Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Treasures of the Church

Sermon Preached at St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco
RCL, Proper 18: James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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? 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? Amen. James 2:1-5

Exactly one month ago today we celebrated the feast of St. Laurence. Laurence was chief of the seven deacons of the congregation at Rome, who were in charge of administering the church budget, particularly with regard to the care of the poor. In the year 257, the emperor Valerian began a persecution aimed chiefly at the clergy and the laity of the upper classes. All Church property was confiscated and meetings of Christians were forbidden. The bishop of Rome, Sixtus II, and most of his clergy were executed on 7 August 258, and Laurence on 10 August.

Later accounts report that the Roman prefect, knowing that Laurence was the financial officer, promised to set him free if he would surrender the wealth of the Church. Laurence agreed, but said that it would take him three days to gather it. During those three days, he placed all the money at his disposal in the hands of trustworthy friends, and then assembled the sick, the aged, and the poor, the widows and orphans of the congregation, presented them to the prefect, and said, "These are the treasures of the Church."

“These are the treasures of the Church.” St. Laurence, good deacon that he was, refused to allow the Church to become hostage to the agenda of the rich and the powerful. Laurence protected the Church’s wealth, not to maintain the status and privilege of the upper classes, but because it was vital to the well being of the poor in his community. He knew that if the Roman Empire confiscated the Church’s wealth, it would be the poor, the Church’s true treasure, who would suffer most. He gave his very life to demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ teaching that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Where do we find our treasure? Do we find it in the faces of the poor? Do we see our neighbors who may be less well off than us as assets, or as liabilities? The letter of James and the life of St. Laurence challenge us to follow Jesus in refusing to make self-serving distinctions between rich and poor, choosing instead to welcome each and all as priceless treasures whose presence will enrich our lives in unexpected ways. It is only as we stretch ourselves to include those who are different from us, those who may in fact make us very uncomfortable, that we come to trust that our security is rooted in God’s eternal love, and not in our wealth or social status.

Here we touch on what I think is a very important spiritual truth: we desperately need each other, with all our surprising, and frustrating, and sometimes incomprehensible differences, in order to begin to understand something of the wonder and dignity of our humanity. The Church is called to become an evermore inclusive community; not because it is a moral obligation, or politically correct, or condescendingly chic (as if we could become fashionably spiritual by being seen receiving communion with poor people – or with rich people, for that matter). The Church is called to be a radically inclusive community because we need each other to become truly holy: to become whole, integrated, fully human.

When we acknowledge the humanity of those who challenge us or make us uncomfortable, we also begin to accept the broken, painful, “unacceptable” parts of ourselves that we tend to suppress or project on to others. In this process of mutual mirroring of our humanity for each other, allowing ourselves to see and integrate aspects of our humanity that we previously rejected, we discover that we have far greater resources for enlarging our sense of human and Christian community than we thought. This is difficult, sometimes even painful work, forcing us to stretch ourselves well beyond our comfort zone.

This is what Jesus discovered in his encounters with the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man in today’s gospel story. Jesus had gone out ahead of his disciples into the region of Tyre and the Decapolis: into Gentile country. He left behind the safety and familiarity of the Jewish world and mission in which he had been operating. While there, Jesus initially went into hiding, slipping into the house where he was staying and hoping that no one would notice him.

I think there may be an uncomfortable parallel here between Jesus and St. John’s. Here we find ourselves, mostly (though not exclusively) white, middle-class, middle aged gay and lesbian people – people like me – in a region, a neighborhood of people who are mostly not like us: darker skinned, poorer, younger, and straighter. It is very tempting to slip into this house on Sunday mornings and hope that nobody notices us. At least, it would make life a lot less complicated if that were the case.

But the gospel tells us that Jesus could not escape notice. Perhaps it was his very difference from those around him that made him stick out. Perhaps people were curious about what he was doing there. Perhaps they thought that they might have something to offer each another.

At any rate, Jesus is immediately challenged by a Gentile woman who crashes the party and presses every one of his buttons. She is persistent. Maybe Jesus doesn’t want to be noticed, but she will not be ignored. Her daughter’s need is too great and her faith is too firmly fixed to be put off.

But Jesus tries to put her off anyway. First, he insists that his mission is reserved for people like him: to fellow Jews. He has come to feed God’s children, not Gentile dogs. And secondly, there isn’t enough to go around for both the Gentiles and the Jews. “If I feed these dogs,” thinks Jesus, “the children will go hungry.”

Isn’t this the fear that we all share? Don’t we tend to operate with a model of scarcity: there isn’t enough time, enough money, enough love, to share with “those people.” What about me and my needs! Before you know it, they’ll have power and start changing things! What about my status and security! Suddenly, those who are unlike us aren’t simply different – they are a threat.

“Ah,” says the Syrophoenician woman, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her compassion for her daughter compels Jesus to acknowledge her humanity. Her need is just as real as that of any Jew, and equal in its claim upon him. What is more, her Gentile faith exceeds his own. Where Jesus worries about limitations, she insists there is enough: if we are but willing to share with each other. Suddenly, the distinctions that Jesus thought were so important, so worrisome, no longer seem to matter.

Jesus is in the process of discovering that his mission of healing, his conception of humanity, must become far larger and more inclusive than he had initially imagined. He begins with what he knows and with those who are familiar to him, but he can not stop there. Through a process of risk and encounter with the “other,” he must learn more fully what it means for us to be God’s beloved children.

Thus Jesus should not be surprised when another Gentile, a deaf man unable to speak well, turns out to be capable of hearing the word of God and sharing it with others more effectively than his own disciples. He comes to Jesus for healing, yet in turn offers an equally remarkable gift for sharing the good news of God’s healing love. And so Jesus’ mission of forgiveness, hospitality and healing is multiplied in ways that he could never have accomplished had he remained hidden in the house.

My sisters and brothers, Jesus is inviting us this morning to come out of hiding and join him in expanding our sense of mission. We are called to risk encountering those whose differences will challenge us and change us in ways we can’t anticipate or control. We are invited into this risky venture, not because we are in possession of Jesus and need to share him with others. Jesus has already gone before us, and in welcoming the stranger, we will find ourselves meeting Jesus again for the first time. In so doing, we will grow in acceptance and love of humanity, both ours and others’. And we will be saved.

When St. Laurence presented the Church’s treasures to the Roman prefect, he became so outraged that he ordered him to be roasted alive on a gridiron. Laurence bore the torture with great calmness, saying to his executioners at one point, "You may turn me over; I am done on this side." (Laurence strikes me as a rather campy saint!) The spectacle of his courage made a great impression on the people of Rome, and made many converts, while greatly reducing among pagans the belief that Christianity was a socially undesirable movement that should be stamped out.[i]

Nothing could better reveal to the world the truth and sincerity of our faith, than our willingness to embrace the poor, the sick, the broken hearted – all of the suffering humanity that we reject in ourselves and in others – as the Church’s true treasure. If we are but willing to let go of our fear, our selfish preoccupations, our false superiority, we will find ourselves gaining nothing less than our true humanity as we join with Jesus in God’s great project of healing the world. Amen.

[i] Hagiagraphy of Laurence found at

1 comment:

Tony said...

Thanks so much for this piece. I found it while googleing for "Laurence and Treasures of the Church" I hope you don't mind that I have used it as a reference in a response to a news item about new liturgical vessels being produced in Australia for pope Benedict when he visits for WYD 2008.

You will find my comment at