These are some harsh words from the scripture today... and ones, if we are honest, condemn most of us here. This passage in James says, 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, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” For how often do we make a judgment of someone based on how they look, how they are dressed, how clean they look and smell.
There was a story going around the internet a few years ago of a pastor of a mega church who decided to test his congregation. One Sunday morning he showed up at church in disguise thirty minutes before the service began, looking like a homeless person. He walked around as the 10,000 congregants entered the building, approaching them to ask for food, and seeing who would pay attention, offer him help, or even just smile and welcome him. The story goes that only three of the 10,000 would even say hello to him, and the ushers placed him in a pew at the back of the church far away from others. People went out of their way to avoid this disheveled looking man, or looked at him with disgust. Who was he to show up in their midst?
Yet the poor are lifted up so many times in the Bible as ones we should be helping. From Deuteronomy, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” to 1 Samuel: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” From proverbs: Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. to the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And many more in between. Over and over we are reminded that the poor are ones we need to care for.
But, you might be saying to yourself about now, isn’t this a sermon about prayer!
To which I will reply.... Yes it is!
For me serving the ‘poor’, however we define the poor, and prayer are so intricately intertwined, that this is a sermon about prayer.
Of course, the poor do not always look scruffy or unkempt, they don’t always live on the streets, they don’t always have empty bellies or a lack of material wealth. The poor can be any among us who are hungry for something different, something more, something that is missing from their lives. And while the story of the pastor who disguised himself shows us that some may go out of their way to avoid the poor.... The noticeably poor
that is, it makes me think about how often we ignore those hungry places in ourselves and others by avoiding them. How often do we put the ‘poor in spirit’ places in our lives on the back pew hoping they will just disappear? So how do we serve the poor as prayer?
When we take the passage literally and serve the materially poor we must do so covered in prayer, treating our very service as prayer, for if we don’t we will burn out quickly. I have shared stories of my time in New Orleans during seminary, working with clean up crews after Hurricane Katrina and mentoring some teen girls. But what I have failed to share before is how hard it was on me on a spiritual emotional level. Day after day hearing stories of pain and how everything had been lost, working and living in conditions that were filled with mold, going through people’s possessions to see if there was anything salvageable... a photo somehow saved from damage, a trophy found, a ring discovered in the piles of debris. But so much loss. And working with the teens triggered the unhealed part of me as I over empathized with them. One day I was on the phone with my spiritual director sobbing. She asked me if I was remembering to pray. I was really angry at God at this time, so responded with words covered in pain. “Why would I pray to a God who allows all this suffering?” I managed to get out between my sobs. She replied, “How can you do this alone? How can you do this without prayer? God placed it on your heart to go to
New Orleans to help. God is with you. Invite that Presence in.” Immediately I felt the presence of God and calmed down, feeling peace within. And I soon retracted my statement about God letting all the pain exist, for that is not my theology, and remembered instead that God’s presence is always available! And from that day on I took on each task as a prayer. Knocking down walls.... Each blow of the sledge hammer a prayer for the family whose home it was. Each pile of debris met with prayers for the love and lives that the moldy items had belonged to. Each story of loss and pain listened to with an ear turned to God. And while my circumstances did not change, my heart did. Instead of being worn down and exhausted I was, I felt calm. And while tears still fell, they did not overtake me and make me want to quit.
Often people will go into the world to serve without recognizing God by their side, and most who do not treat service as prayer will burn out.... Or become cynical and callous toward the pain they are moving among. I worked with the St. Vincent de Paul dining room in San Rafael, and they had a high turn over of staff, but the ones with an active spiritual life were the ones who stayed.... The others found it too hard to be doing this work. Yet when we enter service as a form of prayer, we can be sustained and refreshed to face another day.
Mother Teresa said, “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature— trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... .We need silence to be able to touch souls.” And this touching souls was her work as she moved among the poorest of the poor. When asked in an interview, “You love people whom others regard as human debris. What is your secret?” She replied, “My secret is simple. I pray.”
And neuroscience has done studies to prove the change in our brains if we pray or meditate each day. In one, Dr. Andrew Newberg took patients whose memories were beginning to fail and scanned their brains for a base line and then asked them to pray for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. He then scanned their brains again. The changes he found were remarkable. He says, "We found some very significant and profound changes in their brain just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention," According to Newberg, many of the participants related that they were thinking more clearly and were better able to remember things. The new scans and memory tests confirmed their claims. "They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent.” His other studies were done with nuns and monks who spent hours a day in prayer where their brains, compared to the brains of people without a prayer
practice, show enlarged frontal lobes, which is the area that leads to a decrease in stress and anxiety.
So, when I was challenged to serve as prayer, I was more able to cope with the pain and stress and hurt surrounding me as my brain was sending signals to the rest of my body that I was safe, that I was not alone, that I was able to stay in the moment more easily. Instead of avoiding hearing another story of loss I was able to walk toward it, ready to listen without having bodily reactions and anxiety and stress they had caused before. My empathy was in check and I could be in relationship with those whose lives had fallen apart, sitting with them until they found their feet once more.
But what about the parts of us that are poor. How do we do this with ourselves? To be in relationship with the parts of our lives that have fallen apart until they can find their feet once more? The parts within each of us that are hungry for something different? How do we approach them with an attitude of prayer? How do we not ‘pass them by and avoid eye contact’! Or feed them things that leave them hungry still?
In some ways, this is the harder task. For when we see and get to know another in prayer, then love will stream from that encounter. But when we see the poor parts of ourselves, even in prayer, it can be hard to switch from judgement to love, to switch from critical thoughts to understanding. We get frustrated that the poor is still there with us..... or maybe we don’t
see it ourselves at all and it takes someone else to point it out. I came across this story... no author was listed.
Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, "God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And Liberty and justice for all! Amen." Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark, "That's what's wrong with this country. Kids today don't even know how to pray. Asking God for ice-cream!"
Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, "Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?"
As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at my son and said, "I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer." "Really?" my son asked. "Cross my heart."
Then in a theatrical whisper he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), "Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes."
Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment and then did something I will remember the rest of my
life. He picked up his sundae and without a word walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her...
"Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes, and my soul is good already.”
The woman in the story was poor... even if she didn’t know it. Maybe her ways of praying were so formed that there was no room to be spontaneous. Maybe her view of God was a stern God, and certainly not one that included ice cream. Maybe she avoided asking God for thing for herself because she felt unworthy. But her comments made it clear that she was poor in spirit!
So this week, as you enter into prayer, pray to see those places within you that are hungry, that are poor, that are longing. Those places that have maybe made you a little harsh or callous. Those places that are closed or in need of joy and curiosity. See if you can sit with them and ask them what they need.... Really need, not a temporary fix like ice cream, but a fix that will allow for true healing and transformation. Like drinking from the living water so you will never thirst again. Like eating of this bread and drinking from this cup that will help you know you belong and are loved, even in those poorest places. Like welcoming Christ into the center of your being and learning that you are worthy of this love. Like silencing the voices that put you down so your soul can be touched.
Pray for the poor. And as our psalm says:
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
God sets the prisoners free;
And opens the eyes of the blind.
May this promise become a prayer, so the poor can be seen and healed and joy and happiness can be found.