September 6, 2009, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 6, 2009
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison

A story I picked up while living back East…

Our house was directly across the street from the clinic entrance of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. We lived downstairs and rented the upstairs rooms to out patients at the clinic.

One summer evening as I was fixing supper, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to see a truly awful looking man. “Why, he’s hardly taller than my eight-year-old,” I thought as I stared at the stooped, shriveled body. But the appalling thing was his face, lopsided from swelling, red and raw. Yet his voice was pleasant as he said, “Good evening. I’ve come to see if you’ve a room for just one night. I came for a treatment this morning from the eastern shore, and there’s no bus ‘til morning.”

He told me he’d been hunting for a room since noon but with no success, no one seemed to have one. “I guess it’s my face…I know it looks terrible, but my doctor says with a few more treatments…” For a moment I hesitated, but his next words convinced me: “I could sleep in this rocking chair on the porch. My bus leaves early in the morning.”

I told him we would find him a bed, but to rest on the porch. I went inside and finished getting supper. When we were ready, I asked the old man if he would join us. “No, thank you. I have plenty.” And he held up a brown paper bag.

When I had finished the dishes, I went out on the porch to talk with him a few minutes. It didn’t take a long time to see that this old man had an oversized heart crowded into that tiny body. He told me he fished for a living to support his daughter, her five children, and her husband, who was hopelessly crippled from a back injury.

He didn’t tell it by way of complaint; in fact, every other sentence was prefaced with a thanks to God for a blessing. He was grateful that no pain accompanied his disease, which was apparently a form of skin cancer. He thanked God for giving him the strength to keep going.

At bedtime, we put a camp cot in the children’s room for him. When I got up in the morning, the bed linens were neatly folded and the little man was out on the porch. He refused breakfast, but just before he left for his bus, haltingly, as if asking a great favor, he said, “Could I please come back and stay next time I have a treatment? I won’t put you out a bit. I can sleep fine in a chair.” He paused a moment and then added, “Your children made me feel at home. Grownups are bothered by my face, but children don’t seem to mind.” I told him he was welcome to come again.

And on his next trip he arrived a little after seven in the morning. As a gift, he brought a big fish and a quart of the largest oysters I had ever seen. He said he had shucked them that morning before he left so that they’d be nice and fresh. I knew his bus left at 4:00 a.m. and I wondered what time he had to get up in order to do this for us.

In the years he came to stay overnight with us there was never a time that he did not bring us fish or oysters or vegetables from his garden. Other times we received packages in the mail, always by special deliver; fish and oysters packed in a box of fresh young spinach or kale, every leaf carefully washed. Knowing that he must walk three miles to mail these, and knowing how little money he had made the gifts doubly precious.

When I received these little remembrances, I often thought of a comment our next-door neighbor made after he left that first morning. “Did you keep that awful looking man last night? I turned him away! You can lose roomers by putting up such people!” Maybe we did lose roomers once or twice. But oh! If only they could have know him, perhaps their illnesses would have been easier to bear. I know our family always will be grateful to have known him.

The ways in which we humans are in the habit of judging and showing partiality! The way our partiality shows what we value most! It is clear what the neighbor values and fears. Sadly, her reaction is all too typical. And we know too deep down that we are not intended to be this way with one another. We know something is amiss, yet we struggle to get ourselves right.

James’ words today help us to get out of the tangle. He cuts to the chase and chastises the early Christians who within decades of the earthly ministry of Jesus for creating ranks and distinctions among themselves and trying to encourage the “right kind of people” to attend their church. But who is the wrong kind of person, James asks? For if we are all neighbors the outer trappings only reveal how the world has placed us but not our hearts and not our God. The church is that absolutely open table of all that Jesus practiced—replicated and shared and disseminated for it has the power to change the world. Yet all to easily it begins to mimic it.

James in his direct way reminds the early church of two facts: one the Church is love in doing not in name only and two, the highest law is to love neighbor as self. Now one can argue that the love of neighbor is clearly referring only to fellow Christians, and certainly James is pointing out where the community is falling short internally. But does that really hold up? Jesus again and again included those who were not insiders. He challenged his fellow Jews with the story of the Good Samaritan thereby extending the concept of neighbor to be greater than common ethnic identification. And in the Gospel today his healing goes beyond the national bounds to a Syrophoenician woman and her child. It is the orientation of our heart and spirits that make us able to receive the Good News of Jesus, not our pedigree. The family of God is always bigger than we want to make it. The neighbor is all we encounter, probably most especially the one we want to disregard.

The other truth he reminds us of is that love is not a spiritual concept for private contemplation that is disconnected from the world. Love is not a reverencing of God “out there”. Love is caring concretely and tangibly for those around us. God’s love is made known or not in how we treat each other. James is reminding us that God’s love is very much about social concern and justice, and we had better not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. Partiality undermines love. It reveals where we have split the human family all made in God’s image into categories of lesser and more. And to do so is to begin to unravel the revelation of the common meal and the common table that Jesus spread for us—the all-encompassing vision of the kingdom of God.

In looking into our hearts we will be able to see where partiality is at work. When we examine our partiality, both private and corporate we can ask some important questions. What is underneath it? What are the assumptions we haven’t questioned? What is it we are avoiding and why? Our partiality often reveals what we are avoiding or ignoring. We will also discover our own poverty, our own lack. It’s an illuminating place. For me I notice that I am very partial towards conversations with others who are highly educated, quick on their intellectual feet, ready to engage in some good verbal dialogue. The poverty it reveals in me all too often is my own need to be recognized for my brains, my insecurity and need for accolades, my own pride and vanity. It can lead me to not pay equal attention to the wisdom and knowledge of those who are perhaps not outward intellectuals, but certainly have much to teach me and much to enrich my life. It’s not a one-way street with me being the only one with something of value to offer. And academically smart people aren’t superior human beings.

In that paradoxical way of faith when we respond to the poverty of another we find that our own poverty is responded to as well. The old man was poor in things, but rich in spirit and faith. He gave of that to this family that welcomed him and gave to him of their material wealth. They gave and received from each other through the act of putting aside partiality in favor of seeing a common humanity. Imagine how much less fear and anger and abuse and violence there might be in this world if we could treat each other this way!

Perhaps the challenge of James we can take home this week is to spend some time looking into our soul at our own partiality. Where? Towards whom? About what? And when we find that it is leading us into a place of disregard and contempt we can look there to find our own poverty. We can also then begin again to let it go in favor of the amazing vision of Jesus where all are important and equally needed at the table. We can be healed of our poverties by allowing ourselves to be there for one another, giving of our wealth, whatever its form, to meet the lack in others and vice versa. We can grow more alive because we see our life being fed by all others and not by having to prove we are more important than others. We can embody a faith that has works and is therefore alive.