A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
Have you ever noticed how much goes unsaid in any conversation? Have you ever noticed how people so often complete one another’s sentences, one another’s thoughts?
Let’s try that now. I’ll start a sentence and you complete it.
A watched pot....(never boils)
A penny saved....(a penny earned)
You win some....(you lose some)
What goes around....(comes around)
Six of one....(a half-dozen of the other)
Those who live in glass houses....(shouldn’t throw stones)
The grass is always greener....(on the other side)
You get the idea. Much of what we say to one another is actually not voiced at all. Meaning is made not only in the words but also in the gaps between words. I suspect that was true in Jesus’ day as well.
Wonder with me a bit about what’s left unsaid in the story we just heard.
Jesus is at supper with his friends. There’s a poignancy to it all: Martha is serving; Lazurus—the man Jesus just raised from the dead—is hosting. Laughter is rippling through the room. Those gathered at the table exchange warm looks with one another. They tell stories and they remember the times they have spent with one another. They’re a community of friends gathered around a table.
Suddenly all eyes turn to Jesus and the woman kneeling at his feet. She’s holding an open jar of costly perfume. But that’s not all. She’s unpinning her hair and letting it flow down past her shoulders. She’s dipping her fingers into the jar and then tenderly massaging Jesus’ feet with that most valuable perfume. She’s wiping his feet with her hair.
I can imagine all gathered at that table—with the exception of Jesus—are shocked, appalled. What a thing for a woman to do.
Judas speaks. “Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?” he asks more to the room than to any one individual. Others likely nod in silent agreement. They’ve heard Jesus’ calls to serve the poor. They’ve heard Jesus castigate those in power for ignoring the cries of the poor. Likely they say to themselves (as I suspect some of us do too), “He has a point. Judas has a point.”
And then they hear Jesus say, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Those words, “You always have the poor with you....” grate on our ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. “What is he saying?” we wonder to ourselves. “How can he say that?” “What on earth does he mean?”
We listen to those words with 21st century ears. We hear “You always have the poor with you” and never hear the echoes in that phrase for
*We don’t listen with ears attuned to the Torah;
*We don’t listen with ears trained to hear the prophets’ calls for justice;
*We don’t listen with ears schooled in the psalmists’ indictment of those that exploit the poor.
So we don’t hear the commandment buried in Jesus’ words. We don’t hear the echo of Moses’, of Moses’ condemnation of the greedy and compassion for the needy. We don’t hear the echo of the commandment Moses proclaimed to the people of Israel as they stood in the wilderness, as they stood poised to enter the promised land. We don’t hear the echo of Moses in Jesus’ words.
To the people of Israel, to the people gathered in the wilderness Moses says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and the needy neighbor in your land.’”(Deuteronomy 15:11)
There are those among us—here in our town, in our state, in our country—who hear the words “You shall always have the poor with you” and stop listening for the echoes in those words and thus stop looking for the poor and the needy in our midst.
You and I—we live in the poorest state in the United States. We have the widest gap not only between the poorest and the richest but also between the richest and the next richest. Daily our neighbors are forced to make hard choices between buying the food they need and paying the rent or the health insurance bill or the car payment.
“You shall always have the poor with you....” It’s not an excuse to turn a blind eye or an empty hand to the most vulnerable in our community. It’s a veiled call to address the pressing need before our eyes.
Moses stands with his people—people who will cross into the promised land without him—and issues the commandment to “open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.” Like Moses, Jesus, at table with his friends on the night before his death on a cross, gives a commandment—a new commandment: “Love one another.”
*Love one another with the extravagant lavish love Mary showed as she poured out that fragrant oil on Jesus’ feet;
*Love one another in the barrier-breaking, boundary-bursting way of a woman
who undoes her hair at the feet of a man who is not her husband and in the
company of strangers;
*Love one another by responding to the pressing human need before your eyes.
Now. In this moment. In this city. In this state.