by Linda Ryan
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. 8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’ – Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (Reading for the commemoration of Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness)
This week I’ve been considering the word duty. Duty, for me anyway, usually denotes an action or a commitment that I may not willingly undertake, but feel that it is necessary for me to do so. I have a duty to pray for people that I don’t like, and that’s a hard one for me overcome. I have a duty to pay my bills on time, to make sure I follow traffic laws, and to try to see God in each person with whom I interact directly or indirectly, whether or not I really want to even try.
This week duty came into even more focus with the retirement of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who, at almost 96 years of age, has performed his duties with humor, a few gaffes, but a visible support to the Queen and representative of the generation were duty was a far more common word then we use today. For almost 70 years he has stood beside the Queen, supporting her in her own duties as well as carrying out his own. I look at the Duke and I see a very elderly gentleman, with bushy eyebrows, thin hair, a man who looks very different than he did in his prime, but with a very straight ramrod back of someone who had trained in the military to stand tall and do his duty. He’s done his duty, and the British Commonwealth, as well as Anglophiles such as myself, salute a man who represents the true meaning of the word duty. I’m sure there were times he was bored to death, having unveiled so many plaques, opened so many different events and charities. I’m sure he couldn’t have been totally utterly fascinated with all of them, but he did them anyway, and to the best of his ability. That’s duty.
The commemoration for today is for a woman named Frances Perkins. Up until a few years ago, I would venture to say that most Episcopalians had never heard of Frances Perkins or, as it may be, never took any note of her presence. In 2013, she did rise to prominence with her victory in the annual Lent Madness competition to wear the Golden Halo for the year. We learned about Frances Perkins then, and it seems quite proper for us to remember her now, especially in light of current situations.
Frances Perkins was notable for being the first woman appointed to a US cabinet post by Franklin D Roosevelt. She was Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and did not just what had traditionally been a man’s job, but a duty that I believe reflected her passions and more than a sprinkle of Christian values.
Among her accomplishments were her promoting and establishing adoption of programs that helped change the lives of many people:. Social Security; child labor laws; federal minimum wage laws; and unemployment insurance. That’s a pretty good list and a lot of causes in which she believed passionately. Having witnessed throughout her life the struggles of the poor, unemployed, underemployed, and especially the plight of women in the workplace, she took her experiences combined with her Christian faith and her perceived duty, and worked tirelessly to change as much as she could for the benefit of those most in need.
Frances Perkins saw duty when she saw people struggling to make an honest living in a world that was very much like the one we live in today, a world of 1% versus 99%. The causes she worked for and believed in have become our causes because they are now under scrutiny and, in some cases, threatened by people who may not even know the name Frances Perkins, but they certainly see those programs so dear to her heart as nuisances and as blocks to their own success and increased wealth. We see social programs being chipped away, actions that will affect the poor and the needy, the sick, and those who have the most negligible safety nets. I wonder if the word “duty” ever comes into the conversation or even the thought of those making decisions today that affect so many millions of people, but benefits so few? I wonder what Frances would think.
Frances was a Christian (Episcopalian since young adulthood), who saw her duty and responsibility in changing the world to make it more of what God’s kingdom should be than any earthly kingdom. Jesus laid the duty on all of us to care for the less fortunate, and even the Hebrew Scriptures make a priority of being generous and caring for the widows and orphans, the sick, and even the aliens, the foreigners. It was their duty given them by God, and they took it seriously. Whether with straight backs or bent ones, duty was laid on all and, they did their best.
So, where do we stand at this point in time insofar as our Christian duty as outlined by the very Bible that we proclaim to believe in and follow? Where the duties that God and Jesus appointed for us to do? How are we to conduct ourselves so that we can not only perform our duty, but to let with gladness and with pride, and also with compassion? It’s our duty to create this kingdom of God on earth. God said so. So it’s about time we got busy and started doing our duty.
This week I think I will try to stand a little straighter, be a little more thorough in doing my duty at whatever task I’m given, and to do it because it helps not just me but other people. I need to accept the word “duty” not as something unpleasant, but something I need to do joyfully and thoroughly, and with gratitude to God for guidance and help in this kingdom-making endeavor. One voice may not be heard by all, but it certainly can call for like-minded folk to join theirs.
Image: from Lent Madness