the poor. you will. always. have. with. you.

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Amos 8: 1-10, Matthew 26: 6-13

Church Action on Poverty Sunday


Bishop David Sheppard was right. God does have a bias towards the poor.

In the (Old Testament) Law, God’s people are commanded to look after the poor, the widow, and the foreigner living among them. The Old Testament prophets condemn them in the strongest terms when they fail to live up to these commands, as we have seen in today’s OT reading from Amos 8. Caring for the poor is a theme and a thread running through the entire biblical narrative.

“You will always have the poor with you” Jesus (Matt 2: 11)

You will always have the poor with you. There has always been poor people, and maybe there always will be. It is the way our ‘fallen’ world system works, however it is configured or reconfigured. Perhaps we will never fully eradicate world poverty this side of the Parousia. But we can make people less poor. The poorest in our country were significantly less poor under the last Labour administration, due to a raft of legislation designed for the task.

You will always have the poor with you. The poor are always with us. One the problems with our society currently is that the poor are considered as a class apart. An underclass. What an appalling term this is, relegating as it does the most vulnerable as being somehow beneath the rest of us. Jesus said that the poor are with us. They are part of us. They are us. We are the poor.

‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ Paul (2 Corinthians 8:9)

What does this mean? Was Jesus materially poor in the context of his time and place? No. Jesus (and his followers) had plenty to eat, places to stay, and access to finances (hence Judas’s money bag). Jesus wore a seamless robe – an expensive garment. He was buried in the tomb of a rich man, who was also his friend.

Jesus became poor in order to identify with our human poverty. Why? Because we are all poor.

Poverty: a state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount

Poverty is a state of lack. A materialistic world view measures poverty primarily by a lack of material wealth, goods and support. Yet, true poverty is much broader – and deeper – than this measure allows for. Our failure to understand poverty [w]holistically has contributed to our inability to counter it more fully.

Poverty can be emotional. Loneliness, for example, is one of the major contributing factors to early death. It is also spiritual.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 3). Jesus assumed our (human) poverty – wholly and fully – so that we might become ‘rich’ (2 Corinthians 8: 9). Rich in what? Rich in heavenly terms. Spiritually rich.

Herein lies the paradox (remember how I said that the Bible is not a book of contradiction, but a book of paradox?).

The materially poor are often the most spiritually rich. I have seen and met first hand the spiritually blessed in the slums of Mumbai, the favelas of Paraguay and in the poorest housing estates of Britain. Spiritual richness among the poorest of our world is a counter-intuitive, humbling and beautiful thing to behold. A glorious paradox. Christian revival history shows that such revivals always begin among the poor.

 Slum church in Mumbai 2007

Slum church in Mumbai 2007

Likewise, the materially rich are often – but not always – the most spiritually poor. Which is why Jesus tells the rich young ruler to renounce his wealth as a precondition to joining His followers. Having everything prevents us from realising how little we have. Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom famously said, “You may never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have.” Consider the spiritual impoverishment of the stars of [un]reality tv. Despite his ‘Christian’ protestations, ‘Reality tv President’ Donald Trump is possibly one of the most spiritually impoverished people on the planet, and to be pitied for it in my opinion.

Should the Church take action on material poverty? Absolutely. For the poor you will always have with you. Yet, at the same time, let us not narrow our definition of poverty to that of our materialistic society.

At Christ Church we are in the final stage of our bid to secure Heritage Lottery funding to fix some of what is wrong with our building, meaning that we will have a further 10 year grace period (in the full sense) to do what is necessary to keep it open. Why is it vital to keep this building open? For the worship of God, yes. For the service of this parish and community, especially the poor and vulnerable, but also because this area and its people will be spiritually poorer if it were not here.

Amen

Click here for more information on Church Action on Poverty

The Virgin Mary - Chosen. Blessed. Woman.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’
— Luke 1: 41-42
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How has Mary, the apparently demure teenage mother of Jesus, become such a controversial figure? The way of all doctrinal controversy, perhaps? The Church is adept at finding things to argue about. Why bother doing something, when you can talk about it instead? 

Mary, though has been the subject of vigorous - and sometimes vicious - debate over the centuries. People have given - and lost - their lives in opposition to and in defence of their understanding of her status. When it comes to the theology of Mary, as with most doctrinal issues, there is a spectra of views, ranging from the Marist to the Mary-lite, from veneration to vituperation.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary...
— The Apostle's Creed, c. AD 390

I believe in the Virgin Birth. I really do. Not as a fact to be scientifically or rationally argued - because that is simply not possible - but as a Beautiful Mystery to be beheld and wondered over. 

So, why is Mary important? Because she is 'chosen'. "Blessed are you among women". Chosen. Blessed. Woman. Mary is important because she is a woman, and women are important to God. Woman should be important to the Church. Wonderful news this week that Sarah Mullally was appointed as Bishop of London, the third most senior clergyperson in the Church of England. And not before time.

The world of the New Testament was intensely patriarchal. Yet, here in the story of the first Christmas a woman takes central stage. Mary is central to the Gospel story, from the birth of Jesus to His death. When the male followers of Jesus had run away and deserted Him, three women remained at the Cross. Mary has a central role in the Gospel accounts. And not just Mary...Elizabeth, Anna, the Woman at the Well, Martha 'the homemaker', Mary Magdala, the woman who anointed Jesus' feet before the crucifixion... The Gospel narratives affirm the place, importance, and equality of women. It is easy for us to underestimate how just how radically affirming and incendiary this inclusion of women was at the time, both in the Gospel writings and in the life of the newly emerging Church.

From 'Mother of God' to 'mother of Jesus', Mary is neither to be venerated, nor to be dismissed lightly. The truth, as always, is in the tension between two opposing poles. A middle way. The Mary way. Mary is important. She is to be respected, as all women are to be respected. Spare a thought - or a prayer - with or for - Mary this Christmastide, as with and for all the wonder-full women in our lives.

Advent 4, Christmas Eve 2017