For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
There is a story based on that line from today’s gospel about Jesus going to prepare a place for his faithful disciples. It’s the story of a very wealthy man who died and went to heaven. He was met at the gates of heaven by Jesus, true to his word that he would prepare a place for his followers. Jesus led the man down many beautiful roads and streets, on the sides of which were beautiful homes. Each one was very different and unique, some larger, some smaller, some with beautiful gardens and landscapes – and as you looked at them, you could almost tell that they outwardly exemplified the character of the person who dwelled there. Finally they came to the end of a road and off to the side, behind some overgrown brush was a hut, a shack made of very cheap material, with no windows or even a door in the door frame. When the man realized that this was his new dwelling place, he asked Jesus why he was getting this rundown place when there were so many beautiful homes and dwelling places. Jesus simply looked at him and sighed and said, “Well, we did the best we could with what you sent us.”
I tell that story not simply for the humor in it, but because I think it does, in its own way, have a message for us today, especially as we find ourselves living in what everyone calls “tough economic times.” In such a period some in our world see a growing disparity between rich and poor, between those who enjoy many of the blessings of this world and those who struggle day in and day out to have the most basic human needs met. And … lest we think that the recognition of such tensions are new, or that they came to be only with the writings of Karl Marx and are expressive of some sort of “socialism” which most Americans find anathema … we need only listen to today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There, it is quite clear that there is a growing tension between one group and another, between those who have their needs met, and those who “are being neglected” in the daily distribution of the things that were held in common. In this “daily distribution,” the Greek-speaking widows in this early community of disciples were clearly relegated to second class citizenship, not being treated as equals, not being treated like the widows from the Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking part of the community were treated.
I don’t think we have to look very far to see that the labels of “second-class” or “third-class citizenship” – or even “no citizenship at all” – apply to countless millions here in our own country. There are indeed many who, like the Greek widows, “are being neglected” – a neglect that comes about because of the ways that we as a nation and as a world decide to spend our common and shared resources. Perhaps you heard recently about a letter that some 70 Catholic theologians sent to John Boehner in the days before he gave the commencement address at Catholic University last Sunday. While written very respectfully for the office he holds, the theologians representing a wide spectrum of views and approaches, pulled no punches in stating the following: “Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.” They then went on at length to point out some specific elements of the current budget process which – in their view – seem to be at odds with Gospel values and Catholic social teaching, and they called on the Speaker to sign what a number of Catholic Bishops and over 50 other Christian leaders of national organizations have signed. A “Circle of Protection” is a pledge that seeks to put into practice at the national level Jesus’ call to treat “the least of these” as we would treat Jesus Himself, being sure that “the voice of those who have no voice” is heard when decisions that affect all of us are being made by those whom we’ve elected.
Now, I say all this not because I wish to make a political point, to say that the positions of Mr. Boehner are wrong and that the positions of those who oppose him are right. We all recognize the complexities of the issues and challenges that we as a nation and a world face. Would that they could be solved as easily as the Apostles dealt with the problem they faced, simply by appointing others from among the community to carry on a neglected ministry, the ministry of diakonia / of service. Rarely do complex problems admit of easy solutions. Nonetheless, our Christian faith constantly reminds us that we must never lose sight of the simplicity of the goal … a goal which the Apostles achieved by ensuring that ALL in the community were cared for, were welcomed at table, and had their rightful share in that “daily distribution” of what was held in common.
And so, recalling that humorous story of the man disappointed with his dwelling place in heaven, let us take a moment today and in the days this week to ask ourselves, through our actions and our lives here on earth, what are we sending to Jesus who, even now, is preparing a dwelling place in heaven? What have I done today to care for the least among us, to care for those “who are neglected”? What will I do tomorrow to express my faith and carry on the work of the Lord in the communities of which I am a part? And, believing in a God of infinite love as we do, I suspect there’s room not just for 144,000, but for all God’s children who, as Jesus says, have faith in him and do his works.