A Church that is poor, for the poor.
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 recipe tomato sauce, 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, had been taking care of her father for a number of years. She wanted to stay, but other siblings wanted cash for their share of the house, and they wanted it now. And there were problems with the will, disputes because some felt they were being cheated. Wives and husbands were 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. “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 called 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…”. As the show intro plays on the screen, these words appear: “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.
A recent study was published that said the wealthier people are, the less importance they put on their faith. And that apparently is also true for nations: the wealthier a country is, the less religious its people tend to be. I think that rings true for us. The American creed we profess says that you can and you should… ‘have it all’.
And we do, don’t we? Most of us do have it all, or at least some version of it. 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.
You know what? There is no question that we are too rich to need God. Think about all that we have. Look at this cellphone—I’m a genius when I have it in my pocket. I don’t need God for any of my questions. And look at the sidewalks we negotiate every day—blocked by the Amazon man, the FedEx guy, the UPS woman and her cart of instant stuff at our disposal. Look at the plethora of entertainment to laugh, cry, rage about, as we beck and call it forth from Alexa, sitting on our throne like an emperor. Look at the women and men we can summon to our bed with the swipe of our finger on our phone. Why do we need God? We have everything we need and could possibly want.
But the truth, of course, is that we do need God. It is an illusion to think that what we have, what we can do is ever going to finally satisfy. The truth is, there is something to poverty.
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 is the poor man…”.
Why a church that is poor, and for the poor? Because, Francis says, “they have much to teach us…in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ…they 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.” And so 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.
Jesus says that “no servant can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and… money money, money, money, money, money.” And 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.”
The founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola, also had something to say about the meaning of our lives. He reminded us that the gifts of creation we are fortunate to have—whether it be an Apple product or a real apple—are meant to help us praise, reverence and serve God, Our Lord and by this means to “save one’s soul”. The problem is that when our stuff is the dominant concern of our lives, when they blind us from seeing that we never really own anything at all, when they make us believe that we will be totally satisfied by what we have….well then we’re in trouble. .
Maybe our focus should be on how we can use the gifts we are given for the good of all, because real gifts are always meant to be given away, aren’t they? The Church has given us a bunch of examples of people like us not getting the truth of who we are and who we are meant to be. Last week we heard about the prodigal young son who blows his gifts, and next Sunday brings us the story of the rich man who is so into his stuff and his life, he can’t even see poor Lazarus begging at his gates.
St Ignatius suggests that we look at our lives—as I do to you tonight—and ask: “What have I done for Christ, What am I doing for Christ, What will I do for Christ?
You know, Christ… whose face we see all around us, especially in the eyes of the poor.