Mark 7:24-37

Why Are You Poor?

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Mark 7:24-37

Why Are You Poor?

Rev. Amy Butler

At the beginning it seemed like the four days were stretched out before us with unlimited possibilities. We soon discovered, however, that even if we walked nonstop noon to night there was no way we’d get more than even a nibble of the Big Apple.

To try to get the trip down to a manageable size we decided to consult a tour book offering suggestions for neighborhood walking tours. One of our days found us exploring the Lower East Side, near Orchard and Bowery Streets, by the Manhattan Bridge and right in the middle of New York’s Chinatown.

While the neighborhood is predominantly Chinese today there are clear signs that this part of town once was the locus of all kinds of immigrant populations and a strong reminder that current controversies over immigration in this country are nothing new; in fact, this country was founded by immigrants and it seemed to us that they all landed and moved into that very neighborhood in the Lower East Side.

In fact, I’ll bet everybody here has an immigrant story in your family history—some of you are immigrants yourself. That’s what America is about. Here’s mine: my great grandfather traveled in the hold of a ship across the Pacific Ocean from Mainland China to the Hawaiian Islands to find a new life. He’d heard that the pineapple fields were in need of workers who would work hard, so he gave it all up to bet on a future he couldn’t see and settled in on the Big Island of Hawaii to make a life for himself. And he did. He married and had children, who had children and so on . . . a whole new life.

What’s your story? Take a moment to turn to your neighbor with a few sentences of YOUR immigrant story . . . .

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In order to get a good sense of the Lower East Side neighborhood, Mark and I took a tour of the New York Tenement Museum. The museum seeks to educate the public about the life of immigrants in this neighborhood of New York around the turn of the 20th century, a time in the history of this country when immigrants were flocking to Americas shores in droves . . . “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . the wretched refuse of your teeming shore . . . .” Those words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty sum up the experience in New York City around 1900.

The Tenement Museum owns a building on Orchard Street, one of the most famous streets of commerce in the city of New York. The building was boarded up in 1936 and left exactly as it was until the museum acquired it in the 1980s. Because of that fact, museum staff have been able to recreate the apartments of several families that lived in the building, reconstruct their histories from the memories of descendents and recreate the apartments as they were in the early 1900s. What we learned about the way people lived then was almost overwhelming.
For example, we had a tour of the Rosenthal apartment, complete with pictures of the Rosenthals, a family of two parents and 6 children who came to America from Poland. They were observant Jews who moved as a family of 8 to this new country into an apartment generously estimated to be about 300 square feet. Three little partitioned spaces insured that the parents had one bed to sleep on, two sisters shared a small cot in the “kitchen” and the four boys slept in the family room, heads lined up on the one couch the family had, feet on chairs. During the day the sleeping area turned into family living space and working space, with various members of the family engaged in the common work of the time: the garment industry. Cutting, sewing and pressing went on all day, sending the temperature in the little apartment up to intolerable levels in the summertime and with the sewing debris in the air intensifying the 40% infection rate of Tuberculosis.

In this apartment families worked and lived together, babies were born, family members died, religious rituals were observed and the chaos that was family life in the tenements of New York played itself out.

These people were poor. Poor in such a way that even the poorest in our country today have little experience like that of those immigrants.

In fact, last week’s Washington Post carried an article on the economic indicator that we have in this country that helps us estimate the level of poverty. The Census Bureau’s Poverty Indicator uses four different characteristics to track poverty in this country: nutrition, housing, transportation and health care.

The reality of poverty in America has changed radically since the Rosenthals lived on Orchard Street. Most recent indicators reveal that

* rather than suffering from hunger, America’s poor are much more likely to suffer from obesity
* Among those in poverty in America only 6% live in housing in which there is more than one person per room
* Late findings indicate that at least 75% of poverty households in America own vehicles
* and more Americans have access to health care than ever before. In fact, since 1965, infant mortality in America has declined more than 70%. (1)

Seems like the details of what it means to be poor in America have radically changed. Yet, ask anyone and you will know there is still the sense that many people in our society are impoverished. And it’s true, from cramped apartments in immigrant settlements in New York City all the way to sweeping mansions in Beverly Hills.

We may not have widespread famine or devastating drought; we might not have cramped apartments and epidemic rates of Tuberculosis . . . but make no mistake, we’re poor perhaps in ways we were never poor when we lived crammed like sardines into five story walk-ups on the Lower East Side. We are people who live with a degree of poverty—spiritual poverty—that leaves our graciously-appointed lives a little hollow inside.

And this is the truth that Jesus knew as he walked the dusty streets of Galilee trying to teach the people to look at life and to look at each other differently. Jesus had been trying, you see, up until this chapter in Mark, to explain his strange ideas that welcoming everyone as a child of God’s great family—would enrich our lives, would grow and nurture our relationship with God . . . even if the people who need welcoming are different; even if going out of your way to welcome strangers makes you afraid.

And as if to demonstrate his radical inclusion Jesus traveled almost 100 miles out of his way into the area of Tyre and Sidon, a region of the countryside where he was sure to run into Gentiles—outcasts.

In fact, we read that Jesus ran into a Syrophoenician woman, in fact, who had heard of his healing around Jerusalem. She was sure to be first in line to ask for his help for her little daughter, who was worse than just sick, she was possessed by an unclean spirit.

For whatever reason that we cannot fully explain, Jesus seemed to balk at her request to be the recipient of his healing touch . . . perhaps because he was trying to illustrate for his disciples, for everyone around him, and for you and me reading 2,000 years later, that being a foreigner in a strange land with nothing to call your own except the disdain, disregard and racism of those in the dominant culture around you is not enough to make you poor.

If we judged society back then according to the standards of the poverty index of the US Government it’s likely this woman would have been poor—a foreigner with no man to speak for her and a daughter who bore the scorn of the community in which they lived.

But Jesus entered into conversation with this woman, a woman who knew she had nothing to lose and everything to gain if she put it all on the line and asked for healing from Jesus.

And because this woman lived into the promise of the Gospel—God’s generous grace lavished on everyone—Jesus healed her daughter.

There’s not one person in this room who is poor in a material sense. In fact, even according to our own poverty index, Americans today, even the poorest among us, have a standard of living far above most of the rest of the world. But the message of Jesus, challenging us to discipleship rings true in our ears and that fact makes me wonder: could it be that we are poor? Not in an 11-person-to-a-350-square-foot-apartment kind of poor, but poor in a way that is much deeper and far reaching, poor in our souls?

We are poor when we live as if everything we have belongs to us and the only security we can find in this life is acquiring, hoarding, accumulating and acquiring more things that build a false sense of security in this human life we’re living.

What was it Todd said two weeks ago? We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t want to impress people we don’t like. That’s poverty, poverty of spirit.

What would happen, I wonder, if Jesus showed up today in the middle of Washington DC as he did 2000 years ago and asked those who believed to give up their very lives to follow?

How many of us would do it?

The Bible is filled with examples of people who considered the comfort of their lives nothing in comparison to the value of the Good News; they knew the possessions they had were never really theirs to begin with; they had no hesitancy in throwing them all away, just to be healed by Jesus. This woman, who came to Jesus even though she was a foreigner, a woman, an unclean member of society, who desperately pleaded for healing no matter the cost because she knew the only thing of real value in her life would be relationship with the living God . . . this woman was not poor.

Any one of us who clings with clenched fists to things, money, reputation, position because we believe on some level of our minds that these are the things that make us people of worth . . . well, chances are we’d hardly stoop to talk to someone like Jesus, much less follow him. And we certainly wouldn’t sacrifice all we’ve achieved for the off-hand chance of a healing nod from him! We wouldn’t want to risk losing what we’d worked so hard to accumulate, would we?

The woman in our Gospel lesson today was not poor . . . any one of us who cannot open fists to live knowing nothing we possess is really ours . . . we are the ones who live in poverty.

And you and I are poor when we live lives limited by the possibility of only what we can see right in front of us . . . only the obvious, only the familiar, only what we know.

The church staff is taking a retreat this week, overnight, to talk about plans for the year ahead and to think about the direction we can bring to programs. They don’t know this yet, but one of the things I am going to ask them to do is to create a scale for their area of responsibility—a scale from 1 to 10. 1 would be the very least that could be happening . . . like, the doors are unlocked on Sunday morning in time for worship. Number 10 would be the situation of your dreams . . . a 60-voice choir and full strings, (right Cheryl)?

Once we have the 1 and the 10, our jobs will be to fill in the other 8 spots on the chart and then (the hard part) rank the reality of how things are on the chart.

The first time I did this I was astounded, not by how bad things seemed to be, but actually how much better they were than what they could be. The visual ranking of reality helped me gain perspective.

Then the facilitator said something I will always remember. He said that we have all the people, resources and money we need to go up one step. We have all the people, resources and money we need to go up one step.

See, I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to sit at number five and stare dolefully up at number 10, wallowing in the fact that there’s no way I can ever pull myself up that high.

And that perspective makes me . . . poor.

The Syrophoenician woman knew that she had everything she needed to take the next step. Her perspective was a perspective of abundance, not scarcity, and with the courage and fortitude of knowing she had SOMETHING going for her, she stepped out in faith and asked Jesus—insisted to Jesus—that he heal her daughter.

We may not view her as someone with a large bevy of resources at her fingertips, but she didn’t see it that way. She saw the possibility of what could be and knew she had all the people, resources and money she needed to step out in faith. Remember she said to Jesus . . . “Even the dogs…eat the crumbs” (7:28). She believed that there’s always opportunity for grace. And because she saw her life this way she was not poor.

When you and I spend our time lamenting what cannot possibly be because of the mire of the immediate, when we live locked in by only what we can see, we are living in the shackles of scarcity, limiting the work of God in our lives because we are unwilling to step out in faith.

When we live that way, we are poor.

And you and I are poor when we live by a false standard of necessity . The radical nature of our comfort levels is illustrated in the media by television shows like Survivor, where rich Americans sign up to bring one or two essential items into a wilderness situation to see if they can survive.

Here in our consumer society we have so much STUFF that we can hardly see the forest for the trees—we don’t know what’s essential and as a result we don’t know what’s important. The vast over-abundance of stuff confuses us; we’d hardly know what to take on a short list of essentials because our lives are crammed full of stuff we “need”.

And lives crammed full of stuff we don’t need, ironically, make us . . . poor.

The woman who encountered Jesus was a woman who lived on the margin of society—a foreigner, a woman, an outcast. She subsisted on the crumbs society threw her way. And because she had so little, she could see clear as day what it was she needed . . . and she knew she needed Jesus. Because she knew with deep conviction that one word from Jesus was all the healing her life needed, she could pursue that word with single-minded effort and commitment; it was clear to her what she needed in life.

For you and me . . . well, I am not so sure it is all that clear. We have too much stuff; we live our lives in pursuit of stuff; we spend most of our time maintaining our stuff. How could we possibly know what it is we really need?

This overabundance confuses us; it makes our vision of what we really need . . . relationship with God . . . hard to see and hard to know. And this makes us poor, so poor.

It seems to me that you and I are rather handicapped in our ability to understand this radical message of Jesus because we live in a society where material wealth becomes an obstacle for us. We’re so rich . . . we’ve become poor.

We’re poor when we define our lives by our things and invest our energy in accumulating and maintaining material wealth.

We’re poor when we allow limitations to define us and live unable to see and respond to the gracious and standard-breaking work of God in the world.

We’re poor when we’re so overwhelmed by what we do and don’t have that we cannot even identify what it is we need to survive.

These things make us poor.

Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3)—and he lived out that teaching when we traveled to the far reaches of society, welcomed in those on the margins and celebrated their single-minded commitment to pursuing relationship with God. Jesus knew, you see, that pursuit of God, not things, was bound to give you, well, the entire kingdom of heaven. And when you’re in possession of the kingdom of heaven, as those who gave up everything to follow Jesus were, well . . . then the last thing you would call yourself is poor.

Why are you poor? Friends, with our overabundance the reality is that so many of us are impoverished, starving for life-giving relationship with God. The things you have, the limitations you see, the false sense of what you need . . . these things are the things that make you poor.

To live in life-giving relationship with the God of the Universe, to sit at God’s feet and eat allow our lives to be defined by the things that truly make one rich: love of neighbor and love of God . . . in that moment, like the Syrophoenician woman discovered, we’ll find that no matter what we own, suddenly . . . we’re not poor anymore.

May it be so. Amen.

(1) Washington Post, Sunday, September 3, 2006

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006, Amy Butler. Used by permission.