“With You Always” / James 2:1-17 / 9 September 2018
“With you always, with you always.” Where have we heard those words before? It’s a strange thing to name this sermon, since the words “with you always” don’t even appear in either of our Bible readings. It might be a nice way to sign off on a friendly letter to a loved-one faraway, “with you always.” But these words are heard on the lips of Jesus on two separate and very memorable occasions, are they not? Do you know the ones? Well, just after the resurrection, when Jesus is leaving his disciples behind, with a long to-do list, he comforts them by saying, “Lo, I am with you always.” And he utters these words in an even more famous spot, too. “With you always…” Ah, yes. In one of his best known lines, Jesus says, “The poor you have with you always.” And these two thousand years later, he’s still right, isn’t he? Jesus and the poor are with us the same as they ever were. Jesus and the poor—they never leave us. And so, let me suggest that if there’s a gap in your life, if you have all you need and most of what you want in this world, but you’re still just shy of being happy—then maybe you need to spend a little more thought, and time, and energy on those who are with us always. Oh, they’re not going away, so it behooves us to love them and make our peace with them—both.
This past April I had the privilege of traveling to Malawi—one of the world’s poorest nations—with an old Malawi hand, the Rev. Dave Carver, who has been the pastor of Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church for more than twenty-five years. He has also made more than thirty trips to Malawi in those years. It was fun to travel in such an easygoing African country—for though I loved Cameroon, where I lived for five good years, “easygoing” it was not. But it was especially fun to travel in Malawi with Pastor Carver, who seems to know every politician, and every policeman, and every street vendor in the land by name. Dave would be driving a rickety old Land Cruiser through a village of mud huts, when suddenly he would squeal with extrovert delight, stop the car, and hug an old friend that he saw along the road—yammering in Chichewa all the while. In Malawi, you drive on the left, and cars are designed in the British way, with the driver in the passenger seat. And because all the cars over there are stick shifts, not only do you have to remember which side of the road to drive on, but you also have to shift gears with your left hand. I didn’t want to drive, but it was fun to watch.
A member of Dave’s church here in Pittsburgh—a girl right out of college, who has done a little bit of work with our youth group—Lauren Mack, was working as a school teacher in Malawi when we were there. We picked her up and drove with her to the house of an old widow, Sophie, living deep, deep in the bush. The roads leading to this old lady’s humble little concrete bungalow were little more than trails where that old Land Rover skidded and spun. But we had to visit her, for this widow and her late husband had been to Pittsburgh twenty-four years ago and had spent a month or two living with Dave, helping out at his church, learning about the U.S. When we pulled in the muddy clearing where her cottage stood, she was waiting in the door with a smile as big as this room. She hugged us all so hard we thought we’d break—even me, who was a complete stranger to her. Sophie took us inside for tea with lots and lots of sugar. It was the kind of home you see in Malawi, and Cameroon, and Haiti: dark, with a low ceiling, and tattered old overstuffed furniture that might have been a bit garish in its day. The rooms were small and crowded, but clean and decorated with frilly curtains, decades-old calendars, and posters advertising soft drinks that I’d never heard of. Anything to hide the bareness of the walls. Her adult sons came in from the fields.
Finally, with greetings, and introductions, and hot tea out of the way, Sophie went to a shelf and pulled down two of her most treasured belongings in all the world: two tattered old photo albums with pictures dating back to 1994 and her one and only trip outside Malawi, when she came to the West End of Pittsburgh. Her adult sons sat beside us and narrated the stories of a voyage that they had never made. They had been thumbing through those old albums for most of their lives. “Here’s mum and dad at a Pirates game. Here’s mum and dad in a speedboat on the Monageela [sic.] River. Here’s mum and dad at Pastor Carver’s church.” The wonder is that Lauren Mack, the young lady from Pittsburgh appeared in more than one of those old photos—just a very young girl a Dave’s church. Here she was on the other side of the world, in a house thirteen miles off the paved road. And in this of all places she sits down to see photos of herself—treasured by an elderly widow named Sophie, a woman she doesn’t remember. Lauren wept to see it, to find pieces of herself in such an unexpected place. We paid a visit to the nearby grave of Sophie’s late husband, buried out under a mango tree along with three of Sophie’s children, and then we said our goodbyes. But I left that joyful, humble home meditating on the nature of love, and relationship, and poverty.
I have photo albums filled with pictures from Africa, and Europe, and Thailand, and Hawaii, and not a one of them do I ever crack open. My children could not point to any of those photos and say, “Here’s dad at John Calvin’s church in Geneva. Here’s mom and dad at a temple in Bangkok.” The wonders and the beauties of all those trips are lost in the sheer multiplicity of them. My life has had so many adventures, so many freedoms, so many choices that perhaps I’ve failed to really savor any of them. You and me, we are prisoners of abundance. Sophie made one great foray out into the world, and the sweet memory of it lights her life with joy. Now, I don’t mean to idealize the poor; poverty crushes the spirit and drains the soul. For every stark gift of insight or wisdom that poverty bestows, it steals a hundred others, stifling potential and hope, robbing the world of people’s gifts. You cannot blame anyone for crossing deserts and swimming rivers to escape poverty’s ruthless grip. Its desperation can drive many a good soul to violence and to crime. But I ask you, can we not learn much from a woman like Sophie? Does she not have a capacity for love and for joy that our prosperity denies us? The poor: we do well to know them and to attend to their message. They and Jesus are with us always.
Today’s reading is James at his finest. I told you last week that James is all about action. James doesn’t care what you believe; he cares how you live. He offers us something that I might call “the parable of the prejudiced church usher,” who trips all over rich visitors and offers them the best seats, while seating the poor where no one will see them. Seating people at church was a harder job back in the old days when churches were crowded and you had to help people find spots. As recently as the late 19th century the wealthy had padded pews at the front, sometimes even private booths with fireplaces and curtains. The middle class had regular pews toward the middle. And the poor could either stand in the back or find a bench in the balcony. You see such church designs in Williamsburg and Philadelphia with thrones, even, for the colonial governors. The richer you were, the closer to the altar you sat—because God was at the altar, and your wealth was proof that you and God were tight. They completely ignored the Epistle of James, which warns us not to fawn over rich people in the church, not to give them the most desirable seats (which are in the back nowadays). Then James speaks those devastating words: “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters, has not God chosen the poor?”
Well, now, there’s a frightening question. “Has God not chosen the poor?” But most of us are far from poor. Is that alright to be wealthy, like us? Sure, as long as we do not scorn those who are with us always; as long as we honor them, love them, figure them daily into our plans. Our Adult Education Committee has chosen “justice” as its theme for this year. (It was their choice, too, not something I foisted on them.) Our youth wanted to highlight the dignity of all living creatures, and so they’re helping put together and lead an outdoor worship service next month for the blessing of animals. This is exciting because it means different groups in the church are looking around and saying, What about those who have few options? What about the poor? Ask yourself that question; ask it daily. In the aisles of the grocery store, “What about the poor?” Maybe pick up an extra canned item to drop in the food collection bin. Shopping for clothes, “What about the poor?” An extra pair of gloves for SHIM won’t break your bank. Eating out at a restaurant because there’s nothing in the fridge, “What about the hungry?” Taking a vacation someplace warm, “What about the homeless?” Saving up to air condition your attic, “What about families braving the deadly heat of the Sonora Desert in hopes of escaping their poverty?” I’m not asking you to feel guilty; I’m only asking you to be generous, to be aware, to work toward change.
Jesus and the poor you have with you always, and your attitude toward one is probably pretty much your attitude toward the other: either you respect them, love them, share your life’s journey and blessings with them, or else you avoid them, dismiss them, never really think about them. Oh, they’re not going away, Jesus and the poor. If we befriend them, their presence can enrich our lives in ways we didn’t know we needed enriching. What about the poor? To meet their needs and protect their dignity is our task. Do you know them? Do you see them? Do you serve them? They and Jesus aren’t going anywhere, so you might as well share your life with them—both of them. Amen.
“With You Always” / James 2:1-17 / 9 September 2018