like it The Sunday Sermon – September 27, 2015
http://www.son-chayong.com/484-dtf81079-site-de-rencontre-philippines.html Introduction – The Story of the New Pastor
There is a modern-day parable that has been sweeping the realms of email chains and Facebook newsfeeds everywhere. There was a new minister who wanted to put his new congregation to the test. So he transformed himself to look like a homeless person and then went to the church where he was to be introduced as the head pastor that morning. Looking like a homeless man, he walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service. Only 3 people out of the entire congregation said hello to him. He asked people for food, yet no one in the church gave him anything to eat. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people only to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks.
As he sat in the back of the church, the elders, who were in on this scheme, excitedly went up to the pulpit to introduce the new pastor to the congregation. “We would like to introduce to you our new pastor!” they exclaimed. The congregation looked around, clapping with joy and anticipation. Yet, they were shocked into stunned silence as the homeless man sitting in the very back stood up and started walking down the aisle.
As he turned towards the congregation, now from the pulpit, the pastor revealed to them all that he had experienced that morning. And he said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ.” He then abruptly dismissed the service until next week.
The Trouble in the Text & in the World –
This parable is stunningly similar to our text in the book of James. In James’ portrait, two strangers come into the church – one wearing gold rings and fine clothes, their Sunday best, while the other wears dirty clothes and is obviously poor. The usher takes notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and says, “Have a seat here, please,” escorting them to a place of prominence. The early church was, like so many churches today, constantly in need of more money and new donors in order to survive. So this well-dressed stranger was a potential patron, a person with purse strings, a person with the money and the prestige that would allow the church to survive and to grow. Meanwhile, the usher turns to the one who appears poor, without power and without prestige, and says, “Stand there,” relegating them to a place where they will be unseen and unheard.
These two stories are perhaps so similar, because so little has truly changed – even millennia later. Roman society, much like our own, was ruled by an elite 1% that controlled a vast majority of the empire’s income. A person’s worth was valued and ranked by their birth, wealth, and esteem. Roman society was obsessed with maintaining these social distinctions and hierarchy. There were formal orders of social classes that formed a steep social pyramid of power, privilege, and prestige.
Today our church still struggles for money; our culture is still controlled by an elite 1%; we are still divided by these instant judgments of wealth and worth. But for us, here in Pewee Valley, I believe that the problem we face is even more insidious than this kind of blatant and outright prejudice.
Statistically, Oldham County is the most affluent county in Kentucky. Unlike some of the downtown churches in our presbytery, we do not have homeless men and women on our doorstep each night. Yet, that doesn’t mean that there is no need around us or even among us. Rural poverty is sometimes just harder to see. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, approximately 4300 men, women, and children live under the poverty level here in our very own community. That is just in Oldham County alone. Statewide, roughly 2700 people are homeless in Kentucky on a single given night. And according to Feeding America, each week 53,000 Kentuckians receive food from a food bank in order to eat.
These are our families, our friends, our neighbors, the person in the pew next to us. How do we extend Christ’s welcome to all people – no matter their wealth and no matter their need?
The Hope in the Text –
5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. 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?
I believe that the answer is a welcome that is even wider and even grander than we ever could have imagined. According to James, the hungry among us are not just welcomed here; they are our honored guests!
Even with some of their struggles, the very early congregations in the church were extraordinary in the midst of the hierarchical Roman society. Masters would worship alongside their servants; slaves would worship with freedmen side-by-side. This was unheard of elsewhere! At its very best, there truly was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all were one in Christ Jesus.
And even more than this, among these early congregations, as the Book of Acts tells us,
34 There was not a needy person among them, for those who owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
This dynamic of equality and radical giving turned the world order on its head.
The Hope in the World –
I am reminded of Pope Francis’ visit this week to Washington D.C., where he was able to live out this radical vision of what the church can be at its best. After speaking before Congress, to some of the most powerful politicians in the world, the pope was invited to join the leaders of both political parties for a luncheon. Politely, he turned them all down, and instead, Pope Francis chose to eat with some of the homeless men and women who live in D.C.
In his homily, he told his honored guests, “Remember, the Son of God came into the world as a homeless person… God is present in every one of you, and in each of us… And in prayer, there are no rich or poor people. There are only sons and daughters.”
I believe that these are words that each of us need to hear and to embody – God is present in every one of you, in each person here. Each of you here is made in the image God, and in turn, each of you is worthy of the dignity, the respect, the love, and the care befitting a child of God – no matter your wealth and no matter your need.
I will end here with a quick parable of my own –
For a year, I lived and worked among the homeless in Fort Worth, Texas as an AmeriCorps volunteer. There I was blessed to meet Veronica, as I will call her. She was undoubtedly one of the most incredible women I have ever known. Veronica was a middle-aged, African American woman, who had a beautiful smile and an even more beautiful spirit. She had a quick wit, a sarcastic sense of humor, and a thick Louisiana accent. Hundreds of people would pass her on the street each day, and yet, most would never even notice her. Veronica was homeless…
For years, she had been living on the streets. While there were several homeless shelters in the neighborhood, she refused to go there because they were too dangerous. Too many times to count, as she was showering or otherwise vulnerable, she had been robbed or assaulted. So instead, she preferred to stay in a tent outside. And this was how she lived for most of the week – ignored and excluded by much of the outside world, isolated and alone living on the street.
Yet, on Sunday mornings, this was different. Every Sunday morning, a group of women from a nearby church would come pick up Veronica and bring her with them to worship. One time I went with them, and I was amazed. There she was welcomed with open arms. There she had friends from her Sunday School class, who would hug her, embrace her, and welcome her as one of their own. During the Passing of the Peace, I could see Veronica’s bright smile beaming, as she shook the hands of the people around her enthusiastically. And then she turned to me and she said in a whisper, “This is the one time in my life when I do not feel homeless.”
May we extend this wide welcome to the hungry, to the homeless, and to anyone here who may need it today. Amen.
Jenna Heery, Director of Youth Ministries