Monday, September 22, 2014

Work! Pray! Give!

A house sat vacant for many years.  Its shutters hung at odd angles, the porch steps sagged, and the entire structure badly needed paint.  The yard around the house was in even worse shape; weed-infested and wildly overgrown.  One day a stranger moved into town, bought the house, and launched into an ambitious effort to bring it back to glory.  Day after day he labored on.  Slowly, but surely the eyesore was transformed into showplace.  The owner brought back the yard, cleaned up the beds, and created a beautiful flower garden.  It was hard, tiring work that took months to complete, but the effort was worth it.  One day the man was working in the front yard on a hot summer day when the local Episcopal priest happened to walk by.  “Wow,” the priest said, “your place looks incredible.  It is amazing what you and God have been able to do with it.”  The man stopped his work, wiped the sweat from his brow, and said, “Yes it is.  But you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.”

The ancient Greek philosopher Sophocles once wrote “No good e’er comes of leisure purposeless; and heaven ne’er helps the men who will act not.”  Euripides built on that thinking by saying, “Try first thyself, and after call in God; for to the worker God himself lends aid.”  When the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert gathered a collection of favorite proverbs, he included “Help thyself, and God will help thee”.  Today, the best known expression of this sentiment comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac: “God helps those who help themselves.”  Sam Ewing, a former big league ball player, once quipped that hard work shines a spotlight on personal character.  In its face he said, some people will turn up their sleeves, some people will turn up their noses, and some people won’t turn up at all.  Industry, initiative, self-sufficiency: these values are hard-wired into us who have been raised to believe in the American dream.

Given our ethic around work, perhaps you share with me a feeling of being somewhat mystified by this morning’s Old Testament reading.  God has led the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage into the Sinai wilderness.  Once they get there they realize they have no food to eat.  So what do they do?  Do they plant a field?  No.  Do they raise a herd?  No.  Do they string together a net to catch fish?  No.  What do they do?  They complain. 

Now, it is work to listen to people complain, but complaining is not working.  The actor Bradley Whitford once said,

Infuse your life with action.  Don’t wait for it to happen.  Make it happen.  Make your own future.  Make your own hope.  Make your own love.  And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen... yourself, right now, right down here on Earth.

That is wisdom the people of Israel had to learn firsthand and it took them forty years in the wilderness eating nothing but God-supplied, very bland manna to get it.

This morning’s Gospel reading features one of the most curious parables told by Jesus: laborers who work different lengths of time getting paid an identical wage.  Its message is simple: everyone is welcome to be a part of God’s kingdom and participation in that kingdom is its own reward.  The parable is built on a basic premise: people want to work.  The vineyard owner, upon meeting folks at five in the evening, asks incredulously, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?”  They answer, “Because no one has hired us.”  People want to work.  We want to be a part of something meaningful.  We want to contribute to a cause or a goal or a project.  We want to express our creative impulse because it is a part of the image of God woven into our nature.

Why have you been standing here idle all day?  If you were to ask this question of Maria Elena and her daughter Veronica you would get a surprising answer.  In their Honduran village there is no work for women to do.  They simply did not have the means to make a better life for themselves and their family.  But then they received a $50 micro-credit loan from the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras as part of the Gifts for Life program run by Episcopal Relief & Development.  They used the money to start a bakery in their home.  The program also provided the women with business training and planning methods.  They have repaid the loan, expanded their business, and now are able to send their children to school.  Stories like theirs inspires me to contribute money (and to raise it) because a small donation on our part can be life changing for another person.  

Robert Kennedy, speaking at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1966, said this:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

In life there is the work we do to earn a living and there is also the work we do to make a life.  Some are fortunate to have work that does both for them.  Others labor at one thing while finding meaningful rewards in other places.  Whatever your situation, you have the ability to make a difference for yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your church, your country, and even the world.

For me at least, it is impossible to reflect on this subject without scratching my head and wondering why so many people in our community (as well as communities around our country) appear to do so very little to improve their lot in life.  Even worse, these people engage disproportionally in activities that make their life even worse – substance abuse, lottery tickets, high-end electronics, automobiles that would seem to be out of their price range.  These are stereotypes to be sure - vast generalizations - but they bear a kernel of truth. 

In 2007 a professor at George Washington University by the name of Charles Karelis wondered the same thing.  The habits of the poor just did not make sense to him when viewed through traditional economic theory.  As an example of this, years ago I knew a person who delivered Wonder Bread to grocery stores.  His sales plummeted every time as the lottery payout went through the roof.  According to economics 101, that kind of behavior is irrational and unexplainable.  Well, Karelis began to wonder about the psychology of economics and came up with a ‘bee sting’ theory of poverty. 

He published his thinking in 2007 in a book called The Persistence of Poverty.  In it, he reasoned that when you are poor traditional economics (the rules by which most of us here govern our financial lives) don’t apply because your worldview is shaped not by opportunity but rather by deprivation.  When you are poor you do not see the world around you in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated.

This is where Karelis’ metaphor of the bee sting comes in.  A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated, but a person with multiple bee stings loses incentive to get one sting treated because the all the others still hurt.  Even if well-meaning others step in and voluntarily swat away a couple of bees, it does not do much to change the impact of the hive’s attack.  Poverty, Karelis says, has less to do with having few goods and more to do with having lots of problems.  He goes on to theorize that the more poor a person is, the less likely one will do anything to address any single problem. 

Karelis’ theory is not without its critics, but it has helped me to think of the plight of the poor in our community in a new way.  It doesn’t excuse what is going on, but it does describe it.  It suggests to me that we Christians have to expand our compassion and quest for justice into areas we might not think necessary. 

I knew a priest in Richmond who led a petition drive to have metro bus routes run from inner city neighborhoods out to Short Pump.  His reasoning was simple, without bus service, the working poor are denied the opportunity to go where new jobs were being created.  Over the years of my ordained life there have been a couple of times when I have extended help to people recently released from prison.  One person had had his truck impounded.  He painted houses and that truck was essential to his livelihood.  Every day he was locked up, the impound charged him $49 for keeping his vehicle in their parking lot.  After three months in jail, how would you like to face that bill, especially if you were on living on the financial margin before be locked up?  I have been pleased with the Virginia Council of Churches, an advocacy group to which all three Episcopal denominations belong, because for several years now they have persistently lobbied our legislature to reign in the pay-day lending institutions of our commonwealth. 

All of these efforts are good, but, as you might imagine, there are many more bees swarming in the lives of our community’s poor.  What does all of this mean for me and for you?  Well, as RFK noted, most of us here do not have the greatness to bend history, but we can do our part.  As members of the Episcopal Church we are encouraged to work, to pray, and to give.  We can work to make the lives of others better even as we work to improve our own lives.  A young, small town banker I once knew said that his primary work was to make the community better because as the community improved his bank would flourish.  We can pray.  For me, at least, I need to pray for compassion and hope as an antidote to cynicism and despair.  And we can give.  Maria and Victoria Elena remind us that a small amount of money effectively applied can make a huge difference.