2019 APR 7 “Repair the Breach”

THE WORD   John
12:1-8   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 always
have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

MESSAGE                       “Repair
the Breach”       Rev. Jim Renfrew

     Every time I read this story from John’s
Gospel there is one question that shouts out at me, not only a question for
those people long ago, but a question for every single person who hears the
story in the present day.  Here’s the
question:  “what are you doing about
poverty?”  There are many answers:  we contribute food items and money to
organizations that feed the hungry, we support programs that teach poor people
to become more self-sufficient, we help serve meals at a free lunch program, or
we write letters to elected official urging policies and funding that will help
the poor.  But whatever answers you or I
give there is one answer that we will never give:  “I’ve done enough”.  We never do enough. 

     Years ago, during a Bible Study at a Presbyterian
church in New York City, we were reading a Bible text about poverty.  I don’t remember which story it was, but that
doesn’t matter, because the Bible is filled with stories about poverty.  It might have been this text from John about
the woman who poured very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, with Judas
wondering why the money wasn’t spent, instead, for the poor.  So, as is usually my style in leading a Bible
study, I began with a question:  “Who do
you think is Jesus speaking about when he talks about the poor?”

      I
thought the answer was pretty obvious, given that we were doing that Bible
study at a church on West 57th Street, in the historic neighborhood
of “Hell’s Kitchen”, a name synonymous with poverty and hard, desperate living,
a century of overcrowded tenements, whole families sharing a single dirty
mattress in unheated buildings inhabited by rats and worse.

     Who is Jesus speaking to when he talks
about the poor?  It was obvious to me
every step of the way from the subway stop at Columbus Circle on 59th
street from where I walked to the church; panhandlers, beggars, people trying
to sleep on the sidewalk shivering under thin blankets, or just passed out,
using bits of cardboard as a mattress, hoping that passersby would toss a few
coins. 

      I thought it was obvious who the poor
were, as obvious as could be, it was all of these people that I could see.  So much poverty in every direction that it
was overwhelming.  As far as I could see,
the exact people Jesus was talking about were right in front of us. 

     So I was surprised, OK, even shocked, at
the answers I heard during the Bible study when I asked who Jesus was talking
about when he talked about the poor.   More than a few people seated around the table
said that Jesus was speaking about them, speaking to them, about being
poor.   How could that be, I wondered?  These folks at the Bible Study all had jobs
or retirement pensions, apartments to live in, and food on the table, yet they
described themselves as poor, and they believed that they were the exact people
Jesus was speaking to.

     Before he died, my dad suffered from
macular degeneration, which he described to me as a growing big black spot in
the center of his vision.  I wonder if
all of the people in the Bible study had some form of macular
degeneration.  They could look right at
poverty, but they didn’t see it, like there was a big spot in front of them.  A breach in reality, a breach in their way of
apprehending the world, as if they were unable to see horror of poverty all
around them, and then hijacking Jesus’ words, appropriating his words for
themselves who were not poor at all. 

     So we talked about this at length that
night at the Bible study and I learned something.  These were good-hearted people who saw in their
own selves a deep poverty, not of things like food or shelter, but poverty of
the Spirit.  They felt that what Jesus
offered to the world had so far left them out, left them behind.  They knew that there are people in the world
spiritually happy, filled with an abundance of grace and joy, people confident
in faith, people able to live with incredible hope.  But such people were not them; they felt that
spiritual abundance like this had passed them by.  So when Jesus speaks to the poor, they felt
like he was speaking directly to them.   I learned something that night, that there are
many ways to describe and measure poverty; some focus on material poverty and
some focus on spiritual poverty.  I have
no way of predicting how people will connect to Jesus’ words about poverty, but
I do know this:  to heal this breach in
the human condition, this breach between abundance and poverty, it’s going to
take all of us. 

     I am always surprised when people read
Jesus words about “the poor will always be with you” as an excuse to do nothing
about poverty, as if poverty has been ordained by God.  I disagree. 
If anything, poverty is always an opportunity to react, to respond, to
help. 

     In the weeks leading up to Easter we
participate in a special offering of the Presbyterians called One Great Hour of
Sharing.  It was created in the years
following the Second World War to help rebuild communities shattered by hunger,
violence and war.  I remember putting
coins into a One Great Hour of Sharing coin bank when I was a little boy, and
now my granddaughter is putting her coins into the very same coin bank.  This year a theme for the offering is
“repairers of the breach”, and I am happy to welcome you as a participant in
One Great Hour of Sharing, no matter the kind of poverty you may have seen or
experienced, whether the poverty you have seen is material or spiritual.  Because there is a breach, a gap, a division,
a chasm, a blind spot to be filled, to be repaired, to be healed. 

     Let us be repairers of the breach, seeing
the poverty around us and in us as the places to join with Jesus on our journey
to Jerusalem.

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