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Sermons: “Saving Souls

Readings

1: The Gospel of Mark, Chapter 14, verses 3-91

While he was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the Leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came in with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But there were some there who said to one another in anger, "why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than 300 denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."

2: Wallis' hole -y bible2

Jim Wallis, a Liberal Christian social activist and writer tells this story about his first year in seminary where he became a member of "a small group of activist evangelical seminarians" who found that the bible contains several thousand verses on the poor and God's response to injustice. What surprised them most however was that the subject had never been discussed in their various churches where they had grown up. "In the Bible," he writes, "the poor were everywhere, yet the subject was not to be found in our churches." Here is his account of their discovery:

"One member of our group took an old Bible and a new pair of scissors and began the long process of literally cutting out every single biblical text about the poor. It took him a very long time.

"The prophets were simply decimated. When he got to the resounding command of Amos to "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," he just cut it out. When he found God speaking through Isaiah to say, "Is not the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free?" he just cut it out. When he discovered the summation of God's call to Micah to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God," he just cut it out.

"He cut almost everything that the Hebrew prophets had to say about how nations, rulers, and all of us are instructed to treat the poor. Much of the Psalms also disappeared, where God is seen as the defender and deliverer of the oppressed. And all references to the Hebrew tradition of Jubilee had to be cut where, from Leviticus onward, the practice of a periodic "leveling" was lifted up as crucial to the health of a society – slaves were to be set free, debts cancelled, and land redistributed to its rightful owners it was all too dangerous to remain in the bible.

"When he got to the New Testament, the seminarian with the scissors had a lot of work to do. He began with the thankful prayer of a simple peasant woman who would bear the new messiah. Mary's famous Magnificat prophesied the meaning of the coming of Jesus: "he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away." Because Mary didn't sound like a religious service provider with a faith-based federal grant, but instead like a social revolutionary; her prayer had to be cut. Then there was Jesus' first sermon at Nazareth, his "Nazareth manifesto," where he announced his messianic vocation. Hearkening back to Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed his own mission statement by saying: "the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Because all the scholars agree Jesus is talking about the Jubilee thing again, this was a mission statement that had to be cut before it reached committee."

And Wallis continues, "Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Beatitudes, threatened to turn the world (as we know it) upside down by saying, in his kingdom, the blessed ones are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the ones who hunger and thirst for justice. It clearly had to go.

And "that account of how the early church began to practice economic sharing, after the Spirit landed on them, would be pretty incredulous to churches today. And so would the totally unrealistic assertion that "there is not a needy person among them," even if Paul was encouraging economic redistribution as a sign of fellowship wherever he went. Snip, snip, snip. All the stuff from John about not having the lo ve of god in you unless you open your heart to the needy just doesn't apply to some of our most important and pious church leaders, not to mention our television evangelists. And the idea from James that "faith without works is dead" was dangerously close to the "social gospel." So some more cuts were in order."

What does Wallis do with that Bible now? He says that he takes that damaged bible when he speaks and holds it up and says: "brothers and sisters, this is our American Bible; it is full of holes."

Sermon

I would like to begin today with a quiz. There is a prize. What is the most famous biblical text in America about the poor? Anyone? See me after for your prize.3

"The poor you will always have with you." Mark 14 Verse 7 That line has been the most known in my repertoire too, although I couldn't tell you which gospel or verse until just a few weeks ago. The poor you will always have with you. The way I used to interpret the line was that this is just the way the world is. And the most we can do is to help those in need. Rather pessimistic, or pragmatic. How about wrong?

Come to find out Jesus probably never said it. Nope. Those who study the historical Jesus say that this verse and the story, which I read earlier, from which it comes, were most likely fabricated by the editor of the Gospel of Mark. Go figure. But it is not a total wash. Jesus and the other prophets, as we heard in the second reading, said plenty about the poor and the rich for us to chew on. Some have even found that although Jesus probably did not say this exact thing that there is a powerful meaning to the verse for us to consider. That my friends, is our task this morning.

The same Jim Wallis, whom we heard earlier, writes that: "Jesus is making an assumption about his disciples' continuing proximity to the poor. He is saying, in effect, ‘Look you will always have the poor with you because you are my disciples. You know who we spend our time with, who we share our meals with, who listens to our message, who we focus our attention on. You've been watching me, and you know what my priorities are. You know who comes first in the kingdom of God. So you will always be near the poor, you'll always be with them, and you will always have opportunities to share with them.'"4

Wallis writes that "the critical difference between Jesus' disciples and a middle -class church is precisely this: our lack of proximity to the poor. The continuing relationship to the poor that Jesus assumes will be natural for his disciples is unnatural to an affluent church. The ‘social location' of the affluent Christians has changed; we are no longer ‘with' the poor, and they are no longer with us. The middle-class church doesn't know the poor and they don't know us. Wealthy Christians talk about the poor but have no friends who are poor. So they merely speculate on the reasons for their condition, often placing the blame on the poor themselves."5

Now we are Unitarian Universalists, third, fourth…distant cousins now to Christians, and we don't generally blame the poor or any other people on the margins for their plight. Right? We are the ones who say that it is the structures created by human hands and human souls that perpetuate injustice including poverty amidst abundance or wealth. But what about this idea that because we are, generally, not around the poor that we cannot really know them nor can they know us? And therefore we cannot really imagine how to change the structures created by human hands and souls. We cannot really change those structures—the very structures that hold us up and away from the social location of the poor.

We say we are interested in changing the way things are. We resolve to such lofty goals at our annual general assemblies, but somehow in the daily tasks of living our own lives, we don't quite get to the seemingly overwhelming work of understanding the structures that we have created and how to undo them so that all Americans benefit from the common household purse.

The household purse. God in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian New Testament is always interested in his household and his children. The word economy comes from the Greek word for household. So when we think about the state of wealth and poverty in the United States it makes sense for us to think about ourselves as members of one family, one household and our one family purse.

Here are some numbers that astound me and may just astound you. I find it especially interesting to place myself in this stark reality:

The household purse of the United States can be drawn as a pie, the American pie, right? In this pie are five slices. But I like the purse image best. You pick what works for you. The Poorest among us hold 3.7 percent of the purse (let's imagine it this way…if we, as a nation, just for today only had $1 to our name—one hundred pennies—the Poorest among us, which means the working poor who make the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour or $11,000 a year, and those who cannot work for whatever reason) the Poorest among us hold 3.7 pennies of this purse. The Second Poorest hold 9 percent of the purse or 9 pennies. The Middle hold 15 percent of the purse—that's 15 pennies. The Second Richest hold 23 percent of the purse—or 23 pennies, almost a quarter. And the Richest hold 49.3 percent of the purse – that is just about 50 cents if we round up. That is enough pennies to put in a penny roll and take it to the bank!

Here are some other facts to add to that image with a bit of change in the graphics. The other way we can look at the purse is as a line graph with each of the purse holders in five categories called quintiles. So there are five columns on the graph. But there is a bonus column too. That one is called the Top 5%. What we do with this image is put in Average Yearly Income. Here are the average yearly incomes for the quintiles and the bonus Top 5%:

  • Quintile 1 (The Poorest) $9,940 per year
  • Quintile 2 (Second Poorest) $24,436 per year6
  • Quintile 3 (The Middle) $40,879 per year
  • Quintile 4 (The Second Richest) $63,555 per year
  • Quintile 5 (The Richest) $135,401 per year
  • And The Top 5% $234,392 per year

Those are averages. Each of us can in our own minds see where we stand in these numbers most of which were gathered by UU minister Richard Gilbert in his book How Much Do We Deserve?7

So what part of the household purse do you hold? Which quintile do you live in? Now I know that some of us here in this congregation are struggling right now financially. And I know that some of us work with the poor—the ill, the homeless, the hungry—those captive in the debate. But generally, are the poor still around us, as Unitarian Universalists? No, they are not. Are we around the poor? No, we are not. Just like our Christian cousins, our social location has changed. We lack proximity to the poor. Augmenting Wallis' words a bit: "The ‘social location' of the affluent Unitarian Universalists has changed; we are no longer ‘with' the poor, and they are no longer with us. The middle-class church doesn't know the poor and they don't know us. Wealthy Unitarian Universalists talk about the poor but have no friends who are poor."

I've been talking about this sermon with a lot of colleagues, friends and family lately. I have struggled with it for precisely the reason Wallis writes about: my social location has changed. Some of you might identify with this reality. Some of you may not have changed social location, perhaps you were always here where many of us are now.

I grew up poor. Not poorest. We were working class. And we were poor. My mother will admit that now. So I too can say it out loud. My father was the son of immigrants who came here for a better life than they had in Italy. My dad finished eighth grade and then went to work. He served briefly in the army. And when he got out became a truck driver, first for Morgan Memorial, a charity group that accepted and then distributed furniture and other goods to the poor and needy. We got a lot of our furniture from Morgie's, as it was affectionately called. Eventually, Dad got a position in a union shop and became a Teamster. He drove a truck for 31 years until he died. My mother worked as a nurse's aid, then studied nights to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and years later, when I was an adult, went to college to become an RN. Both my parents worked hard for everything that we had. We lived in various apartments throughout Boston, including the projects and a cold-water flat when my sister and I were very young. When I was six they bought their own home in Brockton. That was quite an accomplishment. They were very proud of that fact.

I never really knew how hard it was for my parents. People who are poor try to keep that from their children, and even themselves. They can even be somewhat successful at what UU theologian Thandeka calls "class-passing." That's when the poor, the working class and the middle class manage to appear "richer." We did that by buying things on credit. Cars, clothes, even food. How many of us still do that today?

Now I had some advantages negotiating and making use of the American way. I am white (although for years I would never have said that about myself, I was Italian!) But I am white. And even though I was discouraged because of my economic background and my gender from attending college I found a way to go. But still after years of college classes and even a master's degree in expressive therapies, I never made more than $19,000 a year. I am not kidding.

A few years ago my social location changed dramatically. What was it that propelled me, a Teamster's daughter, out of that second quintile? My husband. My husband, who is from a very similar economic background, and after years of hard work, made it to the top of his field—in an industry that our market economy values. My social location has changed from Second Poorest to Second Richest. This has not been a comfortable transition for me. I am not used to filling my grocery basket without worrying if I have enough to pay for it all. It took me months to get used to the kitchen we have now that is as big as our first house. Some say, enjoy it, you deserve it. But I know that no one deserves so much when others have so little. And as a religious person I struggle with what to do now?

Now, my husband will say we are not rich. Not compared to the Richest and that bonus Top 5%. And he will say the riches we have are not secure. He's right. They are not secure. The riches we have, the luxuries we can afford, are not secure because our economy grants them as a privilege. And privilege can be lost in an instant! Some of you know this painful fact too well. A high paying job can be lost. A well paying job can be lost. Any job can be lost. None of us are secure. And if none of us are secure, imagine how insecure those living at the lowest wage ranks feel and know and breathe every hard working day and every sleepless night.

Why am I telling you all of this? Why am I putting myself and you through this? To save our souls. To save our souls.

Jesus did say that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."8 What does that mean? I think it means that the kingdom of God, which is in here, by the way, not out there some where or some day, is only attained when we relinquish that which really belongs to everyone. If not our very souls are at risk. Our souls, yours, mine and everyone else's are at risk.

The Biblical writer James elaborated on Jesus' thoughts: "What good is it if you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks food, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."9

Gilbert outlines the soul sickness that both the rich and the poor suffer from in our country. He begins with the affluent with words that we don't like to hear about ourselves or our children: self-righteous, entitled, morally insensitive, prone to act against our consciences out of fear of losing our place on the corporate ladder, indifferent and ignorant to such things as poverty in the midst of plenty.

But it is not only the wealthy who are spiritually wounded in this system. Those affected by poverty suffer as well with feelings of powerlessness, loss of sense of self, loss of sense of historical participation, less likely to vote, feel their voice won't matter, and low self-esteem.

So what now? What can we do? What can I do? If we have acknowledged that our social location has changed, and that we do desire to change the way things are, and we do say so every year in our GA resolutions. And we know now for sure that it is part of our theological imperative to do something. How am I and how are you going to get about this business of saving soul and body of the rich and the poor, and all those captive in the middle—all of God's children? How are we going to re-distribute the funds in the household purse? How are we going to think about these issues and work on them for real?

the household purse? How are we going to think about these issues and work on them for real? We have got to start taking some risks, despite our insecurities about our own financial stability. We have got to start doing what we are famous for—walking our talk. UU minister Marilyn Sewell and others have said that we UUs "have always had powers beyond what our numbers would suggest—so many of us have the substance and skills to lead."10

And she goes on to say what I know in my bones about all justice work:

"We can't do it [justice work] in a vacuum. We need to learn from people who live on the edge: people who are poor, people who are transgendered, children who are homeless, migrant workers—people who make us feel shaken and uneasy because their lives are not like our own. We will learn what we must do only when we risk not knowing at all what to do, when we listen to voice we have not yet heard. We have to "leave home" in a sense, leave our comfortable ways of being, to find ourselves and our calling. We need to develop a passionate discontent, an anger that picks us up and shakes us by the neck and will not let us go. The Holy Spirit you know is not on the side of order and stability."11

It is only by getting in relationship with the poor and marginalized that we will find ourselves and our calling. Jesus and his disciples lived their lives in close proximity to the poor. Christianity at its best maintains a preferential option for the poor calling for the affluent to view the world from the lens of those living at the margins. Affluent Christians who have not been living this mandate are being called to change their ways. We are Unitarian Universalists and we claim to be inheritors of the best of Christianity. What then will we do?

I have three or four immediate suggestions. And I invite those of you who, like me, have lived on the margins and those who work with the poor to be leaders here.

  • Join me in a study group to explore more fully Gilbert's text: How Much Do We Deserve?
  • Consider how you spend your charitable dollars. Are you like many of the wealthy or newly affluent who give to universities, medical research centers, and cultural centers—not organizations to help the poor (offering mercy) or organizations which would change the systems that maintain our carefully constructed quintile system (working for justice)?
  • Consider how you spend your money in general. Try even for a day, a week, a month to feel what it might be like to live on the margins: go about your day without even change in your pocket, no ATM card, no cell phone, no email at home (try to the library); don't buy a cup of coffee, eat out of your home; rely on others for a ride to work or to the grocery store. Then give the money you save to an organization like United for a Fair Economy—one of the groups involved in last weekend's MLK, Jr. celebration: Let Justice Roll Campaign for a Living Minimum Wage.12
  • Lastly, get into relationship with people outside your comfort zone. For the last few years I have helped make lunches once a month for a homeless shelter in Brockton with my home church. But we make the lunches at our church with each other. I enjoy it. My challenge to myself is to begin working at the shelter with people who live and eat there on a regular basis. What might you do?

Our theological heritage calls us to live our lives among the poor. Because our social location has changed, as a denomination and for many of us as individuals, we do not know them, and they do not know us. When we begin to meet together, and tell our stories, and make plans together for a new way of distributing the household purse, we will be whole. Our work will begin. Our work is saving souls.

May it be so. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. NRSV
  2. Wallis, James. 2005. God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. HarperSanFrancisco, pp 212-214.
  3. James Wallis often begins his talks with this question as well.
  4. Wallis, James. 2005. God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. HarperSanFrancisco, p 210.
  5. Wallis, James. 2005. God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. HarperSanFrancisco, p 211.
  6. Historical Income Tables—Income Equality, U.S. Census Bureau. 13 May 2004.
  7. Gilbert, Richard. 2001. How Much Do We Deserve: An Inquiry Into Distributive Justice. Skinner House Books, 29-36.
  8. NRSV
  9. NRSV
  10. " Imagining a New World," The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, Sermon, Service of the Living Tradition, UUA General Assembly, 2001.
  11. IBID
  12. MLK, Jr. Weekend 2006 Events.

Source:

2006 Skinner Sermon Award Winner

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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