What about the Poor?

Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2013
Lent 5C
John 12:1-8
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are nearing the end of the Lenten season – next Sunday is Palm Sunday with all of the pomp and pageantry and drama of that day.  If you are like me, you may have found yourself prompted by a couple of days in the 50’s pondering the return of Spring and a few things are finally budding – adding to the hopeful sense of the season to come.

This morning’s Gospel reading, which tells of the anointing of Jesus, is an invitation to glimpse what is to come, even in the midst of our Lenten discipline.  It is such an important story that it is retold, with some variation in each of the Gospels.  In John’s version the event takes place in Bethany, at the home of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters.  The family, Jesus and Judas are gathered around sharing in the celebration of the restored life of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised.  The action of the story focuses on Mary pouring out a container of wildly expensive perfume – estimates place the value at about a year’s salary – she pours it on Jesus’ feet and then wipes it with her hair.

This extravagant act is called out by Judas who sharply criticizes Mary for wasting what he suggests could have been converted into a significant amount of cash for the poor.

Jesus’ response is loving, gentle and generous in its own right – he allows that she has planned in advance and is prepared (and perhaps practicing) for his burial.  In his kindness toward Mary, John’s gospel offers a much quoted and frequently misused response.  Jesus says, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  He is foreshadowing his imminent death, crediting Mary with being aware of it, but what is he telling the rest of us about the poor?

I do not believe that Jesus is inviting us to simply accept the fact that there will always be poor people, or that we should disregard them.  The bulk of the biblical record is rife with all sorts of invitations to address the needs of the poor.  Yet this passage has been used as a rationale to do little to alleviate poverty, or as a subtext to accept significant economic and social disparities as inevitable.

This question – (W)ill we always have the poor? – has threaded its way through my Lenten observance this year, and I wonder if it has ever given you pause.

A small group of us, and groups in several other parishes across the Diocese of Massachusetts have taken Bishop Shaw up on his invitation to read a book called “The Rich and The Rest of Us” by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley.  This book captures stories that West and Smiley collected as they made their way across America by bus in 2011.  Their bus tour was aimed at doing solid reporting about what poverty looks like in our country.  Born of frustration at the fact that none of the Presidential candidates were saying anything about the poor, and the authors felt that we were becoming complacent about the way in which poverty was showing up in the press.  They compared it to the 1800s when it was a common practice to blame poor people and suggest that their circumstances were a reflection of their own moral failing, laziness, or lack of ambition.  There are some stark contextual quotes in the book that demonstrate the fear that people have with associating with the poor, as though it were a condition that could be caught.

One of the interesting results of the bus tour was that West and Smiley were picketed at many of the stops that they made.  Crowds gathered to denounce them for glorifying the poor.  These demonstrators felt that the bus tour drew attention that distorted the magnitude of the actual problem.  Others showed up to wave posters and picket the bus tour as being a propaganda tool of the right, and for making President Obama look bad.  There was a remarkable political balance to the opposition.  However, the personal stories that the tour organizers heard, and the people that they met enroute made it impossible to peg the problem of poverty as either a left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican issue.  The suffering that was bravely described by the people who participated in the bus tour was simply human and called out for something to be done.

Many of the stories that Professor West and talk show host Smiley share are stories of the new poor.  People who worked hard all their lives, were college educated, upwardly mobile, working their way up the corporate ladder, until at some point, they became part of a budget balancing equation and were laid off.  The families had never felt vulnerability before, but were now the human faces of our economic decline.  People who had never wondered or had to think about what their grocery bill was going to be, had to figure out where their next meal was going to come from.  People who had thrived and considered how to expand and modify their already ample houses, describe being faced with figuring out whether it would be possible to sell that same house for enough to cover their untenable mortgage.  The book and study materials offer us stories of people in real pain.  There are several stories of people who had accidents or got sick and had to choose between selling their house and receiving extensive medical treatment.  The authors suggest that this is the new face of the poor.

There are many common threads that connect each of the people who share the facts of their changed circumstances.  They are surprised, they are worried, they do not see a solution or an alleviation of their suffering any time soon, and they feel isolated.

As our Lenten study group made our way through “The Rich and The Rest of Us” I have wondered whether the people described as the new poor are members of a church community and if so, whether they are being supported by their community?  I know that within our own community we are challenged to be present and support our friends and parishioners who are in an unexpected transition, are newly unemployed, or vulnerable.  I’ve heard the explanations about our New England culture of going it alone, but I think that church – the intimate connections through Christ that we are invited to make, out rank the history and tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip.

We know that the down economy has directly impacted Cohasset, Dorchester, Scituate, Hingham and Hull, and I imagine that there are fellow parishioners who are feeling isolated or insecure, but are either not with us this morning, or are not comfortable letting anyone else know what is really going on at home or at work.

When I was a child my family and I lived in a lovely brick and board colonial house.  It was the Perin House and we lived in Perintown, Ohio.  From the outside looking in, ours appeared to be among the most fortunate families in town.  We had a huge house, a giant station wagon, we went to private school and for a time, it was true — we did have all and more than we needed.  But one day we found that we had nothing and were at risk of losing the house.

I remember that there were times when we had no heat in the dead of winter.  Other times we couldn’t afford water, the worst times for me were when we didn’t have food.  We weren’t an active part of a church community, and no one knew how we were struggling.  My mother was too proud to ask for help – a committed New Englander having grown up in Scituate.  But I wanted desperately to have someone know and to help my mother out.  As a kid, I just wanted heat, or water or food.  I didn’t care or attach any blame or shame to the cause of our discomfort, I just wanted it fixed.  And I wanted my mother to have help and to feel less isolated and vulnerable.

A couple of weeks ago when we had the huge storm that knocked out power for days and did such damage around town, all I kept wondering was which kids were freezing and worried and wondering who would help their parents fix it.  God calls us into wholeness and wants us to be aware of our belovedness, but if you are hungry, cold or afraid, being beloved ends up about furthest from your mind.

Jesus tells Judas, Mary, Martha and Lazarus that we will always have the poor with us, but it is likely that he was quoting from Deuteronomy: “Since you always have the poor with you, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.’ Which is a lovely passage and includes some specific charges for us as it goes on:

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 “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 neighbor…Give 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. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’’

I look forward to spending the end of Lent and much of Easter contemplating what we can do together to alleviate the suffering, overcome the pride, or invade the isolation of anyone in our community who would qualify within the West-Smiley definition of the new poor.  We aren’t supposed to just accept poverty as a perpetual fact of life.  As we affirm at the beginning of each Lenten service, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In this case that might mean checking in to see how things are going, and what might be needed.

Are you missing a friend here today, or curious to know how things are going for a neighbor you haven’t seen or heard from in a while?  I know that it is terribly unNew England like, but why not give them a call and invite yourself over? Or invite them to come to the last Lenten soup night this Wednesday – anything, just reach in.  I was waiting for someone just like you to come and break down the barriers that my good New England mother had put in place.

Let’s find a way to answer the silent prayer of any kids or adults who are hungry, cold, proud and unemployed or uninsured.  This is the work that God has given us to do, and part of the gift of being in community is to know that suffering is not what God wants for us, and that together we can do something about it.  Amen

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