underlying causes, there is a danger of misunderstanding the gospel. The Gospel is not an exhortation to eradicate poverty, it is the proclamation of God’s kingship, through Jesus Christ, here on Earth, as in Heaven. The struggle against poverty is a natural implication of this gospel; How can inequality, poverty and injustice have a place in God’s kingdom? By focussing too heavily on these goals, we risk losing the heart of the gospel, and the light and energy it provides us for ministry in the world.

      I lose you at the very last of your last point above. But to quibble just slightly with words, the struggle against poverty is not an implication of the gospel. Its an exhortation of the King that the gospel proclaims. A good take on this, in my mind, is near the end of Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright – “Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended.” (p.212)

      But, in fairness, I think the real question running through your post is by what means are we to do this particular kingdom work? I feel confident I know what I personally am called to do. To paraphrase Gandhi – live small so others can live. But I still don’t know how a Christian is to live in a democratic society. How can I oppose public policies that dismantle the structural causes of poverty? But then, God granted us free will so our expressions of love would be authentic. So is it right for me to limit the liberty of another to choose (or not choose) the same?

      • >I lose you at the very last of your last point above.

        I think it was an attempt to suggest that the notion that Christianity is only about eradicating poverty is misleading. It is, to use your phrase, ‘an exhortation of the King that the gospel proclaims.’ But I think Adam (Above) does a good job of responding to and critiquing this notion.

        ‘live small so others can live.’ – Thank you

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > But to quibble just slightly with words,

        In a good quibble lies much wisdom!

        > the struggle against poverty is not an implication of the gospel. Its an exhortation of the
        > King that the gospel proclaims.

        Well put. I agree.

        >A good take on this, in my mind, is near the end of Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright –
        > “Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the
        > new way he always intended.” (p.212)

        Thought provoking.

  2. What does it mean that the discussion here in America is always about “the poor” in general, abstract terms? It would be healthy if –occasionally and not exclusively — the Church talked about the Robinsons and the Stewarts, instead of The Poor.

  3. “the way we organize our life together in communities”
    Now that is a definition that we need to hear and be reminded of as part of being sent. I can’t remember politics being phrased quite that succinctly. Not letting it stray from a root meaning like this really could be an impetus to fired up imaginations. And some new beneficial acts, relationships, and open sources of community.