Care for the Poor
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

April 30, 2017
Third Sunday of Easter

Deuteronomy 15:7-11
James 2:1-7:14-18
Mark 14:1-11

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

We continue our series on Be The Church with the line Care for the Poor.

Our readings this morning are snapshots of very different times in the life of the people of God. In Deuteronomy, as Israel is about to leave the wilderness and enter the promised land, there are reminders that becoming settled brings with it dangers. Dangers of forgetting that God brought us here. Forgetting how we looked after one another, shared our manna in the wilderness, let no one suffer from hunger or thirst.

This passage speaks to the forgiving of debts and release of slaves and indentured servants every seven years. It speaks of not withholding what another needs just because it is year 5 or 6. Even though chances are you will need to forgive the debt before it is paid off, nevertheless, you should care for your neighbor. In God’s economy, no one will get rich at the suffering of another.

Sadly, We do not have much evidence of the practice of this seven year time of release from slavery and debt in the Bible. And we have even less evidence of it today.

James speaks to how the gathered faithful treat people. Do we give the well-heeled and prosperous preferential treatment? Do we treat people differently based on how they appear, how they give (or how we think they give), how they speak and act?

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

There is a story I heard many years ago about a woman walking in Chicago in the winter time. She saw a homeless man walking along without a coat. She was struck by his plight and she turned around and took off her coat and gave it to him. And he said, “You really don’t know what I need, do you?”

Chances are, if we have not been in contact with people struggling with poverty, we don’t know what it is that they need. Things like food, and shelter and clothing, but also dignity and safety and rest.

What if we spoke not of “the poor,” but of people who are in poverty? They are people first. They are children of God first. This is not to say that the conditions of poverty have no effect.

Tara García Mathewson writes in the Atlantic:

When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.

This happens to everyone at some point, regardless of social class. The overload can be prompted by any number of things, including an overly stressful day at work or a family emergency. People in poverty, however, have the added burden of ever-present stress. They are constantly struggling to make ends meet and often bracing themselves against class bias that adds extra strain or even trauma to their daily lives.

And the science is clear—when brain capacity is used up on these worries and fears, there simply isn’t as much bandwidth for other things.

Why don’t they just get their paperwork filled out and submitted correctly? Why don’t they just follow the rules like everybody else? Why can’t they…. Fill in the blank with whatever other question people who live in relative comfort may ask.

And we know that metal illness can result in poverty and homelessness. But what studies like this tell us is that poverty can result in severe mental distress.

MIT economist Peter Temin notes that the way out of poverty for many is not easily achieved. It requires a plan, and education, and time. And the plan out of poverty into something better can disrupted at so many points along the way, such as illness, loss of a vehicle or a means to get to work, or loss of work. And each of these disruptions can trigger the others.

Get sick and lose your job. Or lose your car, lose your job, get sick.

There are cycles of difficulties in poverty. And maybe one of the reasons good Christian folks have trouble wrestling with poverty is the profound fear that we might all be one or two paychecks away from being there ourselves.

We live in a society that professes such ideals as “lift yourself up by your bootstraps,” “look out for number one,” and we glorify individualism.

But these are not ideas found in the Bible. Even in that passage which gets quoted so often out of context, where Jesus says, “the poor you will always have with you.” It is a great reminder that if we read the Bible and come away smug in our own indifference, or seeking to care less about others, we have not read the Bible.

Jesus is at the house of Simon the leper. Think about that. Take all the time you need. One does not dine with lepers! Lepers do not own houses! Lepers get cast out!

So there has been some healing that has gone on. We can infer that Simon has been healed of his leprosy, and restored to his place in the world. He still bears the name Simon the leper. But maybe, having been healed by Jesus, it is now not a curse, but a blessing.

And a woman comes with very expensive perfume, and she anoints Jesus with it. This is an act of praise, an act of thanksgiving. Yes, her gift could be sold and the money used to buy food. But the extravagance of her gift to Jesus implies the extraordinary ways he has changed her life.

It is not surprising that Judas leaves after this to go and betray Jesus. He is one of those worried that the church budget might be spent intemperately. He is worried over dimes and nickels, denarii and shekels, rather than over whether or not the poor receive good news, whether or not the naked are clothed, whether or not the hungry are fed.

The line “For you always have the poor with you,” often gets quoted. But how many follow it with the second half of the sentence, “ and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”

We get to know people in poverty when we do community dinners, when we visit or volunteer at Eaton Clothing and Furniture, when we learn who they are as people, not as a category. And once we have learned who they are, we can start to truly care for them, the way we care for anyone. We find out what they need, and walk with them as they achieve it.

For faith without works is dead. And when we help a brother or a sister live a more abundant life, even the angels in heaven rejoice.

Thanks be to God. Amen.