This morning in the reading of the Gospel of Luke, commonly referred to as the Beatitudes and which has its parallel in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verses 3–12, we are confronted by the words of Jesus who said, “blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who hunger, blessed are you who weep, blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you and defame you. Rejoice,” Jesus said. “and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is what our ancestors did to the prophets.”
The Gospel you have heard this morning reflects the penultimate concern that Jesus had for the poor and hungry, the dispossessed, and in the teaching to his disciples and to us today his teaching causes us to reflect upon the role of the prophets who condemned those who oppressed the poor and the vulnerable.
I have a concern that this teaching has not been heard well lately, especially by those who represent us in government. And when such seems to be so, it is important to raise the clear teachings of Jesus, and his concerns and care for the poor, as uncomfortable as those teachings might be for those of us who gather in this great Cathedral this morning and for those elected to the Congress of the United States to serve the needs of all the American people
The Right Reverend Henry Yates Satterlee, first bishop of the Diocese of Washington and visionary for the building of this Cathedral, took very seriously the role of what this great church for national purposes must ultimately exist for. As one who was deeply concerned about the moral and ethical issues that could become obscured by the overwhelming volume of the daily business of politics in the Nation’s Capital, he set out to endow the Cathedral pulpit and its programs with prophetic power by saying,
If there is one city where religious impressions need to be strengthened and religious principles upheld, it is in the capital of our country. Cathedral preachers will be free, like Christ in the temple, to rebuke class sins, the political sins, the national sins of the people; free to stand forth to denounce corruption, unpatriotism or immorality, whether in a dominant political party or in the highest rulers of the land. Think of the tremendous moral power of a great cathedral preacher who dares from the pulpit of a free church in a free state, to hold up the mirror of Christ’s pure Gospel, with the highest ethical standards before the eyes of those who neglected the responsibilities their country has laid on them, or who forgot that public office is a public trust. All great prophets of the Bible rebuked the national sins as a moral disease which honeycombs the life of the people. Dante is gone, but do we not need to make room in our American Church for the prophetic voice?
Bishop Satterlee gained his perspective on cathedrals from the early history of the Middle Ages. Then, cathedrals were known as the “palaces of the poor” and stood as vast architectural counterweights to the opulent castles of kings and princes. Bishop Satterlee believed that his cathedral, known as Washington National Cathedral, must be open to the common person, and that money and financial interests of a few people should not influence, direct or modify the principles of Cathedral life, outreach and ministry; nor should his Cathedral shy away from controversy if the Gospel mandates of Jesus were being compromised.
Jesus had great concern for the suffering of humanity but he also addressed the needs of those who had wealth, teaching that even with the power of their wealth they needed spiritual enlightenment. For those who had been given much, their salvation would be based on their need to give from their abundance; to give to their neighbors and to those in need or in trouble. In so doing those with means would be serving the Son of Man himself.
This past Thursday I found myself placing phone calls to members of the House and Senate from Maryland and to our Congresswoman from the District of Columbia. They represent the 45,000 constituents in the Diocese of Washington who live in four counties in Maryland and the District. My concerns shared had to do with what has been happening with the Federal Budget Reconciliation process that will develop the 2006 Federal Budget, and the impact that the budget will have on the poor, the working poor, the elderly and children in this country. I had been studying the Gospel of Luke in preparation for this morning’s service at the Cathedral. As I read and studied the Gospel and supporting commentaries, and then prayed over what I had been reading, I was drawn to what has been happening on Capitol Hill as efforts are made to trim the budget and reduce an overwhelming Federal Budget deficit.
From the Senate side have come cuts of 39.1 billion dollars over five years from current safety net or entitlement programs for the poor, the elderly, and children. 13.7 billion dollars are proposed to be cut in student loans, placing those least able to afford a college education in jeopardy for a better life and the freedom that a college education can provide.
On the House side, there is an effort to trim $50 billion from safety net or entitlement programs in the next five years. Some of the proposed cuts are $884 million from the current Food Stamp Program. Some 300,000 men, women and children would be cut from Food Stamps. 40,000 children would lose eligibility for free or reduced cost school lunch programs—children who already live with food deficiency. Tens of thousands of legal immigrants would be cut from the Food Stamp program until they have lived in the United States for seven years.
There would be a roll back in court ordered expansion of foster care payments to relatives who take in children removed from their birth parents by court order, impacting some 4,000 children. $9.5 billion would be extracted from Medicaid, which would directly impact those who are at or below the poverty line, including the elderly, children, and the working poor who will have to pay more if they can, and receive less. TANF (Temporary Assistance To Needy Families) will require far more stringent work requirements, marriage promotion initiatives, and will reduce the amount of funds a state has to use toward child care and direct assistance to poor working families trying to better themselves. There is also a proposed change in Social Security that would delay payments to seniors and persons with disabilities, and also a $5 billion cut in child support enforcement.
As I reflected on what I consider to be not only draconian cuts but an immoral Federal Budget, I thought back to many years ago when this nation forged ahead with a program known as “The War On Poverty.” Today it seems as if Congress is engaging in a “War Against The Poor.” At the same time as our elected leaders in the Congress are moving forward with a Federal Budget that would not pass the test of Christ’s Gospel, there is a push to move forward with a fifth tax cut in as many years that will amount to $70 billion that, if not enacted, would more than offset deficit reductions in social welfare programs resulting from budget cuts.
On the cost side, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next five years will be about $460 billion. Veteran’s costs, many resulting from the casualties of this war, will amount over the next five years to $315 billion. Deficit financing for the war will amount to $220 billion with the total cost to the American economy from March 2003 to 2010 estimated to be $180 billion. I urge you to do the math in adding up these figures. And for the sake of the men and women of our armed forces who bravely serve their country in these military campaigns, and for the over 2,000 men and women who have given their lives for their country, the more than 7,000 critically wounded American soldiers and the over 28,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, our government must find a way out of what has become a painful and agonizing experience.
Financially, it can be said that this nation is in trouble. But of greater concern is our moral obligation to care for the least among us, the poor, and the rising number of working poor, unemployed youth, the elderly and children. The Gospel defines basic Christian priorities that are neither owned by the Christian Left nor Right. Christians can disagree about how to interpret Holy Scripture but on one point there is total agreement. Not caring for the poor, the elderly and the hungry among us is a violation of the very teaching of Jesus Christ. Within Jewish and Christian faith traditions there is a common theme of justice and love for one’s neighbor and a call of people of faith to feed the hungry and care adequately for the poor. And so it is with the reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning.
An over-arching theme of Jesus’ teaching and the very core of the Gospels is that “as you have done to the least of these my friends, so have you done it to me.” As Christians, our theology reminds us that as we violate the words of Jesus, so we violate the very words and presence of God in our lives.
As the wealthiest nation on earth, to be embroiled in the current budget cuts impacting those living on the margins of survivability in our country is a moral outrage. For all who claim Christ as savior and engage him as the center of their earthly journey, we must become less invested in the divisiveness of politics and far more invested in becoming a more moral society.