Monday, September 13, 2010

You Always Have the Poor With You

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Monday, September 13th in chapel at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. The office readings for Monday were as follows: Psalms 56, 57, 58; Job 40:1-24; John 11:55-12:8. The sermon refers to the reading from John.

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”[1]

This verse has become, in some circles, an excuse to brush off the poor—to brush off attempts to point out the social radicalism essential to gospel announcement that was and is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why bother with the homeless? The disadvantaged? Those people on the other side of the tracks? Jesus said they’ll always be with us, shouldn’t we just focus on getting people saved?

We, as seminarians, may or may not hold this view. We ought, though, as bible students to already know of God’s preference for the poor which runs straight through the heart of scripture and the gospel. The announcement of a king who lives among and serves the very outcasts of society. A message of grace that has little room for CV’s, resumes and other catalogues of human achievement. Even at Trinity, as some of your own poets have said, C equals Mdiv.

We, as kingdom servants in training, will always have the poor with us. We will be called, no doubt, to many different offices, peoples and locations, but everywhere we go we will encounter the poverty and barrenness of this world. Some will be called to the materially poor directly, others indirectly. All of us, though, will somehow be affected by their plight. As Paul reported of the church leaders in Jerusalem, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”[2]

In another sense, however, the poor is anyone and everyone. All of us fated to live and die in this cursed world and suffer the consequences. Our future gospel ministries will take us face to face with the spiritually, emotionally, relationally and psychologically poor. A question will then press upon us: in the midst of serving the poor, will we forget Jesus? Like this homily’s content so far, will Jesus be lost in the fray of worrying about the broken?

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”[1]

But how can this be relevant to us? Jesus promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[3] I’m afraid I must venture to something somewhat mystical to answer—my apologies to any intuitive thinkers in the room. There is a kind of being present with Christ which goes beyond acknowledging the fact of his omnipresence, an ineffable experience of spiritual immediacy familiar to charismatics and contemplatives alike. I think of it when I read Christ’s words about abiding in him, or when the psalmist obtusely commends me to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”[4] Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Let those who are versed in the mystery revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely learn about it.”[5]

But, how can pouring oil on the feet of a man about to die be relevant to us? I take the oil to represent resources—the text emphasizes its costliness—and being present with Christ in this way requires our most coveted asset: time. It takes minutes, hours and days to be alone, quiet and prayerful before God. To comprehend the word not only as narrative, theology and instruction, but also as the word of God which the Holy Spirit illumines in our hearts, “like fire… and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.”[6] Practices like lectio divina help us encounter the Bible as a living text, and we hear not only the textual reconstruction of ancient kerygma but also the living God speaking to us today.

Spiritual disciplines such as these are not so-called “works of the law” by which we accrue merit before God. But, rather, these are practices experientially verified by a long history of church testimony. As Richard Foster has written, “The path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur.”[7] We earn no new status before God, but the healing presence of Christ restores and redeems our selves to become the divinely fashioned images we were always intended to be. As Paul has written, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”[8]

How then is Judas’s protest relevant to us? Because we will commit our resources to serving those in need and forget cultivating a life of spiritual immediacy with Christ. Because we will commit our resources to being trained to serve those in need above a life of intimacy with Christ. When our minds, hearts and bodies are cluttered with chaos and sin, we experience a temporal distancing from God where there is less love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. I should point out that these are the final measure of Christ’s closeness, not gently electrifying experiences of the transcendent (however rapturous they may be).

And if nothing I have said here was compelling or convincing to you, set aside time for divine solitude just for the sheer glory of God. To honor our creator and redeemer. Because the answer to the question “How do I love God with all my heart?” is not “By loving my neighbor as myself.” Because just as Paul says the worship of creation dehumanizes us in Romans one, the worship of, contemplation of, praise of, supplication to and tangible experience of the creator re-humanizes us. As the apostle says, “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”[9]

concluding prayer:
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."[10]

[1] John 12:8.
[2] Galatians 2:10.
[3] Matthew 28:20.
[4] Psalm 34:8.
[5] Quoted in Thomas Dubay, Fire Within (Ignatius, 1989), 212.
[6] Jeremiah 23:29.
[7] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (1998), 8.
[8] Ephesians 2:10.
[9] 2 Corinthians 3:18.
[10] Ephesians 3:16-19.

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