Every once and awhile I am called to attend a conference or a meeting in Durham, North Carolina. Sometimes my business is at Duke University and sometimes in the city. Today was one such day. The highlight of the day was attending Evening Prayer at Saint Joseph’s Episcopal Church. In the words of its own website: “ Following the example of our patron Saint Joseph, we want to make our church home a place of warm hospitality grounded in God’s love, and to take that love out into the world.” I was surprised to learn from its website that Bishop John Shelby Spong had served as its first Rector from 1955 to 1957.
In the short time I have known about this parish I have been singularly impressed by Saint Joe’s because of its exceptional ministry to the homeless. It is located in an area of Durham which seems to be a central gathering place for them. It puts on a breakfast each morning for any who need a meal and it officiates morning and evening prayer each day. In my own parish at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia many of us sometimes feel put upon to officiate at Morning Prayer at 8:00 a.m. but if you will notice the sign pictured above St. Joe’s starts at 7:30 a.m.!
The office was led by the junior warden, Susan Mitchell, who led us through it with a steady hand. Today was the feast day of Saint Macrina, the younger, (as distinguished from Saint Macrina the elder, her grandmother) who is famous not for what she wrote but for her famous brothers and her ability to upend their pretensions about their own intellectual gifts. According to James Kiefer “After the death of their parents, Macrina was chiefly responsible for the upbringing of her ten younger brothers. When they were disposed to be conceited about their intellectual accomplishments, she deflated them with affectionate but pointed jibes.” Those brothers included Basil the Great (see 14 June), Gergory of Nyssa (see 9 March), Peter of Sebastea, Naucratios, and (according to one ambiguously worded communication) Dios of Antioch. After the service, Jana and I had a good laugh with Susan as we talked about Macrina as being an early women’s libber that refused to take any grief from her brothers no matter how smart they thought they were.
There was something else I noticed which was new since our last visit, and that was a piece of art, a piece of sculpture. As Jana and I walked up to the front of the Church from the parking lot we noticed what looked like a “homeless” man sitting on the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection we realized it was a piece of art made in the likeness of a “homeless” person or perhaps in the image of Jesus. Jana admitted to me that she had actually thought it was a real person. The image I perceived called to mind a portrait of Jesus in the wilderness which a Facebook friend had used as an illustration for piece he had posted. I have reproduced it above next to a picture of the sculpture at Saint Joe’s. My regret is I failed to ask the identity of the artist or the title of the piece.
Visiting this little Church with its plain façade and crowd of homeless and poor I felt like I was truly close to the true essence of the Christian faith. This parish where the main statuary was of a human being of very mean estate had dedicated itself to a Christian ideal one which is not meant to be an ideal but rather a reality. That is “that Christians as Christians are reminded to give and to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.”
This leads me to another observation. I have been reading a book by Bishop William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas (hereinafter W&H) called The Truth about God – The Ten Commandments in Christian Life. Today, I read the chapter about the Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal”. A literalist might say this means don’t be a common thief, don’t rob the liquor store, don’t rob the bank or pic someone’s pocket. But W&H go further and pretty much lay down an indictment of all us middle class Americans as repetitive violators of this commandment. Whoa, say what? I have not been robbing liquor stores, I don’t rob banks and I don’t pick pockets. How then am I thief?
Well,W&H start their analysis with Ephesians 4:28 and note that the author of the letter addressing the Ephesian congregation says that the “thieves should give up stealing and work honestly with their own hands so as to have something to share with the needy” (emphasis supplied) They point out that this clearly indicates there were thieves in the congregation. How refreshing they say that there were thieves actually attending church. And, they conclude further that “the rationale for honest labor is not to accumulate private property but rather to have something to share with the poor.” So, first of all goods are rightly seen as goods that are in common. And, any possession we have is in service to a wider good.
They quote Aquinas for the proposition that “theft can involve not paying wages that are due and any fraud in buying and selling.” And, they point out that Luther goes even further arguing that “stealing is nothing less than acquiring any property by unjust means.” So, a person steals not only when he robs a person’s safe, or picks a pocket but also when he takes advantage of his neighbor at the market or in the grocery store, or in any business in which money is exchanged for goods or services. It is violated when one claims credit for the work of another, steals the affection of a loved one from someone else, accepts an unearned award or job promotion, or fails to report getting back more change than is due him in a transaction. This commandment, they say, gives us the most trouble, even more so than the sixth commandment about adultery because we have a hard time dealing with the stealing and lying as “they cut to the heart of the deceit upon which our lives are built. We are caught up in systems which cover up how deeply we are implicated in stealing and lying.” They claim we indulge the presumption that we are essentially self-seeking, self-interested creatures who will survive only if we get “ours”. They go so far as to say that this presumption stems, according to some, from our very Constitution itself.
This suggests the next thing W&H talk about. We like to think that wealth is the key to happiness. I admit I tend to think so often, “if only I had the money life would be so easy and happy.” But, stop and think says W&H: we are deceived. They conclude that the rich are not really happy. That they become caught in a trap of having to acquire more and more and that they can never observe Sabbath because their quest and their worries never cease.
They cite a speech made by Rudyard Kipling to the graduating medical class of McGill University saying, “You will go out of here, and very likely you’ll make a lot of money. One day you’ll meet someone for whom that means very little. Then you will know how poor you are.” Their point is that having excessive wealth is a form of spiritual bankruptcy and while the world generally accords undue respect to wealthy persons there will be a high price to pay for taking that which ought to go to others.
I don’t know about you but I have never considered myself wealthy. But, in my work I have encountered people with millions and some with billions and they don’t think they are wealthy either! They can only think about preserving what they have and getting more.
So what is good Christian to do to stay in compliance with this commandment? W&H answer this question by saying first that we should not deceive ourselves. We cannot rationalize our wealth with pleas such as we only want to prepare a good life for our children or wealth is not the problem but our attitude toward wealth is the problem. Then they cite a passage from Matthew’s Gospel which says: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you”. Failing to enact this as a policy, they say, renders us as thieves. As Saint John Chrysostom states in his Homily on Lazarus: “To not enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.”
We should, first they say, “stop telling lies about our position.” “The great trick is to know how to have possessions without abandoning our hearts to them” and to, in the words of John Calvin, “be ready to become poor if that should be God’s will.”
I have always heard that as Christians we are “countercultural”. I would say after reading H&W that is an understatement. Given this analysis by W&H we are severely challenged. How do we remain in compliance with this commandment and also meet the expectations of our culture with regard to wealth? This will take some thought, some amendment of life, and commitment. In the meantime I am pledged to emulate and support the work of parishes like Saint Joseph and others who are reaching out to the poor and the helpless in any way they can.
-Credit to The Reverend Emily R. Hylden for putting me onto The Truth About God… She writes and edits The Daily Devotion for the Living Church Foundation . It is free to subscribe and always contains a very insightful message.
-Credit to Bishop Willimon and Professor Hauerwas for the quotes and ideas concerning the seventh commandment. They did the research and formulated the arguments presented in The Truth About God…I have simply described their ideas.