Having it all.
We were getting some pizza in a restaurant in Manhattan, an excuse to catch up with a long-time friend. I had warned him that the place wasn’t too fancy, but the pizza is awesome. I like it because it is so simple: great super thin crust; secret tomato sauce recipe, rich in flavor; and some very fresh mozzarella. Piping hot and a little charred right out of the brick oven. What more could you want? Well, maybe a beer or a glass of house red wine. Perfect, right?
He liked it, although I think he was a little put off by the shabbiness of the place. He has risen up in the world, and this was a bit of ‘slumming it’ on his part. We got around to talking about our families. His dad had recently passed away, following his mom. I asked him about how everyone was doing, his brothers and sisters. There was a pause, and a weary sigh. “Not a great story there,” he said.
It wasn’t what I thought: difficult grief for a family that was very close. Instead, it was about the warfare that had erupted regarding his father’s house and estate. One of his sisters is living in the house, has been taking care of her father for a number of years. She wants to stay, but other siblings want cash for their share of the house, and they want it now. And there are problems with the will, disputes because some felt they are being cheated. Wives and husbands are involved (the in-laws), telling their spouses to be sure to get their rightful share. A big fight broke out Labor Day, with screaming and yelling, and someone got pushed and fell down some stairs. The police came. “I couldn’t believe it was my family,” my friend said. “It felt like something on the Maury Povich Show”.
Talking about it had gotten him upset, and for a moment I wasn’t sure what to say. “Gee, I’m sorry,” I finally said. We fell silent again for a few moments, reaching for another slice of pizza. I looked out the window and saw a young guy across the street, sitting on the sidewalk. He had a sign, asking for money. “That’s ironic,” my friend said. I looked over at him. He wasn’t looking at the homeless guy. “What is?” He pointed to the speaker in the ceiling. “It’s the theme song for the Apprentice”. I wasn’t really paying attention to the song, but I listened. I’ve never watched the show, but I guess the theme song is an oldie, it’s For the Love of Money by the O’Jay’s. The first line is “Money…money, money, money, money, money; some people got to have it, some people really need it…”. I checked it out. As the show opens you hear the song, then these words appear on the screen: “What if… you could have it all”, followed by images of personal jets, stock market ticker prices, beautiful women, casinos, and 100 dollar bills.
Money, money, money, money, money, money.
Most of us do have it all, or at least some version of it, right? I mean, it may not be quite like the dream on The Apprentice, but I don’t think anyone here really wants for clothes, food, a house or apartment, heat or hot water, furniture, a car, a cellphone, a flat screen TV, a vacation trip, a night out for a meal/movie/game/concert…and lots of other things. Compared to other people in the world, we do have it all, and wish for more. There is a kind of power in having it all. It gives us comfort and prestige. But here’s the catch: the more we get, the more we think we need. And it is never-ending.
I read a recent study that said the wealthier people are, it does two things for them: 1) their faith is less important to them, and 2) they feel less secure than they did before. When you have it all, you don’t need God so much, and you worry more about losing what you do have.
I think that rings true for us. The American creed we profess says that you can and you should… ‘have it all’. But despite all the good stuff we have these days, we’re not just sitting pretty. We’re scared, we’re worried about losing our place in the world, we’re not all that hopeful. Listen to the rhetoric of the election contest going on right now. And look what is happening to our families when the money is up for grabs. And look at our church. 50 years ago there would have been a lot more people here. 50 years ago you would have seen a lot more younger people here.
Today’s readings give us two insights into our situation. First, we hear Jesus say that “no servant can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and… money money, money, money, money, money.” And second, the Psalmist says, “He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people: Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.”
Three days after Pope Francis was chosen, he said something that has become a constant refrain wherever he goes: “How I would like a church that is poor, and for the poor!” He chose to name himself after St Francis of Assisi because ‘he is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man…”.
Why a church that is poor? When you are poor, when you don’t have it all, you depend on something that goes much deeper than the latest iPhone you can’t afford. When you are poor, you realize that you can’t pretend to really be in charge of your life. When you are poor, you can feel God’s arms holding you when the storms that come into everyone’s life rage all around you. When you are poor, you can find meaning in your life from the real treasure that surrounds you in your family and your friends. When you are poor, you can relate to the poorest one of all, Jesus, who had nothing, who willingly gave everything away, even his life, to show us how to really ‘have it all’.
Why a church for the poor? Because, as Pope Francis says, “they have much to teach us…in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ…the poor lead us to Him, and we need to listen to them, to be their friends, and to embrace God’s wisdom which He shares to us through them.” That’s why he has reached out to the poor of Rome, or Manila, or Brazil or NY: he has listened to them, eaten with them, embraced them and he lends his voice to their cause, as he urges us all to do as well. Jesus, the ultimate poor man, who gave away everything he had, perhaps it’s easier to find him when you are poor, when you are with the poor.
For ten years I took students to a very poor region of eastern Kentucky and we worked on repairing and building houses there for people who had very little of anything. But in all the places I have been in my life, I have never met such generous people. Generosity is the offspring of gratitude, and the people who lived in the little town of Inez were such grateful people. They were grateful that God provided them with what most of us here would reject as unsuitable, way below any decent standard of living. It was astonishing to see how their gratitude was lavished on us--relatively rich white folks from the northeast. They fed us, entertained us, welcomed us and loved us as their brothers and sisters in the Lord. We thought we were the ‘givers’ when we went down there to help them, but the truth is that we were the most blessed of all.
When we had nearly finished our pizza, I needed to tell my friend about Auntie May, who lived all 95 years of her life in Inez Kentucky. Every year when I went back there with a new crop of students, Auntie May would invite us to her home. She was the last one of 14 children, and her life had been tough. She had worked hard all her life picking tobacco, lived in a shack of a house, lost her husband and her only child in a terrible accident years before, never once had the money to afford a car or even a television. But she had her Jesus, whose picture was front and center in her house as soon as you entered. Every year Auntie May would cook my students a meal of chitlins and cornbread and collard greens, and it was delicious.
But what came with the meal was much more nourishing. She’d talk and talk about ‘my guy’, who had taken care of her all her life, been at her side in all her hardships, who saved her, she said, from her own dumb decisions. Her old eyes lit up as she talked about him, you could feel the love coming out of her heart, and all the kids in the room fell under the spell of her words about her man. It happened to me every year when that moment inevitably came and she talked about ‘my guy’. That first year I assumed she was talking about her husband, until she went over to the picture on the wall and touched it with her wrinkled fingers: “my guy”. She was in love with Jesus, and she shared that love with everyone she met. She served all of us, she said, as she would serve him. I told my friend that the last year I went down to Kentucky with a student group, I discovered that she had died. Her funeral, they told me, was of legendary proportions. Hundreds of people came from all over the county, and they honored the love they had met in her. She left no will. Her house was worthless. There was only one treasure she left behind. It was that picture of “my guy” on the wall. No one fought over it, and it hangs today in a special place in the little church she attend every year of her 95 years on this earth.
When I left the restaurant, remaining pizza slices in my doggy bag, I passed the spot where the homeless guy had been begging. He was gone. I prayed to Auntie May to send her guy to him that night.