Sermon for 5th Lent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
There are some Bible texts that take on a “life of their own,” so to speak, texts that become very well-known apart from the Bible. Some of these become so well known that they are quoted, or misquoted, without any connection to the Bible or the Christian faith. Today’s Gospel lesson, this Fifth Sunday in Lent, includes one of these quotes, often misquoted or, at least, often quoted out of context, when Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you,” a phrase often quoted as “The poor will always be with us.”
I know you have heard this quote before today and I am betting you have heard it far from a Christian context. Some politicians are fond of this quote – it affirms something they want to believe and gets them off the hook. If the poor will always be with us, they surmise, then we do not have to be too concerned about the poor. You can just imagine them thinking or even saying that our efforts to help the poor will make no difference anyway, so why should we even try?
I well remember the speech contest from my senior year in high school. I spoke and did not win the contest. The winning speech was by my neighbor who spoke on “The poor will always be with us!” All I can remember of her talk is that she affirmed the continuing “problem” of the poor, who, despite any efforts we may make, will always be around. Now, I was only 17, but I knew even then how wrong that argument was and continues to be.
You see, Jesus is not talking about the poor in this Gospel lesson. Jesus is making a point to Judas and, more importantly, trying to get his disciples to realize what is about to happen to him, how Jesus will go on to Jerusalem where he will be captured, tortured and executed and then rise from the dead to bring salvation to humankind. “You will not always have me,” says Jesus, but the disciples aren’t listening. They are probably more interested in watching a beautiful woman wash Jesus’ feet with her perfumed hair. So, they miss the point.
Actually, Jesus is making another important point in this lesson. Jesus is teaching about financial stewardship! What I mean by that is this: Jesus is talking about the abundance of God’s love for humankind, an abundance, in this case, represented by a house “filled with the fragrance of perfume.”
Jesus is teaching about what we in the church call the stewardship of abundance – the stewardship of abundance versus the stewardship of scarcity or want, the stewardship of abundance versus the stewardship of scarcity. Jesus believes in the stewardship of abundance – everything we have is a gift from God, even costly perfume made with, the text tells us, “pure nard,” whatever that was. God has abundantly blessed us and given us everything we need for our lives in this world. Our glass is always half full, never half empty.
Those who practice a stewardship of scarcity or want see the glass as half empty at best. They are always worried about accumulating and holding on. In this view, there is never quite enough or, when there appears to be enough, that’s the time to hold onto what we have to prepare for bad times which must be coming.
The problem with this view theologically is that it tries to rely on self more than God. The problem with this view politically is that it promotes thinking of oneself over the good of the community, or, in this case, the needs of the poor.
Jesus spoke often about the poor and he did not and does not let us forget the poor. In other texts Jesus challenged the rich man to sell all of his possessions and give the money he gets for his possessions to the poor. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus held up the poor for special blessing. Jesus continually used generous poor people as examples of faith and righteousness. Jesus loved and was committed to the poor.
When Jesus said “you will always have the poor with you” he was not really talking about the poor, but making a point about Judas’ lack of caring for the poor, Judas’ poverty of spirit.
When I brag to my friends about this congregation, as I often do, I usually start by talking about our commitment to this community, represented by the many community groups which use our facilities, how our facilities are busy every day of the week. On my first visit to Mt. Olive in early 2014 I was here on a Saturday night and was amazed that this place was alive with activity, not common in many congregations. More recently I am so pleased how we have expanded our outreach to local people in need – cooking at the homeless shelter, collections of clothing and towel and currently soap and combs, financial support for ELCA Disaster Response and the ELCA World Hunger Appeal. And, as I have previously shared with you, I am especially pleased that we are conversation to use our Parish Hall balcony as a shelter for homeless UCLA students beginning with the fall semester.
And, Jesus would be proud of all of this ministry also, but he would not let us stop with this work and rest. Jesus would tell us, I believe, that since the poor are all around us and with us, we need to redouble our efforts to welcome them into our community and reach out with Christ’s love to them. And, we need to tell our elected officials that, even if the poor cannot or do not vote, we do and we want them to care more for the poor, with more funding for health care and education for the poor, for example.
It is, perhaps, in St. Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus spoke most clearly about this: In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus stated it directly – On the Day of Judgment, we won’t be judged by our wealth or fame or status in the community, the size of our home or the car we drive. We won’t even be judged by our education and experience. Instead, Jesus states in Matthew 25, we will be judged by how we fed and welcomed the poor, how we took care of the sick without insurance and how we visited people in prison, even people who deserve to be in prison.
I wonder what Jesus would see if he looked at our checkbooks? Would he see checks written to this congregation and to other charities? Would he see checks to help a family member or friend or even a stranger? What would Jesus see if he looked at our calendars, how we spend our time? Helping others? Sharing our time and talents?
Do you remember the slogan - “What Would Jesus Do” – often abbreviated as WWJD? Some years ago this slogan or these initials seemed to be everywhere at least among some Christians – people wore it on bracelets and tee shirts and more. Lutheran theologians have suggested that a better theology would be “What would Jesus have me do?” but that doesn’t fit so easily as initials. Regardless, Jesus is very clear about what he would do, and what he expects us to do, with and for the poor – prayer, acceptance, love, generosity, advocacy and care.
If we will always have the poor with us as our Gospel text suggests, then we have work to do for Jesus’ sake. We know how we can and do this work through our congregation and its many outreach activities as well as our activities outside of this congregation in our work and volunteer efforts in this community.
There’s an old joke about the Second Coming of Jesus – you may have heard it. I may even have already shared it with you. The story goes something like this: The Pope is in his office. He is typing away on this computer. An aide comes running in and says, very excitedly, “Jesus has come again and is coming to see you. He is ten miles away.” The Pope doesn’t look up, but keeps on writing on this computer. This scene repeats itself several times as Jesus draws closer. Each time the Pope does not look up and keeps typing. Finally, with Jesus right outside of the Pope’s office, the aide exclaims “Your holiness, what shall we do?” The Pope finally stops writing, raises his head and says, “Look busy.”
A cute story, but, of course, Jesus expects us to more than “look busy.” Jesus expects us to get busy. Get on with the work of our congregation, with the work of this community, as we reach out with the Gospel to all people, as we care for one another, each other and all others. As we share Christ’s love and our abundance with the poor.
And that, as today’s Gospel text tells us, is our call as Christians, to continually love and share with the poor.
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Always with us?
Sermon for 5th Lent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
March 12 & 13, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California