I want to tell you a story. It’s about a man born in 1905 in another country—a country locked in a class system. For instance, when the man was a boy of 14 (which was the age when you entered high school here), he was unable to do so because high school was priced beyond what his poor parents could afford. He was born in a coal mining village and so, with his father and brothers, he went into the bowels of the earth to dig coal.
Because the owners of the mine didn’t pay much attention to safety, the boy was buried alive in a mine accident. They dug him out and he vowed to leave his homeland and come to America, where he could live differently. It took him seven years to save the fare.
In America, he went to work in a factory that made rayon. He worked there for 34 years—very proud of what he did as a pipefitter. He was a hard worker and he was a very ethical man.
The years slipped by and one day when he was 54, he and all the other workers in the factory were handed pink slips—the factory was closing. In reality, the owners had two plants—one in the Midwest where the man worked and one down South. The owners bled the factory dry where the man worked and put the money in the other plant.
The man was dead from pancreatic cancer in two years—cancer triggered by his job loss (according to the doctor); he had lost everything.
His name was John Leishman Unwin and he was my father.
I’m telling you this story because I believe the Jesus I seek to know and love fought against this kind of behavior—where people were thrown away.
The Bible tells us that Jesus spent time with the least, the last and the lost. He healed and loved and fed and justified and touched—poor people flocked to him—women, children, slaves. Ever read Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount? Luke 6:20-23: “You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours. You who hunger now are blessed, for you will be filled. You who weep now are blessed, for you will laugh.” (And so on….)
The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, in her book Occupy the Bible, tells us that Jesus, when looking for disciples at the beginning of his ministry, went to the Sea of Galilee and called fisherman to follow him. He did this because he knew that they were made poor by the mighty Roman Empire, which now occupied Palestine and ruled with an iron fist. He knew that they would “get” what he was trying to do—which was honor those on the bottom… receive them as children of God.
Jesus unmasked the bankruptcy of the Roman Empire.
I don’t like some of the things that I see going on today: unions ignored and held in disrepute; terrific pressure against raising the minimum wage; the cutting of food stamps. We are a Kleenex culture—some amongst us are thrown away. I talked to two women in Massachusetts recently who work every day but have no pension. I also talked with a woman from a UCC church here in the Twin Cities who works for $11.50/hour—she cares for those who are differently abled, which is very, very strenuous work.
Here is another piece of the picture:
It was Pope John XXIII who said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Justice implies mutuality. We who give must also allow those who receive to give to us. Ever since I worked in the slums of Chicago, I see this very clearly. You may have heard me say this before, but this short story comes from Peoples Church and is about a lesson I had to learn:
I had been working with a woman for about two hours (the last hour in a little luncheon place near the church.) I tripped on an uneven sidewalk on the way out and fell down on a dirty surface. On the way down, I saw my wallet fly out of my purse and my purse fly out of my hands. As I lay there, I remember thinking, “Well, that’s it, my wallet, credit cards… gone.” Just then an unwashed hand picked up my wallet and another unwashed hand picket up my purse. And soon two hands lifted me. As I sat upright I was eyeball to eyeball with an unwashed homeless man who handed me my wallet and my purse. He then patted me on the back as if to say, “There, there, you’re OK now.”
So I was ministered to by a homeless man and my thinking has changed. I now see homeless people as God’s children, too. You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours.
And here is another piece of the picture:
Much to my horror, I talked to a woman around this New Year’s whose 56-year-old husband had lost his job of 40 years—the owners are suspected of running the company into the ground and then filing for bankruptcy.
So what is our response?
Certainly there have been those whom the Holy One has called to the struggle: the Mahatma Gandhis, Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandelas and the Holy One calls you and me, too.
Our country is drifting in dangerous directions. The things my parents fought for on behalf of working people are disappearing. The rich ARE getting richer and the poor ARE getting poorer. It seems to me that corporations are in charge. And how much money does it take to get elected to government?
I can’t say I’m trying to follow Jesus and then do nothing about this. I’m not disparaging social service because we need it. But I’m also calling for social action.
Yes, we need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless. But we also need to take on those systems that perpetuate hunger and homelessness. We are already organized into individual churches, the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ and the national UCC in Cleveland, Ohio. We need to make our presence felt on behalf of our sisters and brothers on the bottom—the least, the last and the lost.
I’ve also learned through experience that when Jesus talked to us about loving our neighbor, Jesus was teaching us how to live fully. Because when we love and help others, we love and help ourselves.
You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours.
You see, there are no throw-away people if you live in God’s kin-dom. There are only throw-away people in Caesar’s kingdom. So we have to choose.
Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.
Let those who have eyes, see and ears, hear.