Do we need the poor with us to be Christian?

The sermon this morning, drawing on the Gospel of John asks two questions: “how do we pay attention to Jesus?” and “Do we have the poor with us?” Our reading from John really builds us up for the week to come. Jesus and the disciples are about to make the grand entry into Jerusalem, with branches swaying. We’ll reenact that triumphal entry next week as we start Holy Week with Palm Sunday. Jesus and the disciples this week are on the road to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.

Before they arrive, they stop in at their friend Lazarus’ home in Bethany. They have a meal with his sisters. You might remember them from Luke’s Gospel. In Luke chapter 10 Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister Mary to quit dawdling at the teacher’s feet, and to help her in the kitchen. Martha, ever industrious, doesn’t appear in our story this morning. She was probably too busy preparing food, doing dishes. Mary, on the other hand, is paying attention to Jesus’ feet, and she does something shocking. She anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Thousands of dollars worth of this smelly stuff, by today’s standard. We can understand why Judas says what he does (even if John doubts his true motives).

Jesus comes to Mary’s defense, again. Like he told Martha before, when she asked him to hurry Mary to the kitchen. Jesus stands on Mary’s side. “Leave her alone.” I found myself wondering about Mary this week. Everyone else seems to know what is best for this woman. Martha, Judas, they want Jesus to tell her she’s wrong.

I wondered this week what this Mary was like. Now Mary was a apparently a very common name in Jesus’ time. I won’t blame you if you mix up your Marys from time to time. This is not Mary the Mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene. This is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. This Mary is, a little different, you could say. She’s distracted, in the perspective of others. You might also say that this Mary seems to pay attention to Jesus better than others, even though we barely hear her speak. In chapter 11 of John’s Gospel her sister Martha debates Jesus. Mary’s only words simply repeats her sister “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” I found myself wondering this week whether today, if we met Mary, we might describe her as on the autism spectrum, or as having a learning disability. There’s no way to know, the diagnosis didn’t exist at the time, but the idea explains her interactions with Jesus, why she seems to understand him with her actions better than others understand him with words.

Words are powerful, and Jesus words to Judas catch my attention: “You always have the poor with you.” Three years ago this week, I was standing in “Freedom Park,” an audacious name for a little hunk of concrete in Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Washington DC’s City Hall. A group of homeless service advocates brought many of their regular clients to the park to display artwork. The homeless had painted 500 cardboard homes and had hung them up on clotheslines. The art represented the hope that the city government could house 500 of the city’s chronically homeless that year. It was one of the most beautiful protests I had ever participated in, and the campaign would pay off in the end.

In the midst of the action my friend Eric, who himself is homeless, walked up to me. Eric wanted to bend my ear for a moment. He said to me, “Reverend, you know there is a passage in scripture where Jesus says, ‘you will always have the poor with you.’” “Yes,” I responded, “in fact I’m preaching about that passage on Sunday.” (This lesson comes up every three years just before Holy Week). “Good,“ he said, “I caught you in time. Preachers get that passage wrong.” I was obviously intrigued. Eric went on, “people use this passage to say that you can’t ever do away with poverty. They say Jesus said there would always be poor people, but that is wrong. That’s not what he meant. This isn’t prophesy from Jesus that we’ll never be able to end poverty. We could end poverty if we really wanted to.”

I liked Eric’s interpretation of scripture. It squared with the reading I had been doing around this text. I think Eric is right; I don’t think Jesus meant that we could never end poverty. So what does Jesus mean, “you will always have the poor with you?”

I had a post card up on my wall in my office back in Washington. It got lost in the move, and I’m still a little sad. The card featured a quote from a Roman Catholic archbishop from Brazil: Dom Helder Camara. Known as the the bishop of the slums, Camara famously said, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Having the poor with you, always, means asking the hard questions about how the structures of our society impoverish some, while allowing others to flourish.

In our story today from John, I wonder if selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would have been the easy answer. Acts of mercy make us feel good, and then they are over. Feeding someone at a soup kitchen, handing someone change for the bus, bringing food to a food pantry, these acts of mercy make us feel good and then we get to go home. “Having the poor with us always,” is more difficult. “Always” is a strong word, “always” is a word that defines loyalty, defines identity. “You will have the poor with you always” is not easy, because it means that we have to have an ongoing relationship with the poor. Jesus words make life messy.

Jesus words this morning can be seen as an invitation to ask: Do we have the poor with us always? Do we have the poor with us when we make laws about gun violence, which disproportionately affects poor communities? Do we have the poor with us when we make decisions to send our military into harm’s way, a military whose combat troops come disproportionately from the poor families in our country? Do we have the poor with us when we make decisions about public schools and about healthcare? Do we have the poor with us when we think about sensible immigration reform that would protect the rights of the 12 million people who work in this country without the protections of a visa? Do we have the poor with us always?

The question brings me back to Mary, and my theory that Mary was a little different. Whether I am on to something, wondering whether Mary was on the spectrum, or not, there is something about this Mary. She understands Jesus. When others are distracted by work and ideas, she spends time washing his feet. She is present to Jesus. When Judas and Martha don’t get it, Jesus explains. She has taken the better part. She helps prepare him for his burial. Mary understands what is ahead for Jesus. Mary is there, present, when others are distracted by words and work.

Distraction words and work seem to go together, at least according to Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Dutch priest, a Roman Catholic, a Jesuit. He spent the bulk of his career teaching spirituality at Harvard and Yale. He was a sought after speaker and teacher. His books were best sellers, but he often felt that he was missing something in life. He retired early from his prestigious career, and chased God’s call among the poor of Latin America. He moved to Peru. But it didn’t stick. It turned out that the idea of “serving the the poor” didn’t work out the way that Henri planned.

Henri returned to North America, and on a bit of a whim, he accepted an invitation to spend some time at the L’arche community in Toronto. L’arche is an international ecumenical Christian Community. The name means “rainbow” in French. The community was founded on a single principle: People with and without intellectual and physical disabilities live and work together at L’arche in Christian community. Members with disabilities are called “core members” because they are at the heart of the community. The able bodied members are called “assistants.” Henri came to visit, and stayed for the rest of his life.

Henri was assigned to assist Adam, a young man with extreme physical and intellectual disabilities. Adam couldn’t move his own body. He couldn’t speak. The priest’s task was to get Adam up in the morning, bathed, shaved, dressed, fed, and off to his daily program. The task seemed daunting to Nouwen. But gradually, he felt more confident. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, had told Nouwen, “L’Arche is not built around the word but around the body. We are so privileged to be entrusted with the body of another.” So Nouwen, the great writer, whose life had been shaped by words, now had to focus on another person’s body fragile body. In the awkward work, he found grace.

Nouwen wrote that these hours helping Adam get ready for the day became his quiet hours, his prayer time. “Adam kept ‘telling’ me in such a quiet way, ‘Just be with me and trust that this is where you have to be…nowhere else.” Eventually, this priest who searched the world for a calling, found his vocation with a severely disabled young man. He writes, “Adam was longer a stranger to me. He was becoming a friend and a trustworthy companion, explaining to me by his very presence what I should have known all along: that what I most desire in life—love, friendship, community, and a deep sense of belonging—I was finding with him.” Adam taught the theologian to be present in the moment, and to receive the gift of God’s presence.

Henri Nouwen’s relationship with Adam makes me think about Jesus and Mary, this Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. I wonder if whatever made Mary different made her special to Jesus. Mary is able to be present to Jesus in a way that baffles the more normal characters. She scandalizes Judas and Martha by the way she pays attention to Jesus. What can we learn from Mary, from Adam, about paying attention?

I wonder whether this sort of relationship is what Jesus had in mind when he tells the disciples, “you have the poor with you always.” Is Jesus inviting them, inviting us, to pay attention? Is he inviting us to invest in deeply messy relationships? Could our salvation depend on how we pay attention to the lost, the least, and the left out? Could our identity as followers of Jesus depend on how we attend to the intellectually and physically disabled? Do we need the poor with us in order to be Christian?

The Gospel this morning asks us hard questions, important questions. They are questions we will carry on the road with us next week, as we walk with Jesus through Holy Week, as we seek to be present to Jesus.

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