It’s Labor Day weekend, the end of the “lazy, hazy days of summer.” For some of us, this weekend means time at the lake, brats on the grill, and cold beer to wash them down. For others of us, we’re here in church this morning; and the lectionary gives us tougher food to chew: A reading from the Letter of James about practicing love for the poor, and a Gospel reading about Jesus bringing the kingdom of God to people outside the bounds of Jewish society. Oh, and by the way, as we celebrate Labor Day, our city is in the midst of a political battle about labor, arguing over raising the minimum wage. So, as much as some of us might want an end-of-summer reflection on the beauty of creation at the lake, I’m afraid God’s giving us meatier issues today.
That minimum-wage proposal is on hold, at least for the moment. In July, the City Council passed a measure increasing the minimum wage here to $13 an hour by 2020. It was intended as a middle-way approach; and like many middle-way approaches, it angered people on both sides of the debate. Church and social-justice groups are petitioning for a vote in November to raise it to $15 an hour instead; business groups are petitioning to keep it where it is; and the state Legislature will soon try to make any local minimum wage illegal.1 So it’s a complicated time.
Now, I can hear some of you thinking this isn’t a religious issue and shouldn’t be getting air time on a Sunday morning. But I would say poverty is an issue of faith, and Scripture seems to back me up. If you search the Bible for the words “poverty” or “poor,” you get 238 verses. Some of the most pointed are in the Letter of James, as we heard this morning. Of course, like any other issue of faith, the fun comes in the interpretation. At one end of the political spectrum, people argue that raising the minimum wage would reveal the divine justice of God’s kingdom because, in Scripture and tradition, God is always trying to advance the interests of the poor. At the other end of the political spectrum, people argue that raising the minimum wage would harm the working poor by cutting jobs and putting more people out of work; so, they would say, letting the market create opportunity is the best way to reveal God’s kingdom and answer “the cry of the poor” (Proverbs 21:14).
Well, I don’t claim to know much with certainty, but I want to share with you three things I do know to be true.
First, if you ask five economists about raising the minimum wage, you’ll get five different answers about the likely effects. But probably even five economists would agree that regardless of whether we raise the minimum wage or keep it where it is, the law of unintended consequences will put up roadblocks along each side’s highway to the kingdom of God. Raising the wage will probably cause at least some jobs to evaporate. Not raising the wage maintains a status quo in which lots of the people who through the lunch line at the Kansas City Community Kitchen actually have jobs but don’t earn a living. Myself, I think it should be more than $7.65 an hour. But raising the wage, or not, will bring outcomes neither side wants to see.
Here’s the second thing I know to be true: In issues that quickly move to abstraction, it helps to walk in someone else’s shoes. I have never tried to live on minimum wage. But recently, I’ve seen this question through the eyes of someone I love – my son, Dan. Dan works at a local country club serving food and drinks. He’s been making more than minimum wage, $9.50 an hour. And he loves it. As some of you know, Dan decided not to go back to college this year but to work full-time, living in his own apartment and paying his own bills. He loves his job, and he loves being (more or less) a grown-up. For Dan, at 19 years old, he’s been making it just fine on $9.50 an hour. But … he’s still on my health insurance; he doesn’t own a car; and he doesn’t have a family. What amounts to a living wage for him now won’t be a living wage as his life changes. He’ll need to grow into positions of greater responsibility and higher pay; and he may well need to go back to school to make that happen. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Ann and I are blessed in that we could help him do that. When he wants to go back to school, he and we probably can find a way to make that happen. But there are thousands of people in our city who don’t have the social and financial capital even to consider a future like that. My son can work his way up, but it’s tremendously harder for a mom at Operation Breakthrough or a guy who didn’t finish high school, someone who moves from one minimum-wage job to another. They need something to change.
And here’s where all this becomes an issue of discipleship for us. Throughout Scripture, God calls us to recognize the full humanity of those who live past the boundaries of our social worlds and then act to bring God’s kingdom to life among them. In today’s Gospel reading, we see that even Jesus – being fully human as well as fully divine – even Jesus was boxed in by his social expectations. He’s approached by a woman who’s not a Jew but who’s heard about the Spirit’s power working through Jesus; and she asks him to heal her daughter. Before he thinks better of it, Jesus says “no” because she’s one of “those” people, a foreigner, someone outside the Jewish social world; and Jesus had come to bring God’s healing to the people of Israel. So he calls her a “dog” and says the master’s “children” should be fed first (Mark 7:27). Yikes – so much for warm-and-fuzzy Jesus. But the woman’s faith makes Jesus stop short and see that, yes, she, too, is a beloved child of the Most High God – someone worthy of a miracle, someone worthy of an in-breaking of God’s ordering of things, even though she was outside Jesus’ world. When we, too, see “those people” as children of God, we see that they have just as much claim on God’s blessings as we do.
So here’s the third thing I know to be true. We have some power, and with it the responsibility, to help make the kingdom of God come to life in our own spheres of influence. God asks us to open doors between this conflicted world we inhabit and God’s commonwealth just waiting to break in. For those of us in a position to set other people’s wages, including those of us who set wages here at church, we need to imagine ourselves living the life those wages make possible. To whom responsibility is given, loving stewardship is expected.
So if God is asking us to open doors between our world and the reign and rule of God for the working poor, what might that mean for ministry at St. Andrew’s? What can the church do? Well, we can serve working-poor people directly, as we do each week at the Kitchen downtown. We can support kids and teachers in our partner schools and try to equip them to succeed. And we can do something that takes outreach ministry in a new direction, something bridging the political gap by preparing poor people for jobs that pay even more than an increased minimum wage. You may have seen in the Star2 or on TV3 last week the good news about Natasha Kirsch and her social entrepreneurial start-up, Empower the Parent to Empower the Child, or EPEC. Natasha is one of the first partners we’ve brought into the Red Door Center, which is St. Andrew’s own social-entrepreneurship incubator. For more than a year now, officing out of St. Andrew’s, Natasha has been working with church members to build a board, raise money, network with city officials and civic leaders, and find a permanent location for her enterprise. And what is it she’s creating? EPEC will train unemployed and underemployed people for jobs as dog groomers. Little did we know there’s a huge demand for dog groomers in Kansas City and that they earn $19 an hour. So Natasha’s start-up will train people to groom dogs but also to manage their household income, and be good parents, and succeed in the workplace. She’s gathering clients from Operation Breakthrough, the Rose Brooks Center, and other agencies. And as of last week, the City Council is leasing her a formerly vacant building, dirt cheap. Parishioners here helped her get that building, and have designed its renovations, and have helped her raise the construction costs, and serve on her board of directors. And, to complete the circle, Natasha is now a part of this church community, serving on our Outreach Commission and worshiping here with us. Our Red Door Center has incubated EPEC to a point where it’s now taking flight. And 18 students a year will see their lives, and the lives of their families, transformed by it.
You can say, well, that’s only 18 people a year. OK. But Jesus healed individual people, too. We are commissioned to enact God’s reign within the scope of our spheres of influence. And when we do, those spheres of influence grow as others see and know the reign of God breaking into our reality and transforming our sometimes-so-small sense of what’s possible. We serve as agents of the God for whom nothing is impossible, even in this complicated and broken world.
It’s easy to get stuck on the horns of political controversy. And it’s even easier for many of us to avoid the conflicts that political controversy brings. You’ve heard me say before that our congregation’s functional vision statement has sometimes been, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” We carry a long history of that, so it’s understandable that we’re not exactly wired, as a church, to jump into political issues. But we can’t let that keep us from truly seeing the children of God on the margins of our awareness. We can’t let that keep us from acting as God’s agents to change the realities that keep people trapped in poverty and hopelessness. We serve a God who makes the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk – and who brings good news to the poor. Well, amazingly enough, God chooses to do that through us, commissioning even us both to speak and enact good news to the poor, sending even us to say: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God … he will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4) It is nothing less than miraculous what God can do when we live out the “royal law” – to love our neighbors as ourselves (James 2:8). We can’t just wish the working poor well, in the abstract, and hope that God will be nice enough to take care of them. As James says, “Faith without works is dead.” But faith with works? That is divine – God’s own love, in the flesh.
1. Alonzo, Austin. “Competing referendums put brakes on KC minimum wage increase.” Kansas City Business Journal, Aug. 17, 2015. Available at: http://www.bizjournals.com/kansascity/news/2015/08/17/kcmo-minimum-wage-increase-delay.html. Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.
2. Horsley, Lynn. ‘KC dog grooming school aims to provide jobs to unemployed parents.” Kansas City Star, Aug. 26, 2015. Available at: http://www.kansascity.com/news/government-politics/article32423133.html. Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.
3. Pepitone, John. “City Council to approve plan to create dog grooming school aimed at helping single moms get jobs.” Fox 4 News Kansas City, Aug. 27, 2015. Available at: http://fox4kc.com/2015/08/27/city-council-to-approve-plan-to-create-dog-grooming-school-to-help-single-moms-get-jobs/. Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.