Dirty clothes in church.

I’m back from vacation in Ventura County, California, a trip to see my brother and sister-in-law who are stationed there at the local naval base.  I haven’t had a “real” vacation in nearly four years, and I have to admit that leaving snowy central Ohio for the temperate sunniness of an actual metropolitan area was nearly irresistible.  Seeing family was icing on a Southern Californian, wine-soaked cake.  Aside from doing the tourist-thing in L.A., wondering why anyone on God’s earth would ever want to live in Hollywood, wine-tasting and eating In-N-Out burgers, walking the beach and enjoying the weather, I also found myself saddened.  One of my favorite radio programs is Le Show, a public radio show hosted by satirist Harry Shearer who calls the home of his show on KCRW in Santa Monica “the home of the homeless.”  I never really accepted that this might actually be true – surely New York is the actual home of the homeless, right? – until this week.  Never, ever in my life have I seen so many people sleeping on the street, resting against curbs, heads propped up on piles of garbage bags. Walking with shopping carts full of everything they owned, sick-looking mangy dogs riding shotgun.  In Santa Monica’s gorgeous park, homeless people everywhere.  I use the word “literally” with hesitation, but there were literally poor people everywhere.

It made me think of James 2:1-5: 

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?”

James was not talking about the Santa Monica pier, but he was calling out his congregation about their treatment of their fellow human beings in worship.  Since loving our neighbor means extending that love beyond the boundaries of our church walls, I don’t think he’d disagree that letting our sisters and brothers live like disposable, unwanted pieces of garbage on our streets is an abomination.  Even in sunny California.  Do we, can we even claim to, really believe in our glorious Lord, as long as this is the reality of even one woman, child, or man?  As I remembered James, I remembered Jesus’ condemnation in Luke 11 of his fellows the Pharisees:

Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. 

Oh, gah.  Ouch.  Starting in December, I’ve been getting to know a homeless man named Aaron who came to a community breakfast in our church.  I sat with him for breakfast a couple of Sundays in a row and invited him to stay for the service following the meal.  Against all odds, he actually showed up a few weeks in a row in December and January.  Aaron’s not the easiest person to be around.  I’m no princess, but a confession is in order here.  Aaron stinks.  Dirt is a part of him, ground into his skin and hair.  The air around him nearly pulses with the scent street scum, of days-old urine, of desperation.  It is pungent and assaultive.  His fingers are so dirty it’s all I can do to shake his hand some Sundays.  The outside of his dish is dirty, if we use the picture Jesus drew.  I don’t know his heart so well.  I don’t know him and likely never will know much more than I do now.  But Aaron isn’t the problem here.  I am.  Because I’m all clean and shiny.  I can choose some Sundays to come to church wearing junky clothes, but in truth I’ve got expensive suits in my closet.  I can come looking like a million bucks, smelling lovely, smile on my face, fitting in just fine.  God made my outside, but my inside struggles when I stand next to Aaron.  My instinct is to recoil, to greet him in church and then find another room to be comfortable in, where the air is clear.  How many of us give to the church to make it stay just the way it is, all clear air and sunny light and familiar, clean friends?  When instead our alms are to be the love Jesus calls for us to pour out, toward those whose cups and dishes appear dirt-encrusted?  Alms for the things that are within, rather than for the things without.  Aaron, and the people on the street in Santa Monica, living these lives of sadness and need while I trot off to my dinners and expensive wine-tastings, my air travel and Starbucks, they shine a light on the inside of my dish.  And God may have made it, too, but I’ve let the muck accumulate.  I’ve been cleaning the outside, scrubbing it raw, polishing it up, looking good.  But the inside, well, wickedness, greed, unrighteousness… these abound.  I have made distinctions between the rich and the poor.  I have not asked Aaron to sit with me, in the best seat in the house.  I have not served him.  My hesitation reveals my heart, which hasn’t fully claimed God’s promise in Jesus.  My alms are insufficient.  

And I’m going to do something about it.

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2 Comments »

  1. Ed S. Said:

    I’ve known him for well over a year now and still struggle with this in all the ways described above and more. I have seen heartbreaking things that I don’t feel comfortable discussing in this forum. Still, there is something that keeps bringing Aaron back to our church. It’s something more than the occasional warm meal that he finds there too.

    We’re in this together. We can push each other to find the most Christ-like response to the world that comes through our doorway.

    Blessings,
    Ed

  2. Lex Said:

    I, too, have a homeless friend, though I am lucky that he makes hygeine a priority in his life, unlike your Aaron. Robert is a kind, helpful, smart, funny, 62 year old crack addict. He calls me “turkey” when he is upset with me, but then he laughs and gets back to talking about the Studebaker he drove when he was 23. Sometimes I pay him out of the cast register to run errands for me, or for the bar, such as shoveling sidewalks or digging out cars. Even though I quit smoking, I keep a pack at work so I can bum him smokes when I see him. And I probably give him ten dollars a weekend, money I honestly can’t spare in the traditional American sense of the word. But that three or four dollars a night buys me two slices of pizza, or Robert a bed and a hot meal for the night even if the mission is full, which it often is on these cold Ohio nights. It’s a null choice for me, but I have no illusions. The only help I can get him is short term. I’m never going to save him from himself, and even if I could, I can’t save the next thousand who walk in front of me at work every night.

    “Do we, can we even claim to, really believe in our glorious Lord, as long as this is the reality of even one woman, child, or man?”

    This statement really made me think of the debate between Jesus and Judas over the Spikenard in John 12:5-8, which ultimately culminates in the statement, “you must always have the poor, but you will not always have me.”

    While I recognise that what Jesus was saying was that we will always have the homeless to help I still don’t quite agree with your assessment, and don’t necessarily think as you do that true faith or belief depends of fixing what is ultimately an eternal problem. That just seems like a one-way path to ulcers, stress, disappointment, and failure. We have a moral obligation to the poor – to help them, to comfort them, to respect their innate humanity without conditions, without lecture or sermon, and without hesitation. I do believe that. But I don’t believe it is ever likely to work entirely.

    As fast as a society can save their homeless populations from destitution, a new class of homeless men and women will pop up again. But that’s no reason to stop trying. Especially in a place with such a startling and disgusting disparity between rich and poor as exists in SoCal. But here too, and everyplace else in the world.

    But I’m glad it’s warm there, and I’m glad you got to go. I hope you had a wonderful vacation, and are reinvigorated to rejoin the fight.


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