Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Back when I was in seminary a friend of mine had gone on a mission trip to Brazil, working with the Church in that country, and when he had returned, I asked him what his experience was like. I was expecting to hear that he saw a great deal of reason for hope, knowing that the church in Brazil had been very active in development work. In fact, the Anglican Episcopal Church in Brazil had met with some moderate success in alleviating the poverty of many families who lived in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

To my surprise, my friend had come back rather disappointed. He said that in a generation he could envision a relatively successful social service organization bearing the name of the Episcopal Church, but that he suspected that fewer and fewer people would realize that there was once a worshiping community bearing that name in their country. The Church had established offices with large staffs to address the temporal needs of the people of Brazil, but had been derelict in recognizing that the Church could do more, that the church could—indeed that it had been commissioned by Christ himself to—address the spiritual needs of the people.

This is much like the argument that takes place in this morning’s Gospel. Judas’ motives were most certainly selfish, yet were we to distance his complaint from his thieving intentions, he seems to make a pretty good point: “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” Why not, indeed? In fact our translation might lead us to underestimate just how valuable this ointment was. What we have as “three hundred pence” is actually “three hundred denarii”, which would have been nearly a year’s wages for a laborer. This is not pocket change! We could imagine the Judas’ complaint coming from a more trustworthy source, one who hadn’t meant to steal from the common purse of the Apostles, and perhaps see some merit in the grievance.

Jesus’ response was not to call out Judas for the charlatan he was, but to respond to the complaint on its own terms. And Jesus’ response might seem shocking at first: “The poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.” What does Jesus mean by this apparently callous claim.

I think we’re well off the mark if we think this gets us off the hook from helping the poor among us. Jesus preached extensively about the Good News he came to bring to the poor and the oppressed. Open up your bible to Matthew sometime and read the Sermon on the Mount. Or, spend a couple years with the Daily Office Lectionary (it’s in the back of your prayerbooks) and note how often God’s care for and our responsibility to the poor and needy shows up in both the Old Testament and the New. Jesus being a faithful Jew knew well the implications of the Law with regard to the poor, and he had surely heard or read the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, which states quite explicitly “there should be no poor among you.”

I’m not often compelled to bring up cable news presenters in a sermon, because I dislike politics in the pulpit as much as anyone else. I can usually see both sides in the divisive political climate of our day, and I don’t want to be another source of division. Even so, I do feel compelled to mention a claim made by one talk show host I heard some time ago, who said, and I quote:

I beg you look for the words social justice or economic justice on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. … Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! …If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them… And if they say, ‘Yeah, we’re all in on this social justice thing,’ [you are] in the wrong place.

I was pleased when Christian leaders from all political and religious persuasions called this particular television presenter to task by pointing out that a thorough reading of scripture would show that, in fact, Jesus cared deeply about the plight of the poor and desired his disciples to care about them too, and to work to lift them out of their distress. This isn’t Bolshevism; it’s Christian charity.

All of this is to say that Jesus’ response to Judas is not a normative claim about our responsibility to the poor; it’s not a loophole to the ethical expectations of the rest of scripture. Rather, it’s a reminder that we have other responsibilities as well. Our chief responsibility is to love both God and our neighbor, and to do so properly means that we cannot be simply a social service dispensary with a cross on the sign. We’ve also got to be concerned with worshiping our risen Lord, with anointing his feet with perfume as Mary had done, and with bringing others into a relationship of worship and of faith.

This is why we don’t sell the church building off and distribute the funds. We’ve got something more than money to give. We are quite right to give of our time and treasure for the relief of the poor, as I think we do relatively successfully in this parish, but we’ve also got the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation to offer to all, rich and poor alike, who desire to approach the altar. As some of you know, I use the rector’s discretionary fund to help needy people who come looking for financial assistance, but I always try to make sure that accompanying that financial support is at least the offer of relational support, of the support which naturally comes when one is part of a loving community which gathers week in and week out to worship the God of love.

My friend who came back from Brazil discouraged about what he saw was right to reckon that the Church could be more than an ambulance driver for the state, indeed that the Church had to be more in order to live up to its commission. For all the good that we can and should do in meeting the very immediate, physical needs of Christ’s poor, we must remember that there is a gift which surpasses anything that we can do in this regard. As Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Let us not hesitate to reach out to those in temporal need, helping them to the degree that we are able; but let us also be mindful that all are in spiritual need, all need to know Christ Jesus our Lord, and this relationship is something that we, as the Church and individually members of it, can offer which nobody else can.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.