Sunday, September 06, 2009

Who are the poor and what does it matter?

My Dear Brothers and Sister in Christ

Grace and peace in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you in the power of the Holy Spirit. I think if there’s one thing we need to pray for in this country right now, it’s that we find both grace and peace in the health care debate. I keep watching this debate with a mix of fascination and disgust each time that a news story comes on TV about it. The level of vitriol from liberals and conservatives alike at the Town Hall meetings is really kind of disgusting. From the people who brought guns to a town hall meeting to the senator who asked one of his constituents on what planet she spent most of her time to the man who bit off another person’ finger, there has been a complete lack of respect and a flourishing level of misinformation flowing from all sides of this argument. What I truly found disturbing, however, was what happened in Red Bank, New Jersey when a wheelchair bound woman was shouted down at one of these town hall meetings. When one man was asked why he heckled and jeered at her, his response was, “I don’t know how a handicapped woman in chair has more rights than I do.” While it’s not entirely surprising considering the fact that, whenever I see one of these town hall meetings, rude and obnoxious behavior seems to be the standard modus operandi it is still disappointing considering the American notion of equality we prize.

If only we had Jesus around to cure everybody for free. Then we wouldn’t even need a health care industry. And yet, would you believe that’s not entirely true. At the time of Jesus, there was a kind of system involving a bunch of people called healers. They would do a lot of things that Jesus did in this gospel. They would mix up strange concoctions and put it on whatever ailed the person. They would make noises and shout commandments at the person. And, most importantly, they would build up a reputation for themselves as a healer so that others would come to them and pay them to be healed. What is surprising about Jesus in this story is not that he does the healing or even the way he heals the man. It’s that he does everything that a professional faith healer does but then asks that the person healed not make his reputation known. And, even though it had the exact opposite effect, I don’t think that was his intent. In other words, I don’t think he was telling those he healed not to tell others they had been healed knowing full well that they would tell other infirmed individuals and he would get the credit. Jesus isn’t displaying a kind of false modesty that typifies the politician among us. I think Jesus was doing it for a different purpose entirely that he knew they wouldn’t get. I think Jesus dared to look beyond the sickness and see the suffering person underneath and, in that person, he saw the image and likeness of himself.

Fr. Jon, last week, talked about the letter of James and how we get to hear about that letter for the next several weeks. This week, we heard James offering a challenge to us to live out the teaching Jesus is giving to us. “Show no partiality…” says James. We here at St. Thomas often take up a collection for the poor that we put in baskets around this very pulpit. And yet, how do we act when the poor come into our church? Do we intentionally sit at the edge of the pew so they cannot possibly sit next to us? Do we pretend to be occupied at the greeting at the beginning of mass and at the sign of peace so that we don’t have to shake their hand? Or, have we become a church that bureaucratically bullies the poor out of our doors by setting up unfriendly policies that allow them into the building while simultaneously telling them that’s as far as they’re going to get? Do we want poor people and persons with disabilities on our commissions and committees to lend advice and suggestions? Have we, as Catholics, become so whitewashed, so modern, so professional, so middle class that the disabled and the poor are just an inconvenience that we put up with, if we have to, on Sunday?

The name Catholic means “universal”, not in the sense of anything goes/believe what you want to believe/I don’t have the right to insist that there is absolute right or wrong. In the sense that, as James asked in the second reading today, “…have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?” We might not be screaming ad hominem ignorant clich├ęs at each other like they are at town hall meetings, thank goodness. But, when people come to St. Thomas, do you think they see a church that is going to be open to them and make them feel part of the body of Christ regardless who they look like or do you think they leave feeling like they have go to the mall buy a pair of khaki pants and a polo?