March 31, 2019
“In her book Men in Dark Times, Hannah Arendt recounts a story in which Pope John XXIII asked one of the Vatican gardeners, “How are things going?” The worker replied, “Badly, badly, Your Eminence,” telling Pope John what he earned and how many family members he had to support. “We’ll have to do something about this,” said the Pope, only to be told later that raising the wages would cut the funds available for charity. The Pope’s response: “Then we’ll have to cut them. For justice comes before charity.”
I read this story last week, while preparing for our Beloved Community: Holy Listening training. The story is lifted up in an article about the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation’s work to unleash justice in our world. The author of the article, Ernesto Cortés, Jr., the Southwest regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, writes that he was, quote “always taught that what is owed in justice should never be given in charity. Please don’t misunderstand me,” she pleads “I think charity is sometimes required. People need to eat, and children need shoes and school supplies — today. But charity only addresses the immediate needs. It does not lead to sustainable change, to self-sufficiency for families, to dignity in the workplace, or to justice. Charity does not reduce inequality. It does not lead to justice.”
Our world is very comfortable with churches being conduits for charity. Justice, however, hasn’t been a very popular role for the Disciples of Jesus Christ to play. It’s one thing for us to fill the gaps of our society; it’s another to tackle the sources of those gaps.
“What is owed in justice should never be given in charity,” and yet that is how the forces of capitol and empire try to make those of us with more power quiet the voices in our souls, crying out for wholeness and the beloved community that Jesus set loose in our world, the justice that the Torah was written to create, and the prophets called the People of God in Jerusalem back to.
As followers of The Way of Jesus, we often face the choice of being chaplains to empire and capitol, or Holy Trouble Makers who partner with the Holy Spirit as She brings people together to be empowered to partner with Jesus. And the folks who seem to most easily step into the flow of the Holy making all things new, over and over again in scripture, and in our world today, are women, and folks with minority identities.
Given who speaks up, or acts out of the inspiration of the spirit, it’s easy for Judas Iscariot to play the role of the patriarchy, and mansplain why what Mary has done is wrong. Lost to our modern ears, however, is another layer of scandal in this story. Women’s hair and men’s feet have x-rated connotations to the Hebrew people, and this incident is breaking all kinds of taboos. This is not appropriate through many lenses of sexuality in Jesus’ time.
But if I had to guess what folks here at Maryland Presbyterian Church are most scandalized with, and what catches my ears in an uncomfortable way, isn’t the hair, isn’t that a woman is showing deep love for the person of Jesus. It’s that pesky saying of Jesus. You know the one: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Some of us grew up with translations that said “You will always have the poor among you.”
I thought God was going to make all things new? I thought we were working to eradicate poverty, through the Beloved Community. Always have the poor? God forbid that poverty is an eternal reality.
Reducing people to the label of “The Poor” as an identity makes my skin crawl. As someone who spent years among those experiencing extreme poverty, anytime someone speaks of “the poor,” with ideas of solutions, I ask “who are these folks? What are their names? What do they think about your grand idea?” Judas’ solution to me smacks of the ignorance of the comfortable, who tend to have lots of thoughts about what the poor should do, or how they should be dealt with, and often very few, if any, relationships with the folks they want to fix.
As long as there are people who are poor, The Church should always be a place where there are folks of a wide-range of economic statuses together. That’s in the short term, that’s accepting the world as it is. But Jesus and Mary, in this story, thankfully, are focused on the way the world should be.
I approach this text, through the lens of radical hospitality; the idea that, when someone is with you, there shouldn’t be any holding back of good gifts. One of my good friends from Seminary, Rev. Karen Rohrer, started a New Church Development in Kensington in Philadelphia. The Church was small, but was a beacon of hope for the community, that had been hit hard by the leaving of manufacturing and the rise of the opioid trade. This mainly white, working class community had a lot of needs, from nutrition to after school programs for neighborhood children, to access to mental health. The New Church Development, known as Beacon, responded to these needs with after school programs with art classes for kids, nutritious meals, and helping out families in ways that led them to find economic justice, not just charity. But there was something else that was always available at Beacon, that, even when faced with hard economic choices as a start-up, was never a place where money could be saved: there was always double-ply toilet paper in the bathrooms.
Now it might seem like a small thing, but Beacon’s leadership wanted the youth and families who came through their doors, and used their facilities, to know that in this place, they were valued, that they would be extended the kind of hospitality that reflected God’s love for them. So there was always good toilet paper. There was always warm, home-made gluten free bread for communion every Sunday. There was always art, and toys, not the cheapest from Wal-Mart they could find, but toys that were lovingly purchased, maybe on sale, sure, but purchased from the top shelves of Target. Beacon always rejected the idea that “Beggars can’t be choosers,” and instead leaned into the idea that the people that were in front of them at any given moment were the most important people in the world, that they, like Jesus, were the very image and presence of God in the world. You wouldn’t give the Ultimate one of the universe single ply, scratchy toilet paper.
Beloved, I am all for being thrifty. It’s part of the Scout Law, I come from hearty Scotch Presbyterian Stock, and Eric knows that anytime he tells me he’s found a good deal on a hotel or flight for our next vacation, or a coupon to see the newest Broadway play, I’m going to be excited. But there’s a reason for our Thriftiness as a family; so that when we are able to love extravagantly, to show love, to empower others, to be able to take the time to push for justice, and move beyond charity, we can act. When we throw a dinner party, we spare no expense, because when you can love someone in front of you that takes precedence.
I deeply believe that Jesus’ incarnation, his ministry among the people of God, the threat he posed to the powers of capitol and empire that led to his lynching at the hands of Rome in a trash dump, and his Resurrection that to this day most of us can’t wrap our minds around, and can barely conceive of in our hearts, kindles a fire in this world that the darkness of poverty, white nationalist terrorism, systemic injustice, ableism, and the vilification of LGBTQ+ folks can’t overcome. But it is tempting to fall into the trappings of being stingy on love, and instead embrace the opiate of Charity, that reduces the Revolution of God to being chaplains to Empire.
We are called to love the people in our midst, not only in these walls, but in our families, those we partner with in our communities, with an abundance that sometimes is going to seem extravagant. And yet, we follow an Extravagant Christ, who lifts up those our society sees as lowly as heirs of the Holy One.
Our Lenten Study this year has been on the extravagant hospitality of Relational Meetings, the most radical tool in community organizing. Some of you may have been asked to have a 30-45 minute conversation with folks involved in our Wednesday night trainings. I encourage you to accept the invitation. It can seem extravagant to have 30-45 minutes for someone to listen to whom you are, and what motivates you to love, to struggle for justice, to share what keeps you up at night, and what gets you out of bed the next morning to move the world from how it is, to how it should be. Especially these days when we hear of children in cages at our border being assaulted and abused, when gunshots ring out around our city, when our Muslim neighbors have had four hit and run’s target them around their Mosques, including the death of a twelve year old girl. But I tell you, the world can change through the extravagance of seeking Justice, and not mere charity. Still, it’s a lesson thats easy for me to preach, and hard for me to live into.
On Friday I met with our County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., along with the Maryland Director of the Committee for American Islamic Relations, Dr. Zainab Chaudry, and Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin. It seemed to me to be a massive extravagance for the County Exec to meet with us. I mean, I’m the pastor of a 78 member congregation in the Suburbs, and he’s trying to balance a county budget that is ambitiously trying to improve the education of our children. I asked him “Why did you take this meeting? Why would you meet with me? I mean, Nina and Zainab, sure! But me?” He laughed, and looked me straight in the eye; “If I don’t stay grounded and in relationship with people who are trying to make this county truly a home for all, then I will have lost my way. This is what I need, because my faith teaches me that God is up to something among you.”
So, my Beloved friends let us be extravagant with love and hospitality, not being stingy with our presence and time, but lavishing it on the folks who God brings across our paths. Let us extend hospitality in ways that others can never repay us, and let us make sure that, along with two-ply toilet paper, we welcome all into our presence, risking to seek to give nothing in charity that could be earned through a more just world, one set aflame through the power of the Incarnate One we love and serve.