Welcoming the Poor
Monday, August 31, 2009 -- Week of Proper 17, Year One
Aidan, 651, and Cuthbert, 687, Bishops of Lindisfarne
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 982)
Psalms 25 (morning) 9, 15 (evening)
2 Chronicles 6:32- 7:7
While reading the exhortation from the epistle of James, I thought of something that happened as I was preaching yesterday. James scolds the congregation for displaying favoritism. "For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in," you find a seat for the fancy one, "while to the one who is poor you say, 'Stand there,' or, 'Sit at my feet..'" James says, "Have you not made distinctions among yourselves...? James continues, "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?"
As I was near the end of my sermon yesterday, a young man in a t-shirt and shorts, carrying a back pack, and looking a bit disheveled walked in and stood at the end of the aisle, just inside the doorway. The back of the church was pretty packed. There was no easy way for him to find a seat. So he stood. I wondered how uncomfortable it might seem for him.
I took some solace in one part of his timing, however. Here is what I was saying as he stood there, looking somewhat out of place, a bit more soiled than the others in the congregation.
Our hands are made clean, are made holy, not by washing them, but by getting them dirty. Our hands have been set apart to scrabble in the dirtiness of the world's injustices and impurities on Christ's behalf, to touch with compassion those considered untouchable or unclean by our social mores, cultural divisions, or political commitments. As Teresa of Avila famously put it, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which God's compassion will look upon the world; yours are the feet with which God will go about doing good; yours are the hands with which God will bless others now." (I was quoting from the Rev. J. C. Austin; a sermon he wrote titled, "Dirtiness is Next to Godliness," 8-31-03)
I hoped that sounded like "good news" to him, not elitism. I ached that there was no place for him to sit, but I was comforted that John Duval was also standing at the back, against the wall not too far away from the young man. He too had not found a seat and was standing for the sermon.
When we stood for the Creed at the end of the sermon, I lost sight of the young man. I couldn't see whether he was welcomed and shown to a place to sit, or whether he left in the shuffle of our standing up.
James insists that to show partiality is a sin. He especially singles out economic partiality. He tells us to offer particular concern and respect toward the poor because God has singled out the poor in a preferential way. "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?"
James adds, "Is it not the rich who oppress you?" My mind went to the speculative economics of the unregulated U.S. money markets that provoked the current depression-recession which has caused such suffering worldwide. Yes, those rich bankers and lenders have oppressed us, as have the laws that show partiality toward their wanton economic behavior.
James follows a frequent theme of scripture, that God honors and protects the poor, and that God expects generosity and responsibility from the wealthy.
Our church does much to respond to the needs of the poor. Community Meals feeds more than 200 people some days, and Angel Food makes quality food affordable to anyone regardless of income. The Community Clinic at St. Francis House which we helped start is expanding from Springdale to Rogers and Siloam Springs providing health and dental care to the uninsured, and Seven Hills which St. Paul's founded now offers residential as well as day care for the homeless.
But I wish we were better at welcoming and incorporating the poor into our worshiping community. I know I often encourage visitors to Community Meals to come be with us on Sundays too, but I get the feeling there is a big hump to overcome. We've had more success going to people than bringing them to us, taking the Eucharist to the women's prison and creating a congregation in their space.
How can we follow James' admonition and become a more radically hospitable congregation?
One little thing -- when we notice that the church is filling up, as it regularly does, we could slide more toward the center of the pews and free some space along the aisle for the stranger who may come in after we've begun. And since the back of the church gets more packed than the front, some people might consider moving forward to make some space. But most of all, it will be our attitude -- our alertness and generosity of spirit -- that will let strangers know they are welcomed and valued. Unless we reach out with warm greeting, neither rich or poor will feel welcomed.
Audio podcast: Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week. Click the following link: Morning Reflection Podcasts
About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at www.missionstclare.com
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.
Visit our web site at www.stpaulsfay.org
Our Rule of Life
Lowell Grisham, Rector