Left Out

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Today’s sermon passage comes from the one letter we have written by the apostle James. James was known as the brother of Christ, although that might have meant simply that they were quite close. There appear to have been two James – one who died early, and the other who was the first bishop of Jerusalem. This letter is ascribed to that first Bishop, a man known as James the Just.  

In his letter we get a glimpse of what early Christian gatherings were like. He speaks of a dinner where Christians have gathered to worship. This wouldn’t have been in a church – Christianity was an illegal religion in the first century. So, these Christians would have met in secret, in people’s homes. Believers would have knocked at the door, perhaps the back door, and then been ushered inside, usually at night. It’s tempting to think of the dinner taking place at a long table with chairs, like the scene Leonardo da Vinci painted in his image of the last supper. But that’s incorrect. Back then, people ate on low couches, arranged like this:   

 No one sat on chairs, and they ate off low tables set in the middle of a U-shaped set of cushions.  

But James tells us that there is trouble in this little Christian paradise. The people with fancy clothes and golden rings are getting the best seats. The wealthy are ushered in with respect. The poorer believers, who arrive in tattered clothes, are told to sit on the floor, at the feet of the wealthy.   

 Take a look at this picture again. If someone was sitting next to a diner’s feet, that meant they were on the outer edge of this dinner party, far from the food. So, even in this Christian community, the poorest people were on the floor, while the wealthy were on the comfy seats next to the food that was supposed to be shared equally. 

 One of the revolutionary aspects of Christianity had been Jesus’ call for this faith to include people from all levels of society. Men and women, the young and old, and even the richest and the poorest were called to come together as a Christian community. Christ had clearly encouraged his disciples to help those who were poor, and in his sermon on the mount, he had even gone so far as to pronounce that blessed were the poor. If there was any segment of society which would have trouble getting into heaven it would be the rich. Not so much because as a class of people they were doomed, but because their fixation on material things made them so tied to this world that they easily ignored the heavenly realm and its demands*.  

But, in a society where wealth was equated with success and favour from the gods, it was hard for the rich to set aside the notion that they were more equal than others. James rails against this, reminding them that Christ clearly stated that the poor were just as important as those with fine clothes. James reminds them that even the Hebrew Scriptures had said that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Yet, here they were, reproducing social inequality around the table where they would invoke the name of Jesus. This is faith without works to fulfill it, and James declares that that kind of faith is worthless. Jesus did not come to leave the world as he found it. He wanted change, radical change, where the poor would be treated as equals, and helped. He did not come to have them left out. 

 This is Labour Day weekend. Most people will have tomorrow off, thanks to union protests and activism in the late 19th century. But tomorrow’s holiday comes at a strange time for Canada’s working class. For the past three or four decades, working class wages have barely risen at all, once inflation is accounted for.[1] Meanwhile, those who are wealthy have seen their incomes steadily rise. In the 1950s and 60s, Canada’s richest 1% saw their wealth increase by 8 percent as the economy boomed. Most of the revenue generated by that booming economy  was shared among everyone else, causing working and middle class incomes to rise. But lately, that trend has been reversed. Between 1997 and 2007, Canada’s 1% took in not 8 percent of the growth, but 32 percent:  four times as much. [2]  

This is ironic because during the Trump years we were told over and over again that to make America  great again, it should look more like the 1950s. The right wing press remembers the ‘50s as a time when things were good for everyone, although Blacks and women have cause to disagree with that. The irony is that during the 1950s, taxes on the rich were much higher than they are now. In Canada, the tax rate for the top earners in the country was 80% back then, while today it just 53% in the top earning bracket [ 220k] .[3] If the 1950s seem like a time when workers could afford a home, a car and support their families, it is in part because that decade saw a larger share of the nation’s wealth being shared among all citizens. In our time, 75% of Canada’s wealth is in the hands of the top twenty percent of people.  80 percent of the population own the remaining 25% of the country’s real estate and income.

[4] [1] https://financialpost.com/news/economy/in-the-mystery-of-canadas-missing-wages-all-clues-lead-to-alberta [2] https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2010/12/Richest%201%20Percent.pdf, p. 3. [3] https://www.taxtips.ca/taxrates/on.htm [4] https://www.pbo-dpb.gc.ca/web/default/files/Documents/Reports/RP-2021-007-S/RP-2021-007-S_en.pdf, p8, table 4-1. 

Wealth hasn’t been this concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few since the 1920s. And our culture has responded in kind. Our media lionizes the billionaire class, filling the headlines with the exploits of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, not to mention the Kardashians. The needs and the interests of the working class are largely ignored.  

Before the pandemic, how many of us knew that the PSWs at nursing homes had to work in two or three different places to make ends meet? During the pandemic our city and province chose to protect white collar workers first, by asking them to work from home. The elderly were prioritized for vaccinations, even when many were quite safe living in isolation, while working class people had to risk their health leaving home to clean floors, drive cabs and work in stores and restaurants.  

Like the dinner gathering of Christians two thousand years ago, our society has chosen to favour those with wealth, making the needs and interests of the working class and the poor secondary, if seen at all. Yet, in this new gilded age, can any of us claim that society is better for it? We have never been so polarized. Poverty seems to be everywhere we look.  Three quarters of all Canadians who do not own a home are unable to afford one, according to a recent Manulife study.[1] And yet, the headlines are fascinated by billionaires who blast off into space, while their corporations pay little or nothing in taxes. 

 [1] https://financialpost.com/news/economy/in-the-mystery-of-canadas-missing-wages-all-clues-lead-to-alberta [1] https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2010/12/Richest%201%20Percent.pdf, p. 3. [1] https://www.taxtips.ca/taxrates/on.htm [1] https://www.pbo-dpb.gc.ca/web/default/files/Documents/Reports/RP-2021-007-S/RP-2021-007-S_en.pdf, p8, table 4-1. 

In today’s reading, James takes his fellow Christians to task for treating the wealthy better than the poor. Indeed, he reminds them that Christ showed a special attention to the poor. Those who have less, he says, are seen by Christ as being closer to the kingdom of heaven than those who are wealthy. In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, he declared that “Blessed are the poor”, words James no doubt knew. James is suggesting that within Christian assemblies, like church services, the poor have something to teach the rich. The poor know something the wealthy need to know for their spiritual welfare. Indeed, the act of gathering the wealthy and the working poor together at one time for a common meal was in itself a spiritual act. But only if everyone was treated equally.  

I saw this possibility in action at the first church I attended. I became a Christian in my mid- thirties at a church out in the west end. I had grown up secular, so I didn’t know much about how church worked, or the faith. Our minister there, Rev. Cheri DiNovo, set up a Sunday night soup kitchen which fed the poor of Parkdale. For many years I volunteered there. Each Sunday night, about 100 people would file in, sit down, and we would serve them a two-course meal at their seats, in the basement gym.  

At first, I assumed that they were all people without homes, but I was wrong. Over the years, I got to know many of our guests, and it turned out they were a real mix. A few were homeless, often seasonally. Some were people with obvious mental health issues like schizophrenia. Others were living on welfare or disability due to work place injuries, and lived in rooming houses. Some were seniors on fixed incomes. And others were the working poor, including families with children.   

What became clear over the years was that in this church basement, many did not come for the food alone. As I gained their trust, they told me that they came mostly for the conversation and community. There are food programs all over the city, they didn’t have to come to this one. But they liked the fact that they could see friends here, eat a good meal, and be treated like real human beings by the middle class volunteers who took time to talk to them. As I heard the stories of how and why they were poor, it became very clear to me that my wealth and life was largely a matter of luck, not personal worth. My father never beat me, my parents had not died early, I had not had a mental breakdown while I was in university. In the corner of the gym there was a piano, which many of the guests played with great skill. They had grown up in homes where they could afford piano lessons. Then something went wrong, or the economy simply kept them from rising up. That could have been me, I realized. In many ways, it was that church experience, where the poor and well off met, that was more important to my spiritual development than church worship services.  

I know that many of you in the Lawrence Park Community church community have participated in Out of the Cold projects, where this same dynamic is at work. Wealthy people feed those who are experiencing poverty, and offer them a place to sleep overnight. The pandemic shut down those programs, and the shelter system expanded to fill the gap. But there is something about the church setting which matters. Recently, I attended a monthly meeting with the people who run the Roehampton shelter down at Yonge and Eglinton. One of the administrators made an off-hand comment which struck me. She said that her clients at the shelter had told her that they missed the out of the cold programs at the churches. What they missed was the conversation with middle class volunteers. A chance to be treated as equals and really heard by people who cared. That was what they valued about the out of the cold program, even more than the food or a place to sleep. 

 [1] https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/housing-in-crisis-3-in-4-canadians-who-want-a-house-can-t-afford-one-829319771.html 

In today’s scripture reading, James is reminding us that the simple act of creating a safe space for the wealthy and the poor to share a meal, to have conversation, that in itself is a spiritual act. That is a taste of the kingdom of heaven materializing here on Earth. Not because the rich are being kind to the poor. In Christ’s eyes, how much money we have in the bank is irrelevant. It is not who we really are. Our humanity cannot be measured in dollars, something the poor tend to understand better than the rich. The poor have had to find their dignity without large bank accounts. That’s why they have something to teach the wealthy, and why keeping these groups together is a spiritual imperative as much as a moral one.  

Last Sunday, members of this church gathered at Thorncliffe Park to hand out hundreds of backpacks to children in families who are struggling economically. You may have seen the wonderful video Judi Pressman made of the event. That project came out of an encounter one Monday morning when a few of our congregants attended a food drive in the neighbourhood. Some of the local women from Thorncliffe Park mentioned that the community’s families needed backpacks with school supplies to help the poorest families get their kids to school in September. Marilyn Bacon brought word back about the idea, and we jumped on it, as did seven other churches when we told them about it. On one level, this was an act of charity. And   a wonderful one. But note how it came about. Members of two communities, one wealthier than the other, talked to each other as equals, and listened. For the next four weeks, members of both communities were in constant communication on Zoom and via emails, arranging things, and getting to know each other. Acting like neighbours.  

And, as the backpacks were being handed out last Sunday to hundreds of families, someone suggested they sing O Canada. And then they did. Because isn’t this the kind of Canada we want, that people come here for? We may not do it perfectly or consistently, but when people come together to help each other, across economic divides, that’s when this country becomes a bit more like the kingdom of heaven on Earth. And that should always be our goal, in church and outside of it. A country where faith leads to works. A country where people of different faiths and income levels can sit down as equals to plan how to make this nation more like heaven on Earth. That’s the kind of dinner Christ wants to host. And we are all invited. No dress code, come as you are.