Sunday, September 03, 2006

Grace Comes Through the Back Door

A sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (17B, RCL)
James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23) September 3, 2006

May only God’s word be spoken.
May only God’s word be heard and believed.

Last week was a bad week for the Ark Soup Kitchen community and that means it was a bad week for us. Not because anything went wrong or because someone broke or stole something or because their bad week took up a lot of our time. Their bad week is our bad week because we are connected. Communities are like that.

Here is what happened: Barney died yesterday. Barney was not his real name. It is what people called him. Barney was one of our most regular Soup Kitchen guests. He was known around Easton and Phillipsburg as eccentric, a fixture, someone people saw on the streets and on the Circle. Yesterday, just before the meal was to begin, Barney had a heart attack and died.

I want us to remember Barney, to learn from the fact that he was among us, and remember that when Barney was here, Jesus was here; even though we, for the most part, did not know it. I don’t know if Barney ate with unwashed hands, but to many people he was unclean and unwelcome and he called this Church home.

When my cell phone rang to tell me the squad was coming, I was over at the office and when I came over the paramedics had already begun their work. Later, I went to the hospital to perform last rites for this man. Before that, I met with everyone at the meal that day to pray with them, and came back to share the news and pray some more.

I have to tell you that the real work of caring for these folks was done by the volunteers from Northampton Community College and the team leaders from our church (Anne and Chip Szlivko) who handled this situation marvelously. They cared for Barney until the squad came, they shepherded the other Soup Kitchen guests into the church, the cared for those who were upset and saw to putting the room back together and serving the meal after the squad took Barney away. They were a calm, nurturing, compassionate and professional presence through the whole crisis. They did courageous ministry in a tough situation. Here were people at their best when things were at their worst.

When he arrived at the hospital, Barney was already dead. I must admit that I don’t know a lot about Barney. What I learned was this man who came to our Soup Kitchen was estranged from his family. Maybe he earned that, I don’t know. God knows a family can only do so much when a person is addicted or ill or whatever it was that afflicted him. I don’t blame them at all for their estrangement. Who cares anyway and why bother guessing? It just was, that’s all.

I knew that he did little kindnesses even as he got his handouts however he could. And he came here to our church to eat in the Ark Soup Kitchen. He always came early to help set up tables and always stayed late to help put them away. Whenever I met him, he would always shake my hand and bless me back whenever I blessed him. And I knew that he was one of the lost souls of our city.

I also know that he died in his community. He had to have been feeling very ill when he walked in our door yesterday but he came. He came to the safety and shelter of this church. So he was among his friends. He was with people who knew his world; people who struggled day to day as he did, who had fallen on hard times as he had.

It is to these people that Jesus came. It is with these people that Jesus ate. It was for these people that Jesus opened the Kingdom of Heaven. It is to these people that Jesus sent us to serve.

Not that it would be considered sane or sensible to follow where Jesus leads. Jesus himself discovered that. In today’s Gospel we hear that the Pharisees were on Jesus’ case for letting his followers eat food without following the complex cleansing rituals of the day. Things have not changed that much in two millennia, so I think food and ritual was cover for something deeper. They did not like the idea that Jesus would treat poor people as important; that he would consider poor people as ones worth being with.

Now I won’t got into detail about how I’ve learned this, but trust me on this: there is nothing romantic about working among the poor. Unintended poverty is no fun and working with the poor is tough work. You have to develop a thick skin, and have a sense of humor. One must keep a wary eye for cynicism and for our tendency to use those less fortunate to serve our own dependency needs. One must learn how to balance an open heart with healthy boundaries. Oh, yeah, I can’t forget this: you have to pace yourself and take care of yourself because there is never, ever enough of you to go around.

It is still good and holy work. Because if you persist, trust God and have an open heart as well as open eyes and ears, there are abundant blessings to be found. Being among the poor teaches and transforms us. Jesus knew this. So did a lot of other Christians since: St. Francis, and Mother Therese of Calcutta, Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day and Verna Dozier (who also died yesterday—it’s good to know that Barney will be among friends!). Once we get past blaming the poor for being poor (and congratulating ourselves for not being poor), we learn something from them.

From the poor I have learned where my fear lies, and where my insecurity lives. Working with the poor has taught me that my sense of being superior is usually a mask for some deep shame. In dealing with the rawness of the demands of addicts, the chronically mentally ill and the down and out, I find that I have the same cravings—not just for food and shelter or for looking out for #1, but also for love and a sense of place in the world. If we find people stepping on each others hands, heads and souls to climb the corporate or political ladder, then why should we be shocked at the little dramas, petty greediness, and childish selfishness of less sophisticated people? Working with the poor has taught me that we are all poor and wretched and homeless to a certain extent.

But there is something more important. When we work among the poor, we serve Jesus himself. When we let these folks be our guests, then we invite in Christ.

And it goes the other way, too. Being with the poor teaches us that if Jesus can sit and eat with the poor, then he can sit and eat with us. If they are blessed, then we are blessed. If they are welcome, we are welcome.

I don’t know why it was that Barney’s heart gave out in our Soup Kitchen in our parish hall yesterday. But if it had to happen anywhere, I am glad it was here and not out in yesterday’s cold and rain. If it had to happen anywhere, I am glad it was in our community.

And when we gathered all the guests and volunteers into this same sanctuary where you are now sitting to pray for Barney, I discovered something once again for the first time. These people are our parish. Barney and all the Ark Soup Kitchen people found shelter here. And we find shelter here too. Barney and all the community of the Ark Soup Kitchen found community here. And we find community here too. Barney and all the folks of the soup kitchen found Jesus here. We come here to this altar to share in Christ’s body and blood. Our sisters and brothers come here on Saturday to share a meal and Christ is there eating with them.

Barney’s community, the community of the Ark Soup Kitchen is our community, and we are theirs. When they have a bad or a good week, so do we. We may forget or choose to ignore it, but we cannot get away from the fact that God has drawn us together to the same altar, the same table, the same cross, the same new life. We may not meet on the same day, and we may take our meals in different places, but the same Christ meets us and ministers to whatever is impoverished in us. The same Christ welcomes us. This same Christ feeds us and eats with us and welcomes us and makes us new.

And when we choose to open our doors to whomever God sends us, whether it is through the Ark Soup Kitchen or AA or NA or tutoring or whatever else God might call us to, we find that there is as much—or more—operative grace for those who come in our back door as there is for those who come in the front.

You want to be a doer of the word and not just a hearer? Then let God’s grace come in the back door. Jesus will be there, and he will bring friends.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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