Learning from the Poor: A Sermon and related matters

This is a sermon I preached at St. Peter's a week ago.  I was somewhat dissatisfied with it, but on reflection I think it is worth posting.  The core of the sermon is that we can learn from the poor and the poor in spirit, and that Jesus did.
Last week there were several commentators who believed that little attention was paid at the national political conventions to the issues of poverty. Several religious leaders asked the Democratic and Republican candidates to speak to the issues of poverty.  Following the sermon I have posted the Youtube versions of their responses.
Learning from the Poor:  Sermon for Sunday September 9.
Let God alone be praised.
I’ve been following Jesus about 66years. I date the beginning from the time I was in the hospital in Maracaibo with the mumps. I was six. The priest of the parish came to see me. He had to wear a hospital gown and mask for fear of infection.  I was very impressed.
From that time forward I must have figured if this man who came to see me was following Jesus, I could too. I’m now seventy-two and still walking the walk…still following. Over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about Jesus and about myself.  I’ve also come to realize that I can still learn new things.  Why, just last Saturday I learned that spending an hour or so working on my boat by leaning back and out over the water, holding on with the left hand and working with the right can lead to a sprained back.  All week long now I’ve been absorbing the effects of the learning… I’ve learned I’m not so young and there are careful and stupid ways of doing things. The learning goes on.

Over the almost twenty centuries since Jesus was first among us we have come to think of Jesus as God present with us – and so he is.  At the same time the earliest report is that he was like us in every way, but without sin. 
One of the questions that comes up from time to time is this: Did Jesus have to learn the way we do?  If he was God with us, surely he knew the meaning of life, the end of things, the truth about judgment and forgiveness, you know… all that, all along.  At the same time, if he was really human, he had to learn to walk, to talk, to read, to tie his shoes, and on and on. Even God had to learn just how delicious fried fish can be, and one supposes even God had to learn about touch from human merely beings.
So Jesus grew up and knew the world in the context of Jewish life.  Maybe he knew always that God is both just and merciful, being God with us. But I bet he had to learn about regular ol’ practical stuff of Jewish life the regular ol’ way.  Saying prayers in Hebrew and learning to read.  The joy of the Passover meal, viewed from the standpoint of being human and the fine points of honoring your father and your mother. And he learned also that the Messiah was to come to save the people Israel. He learned that the Messiah was first for the children of the Jewish faith.
The Gospel this morning records an event which is puzzling, unless it is understood as a learning event. To recap: Jesus is in the area of Sidon in what is now Lebanon. A gentile woman comes to Jesus, reverences him, and begs him to cure her daughter of a demon. His response was, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
There is almost no way for this not to mean that Jesus understood that he came for the Jews, not for the “dogs” that is the unclean foreigners.  (Matthew 15:21-28 spells this our more clearly).  And there is almost no way he is not calling the woman and her daughter “dogs.” Not exactly good pastoral practice!  Imagine walking down the hallway in a hospital and someone walking up, “Ah, father, a blessing for my sick daughter.” And responding, “I’m sorry, I came to bless Episcopalians, not scum.”
Jesus had absorbed the culture well. The hope for the Messiah, as Jews understood it, was for a savior of Israel, not a savior of all people.  As for calling others “dogs,” culture is like that. Enough of us are given to saying the priest of the parish is here first for us, and later for others, or that so and so is a real pig, etc.
The woman responds, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
Oops! I think she catches Jesus up short. 
She doesn’t argue the fine point about how she and her people are viewed by Jews. She’s single-minded. She is there to be fed, she is there to get her child well.
This story is recounted in both Mark and Matthew. It is a story held as valuable by the writers, even if it is embarrassingly human. Something is going on here.
I think what this story is marking is a change in Jesus’ understanding of his mission. A learning.  It didn’t just happen here. It happened as he went about living and teaching and healing among the poor, who as the poor ceased to be Jew or Gentile, but poor and hurting. But this story is a micro-cosmism of his learning. He learns that the poor and the poor in spirit are the people beloved of God, and close to the heart of God in Jesus, and that the Good News is for all people. He learns it from being with the poor who ask for bread and the bread of life.
He learns, the way we all do. He learns from being confronted by the truth. All need to be fed by Justice and Mercy and God’s presence.
And, friends, mark this: He learned it from a woman.

I believe that Jesus, the Son of God, learned what his work was the same way we all do: by practice, by engagement with others, by listening and responding and loving and caring for others.  He knew full well who he was, but he had to learn what that meant from all of us regular paid up sinners. He had to be human and learn.

Now to something else in today’s readings:
You will note that the Hebrew Scripture and the Epistle both talk about the poor.  Proverbs says,
“The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all. Do not rob the poor because they are poor,  or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.”
And James writes, : Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Now I note that in all the political drumbeating of these past weeks the Middle Class, of whom we are mostly members, gets lots of attention. But the poor (however defined) get almost none.  Why is this?
Serious poverty is so difficult that many of us either don’t want to think about it at all, or if we do we do so in fear. 
It is not part of any candidates Good News plan. Better to project onto the Middle Class the hopes for the future.  As for the poor, we hear giving them getting a “leg up,” so that they can ride out of poverty into the blessings of the mainstream.
But the readings remind us that God has a preference for the Poor. Not just in the abstract, but for the beggar by the gate, the neighbor who is neighbor, even if poor.  The woman with the kid in the emergency room and too many mouths to feed and too little money.
Jesus learned from the poor and the poor in spirit just how wide the need was for people to be fed by both food and hope, and we must learn from them as well.  And we hope that learning will shape our own ministries and that of our leaders as well, as it apparently did the ministry of Jesus.
The thing is, if Jesus can learn, so can we.
That’s all I have to say.

1 comment:

  1. bcaouGood going, Mark. I sent your poem about the conventions and the poor to my kids and brother. In response our eldest, Lars, sent this:
    From Sinead O'Connor's "V.I.P." on her excellent new album:

    When we're standing at the gates
    After being fashionably late,
    There'll be no make up and there'll be no film crews,
    No Vuitton bags and no Manolo shoes,
    When he's presiding over you,
    Asking you, "Did you love only you?
    Or did you stand for something else?"


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.