These days whenever I drive down High Street in Newburyport I see houses under construction. Sometime the new building is on one of the few remaining open spaces along the street, but most often it is on lots where houses already stood, perfectly good houses built in the last fifty years. Some of them, because of their proximity to surviving Federal period and Victorian houses, were visually discordant, but in their own way each has added a bit of history to the street. Now, replacing these raised ranches and capes are new houses mimicking the grand houses built 200 years ago. As reproductions they are perfect in every detail, and with the passage of time it will be hard to tell which ones were built with the wealth Yankee grandees made in the Asian trade and the arrivistes of this new century. This trend for demolition of the not new to build bigger is going on all over America today. Critics have called the resulting houses McMansions and point out that each one’s many rooms often shelter one or two people. It would be morally irresponsible for me to point a finger of judgment at these homeowners because I know none of them and have no knowledge of how they live their lives, but it is hard to see what is happening in these communities across America without thinking about Jesus’ parable of the man who built bigger barns, especially when studies show that at this time in 2004, the number of Americans who are homeless has never been greater. In the last twelve months three million more Americans became homeless.
When I reflect on what is going on in housing in this country I am reminded of a type of still life painting that was popular in countries experiencing great wealth during the Renaissance and Baroque periods of western European art, sobering ones called vanitas. They presented a visually prophetic message similar to that of today’s lessons. The canvases themselves while varying according to the artists’ taste and skill, all contained the same basic props. Foremost in each was a human skull, and with it was a book or books representing human wisdom and knowledge. Along side them were broken or decaying symbols of luxury, perhaps a deathwatch beetle and always a candle guttering out. The message was clear. No matter how much wealth we accumulate or how much power we wield, or how much we accomplish in the eyes of the world, we are ultimately powerless to protect ourselves from death or the destructive forces of time. Inevitably we die, and how we have lived our life will determine whether any trace of us will live on. In the long run no matter how rich or powerful or wise we are in life, only the remembrance of our compassion for others, our honesty, the memory of our kindness will remain after we are gone.
There is a general rule of thumb that the average person is remembered for about 25 years after he or she dies. That is, unless we live compassionate lives. I am continually astounded by the stories I hear about the Emery sisters’ compassion for the poor and weak, their standing arrangement with the local doctor, for instance, to pay the medical bills of those in their village who could not pay or their insistence that local boys and girls get a college education and making it possible for them to do so. In 1905 these poor clergyman’s daughters inherited a million dollars and spent the rest of their lives giving it away. They knew that in showing compassion for others they encountered God, that compassion and generosity formed a pathway to God.
In recent years walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela the burial place of St. James in northern Spain has become a popular pilgrimage. Actually, this is a revival of interest. Pilgrims have been walking to Compostela for a thousand years. Some walk the 500 miles out of a sense of religious devotion, others simply because of the challenge. I would not be surprised if some of you here today had had this experience. Whatever the motivation, invariably the experience of each person who makes the trip is life changing. This summer I heard one pilgrim’s story, someone who would not describe himself as a religious person but who wanted to walk the Camino to thrash out some personal problems. He brought little cash with him, intending to use his credit card to draw money whenever he needed it. But after using the cash he had he discovered an electronic problem made his card useless.
Since he was only a third into the pilgrimage he decided to try to finish it by working for food and shelter, but whenever he explained his need to fellow pilgrims or those who ran the hostels along the way he was always given what he needed. His overwhelming response of gratitude caused him to notice others struggling with the physical hardships of the walk and to help them. Such concern for others had not been his previous behavior. It now became his dominating focus. The personal problems he originally hoped to thrash out walking no longer seemed important. When he finally reached Compostela he told a friend he had helped, “Now I begin the Camino.” His life had changed radically. He had learned to depend on God and the goodness of others and to give himself away as the only way to live.
I remember how puzzled I was when I first saw a picture of Andre Rublev’s painting of the Trinity, three angels sitting around a table eating, and was told it was a picture of God. It is based on the story of the three hungry strangers who show up unannounced at Abraham and Sarah’s home and are fed by them. Karen Armstrong, in her autobiography, The Circular Staircase, says that this vignette is the first instance we have of Abraham encountering God and he does so by showing compassion for strangers. In return for their hospitality God gives this ancient childless couple a son. Armstrong says this is the most significant theological event that the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common. Each of these major faith traditions stresses, underlines, teaches in bold letters, repeats again and again the common theological thread that only through acts of compassion do we encounter God. It is in showing hospitality to strangers we meet God and are changed. When all is said and done this is what defines us as God’s children, God’s chosen. It is not through the rigid rules and exclusionary practices of fundamentalism, aberrations of faith that occur in all religions. This theological struggle is what is behind the clashes Jesus had with the Pharisees, the righteous rule keepers. In each encounter in a variety of ways Jesus argues that God touches us profoundly at those times when we give ourselves away, when we turn loose of what we have, our skill, our knowledge, our wealth out of compassion for those who need us. For to each of us God gives riches that we may enhance by squandering on those who need us.
The message is clear. We are judged by how we live. We can have a narcissistic, self-indulgent existence building bigger barns, living as the Book of Ecclesiastes says lives that are ultimately no more important or lasting than a “chasing after wind.” Or we can take the radical step of moving toward God and creating a better world by living compassionately. This is the good news.
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