James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

Who Is It That I Welcome?

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

I met Sister Pauline only once. I was in elementary school, and she had come to visit my family on one of her rare trips back to the United States. That afternoon my father picked me up at school, and there in the car was a woman in a long black habit.

Sister Pauline was almost a member of the family. Years earlier, long before I was born, and before she became a nun, Pauline was engaged to my uncle. My uncle died suddenly, and sometime afterward—I don’t know how long—Pauline entered the Maryknoll Order which had been founded a generation earlier.

The Maryknoll Order was—and is—dedicated to foreign missionary work. Sister Pauline ended up far from the urban neighborhoods of Elizabeth, New Jersey that she knew so well. She spent much of her life in Latin America, ministering to people in the Andes mountains.

Every family should have someone who goes off to pursue a demanding vocation of service in response to the call of Christ. For our family back then, that person was Sister Pauline. For the entire world more recently, that person was Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa lived her entire adulthood as a nun, but it was only at mid-life that she responded to a call within her call that led her out from relative security and into the horrible slums of Calcutta. There she found Christ alive among some of the most destitute people on the face of the earth.

It’s easy for us, I believe, to focus on Mother Teresa as some sort of celebrity-saint, an unusual and isolated figure, and overlook the visible legacy she left behind: the Missionaries of Charity, a vibrant religious community that numbers thousands of members and associates around the world. These dedicated Christians are active in many places where poverty attacks human dignity. They work here in the United States as close to us as Detroit.

For much of America and the world, the great question is: What can I get? The witness of Mother Teresa places before us a different question: Who is it I welcome?

The question is not original with her, of course. She found it in the Bible, which was one of her few possessions. The question confronts us today in what was read from the Letter of James: Who is it that I welcome?

The Apostle James addresses a problem in congregations of his time. When a well-dressed newcomer appears, everybody starts fawning. “Have a seat here, please.” “Would you like a cup of coffee?” But when people turn up dressed in the latest from Goodwill, they don’t get the same treatment, but are directed to the cheap seats. Nobody brings them coffee or offers them homemade cookies. James identifies this as prejudice. He wonders whether people who act this way really believe in Jesus.

A variant of this sometimes happens in congregations today. Members wistfully scan the parking lot in the hope that there will be an influx of nice young families and tithing millionaires to fill the church school and wipe out the deficit.

Meanwhile, they ignore the real people, the flesh-and-blood people that God actually sends there, people who may be poor in one way or another, people who at least are human enough that they fall short of fantasy standards. All too often we sigh for those who are not present and overlook those who are.

On the next couple Sundays, we will hear other passages from the Letter of James. Each of us might read that letter on our own as well. It’s short—only four or five pages in many Bibles. The Letter of James is clear and practical. You won’t find much there that troubles you because you do not understand it. You may find much that troubles you because you do understand it, because it is all too clear in the challenge it presents to us.

It’s apparent from today’s reading that the great question is not: What can I get? but instead: Who is it I welcome? James insists that we welcome the poor. What motivates this welcome is no high-handed benevolence, no self-satisfied paternalism, but instead the simple fact that it is the poor who bless us.

Whatever forms their poverty and suffering take, the poor have the power to bless us. We need them as much as they need us. Mother Teresa knew this, and she spent a lifetime in the Calcutta slums. Francis of Assisi knew this, and so he went and kissed a leper. Henri Nouwen knew this, and he left the comfort of the academic world to care for mentally handicapped adults. This is a secret of the saints, my friends, but it is written on the pages of scripture for all the world to see: God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom; it is the poor who have the power to bless.

Who is it you welcome? Whatever else you do, welcome the poor, the poor of any sort. It is they who have the power to bless you.

Yet often we fail to do this. We fail to do this in church when we scan the parking lot for nice young families and tithing millionaires to come and save us, yet we forget the Christ who already sits beside us: the person whose poverty may be a matter of money or health or age or appearance or intellect or personal problems. Christ comes as our poor neighbor, ready to bless us, and all too often we overlook him.

We are to welcome the poor of every sort. It is they who have power to bless us. Yet often we fail to do this. We fail to do this as a society. We forget that the country, the world, belongs to them as well.

How our public wealth is spent bears witness against us. There is always enough money for bombs; never enough money for schools. There is always enough money for jails; never enough money for rehabilitation. Some people’s incomes are rising sharply, yet for countless Americans the health care system remains broken. Tax cuts help the rich become richer while we cut back on what the poor need to survive. Our public stewardship of what God has given us is nothing less than a scandal. As a nation we are drunk with the question: What can I get? We fail to face the question that matters: Who is it I welcome? And so we miss the blessing only the poor can give.

We are to welcome the poor of every sort. Yet often we fail to do this. We fail to do this in church and society; we fail to do this in the recesses of our own souls. For deep inside each of us a poor person waits. Whatever our outward circumstances, there is a poor person waiting inside us; this is the human condition.

Often we do not show compassion toward ourselves. We do not accept and welcome our own poor selves. Yet we cannot love one another unless we truly love ourselves, love ourselves as God loves us. We cannot show someone else compassion unless we allow it for ourselves. If we would see others in the light of divine mercy, then we must recognize ourselves in that light, and accept the great need we have for God.

Coming to the altar for communion is a way of acting on our need. By extending our hands for the bread and receiving the cup, what we do is seek mercy for ourselves and all the world.

There at the altar we find a welcome and are led in turn to ask life’s important question: Who is it I welcome?

Copyright 2006 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.

Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).