Sermon: You Always Have the Poor with You
Delivered at Christ Church Washington (Episcopal) Parish; Washington, DC; 03-17-13. Year C, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8.
After Hurricane Katrina, I spent several months as a disaster recovery intern for the Diocese of Louisiana - in fact, that internship was the start of this blog. One of my starkest memories of that time is of standing in the abandoned Lower Ninth Ward Walgreen's parking lot where we ran a distribution center, listening to a destitute subcontractor tell his story to a deacon.
This subcontractor had just finished two weeks' worth of work, but was being ripped off with no available recourse. The stolen pay was devastating to his business, his crew, and his family, and he was understandably quite worked up and distraught. The deacon listened, prayed with him, and apologized, saying all I can give you is a hug and these Vienna sausages. The contractor insisted no apologies were necessary, replying, "No, you already gave me everything. You listened to me - you made me feel human and loved again. No one has done that in months."
There are many others here this morning who, like that deacon, do far more for the poor than I can ever hope to do. Today's Gospel is a particularly tough one for those of us focused on that mission: "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
It's been said that this is one of the most frequently abused verses in the Bible - that it is used to justify ignoring the poor as the basis for such non-Biblical quotes as "The Lord only helps those who help themselves." On Google, I found several pundits, like Bryan Fischer, using the verse to attack their political opponents and compare their motives to those of Judas. And if you've seen Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar," you might remember the Christ character's line, "Surely you're not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot."
But we know that that's not what Jesus meant. Helping the poor - not just the poor of spirit, but the unemployed, the prostitutes and bums, the "crackheads and welfare queens" - is mentioned more than any other topic in the Bible. This is who Jesus ate with. But if that's what this Gospel is not about - then what is it about?
I think that that deacon in Louisiana was on to something. He was serving the poor, but he was doing it as part of something bigger.
But we'll come back to that. First, let's take a step back and think about what it must have been like that night.
It was only the previous chapter of John that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and the authorities are terrified about what this means for their own power. Jesus and Lazarus are now both marked men - indeed, Good Friday is only eight days away. But for all the foreboding dark clouds ahead, one joyous fact, remains: Lazarus has been raised from the dead! Our brother is returned! His sisters Martha and Mary invite the Apostles into their home for a celebration. Worries are set aside, if only for one more night.
Mary alone among the Apostles seems to know what's coming and what it means. She takes this last celebratory occasion, this last happy moment together, to honor Christ. By anointing Him with perfume, she is preparing Him for death and burial. And by letting her hair down, she is doing it in a very intimate and personal way.
Despite the earlier quote, this scene is actually my favorite song from "Jesus Christ Superstar." In it, Mary sings a lullaby to Jesus: "Try not to get worried, try not to hold onto, problems that upset you - don't you know everything's alright, yes, everything's fine." But then, like bad news or politics at the Thanksgiving table, Judas completely misses the point and loudly interrupts everything.
In John, Jesus seems to reply not to Judas, but to the whole room: Yes, Judas is half right. Serving "the least of these" is one of our biggest missions - but it is also part of something even bigger still. You will always have the poor, He says, so you must always serve them. But, do not serve them for their sake, or for your own - serve them for me, says the Lord.
Service is just an effect. The cause is our loving relationship with the one true God. All else, including loving our sisters and brothers and seeing God's image in them, flows from that beautiful, challenging relationship.
Isaiah writes, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" That night at Mary's house, the new thing was so close. It was barely a week away - not just the Cross, but the resurrection. The conquering of death, the conquering of grief and sorrow. The eternal reminder that things of this world, like death and poverty, are not final. We are reconciled to our loving Creator. This is the new thing God is doing - this is the Good News! Mary knew this, so she drew closer to Christ. But Judas couldn't see it. For poor Judas, the things of this world remained the only things.
This is why loving our neighbor is but the second commandment. Loving the Lord our God is still the first. This means step one is always pouring out the perfume on Christ's feet - not because God is some narcissist needing praise, but because, as the webcomic Coffee With Jesus points out, worship isn't for God - it's for us.
Worship isn't for God - it's for us. Through it, we grow closer to God. And when we find that closeness, it is only natural that we would want to spread it.
When, like Mary or the deacon in New Orleans, our service is service before God, two things happen. First, physical bread goes farther. For Judas, worldly service was the highest calling to which he could aspire. But because that is not actually true, he still felt empty - and turned not to Christ to fill that hole, but to greed. He would happily donate, say, 290 silver pieces, but steal 10 for himself. Had Judas been able to act in joy and give to the poor because he saw in them God's image, he would not have felt the need to steal, and they would have had more silver.
Second, when service is a means, not an end, we find that bread is not the only thing involved. Far more happens than simple economics - grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and love all come too. This is what I learned from that deacon in New Orleans. These are the things the contractor received, to the point that, for at least that one half hour, he barely cared that he hadn't been paid.
But if I may stop being preachy for a moment - I certainly fail at this. When I walk to work, past Union Station and the Postal Museum, I intentionally cross the street so that I'm not hit up by the same beggars each morning. Now we can have an argument about the effectiveness of giving money to a man on the sidewalk instead of to Bread for the City, but that would miss the point. I find myself avoiding my brothers, focusing more on the awkwardness of this world than on the dignity of a personal exchange or the love of Christ. I have a very, very long way to go.
But together, we can remember Paul's exhortation - we press on, we keep trying, precisely because Christ Jesus has made us His own. It's hard, but that's okay, because we get to start over and try again, every single day.
No matter what other critical values we have - challenging Pontius Pilate (or the White House or Wall Street), caring for creation, even spending time with our families - none can be fulfilled on their own. As Cara+ said last week regarding the Prodigal Son, it's all about walking towards Jesus.
And just as Jesus wasn't really talking to Judas in the Bible, I don't think Mary was really singing to Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar," either. She too was singing to us. When we see the new thing God is making, when we put our hope and trust in God alone, and not in the things of this world, then like Mary sang, we truly can "try not to get worried, try not to hold on to problems that upset you. Don't you know everything's alright, yes, everything's fine." When we lay our burden downs, look to Jesus, accept that love, and let everything else, including service, flow from that relationship first - then "everything's alright, yes, everything's fine."