When Helping Hurts: The Poverty of the Ungrateful

God, Theology

Contributed by: Canadian Poverty Institute

A Sermon Delivered by Dr. Lane Alderman, Pastor Roswell Presbyterian Church Roswell, GA October 12, 2014.

Every day, at every one of the public schools in North Atlanta, there are children who arrive at school either having been driven in their parent’s luxury SUV or, at our high schools, having driven themselves in the new car their parents have recently purchased for them. They’ve eaten a good breakfast; they’re carrying monogrammed book bags filled with the homework they worked on last night with the help of their parents and their high speed internet; and they are well prepared for a full day ahead of them.

And they better be. After a day of school, they’re going to be heading off to an afternoon full of special activities and enrichment. It’s going to be a full day for those children.

At that same school, other children arrived in that same carpool line having spent the night in the very car in which they are currently riding. They stopped by a fast food restaurant to wash up and brush their teeth before they got to school. Yesterday’s home work never did get finished. The public library closed before they could get it done.

Those children are going to compete against each other on a test to determine who will get into the advance math class. Guess who has the advantage.

North Atlanta, our home, is one of the most desirable places to live in all the country. It’s filled with fine gated communities, expensive, sprawling homes and neighborhoods, and, yes, it is also filled with material poverty.

We’re going to talk about that today… about the poverty that is growing all around us. And more importantly, we’re going to talk about how Jesus is calling us to respond to the poverty in our midst.

To help us, we’re going to take a look at a powerful story from the book of Deuteronomy, the eighth chapter. As you find that in your own Bible or in your pew Bible, let me remind you of the context.

The people of Israel have wandered in the wilderness for forty years. It’s the time we call the Exodus. Now they are preparing to enter the promised land. They are literally on edge of the Jordan River, preparing to cross over. And Moses gathers them around to give them some last minute guidance… some final words of warning before they enter the Promised Land. Let’s take a look.

Read Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Poverty in the suburbs is not a new phenomena, but it is a growing one. A child in Roswell died of malnutrition in the mid 1960’s, and that death spurred a group of people, led by folks from the Roswell Presbyterian Church, to come together to make a difference. The Child Development Association was created, and a few years later, North Fulton Community Charities was formed to help address the needs of this community.

Poverty is nothing new. But it is growing at an alarming rate. 86,000 people live below the poverty level in Cobb County. In April of this year, “the Urban Institute reported that of all counties in the United States, Cobb County is where low-income people have the least chance of finding affordable places to live.” (Politic.com)

Of all the people in metro Atlanta who live below the federal poverty level, 88% now live in areas classified as suburbs. 20% of the students at Centennial and Roswell High Schools are on free lunch programs. 27% of the students at Roswell North Elementary, the school served by people who live here on Mimosa Blvd., are on free lunch.

Not that it every was, but material poverty is no longer an inner city issue. It’s an issue right here in our neighborhood. And Jesus is
calling us to be good neighbors.

Let me state the obvious. I’m not a sociologist, nor am I a social worker. And this morning isn’t the time or the place for an extended lecture on the roots of poverty.

But let’s be clear. Most people who find themselves materially poor are not that way because they are lazy or lack initiative. Go talk to Barbara Duffy at North Fulton Charities, and she’ll tell you about a hard working mom who goes to work every day cleaning rooms at one of the local motels. She drops her two children off early at the bus stop and then heads to work where she works hard for an eight hour shift. She’s paying her bills… barely.

But then one of her children got sick and was in the hospital. Thank goodness she had insurance, so that wasn’t the issue. The problem was that she did what any mother would do. She stayed all day by her child’s bedside at the hospital. Which meant for a week and half she wasn’t cleaning rooms. Which meant that when she got her paycheck it was barely a quarter of what it normally was. Which meant she couldn’t pay her rent this month. And next month, she couldn’t pay her light bill. It was a snowball rolling down the hill. And soon, she and her children were living out of their car. She was working hard. But she was so close to the edge of the cliff that it didn’t take much for her to fall off.

Are there poor people who are lazy? Of course there are. But I can tell you about rich trust fund kids who are just as lazy. The reality is that the cause of material poverty is never a simple, easily identifiable problem. And that’s part of what makes breaking the cycle of poverty so difficult.

You’ve probably heard people say, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I wish it were that easy. Sure… teach a man to fish. That’s important. But what if the nearest pond is ten miles away and there is no way he has transportation to get there. Or what if he arrives at that pond only to discover that is polluted from runoff from the local mill and it turns out everyone else is buying fish at the import market? Or what if he gets there with his pole and fishing worms only to discover that he was competing for the fish with others who have the latest spinning rods and scientifically developed lures.

Breaking the cycle of poverty isn’t so easy.

Even defining poverty isn’t always that easy. Ask most middle and upper middle class Americans to define poverty, and they’ll talk in terms of not having material things. Being poor means not having enough money to pay the rent, to buy enough food, to afford healthcare.

But a number of recent polls suggest that the materially poor define poverty in quite a different way. Ask the materially poor what it means to be poor, and they’ll define it by how it makes me feel. I feel ashamed when I send my children to school in the same clothes they wore yesterday. I feel inferior when I see people walk out of the store with things I could never afford to buy. I feel embarrassed when I have to ask for a handout.

They define poverty as a lack of dignity or worth. To be poor is to live without hope.

As I thought about that, I realized, those feelings of a lack of self esteem, of a lack of self worth, of a lack of hope, are something I see all the time even among materially affluent people. And I realized, that’s a connecting point for people, something we all have in common.

Materially rich or materially poor, we all carry a desire for worth, for dignity, for hope. Hang on to that for a moment. We’ll come back to it.

As the people of Israel were preparing the enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them about the problems they would face with material success. When you get there, he said, and “when you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, when your herds and your flocks have multiplied… do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’”

In other words, don’t think you did this all on your own.

But wait a minute, God. I did work hard for these fine houses and this silver and gold. I went to school and studied hard. And I got up early and went to work. And I worked hard at my job. I’ve earned this success.

And to a certain extent, you’re right. You have worked hard. But I can hear Moses saying, “who gave you the ability to be able to think the way you think? And who enabled you to be born in a land of opportunity? And who gave you the parents you have who nurtured you and took care of you? Who gave you the gifts you have?”

And I hear Moses saying, “Do not forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness.”

You didn’t do this on your own. In fact, without God’s help, you couldn’t have made it all.

But what happens when I forget that? What’s the problem with thinking that I did this on my own?

Well, first of all, it’s a lie. But more than that, it leads me to think that I’m independent. I can do this on my own. I can handle life. Bring it on. I can handle whatever you throw at me. And as soon as I begin to think that way, I fall flat on my face.

Jesus once said it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of needle. He wasn’t out to get rich people. He just knew that the more stuff I have, the more likely I am to depend on my stuff for my security and my sense of well being.

And the reality is, when the going gets tough, my stuff can’t deliver what it promises.

If I think my worth or my value comes from the stuff I have, then I’m in for a great fall. If my dignity and my worth and my hope for the future are all based on my bank account, then I have problems. No bank account, no amount of stuff, will give me the peace I seek when the real storms of life come my way.

And the more I thought about that, the more I realized that all of us… the materially poor and the materially wealthy… area all in need of the same thing… the worth and the dignity and the hope that is ours in Christ.

Hang on to that truth for just a moment. We’re going to come back to it. Let me remind of what’s going on in our congregation right now. We’re in the midst of what we’re calling our Season of Service. It’s a challenge… an invitation… to get involved with our mission partners in making a difference in our community and around the world. Last week we gave out flags and mission catalogues, and we still have some if you didn’t get one. You can find them in the lobby. And in honor of our 175th anniversary which we are celebrating in just a few weeks we want to challenge our congregation to complete at least 1,750 hours of service with our mission partners.

There is something for people of all ages to do. There is a way for each of us to be involved. When you complete your service, whatever it may be, you fill in your name and the mission partner on one of these orange flags and then you can go display it out front by our monument sign. You’ll see a growing number of flags already there.

But here’s the challenge I want to add.

As you join in your service, take a look at your attitude. My hope is that we will approach this time of service not with an attitude of here come the rich Presbyterians with all the answers setting out to solve the problems of the poor people.

But rather, I hope we will approach this time of service with the humility that recognizes that we are all children of God, all in need of the worth and dignity and hope that God offers.

Do we have some material resources that are needed to make a difference in the community? Absolutely. And we need to be putting those material resources to use.

But as we do, I hope we’ll discover that the real impact of our service will come as we build relationships… with each other.. and with folks out in the community.

As we build relationships, we’ll discover that God has a word of Good News for all of us through those relationships. We’ll discover that just as we have gifts and talents and resources to bring to the table to share, so also do the people around us have gifts and talents and resources to bring to the table to share.

And we’ll grow closer to each other, and we’ll grow closer to the people around us, and through it all, God will be enriching all of our lives.

Over the next few weeks, as we engage in our 1,750 hours of service, I hope you’ll get to know some people you have never met before. I hope some of them will be fellow church members. I hope you’ll meet some people here in the congregation you have never met and you’ll get to know each other and perhaps make a new friend in the process.

But I also hope you’ll get to know some of the folks with whom we are working in the community. And I hope we’ll make some new friends there as well.

Breaking the cycle of poverty is never easy. It’s never as easy as simply teaching a man to fish.

Breaking the cycle of poverty is not going to done simply through government programs, although those play an important role in providing a safety net and a step up for the materially poor.

But neither will we break the cycle of poverty by stopping government programs and preaching to people about the importance of personal initiative. Personal initiative is vital… no question about it… but there are folks trapped in a cycle of poverty so deep that being personally responsible will never be enough.

Those children climbing out of the car to take that math test after spending the night on the back seat will have an uphill battle trying to compete against that child who slept in her own bed, ate a nourishing breakfast, and arrived at school rested and ready.

Breaking the cycle of poverty is never easy.

But an important first step is for each of us to recognize our own poverty. To be honest enough to admit that we are all in need of the worth and the dignity and the hope that found in Jesus.

And then, together, as we build relationships with each other and with God, then we will begin to see God at work developing that dignity and that worth and that hope.

When I first went to Kenya eleven years ago, I confess I went with an attitude of superiority. I had what they needed… primarily this church’s money. And I was going to go and assess whether or not they would be worthy for me to give my money and for the church to give its money.

What I discovered was that together, as we became friends and built life long relationships with each other; I discovered that through our work together we each shared with each other… Yes, I shared the material resources of this congregation, but they shared with me the richness of their faith and their confidence in God’s providence. They shared with me the confidence they have that God is at work every day in all that we do.

Eleven years ago in Kenya there was a church and a preschool. Today, that community is being transformed. There is now nursing school with 110 students. The first class of six students just graduated, and all of them passed their certification. And there is a training center where young men and women are learning book keeping and tailoring and hair dressing skills. There are several health clinics offering services to people across the community. There is an orphanage and school for over 450 children, of whom 110 are orphans. There is a home for unwed mothers and their children who have been living on the streets. And there is a conference center bringing tourists and business
people to the community which very soon will generate the income needed to support the ministries.

That community is being transformed. But you need to know. My life has been transformed as well. My faith has been enriched. My hopes have been restored. I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of God’s love from my friends in Nakuru, Kenya.

The money we sent, the service we offered, have all been important. But the real changes have come through relationships. Our lives have been touched by God through those relationships. And I am a stronger person because of it.

I want that for each person in this room. I want you to know the worth and the dignity and the hope that is ours in Christ. During this Season of Service, we will be doing some good work. I’m excited about that. But I’m even more excited about the relationships that will be built, as folks across this congregation get to know each other, and as we make new friends throughout the community.

As we partner with folks in our community, in Guatemala, in the Yucatan, in Kenya, may God continue to enrich and restore their lives… and our lives as well. And through it all, may we all be enriched by the blessings of God. AMEN.

Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

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