Monday, February 10, 2020

"The Poor Are Your Venmo" —St. Augustine, Probably

There's lots of room to debate how we care for the poor: locally, politically, economically. What is not up for debate is that we must give to them, and that, quite literally, our souls are on the line when it comes to it. It uncomfortable to hear the Church Fathers talk about what we, the rich, must do for the poor. That probably explains why you, like me, never heard the Fathers while we sat in the pews. What's more remarkable is that I never heard these direct quotes in the seminary. The first time I even heard reference to the Fathers having an opinion on this topic (don't those guys just talk about homoousios?) was sitting in on a Chesterton fan club meeting at my high school friends' very trad Catholic college. The synoptic gospels say much about giving to the poor; the Church Fathers insist that those words are not just hyperbole. (if you just want to hear the Church Fathers, i.e. part three, jump ahead to 11:00.)

(The image is "Saint John Chrysostom and the Empress Eudoxia" by Jean-Paul Laurens)

5th Sunday of the Year, Year A

The Poor Are Your Venmo

So first, a little bit about the genesis of this homily. 

Back in November, when I was talking about different things that people could get excited about and spend money on, I talked about how we have certain special projects coming up. Maybe the idea of getting a youth minister or giving some sort of stipend to our musicians, repairing things in the church, replacing things. And I also mentioned the St Vincent de Paul Society, which most people probably hadn't heard of before. And then this spring (it's not quite spring yet, but) in February, January, we had the sheets with time and talent. And one of the options was to join a new St Vincent de Paul Society. And I heard a lot of people saying, "Well, I was kind of interested. But what is a St Vincent de Paul Society? I might be interested, but I'm gonna need some more info." I had a lot of people ask me on that. 

So because today's first reading highlights our responsibility to the poor, I figured, hey, this is as good a time as any to explain what that looks like. 

I also want to talk a little bit about our local poor. And then finally, I want to have you hear some of the quotes from the Church Fathers on our responsibility to help the poor. 

Part One:

So let's start with the gospel. Open up your books to Page 58. 58 is today's gospel. 

It's about halfway down on the left hand side there. 

So we are in the Sermon on the Mount. And last week we would have had the Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, except it was the Feast of the Presentation, and it bumped that. And then next week we have the famous "You have heard it said X, but I say to you Y" part of the sermon. 

Today, we get the comparison of salt and light. Look at just the very last couple of lines at the end of the gospel. Jesus says, "Just so your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father." Alright. 

We've all heard this plenty of times, but when we see that "light", let's see how that connects to the first reading. Turn back a page to 57. There's always be a connection between your first reading and gospel on a Sunday. So you notice halfway down on the left hand column... left hand column, halfway down, you see the first reference to light: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn," and you see it again on the right hand side, about four lines in the bottom: "Then light shall rise for you in the darkness." So they too were being promised that light would be coming. But look at the "if"—what makes the light come about? Back in the left hand column, we're told that it's "share your bread at the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked. And when you see them, do not turn your back on your own." That's how you get the light. 

On the right hand side, same question. How do you get there? "If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation, and malicious peace speech. If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, then the light will rise for you." So that's that's the connection. 

And this is in Isaiah. Isaiah was very well known to the Jews of Jesus' day. So if Jesus says, "your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds," they're going to hear: "Ah, Isaiah. 'Do good to the hungry, the oppressed, the afflicted, and then your light shall break forth'." That's what they're going recognize. Go ahead and close your missalettes. 

So there is a constant call to the people of God to take care of the poor— in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and then in the Church after that. But if we're being honest, in the last five hundred years, Christians have put much more energy into arguing over doctrines or trying to make converts than listening closely to this call. 

And therein begins the fascinating story of the St Vincent de Paul Society. So it actually was not started by St. Vincent. He had died about 200 years earlier, It was started by a guy named Frédéric Ozanam. He's now called "Blessed Frédéric Ozanam". And so he was living in Paris in the 1830s. This was a period of extreme unbelief and even anger at the church. (Sound familiar?) So this is 40 years after the French Revolution and all its anti-Christian ideas. And also after the reign of Napoleon and all of the ways in which he tried to co-opt the church into his regime and stuff like that. So at this point, the Faith is legal, but it's sneered at. People look down upon Christianity and say, "It's old fashioned. It went out with the kings like Louis XVI and stuff like that. We don't need that now."

Now Frédéric is a student at the university. Then he becomes a journalist and then a lawyer and then a professor back at the university. And so he, like a lot of men at the time, would belong to debating clubs or dinner clubs or you'd have different topics come up. And it's a mix of Christians and atheists and agnostics and stuff like that. And one day the question came up, "Is the church still good?" And someone said, "You know, the church was once clearly a force for good. Back in the day when it took care of people..." Then they asked Frédéric this question: "What is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you." And that cut Frédéric to the heart. And so he when he left there, he said, "I am going to do something. I know there are Christians who care, then I need to organize them."

So he started organizing people who said, "We will take care of the poor in the streets of Paris. And he chose St. Vincent de Paul as the patron of the group, because nobody, even the most atheistic people, could doubt that St. Vincent de Paul really cared about the poor, the widow, the orphan, the wounded veteran. All these people were the people that St. Vincent cared for 200 years earlier. And Frédéric figured that even an atheistic Paris in a very secularized France had to recognize the beauty and holiness of St. Vincent. And the Society's goal was to help all: everybody in Paris, especially in a material way, but also in spiritual ways. And to help them regardless of faith and regardless of whether or not they were practicing a faith. Their goal was charity first, then you can preach the gospel. Whereas too many today think it's the opposite: preaching the gospel, and then maybe help them out if they believe, right? No, he said "Charity first. Then they'll have ears open to hear." And now, 200 plus years later, we have 800,000 members of different St Vincent de Paul societies throughout the world. 

When I was in Lincoln at St. Patrick's, my first parish, they had really vibrant St. Vincent society. And what was interesting was, you know, St. Pat's is on the north end; it's a little more blue collar than like the far southeast, which is a little more affluent. And like St. Peter's and St. Joe's down in the south, you know, if they had somebody call their St. Vincent de Paul Society. They would just be like, "Okay, you need help of the bill? Here's some money. You need help getting this? Here, we'll give you money. Go get that." But St. Pat's didn't have the money. So they just did a lot on their own. 

They had a couple of retired and semi-retired people who really took seriously that on any given day, we can help you out before the day is over. And so sometimes they would be building things. They had guys who could fix things. And then a whole garage of stuff they had scrounged together over the years. They're like 20 mattresses, little kids mattresses, big people mattresses. They had beds, they had bunk beds. They had like secondhand stoves and laundry machines. And if people said, "Hey, I just moved and I have nothing, can you help me out?" And they would show up with a truck. It was like an ice cream man, but a truck full of appliances going around town. It was awesome. 

And I am convinced that the fruitfulness of St. Patrick's Parish came out of the faithfulness of their St. Vincent de Paul group. Father Doher is an example. He's a vocation out of St. Pat's. But there's been a flurry of vocations out of St. Pat's the last 30 years. And I think it's because of that prayerful, charitable support that comes out of that parish. And I'm convinced they were able to build a church which was really —most people thought— out of their means and ability, because God rewarded them for the way they'd taken care of the poor in their community, one on one. 

Part Two:

So let me talk for a second about our own local poor here in Wahoo. So currently most charity is taken care of by the ministers in this community, Protestant and Catholic both, by the priests and stuff like that. 

In our own church, St. Wenceslaus we have a Good Samaritan fund. When I first got here was called Good Angels, which was very confusing since it's very similar to Guardian Angels, which is like school scholarships. So we said, "call it Good Samaritan." And when I got here it had like six thousand dollars in it. People had given money to give to charity and stuff like that. And so as people would call, I would cautiously and with some questioning, you know, help them out. I try to be as generous as possible, but I definitely have people hang up on me because I ask too many questions sometimes. Because I want to be respectful of your money. 

But I also thought, you know, I don't want to die or get moved from here with $6,000 still in that account. That would mean I didn't actually use your money for what you wanted to be used for. So again, I ask questions, but I make sure to hand it out. And we pretty much use that money up, which is a great thing to actually be able to say we've done what we're supposed to do. Mostly we help out with gas vouchers and stuff like that. Sometimes we help with bills, we always say, "Let's do half. You need help with rent. You need help with your electric bill. If you can get half, we'll do the other half." That's oftentimes what we do there. And that's how most of Saunders County runs —with actually the clergy doing it. 

Now, I want to give you a little stats from our state census. So Saunders County—this is the county, not the city. The median income is $66,700, with the average of the poverty level in the county is 7.8%. That's the percent that is below the poverty level. You move into Wahoo proper though, the income drops to just $53,900 and the poverty level doubles to 16.1%. And to put that in perspective, the average for the entire state of Nebraska is around 11%, maybe 12% some years. So we're quite a bit more impoverished in the city of Wahoo than the state as a whole. I also looked at disability, because I think it plays in there. Of those in town below the poverty level, 29% of men and 32% of women are disabled. They are officially, according to state, considered on disability. 

And I'll say that's completely true from what I see at the food pantry. Tons of people at the food pantry are coming in on disability and you can tell they are hurting. 

So the reason I bring that up is because the constant teaching in the New Testament is that charity begins at home. Mother Teresa used to be upset when people would fly to Calcutta. They'd go to India to work with the Missionaries of Charity, and she'd be like, "Why are you here? There are plenty of poor people in your own hometown. There are homeless throughout your state. You have them. You don't need to fly to India (and whatever that plane costs) to come and look for them here." Now she would let them stay, but then quickly she'd be like, "Go home and find them in your own area."

Christ in the City is an apostolate in Denver, Colorado, that works with homeless there in the city. It's one of the most successful apostolates of the last 15 years I'd say in the Catholic Church. And one thing that they're really good at —so they hire, well, they recruit, 20 or 30 college-aged kids to work for them for a year or two— and then they bring in high school groups and college groups on spring breaks and summer trips. And they do have them work with the homeless for a week. And they say, "OK, we've taught you how to do it here, but don't come back here. Go do it in your own hometown. Go do it in your own area. Do it there."

There's a young man from Hastings whose name is Blake Brouillette, who took that so seriously. He's from Hastings. He went to college at UNK. He took a trip out to Christ in the City. He heard that message and he came back and he took seriously, "I'm gonna start visiting homeless in Kearney, and in Hastings." They are small towns, but they have them. And then he would go visit his friends in Lincoln, the ones who went to UNL, and his friends joked that you always knew what it was going to look like when Blake came in for a Saturday night or Friday night in town. You're going to stop at Wal-Mart. He's gonna buy about 50 pairs of socks and some water bottles and sandwiches. And you're gonna go down under the O Street overpass and he's gonna start handing out socks and water bottles to people and you're gonna go with him. And then you're gonna go have dinner or go out to do whatever you're going to do on a Friday night. And for a bunch of college kids, that was life changing to have one of their own saying, this is how we start a day of hanging out. We do it by taking care of the poor first. 

Part Three:

So this brings me to my third part. I want to share with you what the church has said, pretty constantly for the first 1500 years about the poor. We all know Matthew 25: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. We all know they we're told to give and give generously; it will be given back to us. We know that we're told that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than this for a rich man to enter into heaven. We know that. 

But what I'm about to tell you now with these quotes from the Church Fathers—this is going to hurt. None of us are going to like hearing this. These are quotes mostly from within about 100 years after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman times. These are bishops. These are Church Fathers. These are the brightest minds of their day. We still look back to St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great. These are our brightest minds and they're bishops; they're men of the world. They're not like, you know, crazy hippie types like St. Francis, throwing off their clothes in the city square and running off to the hills. No, these are normal church leaders in big cities. And we're going to be amazed, what we hear from them. 

First of all, a big warning. These are statements about our responsibilities. They're not a statement of how to do them. In other words, do not take a political meaning from these quotes. There is lots of room for legitimate debate about how we do this economically, politically. Some would say, hey, it's a strictly private affair, individual charity —more of a libertarian approach. Others would say, hey, use the state apparatus, you know, use the county, the nation, the state level to help people out. We can legitimately debate how to help the poor. What these quotes show us is that we cannot not take care of the poor. 

So a first one for introduction. This comes from St. Basil the Great. He was the bishop of Caesarea, which would you be a mid-sized diocese like maybe like an Omaha sized city. And he says, first, "How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping?"

That's pretty intense, Basil. Right? I want you to notice that as we go on that they don't talk about it as being a question of "charity" to the poor. They call it "justice". They say it's not that you're giving out charity. You're actually returning something out of justice. You're giving to poor people what is actually theirs. 

This is Ambrose of Milan next. He's the one who converted St. Augustine. He said, "You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his."

And then we have from St. Basil again: "When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man who has the power to clothe the naked, but does not do so be called the same? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot [in your closet] belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every man whom you could help, but do not."

This is so hard for us to accept in 2020. Right? The idea that our surplus isn't just charity to the poor, but they actually have a right to it?? And notice who he considered "the rich" in that one: The common trope you hear people talk about is: Who is rich? If you ask the people who are poor, they'll say somebody who makes $100,000 a year is rich. Then if you ask person with $100,000, they say it's somebody who makes a million a year. You ask that person and they say it's somebody who makes 20 million dollars a year. 

But who does Basil say is rich? Anyone with two cloaks, anyone with spare bread, he says, is rich and can help the poor. 

I think about this every single time I'm on my day off, I'm in Lincoln on Thursday, I think by getting a fancy coffee at some business. "Ooo, can I justify getting this? Like, can I really do that in light of what St. Basil says?"

And as you hear these, you might be thinking, like many people, that this is kind of an attack on private property. "Isn't it trying to take away what we have legitimately earned or bought with our earnings?" Well, actually the Church Fathers answer that directly. 

St. John Chrysostom is next. He is the patriarch of Constantinople. That's the capital of the whole Roman Empire. This would be like being the bishop of New York City or of London or something that. In his parish are the emperor and the empress, generals and nobles. And these are the people in his front row when he's saying this. And John says, "The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally." Wow. 

And then again Basil says, " 'I am wronging no one,' you say. 'I am merely holding onto to what is mine,' you say. What is yours?? Who gave it to you so that you could bring it into life with you [when you were born]? Why, you are like a man who pinches a seat at the theater at the expense of latecomers, claiming ownership of what was for common use. That's what the rich are like: having seized what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having gotten there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest to those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor." 

Dang. This is pretty intense, right? So for 2,000 years people have been saying things like, "You know, the poor, lazy— it's their own fault. They do this to themselves." John Chrysostom totally disagrees. He says the opposite. He says, "Now, don't tell me that you actually work hard. If you call earning money, making business deals and caring for your possessions 'work', I say, 'No, that is not work. But alms, prayer and protection of the injured and like— these are genuine work.' You charge the poor with idleness. I charge you with corrupt behavior."

And then finally, one last one from John. He says, "Let us learn that as often as we have not given alms, we shall be punished like those who have plundered. For what we possess is not personal property. It belongs to all." 

Now, Saint Augustine sees this a little bit differently. I mean, he agrees with them, but he sees in it an emphasis on what's happening in our souls at the same time. Augustine says, "You can take [with you] nothing of what you've loved in this world. What you do [however] take with you is the vice of having loved it." Right, so you can't take your possessions, but you can take your vice of greed. He says that's the danger. 

And then he draws this amazing analogy, this image of two Christian men on a journey, the journey of life. But he says neither of them can make it, if one of the two men is rich. He says that while the wealthy find their possessions are weighing them down on the road, the poor are too hungry for that journey. So, let the rich give their heavy possessions away to the poor man, and it will help them both. So it's a great analogy: to think of them—by trading their stuff—they can both make it. Whereas if one holds onto it, neither one can make it. 

He also has this analogy with that. He says the poor are the "porters of heaven, the porters to heaven" for the wealthy— lifting off of them their spiritual burdens and their possessions. He says, "For when the rich give generously to those in need, the poor will be nourished, and the poor will transfer that wealth to heaven for the rich, where those possessions will be transformed to reflect the heart's eternal treasure: loving communion with God."

I was thinking about the porter image, and was like, "Oh, it's like the poor people are like Western Union. You give them money that goes to some other place!" Then I realized: half the church doesn't know what Western Union is anymore. So, let's put it this way: "The poor are like Venmo. If you give money to the poor people, they will make it land in heaven for you and you can [have treasure] on the other end. But you have to send it through them if you wanted to arrive on time.

St. Clement of Rome of the first century —he's our fourth Pope— he reflects on this. He says there's a prayer difference here; there's a benefit here. He says, "Let the strong take care of the weak. Let the weak respect the strong. Let the rich man minister to the poor man. Let the poor man give thanks to God that he gave him one through whom he can be satisfied." It's an awesome reflection of how they're both receiving a spiritual gift there.

So I want to ask you: In 30, 40, 65 years of going to church, have you ever heard any of these quotes before? I know I had not. I never heard them grow up. And even in the seminary where we should be learning this, never. They pussyfooted around this topic, but they never went there directly. And when I found this out, I was mad. I was mad because I don't want to risk me going to hell because my professors didn't share the gospel with me, because my priests back home didn't preach it to me when I was growing up. 

When the gospel says give generously and give away your possessions— that wasn't hyperbole, at least not to the Church Fathers and the Church Doctors. These are, you know, the brightest minds in the Church, and they thought this was the truth about the human condition. 

So let us all ask along with them: How do we care for the poor? What are we holding onto ourselves? And how does that greed eat away at our hearts? Everyone may hurt when they hear this, but we should also be thankful for having heard the truth. 

And finally, let me say again, it doesn't matter exactly how we take to this work. It matters that we do take to this work. Maybe that means joining the St Vincent de Paul Society. Maybe it means giving money to the poor directly. Maybe that means setting up a special account that they can be helped out. 

But it definitely means doing something. Since our money apparently is not actually our own, but it's truly the poor's possession, and not ours. 

Assorted Church quotes on the rich and poor
St. Basil's whole sermon "To The Rich"
A good paper with many quotes for John Chrysostom
Good article on St. Augustine's thought
Another collection of Patristic quotes 

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