Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
First or Last?
Scripture: Mark 10:71-31; Hebrews 4:12-16; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
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First or Last?
CMC 14 October 2018
Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Texts: Mark 10:17-31; Hebrews 4:12-16; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Hebrew spirituality was the classroom in which a certain religious genius was discovered. The Hebrews recognized one God–not their god, or the best god, but the One divine being. And it's not just belief in one god–monotheism–that made their spirituality genius. There was more. The ancient Hebrews also had this spiritual insight that changes everything. They discovered that caring for the poor validates your religion. In other words, there is no way to worship well or have faith or know God or practice spirituality unless we care for the poor. Either your religion, your spirituality, your faith calls you to care for others, especially the poor, or you're enrolled in a worthless diploma mill.
You can imagine that this second insight–care for the poor–was popular among poor people and among prophetic dissenters from dominant power structures. You can imagine it was a thorn in the flesh for people who had more than enough. For some of us that takes little imagination. When we have money in our savings accounts, we don't want to hear about care for the poor. It's not that the ancient Hebrews were so smart. These spiritual insights were gifts, growing awarenesses, tested by wise people who experienced this God and practiced their lessons. Ultimately, the Hebrew religious genius–this gift of God was manifest in a Jewish Galilean.
Jesus was poor. Yet, he claimed his place among the Jewish people of the first century as Messiah, a poor, suffering Messiah–shocking, perplexing, astounding. In the scripture I shared this morning the rich man was shocked; the disciples were perplexed, astounded. Jesus' views about wealth, poverty and the kingdom of God were not common sense–nor are they today. Jesus' words still act, as Hebrews says, like a sharp blade dividing soul and spirit, judging our intentions and actions
"Sell what you have and give the money to the poor." This is considered one of the "hard sayings" of Jesus. Nobody is ready for the hard sayings–at least nobody in the gospels and certainly none of us. The "hard sayings" are always challenging whether in their ancient cultural context or when translated into our current context. (And translations of Jesus' "hard sayings" into today's context that make them seem easy or reasonable are bad translations.) Better to take Jesus at his word and retain the grit of his teaching.
Your money and the poor
Give your money to the poor. Kent and I have been enjoying some time with my parents and my father's sister and her husband this weekend. I heard a family story that I didn't know about my great-grandparents Lindsey Greenbrier Davis and his wife Rosie. They were quite poor–no indoor bathroom–living in Horse Cave, KY. They had running water in the kitchen, but their son, my paternal grandfather, wanted his folks to get the little house plumbed and install a bathroom. Working two jobs up north in Chicago, he gave his parents money for that purpose, but his folks spent the money on other things–strawberry plants–to grow an acre of berries and ducks and chicks. Might Jesus say today to rich man today: The poor know know more about what to do with your money, than you do. Eventually, in the 1970s they did install a bathroom.
Much of God's word to us in scripture is persuasive, story-based, and rooted in wisdom rather than simple commands. But I learned something about commands recently from Cynthia Park, a Bible scholar and psychologist. In emergency situations, commands are the most loving way of speaking. When a there's not just a drill, but real fire and the teacher commands: "nevermind your coat and backpack, leave the building" it's a matter of life or death. We sometimes hear commands in scripture through a distorted image of a god who is authoritarian, controlling, judgmental, distant and unmoved by our circumstances. But the commands in scripture are often life-saving messages for individuals and communities who are in real danger. Jesus' command in this passage is in response to a man's question about life and death. Jesus responds in love.
Giving to the Poor
There used to be a game on the children's program Sesame Street–one of these things is not like the other; one of these things doesn't belong. When this guy asks Jesus about eternal life, the Lord begins reciting the ten commandments. It's a familiar list–you shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery and so on. But one of these things doesn't belong. Jesus inserts a command that was perhaps specific to this man's situation. You shall not defraud. My hunch is that this man was ripping off his neighbors in some way–some illegal or legal business dealings that were making him rich and leaving others poor. Jesus' command–sell what you have and give to the poor–was a loving life-saving intervention–an entry point for this rich guy into a life of discipleship, following Jesus and the kingdom of God. This "hard saying" of Jesus can be a terribly guilt-inducing passage. But I believe Jesus is trying to rescue this man from the economy of endless accumulation–which always exploits or defrauds the poor. And Jesus wants to rescue us as well.
Jesus didn't get into the details of how this man was supposed to give to economically disadvantaged neighbors, but the church and others who care about poverty and the global wealth gap have come up with lots of ideas. Last weekend CMC participated in the VA Mennonite Relief Sale and the preliminary results indicate we helped raise $370,000. One of the recent opportunities at the sale was to just Share Our Surplus (SOS) and give to meet immediate needs of refugees. Writing an SOS check is not as glamorous as bidding on fine furniture or quilts, nor as delicious as eating Indian lamb curry, donuts or Puerto Rican pinchos, but the SOS effort and the whole VA Mennonite Relief sale was an effort to address global wealth disparities and shift some of our wealth to poor communities.
Direct Cash Giving
So sometimes we literally sell what we have–fine furniture, quilts, toys or food and give to benefit the global poor. Sometimes we share our surplus and simply give money to MCC. Another method that I've learned about recently for closing the global wealth gap is direct cash giving. Paul Niehaus of Give Directly has a challenging model of charity. In the early 2000s when he and his grad student friends were studying the impact of cash on alleviating poverty in East Africa they learned that some of the ways non-profit organizations give to the poor work better than others. Mennonite Central Committee is project-based and relates to whole communities. Cash giving through small individual electronic transfers of fund, is different because it gives poor folks access to cash, so that they can choose (like the rest of us) what to do with money–whether to improve housing, educate children, buy animals, invest in equipment, pay for medicine, etc. Like my great-grandparents did.
MCC's programs are based on earlier development models, so I inquired with MCC and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding to about whether they have explored cash giving models. Here is some of what I learned: In the world of development, relief and peace, MCC works at best practices in various sectors–health, education, disaster response, etc. This requires setting up goals and baselines, measurements and outcomes, for reporting to constituents, foundations, and partners. Direct cash giving doesn't fit well with how MCC accounts for donations they receive from people like us and from foundation donors. Direct cash giving makes reporting much more complex. Additionally, MCC works at the community level, through partners, addressing community needs. Direct cash giving has a stronger individual component. MCC believes that working on a community level reaches more people. One unintended consequence of direct cash giving might be that where one person here and one person there has direct access to cash, inequalities emerge in a community. Nevertheless, organizations like GiveDirectly.com continue to build on compelling research about the benefits of direct cash giving among extremely poor populations. I wonder how Mennonite relief and development will be influenced by these models.
Local Living Wage Campaign
Another innovative way of obeying Jesus command and redirecting wealth, so that it doesn't pile up and create injustices is a living wage. Here in Harrisonburg there is some local research being conducted by a steering committee for a living wage campaign. "The purpose of this brief survey is to help the If you earn an hourly wage, I hope you'll take a short, five question survey developed by the Steering Committee of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Living Wage Certification Program. The survey will determine what workers are being paid, and how that compares to local costs of living." We'll put the link in the Newsweekly. There are several communities in VA establishing living wage campaigns. When communities support jobs that that do not supply a living wage we're defrauding workers–it may be legal to pay minimum wage, but it is still wrong if these wages keep families in poverty. Living wage campaigns reward businesses that pay a living wage and create social pressure on other businesses to do the same.
I believe there are two messages in this passage that are God's word for Community Mennonite Church. First: divest from the economy of accumulation and give money to meet the needs of the poor. It's a hard saying of Jesus. We have a complex economy, and how best to give is not easily answered. But if we consider that Jesus, in love, is speaking to us in our materialistic emergency in order to save us, we won't let the complexity keep us from responding to the needs of the poor.
The second message for us this morning is about how to respond when we receive a "hard saying," a spiritual challenge, a blade that seems to slice through our false self and expose who we really are and who God wants us to be. Brothers and sisters, when we hear some gut-piercing word from God, let's not walk away. Let's not drop out of the school of discipleship. That's the rich man's path of grief, regret, and wasted opportunity. The apostle Peter doesn't get it all right, but he remains with Jesus. Jesus knows us and loves us and will not give up on us. Jesus will not give up on a church or a society even if we're pretty far gone with respect to care for the poor. There are always a few who will come when Christ calls. Yes, we'll stumble along the way, but Jesus promises that the school of discipleship offers more security and community than what we've known before. Jesus can save us from the illusions and confusions of accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor. "For God, all things are possible." And we're promised we'll enjoy "a hundred fold" houses of hospitality, brothers and sisters facing similar challenges, elders who can give counsel, fields of opportunity. The life of following Jesus is shocking, perplexing, astounding, but it is the path of eternal life. Let's be bold in responding to Jesus call and command. For this is the Messiah who can "sympathize with our weakness," [Hebrews], who looks at us and loves us.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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