When her sons were little,
she lived in a neighborhood
and worshipped in a parish
that honed competitive parenting
to a fine art.
The best holiday party,
The highest Girl Scout cookie sales,
The fastest Pinewood Derby car,
The most selective soccer team,
The best-behaved children,
The grandest costume for All Saints Day Mass,
the “right” backpack, shoes, minivan—
these were the markers of success.
They were the invisible fencing
that separated the sheep from the goats;
the winning moms from,
she wasn’t one of those moms.
Her house was always messy
and her car a little too old.
Her boys misbehaved in Church,
and her home room treats made Martha Stewart cry.
The family costumes consisted of three old sheets
that became in turn,
shepherds for the Christmas play,
ghosts at Halloween,
and generic Popes on All Saints Day.
Almost everything in her house had (at one time)
buried as Pirate Treasure in the back yard,
stuffed in the junk drawer,
flushed down the toilet
or lost in the basement.
Perhaps most damning of all,
in a community
where people seldom moved in or out;
in a community
where third-generation parishioners were the norm,
she and her husband were outsiders—
Although people were kind,
there were times she felt
as if she was failing Motherhood 101.
And in a community where
parish, school, neighborhood, and friends
were all wrapped up in one big sacramental bow,
failing at motherhood
implied failing at faith, too.
it could be hard to see beyond her own yard.
Your own challenges and failures are different—
Maybe you can’t forget a work project
that crashed and burned in public
or an initiative that never got off the ground.
Maybe your retirement feels like a mistake,
or your children let you down.
Maybe your important relationships feel
Stuffed into the proverbial junk drawer,
or tossed down the basement steps.
Maybe you often feel like an outsider,
looking in at the party.
It can be easy,
when life becomes hard—
when we feel challenged or failed—
when we are busy—
to circle the wagons and stay in our own yard.
it can be easy to look inward,
focus on the mirror
and let others fend for themselves.
It can be easy
to believe that if we just follow the rules,
If we honor the traditions,
If we take care of our own,
if we remove anything ugly,
“unclean,” from our lives,
then everything will work out.
It’s the adult faith version of “don’t step on a crack”…
But this week,
God invites us to step back; to see through new eyes.
God asks us to set aside our agendas and fears and desires
and embrace a different bottom line.
God asks us to use
a different measure of success.
This measure has nothing to do with status,
This measure looks—
not at what we take in,
not at what we have,
not at what we lack, or fear, or want,
but at what flows out from us.
God reminds us
it is not our reputation for piety
or our ability to follow rules
that honors Him,
but our actions toward those who are weakest.
God is very clear on this:
If we are disciples,
we work for justice.
If we are Christians,
we serve the poor.
In the ancient world,
where the plight of widows and orphans was dire,
James reminds us that we welcome and honor God’s Word
by “doing” it,
not simply receiving it.
He goes on to say,
“Religion that is pure and undefiled is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.”
That’s pretty darn direct.
The Word of God becomes living and active
when it takes root and blossoms
in the choices we make
and the actions we take
toward those who are most vulnerable.
How we treat the widows and orphans of our day,
How we embrace those on the peripheries
We cannot love and serve God
without loving and serving God’s beloved.
these widows and orphans are easy to spot:
The tortured man, struggling with pain and addiction.
The care-worn woman, fleeing from an abusive relationship.
The terrified girl, facing a crisis pregnancy.
Just as often, though,
the widows and orphans of our world are almost invisible,
except to one who is truly looking:
The class clown hoping no one stops laughing long enough to notice his bruises.
The suburban mom, stoically waging a private war on depression.
The elderly gentleman, shaved, dressed, and awaiting a visitor who never arrives.
The proud farmer, staring blindly across his ruined and mortgaged fields.
God tells us we simply cannot remain closed up;
We must see them.
It is not easy to set aside our own fears and wounds.
It’s not easy to “do justice” when we endure our own pain.
There will be days when we wonder if we are up to the challenge—
days when we feel our actions don’t matter
and our voices aren’t heard
because everything in our lives
But none of that matters.
A veteran mom once told me,
“You will only be as happy as your most unhappy child.”
Maybe that’s the real subtext of these readings.
God needs us to help comfort his unhappy children.
God believes in us—
Relies on us—
and in a world hungry for miracles
this may just be the biggest miracle of all.