Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sermon: The Poor

Reading 2: The Gospel reading is from John, chapter 12

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Holy Wisdom, Holy Word.   Thanks be to God

Lent 5 Year C

John 12:1-8

The Poor

By Rich Gamble

In the story today in John, Mary has wasted perfectly good perfume to anoint Jesus. Judas complains that the perfume could have been sold for a great deal of money and that could have been given to the poor. Three hundred denarii is about a years salary for a common worker. In today’s terms here in Seattle we are talking about maybe $30,000. Imagine paying that amount for a bottle of perfume and then using all of it at one time on one person’s feet.


Granted Jesus didn’t ask for this but neither did he try to stop Mary. And when Judas complains Jesus defends Mary. Now John discounts Judas’ motive for saying this. Where this story appears in the other Gospels it is the disciples as a whole who ask the question. The point is the question not the motivation behind why it was asked. Why waste the resource? Why not turn it into aid for the poor?


Jesus quotes the first part of Deuteronomy 15:11 “You always have the poor with you,” he then says “but you do not always have me."


I bet you have heard that quote about the poor always being around. It is generally used by people who know enough of the bible to insulate themselves from the implications of being Christian. People use this quote to justify ignoring the plight of the poor.  The point supposedly is that it is silly to worry about the suffering of impoverished people because they are a natural part of the social and economic landscape. Worrying about the suffering of the poor is like worrying about rain in Seattle. It happens, live with it.


It is important when people write off the suffering of billions of people with this throw away quote that we respond that it is a really bad understanding of what Jesus means. First of all Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11.


Indeed if you read the rest of Deuteronomy 15:11 you will see that it says:

“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.’”


This quote comes from a part of Deuteronomy which talks about the Sabbatical Year which calls on believers to honor God every seven years by forgiving debts, and releasing those enslaved by debts.


Assuming that Jesus understands what he is quoting then not only is he not saying to ignore the poor but he also pointing out a passage that talks about the forgiveness of debts and setting free indentured servants every seven years. It is a vision of charity as part of a broader systemic approach to economics. Yes you help those in need by giving freely but also you forgive debts and set slaves free. It is a much bigger picture than just giving money to those in need.


So what’s going on in this passage? Jesus in supporting Mary’s action is saying to the Judases of the world, there will always be opportunities to care for the poor. But what Jesus is about is something greater than charity, something bigger than justice. Jesus is the embodiment of the will of God and that will leans not to a perpetuation of unjust relationships between rich and poor.


Jesus represents God’s ancient call to upset the applecart of human relations and celebrate our faith by ridding ourselves of injustice and all other forms of violence and living fully in the light of the love of God.  


In other words Judas, our celebration of Jesus is not about painting the smiley face of charity across the abysmal evil that is injustice. Jesus represents God’s indomitable will to Love and love is bigger that charity, even bigger than justice.


Jesus then is the symbol of the transformation of the values of the human community.


Charity is important but it is not the answer. Charity perpetuates the separation between the rich as givers and the poor as receivers. Justice eliminates the separation by redistribution of resources so no one has to be a perpetual receiver. Charity by itself justifies unjust systems by making those who profit from the system feel righteous and superior to those who are the recipients of their generosity.


Yesterday 3 of our interns joined with people of faith from across Seattle to talk about starting a campaign to make the minimum wage in Seattle a living wage. In other words compensation capable of supporting a family with adequate salary and benefits. This work comes straight out of our understand of God as one that places a priority on those most marginalized and vulnerable.


Out of that conversation came the insight that by providing food banks and free medical care we are often subsidizing the profits of those businesses that fail tor provide their employees with a living wage and adequate benefits.


Could Mary have honored Jesus by selling the perfume and giving it to the poor. Of course she could. But this story is meant to provoke our thoughts and questions. This story highlights the fact that Jesus stands for more than just charity. In fact charity is one of the least parts of what Jesus has to offer. Jesus embodies for us a struggle for a world ruled by love where the need for charity would be rare because we have constructed a just and loving society .


Why should places like this church exist, when the space could be used to provide low cost housing, and the budget could be used to buy food for the hungry? Well we shouldn’t continue to exist if we are not promoting a bigger more just vision of what the world could be. But as long as we do proclaim such a vision then we like Jesus serve a vital role. We question the current order of things and instead illuminate the radical alternative that is God’s Realm. We are called neither to abandon our works of charity nor our work for justice. It is important to remember that charity often makes us feel better about ourselves than working for justice does. That is why most congregations do some form of charity but few do the work of justice. But is it in that more challenging less rewarding work of promoting Jesus’ alternative world view where the real hope for humanity is to be found.


This congregation has given hundreds of thousands of dollars away to support the cause of charity and justice since the beginning of the Festival of Hope. In the time that I have been at Keystone we have over 500 forums for justice, plus countless planning meetings. We host Eliza’s work with Heifer which helps provide food and empowerment to people all over the planet. We host my work with FAITH which works towards the end of homelessness. That work may not have happened if there had not been a congregation keeping this space open. That work may not have happened if there had not been a congregation here tending the flame of God’s vision.


But as important as all that work is the vision God gives us is so much bigger. The implications of understanding the very core nature of God and therefore ourselves as self-giving love, has the power to transform lives, families communities and nations.


As long as that vision sits at the heart of this congregation and as long as we act in accordance with that vision then we are justified in giving our time and money to keeping Keystone alive and growing. As long as embers of a vision of God’s love smolders in places like this, then there is the very real possibility that it will catch and transform the world. We are the keepers of a vision of transforming hope. That vision is very good news.



Thursday, March 7, 2013

Young Adult Service Communities


This link takes you to the United Church of Christ national website's page for Young Adult Service Communities. Scroll down and you will see our community there. They are taking applications for the program for next year so if you know a young adult send them the above link.