Saturday, November 17, 2018

"Facing Big Troubles"

            This is the third week in our four-week proclamation series, “Them,” which focuses on social justice for those who have been marginalized by society.  We began this series on “All Saints Sunday,” a Sunday set aside to remember our deceased loved ones.  In that context, we looked at how we sometimes marginalize those who are grieving the death of a loved one.  Although we rally around our friends and family for the funeral or memorial service, afterwards we quickly return to our normal routines, emotionally abandoning those closest to the deceased, as they continue grieving and adjusting to life without their loved one. 

            Last Sunday was Veteran’s Day, a day set aside to remember and thank all of our military veterans who have served and sacrificed for our country.  In that context, we looked at how, as a society, we frequently fail to provide the resources which veterans need when they are discharged from the military and return to civilian life.  For instance, in Nebraska there are 7,467 veterans who live below the poverty line and are at risk of being food insecure.[1]  As a country, we have failed to care for our veterans after their service; marginalizing and ignoring them, instead.  Similarly, as a country we marginalize the mentally ill and elderly by failing to make desperately needed healthcare resources available to them.

            This Sunday, we turn our attention to another marginalized group within our midst:  the poor and hungry.  To ground our thinking about justice and the hungry, I have selected the story of the woman with the expensive ointment, as told in the Gospel of Mark:

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.  But some were 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 three hundred 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.”

            While dining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman of the household anointed Jesus’ head with a costly bottle of “nard” – a costly oil.  The woman’s gesture is tremendously generous, as she breaks the jar and empties its entire contents of oil on Jesus’ head.  In Hebrew tradition, kings were anointed for leadership, signifying that they had been chosen by God.  (See, for example, the story of Samuel anointing Saul to be king in 1 Samuel 9:15-10:1, and also the anointing of David to be king in 1 Samuel 16:1-13.)  By anointing Jesus, the woman conveys her believe that Jesus is the king of Israel; the chosen Son of God.  Since the bodies of kings were anointed at their death, Jesus also sees a foreshadowing of his own death in this ritualistic anointing with expensive oil. 

            Yet, some of Jesus’ followers scold the woman for “wasting” the precious oil by anointing Jesus.  They believe that the woman should have sold the precious oil and given the money to help the poor; perhaps by providing the poor with food.  Jesus defends the woman and her gesture.  He says, “…you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”   

            This phrase, “you will always have the poor with you,” has sometimes been a source of confusion for Christians.  Does Jesus really mean to say that there will always be poor and hungry people among us?  Does that mean that Christians are not expected to help the poor and feed the hungry?  Occasionally, some Christians will make that argument.  But, the claim that Christians are not expected to help the poor and hungry is a gross misinterpretation and a false teaching. 

            In uttering this phrase, Jesus is citing a passage from Deuteronomy 15:11. The full verse is as follows: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”  When read in its entirety, this verse actually underscores the vital importance for persons of faith to help the poor and hungry.  Jesus is not excusing his followers from caring for the poor and hungry.  Instead, Jesus points out the importance of timing.  Although Christians will always have the poor and hungry to care for, there is only a short window of time in which Christ will be present as the Son of Man.  So, even though the expensive oil could have been sold and the money given the poor during normal times, these are not normal times.  Instead, this is the moment in which Jesus is with the disciples and the moment when the woman might make this generous gesture.

            I purposively selected this scriptural passage as my text for a sermon on the hungry because I think that it exposes an important temptation which middle-class, American Christians must confront.  It is interesting that Jesus words, “you will always have the poor with you,” have sometimes been mis-used as a rationale for doing nothing to help the poor.  When we reflect carefully, what emerges is an underlying assumption that a problem is not worthwhile to address if we cannot completely solve it.  Think about it.  If we provide a meal for a hungry person today, is that action any less meaningful if there will be hungry persons a thousand years from now?  Is the hungry person any less fed today, if another person is hungry a thousand years from now?  The answer is, of course, no. 

            Still, those of us who have worked at soup kitchens and food pantries know how hard the work is.  Even for those who are passionate about helping the poor, the work can lead to:

Ø  Frustration
Ø  Burn out
Ø  Depression

It seems as though helping the poor is always a case of three steps forward and then two steps backward.  Before long, one wants to throw up one’s hands and give up.

            In her masterful text, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Sharon Welch argues that, since it has power and privilege, the American middle-class assumes goals in life will be realized.  These assumptions lead to a paralysis of will when faced with complex social problems that cannot be solved individually.  She writes, “It seems natural to many people, when faced with a problem too big to be solved along or within the foreseeable future, simply to do nothing.  If one cannot do everything to solve the problem of world hunger, for example, one does nothing and even argues against partial remedies as foolhardy and deluded.”[2]

            Welch elaborates further on this insight when she writes:  “It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work,  excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts.  When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort merely to enjoying it for oneself and one’s family.”[3]  Welch makes a good point.  It is easy to give up on meaningful social change, when we already live the good life.  The middle-class get to live their lives of relative ease, regardless of whether or not we institute needed social change that will alleviate hunger.

            It is unchristian to give up on social change that will feed the hungry, provide homes for the homeless, and health care for those who suffer physically and mentally.  Jesus does not ask us to eradicate hunger, but he does tell us to work hard to feed those who are hungry today.  We must also learn to see our work as part of a greater whole.  We are not the only ones working to end hunger and alleviate poverty.  We have predecessors who came before us and we need to acknowledge that we are building upon the foundations that our predecessors built for us.

            Further, to work to end hunger must also entail doing more than the ministries of serving others by working in soup kitchens or food pantries—as important as those are.  A justice issue also arises when we fail to provide food for the hungry.  This is especially true in the domestic United States, which is the richest, most affluent country in the history of the world.  If we are truly concerned about the hungry, then we will be wise stewards of our American citizenship encourage our policymakers to provide more and more assistance for the hungry, until we have eliminated hunger in our country.  In addition to writing our legislators, this also includes financially supporting groups like Bread for the World, a faith-based organization dedicated to urging our nation’s decision-makers to end hunger at home and abroad.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 18th, as we reflect on justice for the poor and hungry.  As part of my reflections, I intend to challenge our congregation to fast for 12 hours this week, in solidarity with the poor and hunger.  Even if you cannot attend our worship this Sunday, I challenge each of you, my readers, to commit to a 12-hour fast sometime this week, in solidarity with the poor and hungry.  During the service, we will also be receiving a special offering for the work of Bread for the World.  Again, if you cannot attend our worship service, I encourage everyone to financially support Bread for the World.  You can contribute directly online by going to their website,, and clicking on “Donate.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

           Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Bread for the World, “Ending Hunger in Nebraska [Fact Sheet],” accessed online at:, 6 September 2018.
[2] Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Revised Edition (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000), 17.
[3] Ibid., 41.

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