October 16, 2011

Isaiah 58:6-11
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
John 12:1-8
Luke 6:17-31

Tomorrow – October 17th – has been designated as the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.” And here in our city, the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition is hosting its 8th Annual “Poverty Awareness Week,” with special events being planned throughout the week to raise consciousness about poverty in our community, as well as to encourage those who live in poverty as they continue their daily struggle.

Last year was the first time (in my almost 8 years of living in Saskatoon) that I participated in the “Hands Across the Water” event during “Poverty Awareness Week.” “Hands Across the Water” is a kind of symbolic act. People gather at the bottom of the Broadway Bridge. Then we line up, and join hands as we walk up the bridge, with the goal of being able to reach to the other side.

We come together as people of all socio-economic levels, and we join hands to combat poverty, to reach across the troubled waters that so many people experience because of poverty. We recognize that poverty is an issue that affects us all – both the West side and East side of Saskatoon – and that together we can overcome it.

They told us last year that we managed to reach further than we had ever reached before, and there was lots of rejoicing and cars honking their horns as they drove by. But I was near the front of the line, and I would say that we reached a little more than half way up the bridge. We had a long way to go! And it kind of made me feel disappointed that we couldn’t reach further.

The crowd of people looked pretty big in the park beside the bridge, but as we tried to stretch out across the bridge, I realized that the bridge was much longer than our arms could reach, and we just weren’t enough people to reach across it.

Sometimes that’s exactly how we feel in our work to combat poverty. We give and we give, and it seems like the needs around us just keep growing and growing. There are people starving because of famines in Africa, and others starving because of low incomes and rising costs right here in our city. We write cheques for Presbyterian World Service and Development, and we donate bag after bag of food for the Food Bank, and it often seems that we hardly make a dent in the problem of poverty.

I think of Jesus and his ministry among the poor. I suppose he probably interacted with a few people of means, but most of those who came to him and followed him were relatively, or even extremely, poor.

Of course, Jesus was poor as well. He gave up his livelihood to go out on the road as a preacher and healer. And there was no stable congregation of people to provide him with a stipend and housing allowance, and supplies for his ministry.

When the crowds gathered, looking for healing and help, Jesus didn’t have the resources to provide for all their physical needs. Yes, there were some miracles along the way. But there were probably also many times when Jesus and his friends, not to mention the other poor people of Galilee, went to bed with empty stomachs and no prospects for breakfast.

In his preaching, Jesus encouraged the hungry and the poor who listened to him with a vision for a world to come in which they would be filled. I’m pretty sure that Jesus was not planning to host a supper right after the sermon, but he was encouraging the people to hang on and to have hope for the Kingdom of God that was on its way. “The Kingdom of God is near,” he told them, “and when it arrives the poor will be lifted up, and the hungry will be filled, and all will be well.”

Some people probably think that having an “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty” is a waste of time. And gathering with a bunch of people at the bottom of the Broadway Bridge, and trying together to reach across it may also sound like a waste of time. And whether or not we can get enough people together to reach across the bridge, we certainly can’t eradicate poverty. It’s just not possible.

I’ve heard people quote from the bible to make this point too. They remember the day that Mary of Bethany used up a whole pound of costly perfume by pouring it on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. Whether his intentions were honorable or not, Judas made a good point when he suggested that if the perfume had been sold, it could have gone a long way to help the poor. But Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

People read those words from Jesus, and they conclude that it’s going to be impossible to get rid of poverty. “We’ll always have the poor with us.” That’s what Jesus said. But we have to read the story of the anointing side-by-side with the proclamation of Jesus that the Kingdom of God was near. We have to read it, remembering how Jesus responded with compassion to the very real and overwhelming needs of the crowds that came to hear him. We have to remember the way he took time for them, to bless them and heal them. We have to remember the way he instructed his disciples to provide for the hungry crowds – “You give them something to eat,” he said.

Mary of Bethany made a choice that day to spend her money on perfume so that she could anoint her Lord Jesus before his death, just as Christians today spend money to build places of worship so that we can gather to praise and glorify our God in Jesus Christ. But while Judas tried to set up these priorities as opposed to one another, we are called both to worship God AND to care for the poor, the hungry, and the homeless in our community and throughout the world.

We could be out right now, gathering food for the Food Bank or planning our political advocacy strategy for the poor, or we could be sitting in a park “occupying Saskatoon.” But we are here at worship, being inspired and encouraged and challenged to keep up the work of building the Kingdom of God, including the eradication of poverty.

Lately it seems like every organization that I’m a part of is talking about having a vision and a mission. In our work at the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, we’re talking about a vision of being One Church – One Body of Christ with many members. In our new Pastoral Care Nurse ministry, we’re talking about a vision of a church and community in which all people are healthy and whole in body, mind, and spirit, where everyone receives the care and support that they need. And just this week, our denomination – the Presbyterian Church in Canada – sent out an invitation for the people of the church to explore what our vision as a church should be… what vision God is calling us to work towards together.

The thing about visions is they’re big. They’re way beyond what we can see here and now. But they keep us moving and doing our mission because we know and trust that God will one day make those visions a reality, and we just keep moving towards them.

At times we may feel like a small group of people who gather together at the bottom of the Broadway Bridge, who join hands and walk together to reach across the water, and so far, we can only reach a little past the middle.

But God’s vision is that our group will grow, and we’ll make it all the way.

God’s vision is that poverty will be eradicated.

God’s vision is the one that Jesus came to tell us about, and to show us.
It’s a vision of the world as the very Kingdom of God, and it is near.