Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Poor We Always Have - Isaiah 61 and John 12

  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,    because the Lord has anointed me    to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,    to proclaim freedom for the captives    and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor    and the day of vengeance of our God,to comfort all who mourn,    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty    instead of ashes,the oil of joy    instead of mourning,and a garment of praise    instead of a spirit of despair.They will be called oaks of righteousness,    a planting of the Lord    for the display of his splendor.They will rebuild the ancient ruins    and restore the places long devastated;they will renew the ruined cities    that have been devastated for generations.“For I, the Lord, love justice;    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.In my faithfulness I will reward my people    and make an everlasting covenant with them.Their descendants will be known among the nations    and their offspring among the peoples.All who see them will acknowledge    that they are a people the Lord has blessed.”10 I delight greatly in the Lord;    my soul rejoices in my God.For he has clothed me with garments of salvation    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up    and a garden causes seeds to grow,so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness    and praise spring up before all nations.

John 12:1-11
12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint[a] of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him,objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.[b]” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you,[c] but you will not always have me.”Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.

Sermon                     “The Poor We Always Have With Us”

I had an experience a few years ago.  It was in my first pastorate. 

A lady came into my office, asking for help. She looked desperate. She was dressed in dirty, old clothes. She had a baby in her arms.  She was a single, unwed mother. She was 15 years old when she became pregnant, and she’d run away from home. She'd been gone for 2 years, but the night before coming to my office she decided to return home to her parents--baby and all.  She told me she came to the church hoping I could give her money for a bus ride.I hesitated.  The church usually tries to help people like this, but as a general rule, it’s usually best not to simply give away money.

Besides, I only had ten bucks in my pocket.  There was no money around the church. Normally, with cases like this I'd call the treasurer of the local minister's fund. All of the ministers in that town tried to use a common fund for things like this. But it was 5:00 on a Friday and I knew I'd have trouble getting the money from the minister's fund.

Then the baby started crying. I finally gave her what money I had and wished her well.          

About a week later, I saw her. I was at the Salvation Army visiting the minister there – you know they call ministers “Captains” in the Salvation Army.  He and I were talking when I caught sight of her in the far corner of the room.  So I asked the Captain, “You know that girl?”

“You bet I do,” he told me.  “Let me tell you.  She has quite a scam.  Every Friday, she has a baby sitting job.  And she takes the baby she’s caring for and drives around town from church to church, giving ministers a sob story and asking for money.  And if the ministers show any hesitation at all, she’ll reach down and pinch that baby on the behind.  Makes the baby cry!”

I looked at the Salvation Army minister and said, “You know, it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for that!”

What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?Isaiah tells us to proclaim a message of good news to the poor, but what news is that? What are we to do with the poor?The Gospel of John raises this question as well as we read this passage and watch how Christ enjoys an expensive anointing of perfume on his feet, and as we listen to a harsh rebuke by Judas.What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?Sometimes we feel like avoiding the whole subject.  After all, it is easy to get the feeling that these people are not poor and needy, but lazy and conniving.  That young lady with the baby, she swindled me out of ten dollars!  She wasn’t poor and needy.  She was just creative!

It is so easy to drive through the intersections and see the poor panhandling from car to car.  It is easy to see the homeless huddled around bridges and old buildings in downtown Orlando.  And it is so easy to think – they’re lazy. Making its way around the Internet lately is a video of a woman with a young child.  She is begging for help.  She receives lots of money from well-intentioned people.  Then the video shows her getting in her Lexis and driving off in a very expensive car.

Now – is she just looking for a little more Christmas money?  Maybe.  But having worked with the homeless in my ministry, I know that she may well be like many other women – she walked out of an abusive marriage and took her son, and their only home is that car, which also contains everything they own in the world.

Which is it?  Con artist or a poor woman needing help?

One of the frustrations of poverty is the struggle of whom to help.But that is not the only frustration with dealing with the poverty around us.

What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?

To that question you often want to just raise your hands in frustration and say, “Nothing can be done.  There are too many of them.”Sometimes we want to say – “The poor will always be with us.”  ---  Which is an interesting thing to say.  Because that is what Jesus says.Jesus says it in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus is in a private home, at a gathering held in his honor.[1] 

 Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead.  What might have been planned as a wake has suddenly become a celebration.  Jesus is there.  The disciples are there.  Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, are also there.  Martha is busily serving everyone, while Mary is at the feet of Jesus.[2]  Mary takes a container of very expensive perfume and anoints the feet of Jesus.  She pours the perfume on the feet of Jesus and dries it with her hair.Mary gives a gift that heals the skin and relieves the soul of stress.  Understand that in that culture, people walked everywhere.  Very seldom did Jesus ride anywhere – on a chariot, wagon or on an animal.  He walked.  We always see him walking in Scripture.  He’s walking here, he’s walking there.           

And he’s walking with sandals.  No Doctor Shoals footpads.  No nice shoes.  His feet would grow tired and dirty.        

  To have someone pour oil or perfume on your feet and to wash them and massage them dry was a wonderful way of relaxing.    

      And into this wonderful moment, comes the voice of reason.  The voice of reality.  The voice of responsibility.   

       “We could have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!”        

   And that is the voice of reason, the voice of reality, the voice of responsibility.          Of course, it is also the voice of Judas.    

      But forget for a moment who raises this issue.        

  It’s a good issue.      

    It’s an important issue.

What are Christians supposed to do with the poor?

When Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you,” there is a danger that many of us will misinterpret what he says.

We will always have the poor.

Can’t do a thing about it.

So why try?

But that interpretation is inconsistent with the whole of Scripture.In the Old Testament, the Word of God says, "If in any of the towns in the land ... there is a fellow Israelite in need, then do not be selfish and refuse to help him. Instead, be generous and lend him as much as he needs. Do not refuse to lend him something." (Dt. 15:7-11)   

       In Psalm 82, we are reminded to "defend the poor and the fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and the needy."

Proverbs 28 says "Give to the poor and you will never be in need. If you close your eyes to the poor, many people will curse you."

We hear Jesus say, "The poor will always be with us," and we hear that as permission to let it go at that; to do nothing. The poor will always be with us, can't do anything about it. Forget about them.

But that is not an acceptable attitude to take toward the poor.

Which still leaves us with the question, what does the Christian do about the poor in our communities?

Getting back to the Gospel reading for this morning, it is actually a mistake to say that Jesus said that the poor will always be with you. He said it, yes, but he was actually quoting an Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 15, which is our Old Testament lesson for today.         

 The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy is a collection of speeches that Moses delivers to the Jews before they entered into the promised land.  In the portion we read for our Old Testament lesson, Moses is addressing a number of economic subjects.  He makes the bold statement, “There should be no poor among you.”

Well, that would make it easy for us to deal with poverty in our community.  We just don’t have any!

But almost as soon as Moses says what Jesus will later quote in John’s Gospel – “There will always be poor people in the land.”

Now in between the statement of the ideal – there should be no poor among you, and the statement of the reality – there will always be poor among you, Moses answers the question, “

What should the Christian do about the poor in our communities?”

Our tendency is often to close our eyes to them.

Ignore them.

Become frustrated because we can’t tell the poor and needy from the lazy and conniving. 

Against those approaches, Moses says, “if there is a poor person among you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.  Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs … Give generously and do so without a grudging heart.”  

        And in the context of the Old Testament, it becomes clear that this is not a case in which this is "Ho hum, we always have the poor with us," But rather it is a case of "Great news, we always have the poor with us!"     

This is not a burden, "you always have the poor with you."

It is a gift, "You always have the poor with you, you always have before you opportunities to give, you always have before you opportunities to serve God."

This is the key to understanding our Gospel lesson for today.

Service to Christ is a joy.

This is the answer to what we are to do with the poor.

We serve them with joy.

We give to them, not with a grudging heart, but with generosity and pleasure.But this is also the answer to much more.

This is the answer to how we deal with almost any situation.Joyful service.

This is what Mary does.  She takes the expensive ointment and anoints the feet of Jesus.  She serves him with joy.

This is what Martha does.  She serves the people gathered at the dinner that is being held in honor of Jesus.The one exception to this is Judas. Unlike nearly everyone else in this text, he is not serving anyone with joy.  He is, in fact critical and complaining.  But of course, Judas is often the exception to Christian conduct.When Judas rebukes Jesus and reminds him that this perfume could have been sold for a large amount – a year’s wages.  In response Jesus reminds him that the poor will always be with us.  As we have said, when Jesus says this, he is quoting the Old Testament, and in the Old Testament, that statement went onto say that we therefore always have the opportunity to serve God by serving the poor. Jesus is reminding Judas to look for the opportunity to help the poor, and to serve them with joy.I will confess that there is a part of me that doesn’t want to hear that Word of God.

I’ve told you the story of being swindled out of $10 early in my ministry by that young lady who brought that baby into my office.  She had a great story, and she had me pegged pretty well, knowing that by pinching that baby’s rear end I’d cough of that money just to see them go on their way.

I’ve been swindled out of more than that over the years.I know there are people out there who are lazy and conniving.

I’ve met them.

You’ve met them.

But I also know there are many people in this community who really are in need.  They really are poor.  They desperately need help.  They are not lazy.  They are lost.It’s OK for us to enjoy life.  Jesus did.  He enjoyed the benefit of that expensive perfume being rubbed on his feet.But it’s not OK for us to turn our back on those in our community who need our attention.           

        There is in Jesus’ response to Judas, a bit of a rebuke.  “Judas, you always have the poor – so what have you been doing for them lately?”         

 We always have the poor.       

   We always have the opportunity to serve.    

      What opportunities have we taken lately?        

  Our church is blessed to have a large Good Samaritan Fund.  We give funds to those who need it.  We sometimes help people we know very well, and sometimes we help total strangers.      

    We screen people as carefully as we can.  We pay their power bill or their rent or secure food for them.  We do everything we can to avoid giving them money that they may use for drugs or alcohol.  We try to meet their needs – not their desires.          Most of the time we send them to the Community Food and Outreach Center, near the intersection of Orange and Michigan.

If you or I give someone $50 for food, or if we use the Good Samaritan Fund to give $50 for food, then that person can go to Publix and buy $50 of food.  But give that $50 to CFOC and that person is able to buy what turns out to be $75 or more worth of food.

          More importantly, when a person shows up at Community Food and Outreach counselors meet with the person.  They teach the person how to budget their money, how to set priorities, how to get out of poverty.  They give a hand up not a hand out.

          When you consider Isaiah’s call for us to proclaim good news to the poor, that is much better news than a few dollars – a way to get out of poverty.  The best news of all.

          All homeless ministries that I know of tell us that we should never give money, because money does not help.  Not in the long run.  The panhandler who is on the streets on Monday and receives money, will be in that same spot on Tuesday, Wednesday, so forth.
          One way to avoid giving money is to give food.  One of the elders of this church has told me that she always carries a small amount of food with her – a package of food or a small can with a flip lid – and she gives food, not money.

          We almost always have small bags of food in the church office to give out to those in need.

          The two cents a meal program – it goes to help fight hunger beyond our local church.  The funds you give in the container in the narthex, or on the tables in Conway Hall at some of the events we have -  all that goes to the Presbytery to fight hunger in this country and around the world.

          There are times when we gather groups of people who do not give money, but time, serving in soup kitchens here in Orlando.

We all have many opportunities to give to the poor – but we have to make use of those opportunities.

          Some of these opportunities we can do as a church.

Some of them we find as individuals in one-on-one situations.

There are many, many ways to help the poor.  And the opportunities are endless.         Jesus was right – you always have the poor with you.  You always have the opportunity to serve with joy and generosity.  Let's do so with joy.

W Maynard Pittendreigh

[1] It might be assumed by the reader that the home was that of the family of Lazarus/Mary/Martha.  However, in Mark 14:3-5, we read, “While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.  Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.”  You find this also in Matthew 26.
[2] Mary and Martha show up three times in Scripture.  The raising of Lazarus in John 11, this party in John 12, and in Luke 10:38-42.  The passage in Luke have very similar parallels.  Martha is working, which Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus.  In Luke, however, there is no anointing with perfume.  There, Martha complains to Jesus, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"  Jesus defends Mary. 


Monday, December 08, 2014

Comfort - Isaiah 40

          Isaiah 40:1-8

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

Last weekend I was in North Carolina for a funeral of my cousin.

You know how that is – we’ve all been there. 

At some point during the time when we gather at such events there is that moment when you can speak to the spouse of the person who has died, or the parent, or the child – and as you approach them there is within your soul this haunting urging:

“Say something. Comfort the person. Proclaim a message."

And we often find ourselves wondering - "What message do I proclaim?"

What can one say?

It is an old question.   It was asked by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson thousands of years ago.

As long as there have been human relationships, there has been the demand, "Comfort them, encourage them, proclaim a message."

With that demand there has also been that crippling and paralyzing question, "What can I say?"

At the dawn of time, two parents sit quietly. They wonder why their two sons have fought and why they could not have loved one another. Now word has come that Cain has killed his brother Able and the two parents sit and wonder.

Each wants to say something of comfort, but both are crippled by the question, "What can I say?"

Years pass. Not just centuries, but millennia passes by as nations and empires rise and fall, wars are fought, and discoveries are made, and the question still remains "What can I say?"

It is a question you have lived out in your own lives.

A relative is fired from a job. What can I say?

The fabric of a marriage is ripped apart and your two best friends become enemies with each other. What can I say?

A neighbor's child has died. What can I say?

And a friend writes a letter about illness and death.

What can I say?

The question in Isaiah is a living question and a haunting question. "Proclaim a message," declares the Voice.

"What message shall I proclaim," replies Isaiah.

We see the situation. We hear the voice within telling us to say something comforting and encouraging. And we feel our own inability as we think to ourselves about what we should say. What do you say to someone who is dieing and suffering?

A lot of us helplessly and hopelessly grope for clichés and platitudes that we've heard all too many times before.

It'll be alright.
It'll turn out for the best.
It's God's will.

But those clichés have never worked.

Sometime ago, Dear Abby's column ran a letter from a woman who wrote to complain about some of the routine phrases of comfort that people spoke to her in an unsuccessful attempt to console her in the death of her 14 year old son.

"I know how you feel."
“It was God's will."
          "Don't worry you can have other children."
"God needed him more than you did."

Each phrase was inadequate. In some cases they added to the pain. I suspect that we know from our own experiences how useless some of these clichés are. Search your own memory and you will find a time of loss or tragedy when someone came up to you and used those same words of comfort. But they did not comfort.

And now, as we try to comfort others, we find ourselves wanting to say SOMETHING. Not knowing what else to say, we lean on the same time worn phrases, even though they do not comfort.

We see our friend in the hospital bed, tubes running up his nose and an I.V. needle stuck in his arm.

Death is near.
There is no denying it.

What comfort can there be in hearing us say, "It'll be alright," when everyone knows that it won't be.

A mother and father sit in chairs under a mortuary's tent. They sit facing the tiny casket that is waiting to be lowered into the grave. Silently and bravely they endure the pain of hearing us say, "It was all for the best."

A lonely man faces the hardship of unemployment. He hears us say, "Trust in God," while he wonders if God even cares.

The platitudes and empty phrases give no comfort to the people we see suffering. But we don't know what else to say.

We want to say something. We hear that persistent voice within us crying out, "Comfort them.  Encourage them. Proclaim a message." We want to give hope and comfort, even if it is an empty hope and a false comfort.

The author of our Scripture reading from Isaiah's book is too honest to do this, however. The old prophet hears a voice cry out, "Proclaim a message!"

The prophet, who has been hardened by the experience of a lifetime of seeing tragedy, despair, death and sorrow, asks "What message shall I proclaim? All humanity is like grass.  They last no longer than wild flowers. Grass withers and flowers fade when the Lord sends the wind blowing over them.  People are no more enduring than the grass."

The prophet resists what many of us are unable to resist -- the old temptation to comfort others with meaningless, empty phrases.

But what does he offer in its place? Nothing, except perhaps a hopelessness and a despair. We know that won't comfort.

If clichés don't work and if the prophets realistic pessimism doesn't work, then how will we comfort those in despair and in trouble?

Maybe if we could understand the answer to the question of why God allows this or that to happen, then we would find comfort for our friends and neighbors.

"Why" is a natural question to ask when facing tragedy.

Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, has a brief essay on the life of Job, the Old Testament character who suffered so much. His children die, his property is destroyed, and his health gives way to a painful disease. Buechner says that while Job never takes his wife's advice and curses God, he comes very close to it. What Job doe do is to ask some unpleasant questions.

"If God is all he's cracked up to be, how come houses blow down on innocent people? Why does a good man die of cancer in his prime while old men who can't remember their names or hold their water go on and on in nursing homes forever? Why are there so many crooks riding around in Cadillac’s and so many children going to bed hungry at night?

“Job's friends offer an assortment of theological explanations, but God doesn't offer one. God doesn't explain."

If we would try to comfort those in sorrow by trying to give some explanation as to why God does what he does or allows what he allows, then we have a problem. Beuchner is right about what Job discovers. God doesn't always explain.

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 40, there is a haunting phrase that reminds us, "No one understands the thoughts of God."

Where is the comfortable message we can speak?

It is not in the cliché.

It is not in the Prophet Isaiah's pessimism.

It is not in reasoning out a REASON why tragedy occurs.

All of this may lead us to wonder as Israel must have in our Scripture lesson, does God really know our troubles? Does God care if we suffer? Is he really with us in our despair.

Elie Wiesel is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust of the Second World War. In his book, Night, tells a story of one of the executions he witnessed. It was an hanging of three people. Two were adults, but one was a child. The three victims were forced to sit in chairs on the gallows. Nooses were secured around their necks. The two adults cried out to the witnesses "Long live liberty," but the child was silent. One of the witnesses near Wiesel asked quietly, "Where is God? Where is He?"

The chairs were tipped and the three were hung. The adults died quickly. The child survived for more than half an hour, his body too light to secure a quick death from the rope.

Watching this child struggle between life and death, Wiesel felt a voice within say, "Where is God? Here He is. He is hanging here on the gallows."

While the question "why" often does not have an answer, the question of "where" always does. The answer is "here."

God is here with us and present with us in our tragedy.

The prophet wonders what words of comfort he can proclaim. In response, a second voice tells him to tell the people that God is to be present with them.

A voice says, "Proclaim a message" and Isaiah asks, "What shall I proclaim?" And the answer is: "You who bring Zion good news, up with you to the mountain top; lift up your voice and shout, you who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift it up fearlessly. Proclaim to the cities of Judah: Your God is here."

There are no words of explanation of why there had been a tragedy. In this particular case, the people of the prophet's time had been in exile. There were no empty clichés. There was simply a promise from God to be with his people. That is all -- just a promise to be with us. Nothing more. Nothing less. But then, what more could we want or need?

          This is, in fact, the very message of the Season of Advent – a season of hope and joy and anticipation because God is here – Christ, the Son of God is born into the world!

So that – in times of death, illness, tragedy, when we are called to proclaim a message of comfort, what can we say?

God is here!  God is with us! God is with you.

Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 

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