Leaving Pharaoh Behind When You Don’t Have a GPS: Sermon for March 19, 2017

Growing up I wanted one thing perhaps more than all others. I wished for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and it never came. When I got to college I would occasionally catch glimpses of it, but it wouldn’t last long. And when I thought about my future, I would dream of living in a place where I could see it all the time.

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It snows a lot where I live. Happy spring!

What was it I was looking for? Snow. I was looking outside during the blizzard this week and I thought, “Hey, I got my wish!”

I know that this probably sounds funny to those of you who grew up in New England, but down South we have very little snow. And in Florida, where I spent most of my time growing up, we had none. There were no seasons. Every day was the same.

When I first decided to move to New England about ten years ago I didn’t do so for snow. I did it because it was the right choice for me, and it meant that I could do ministry in a region where I could be myself. But I must say that the snow was a nice perk. I couldn’t wait for changing seasons.

And then one day my first year, I had to stop for gas in the middle of the day. I got out of the car, and it was cold and snowy and wet. The wind cut through me like a knife. I had never experienced cold like that, or even thought it was possible. And I stood there pumping gas and shivering and thinking to myself, “Why in the world did I ever leave the South?”

So, in some small way, I can sympathize with the people in today’s Bible passage. They had a much more compelling reason to leave home, though. These are the Israelites who after generations of living in slavery in Egypt, after years of back-breaking work, had finally been able to leave. They had followed Moses out across the Red Sea and they had entered the wilderness, looking for the Promised Land.

And, as you know, this didn’t go exactly according to plan. The people who had left Egypt probably thought that Moses had a map that would take them where they needed to go, and they would be there in no time. What they didn’t expect is that they would be wandering, and wandering.

When it became clear that they weren’t getting anywhere anytime soon, people started to look at Moses and wonder if he knew what he was doing. He had told them God was leading him, but they weren’t so sure about that. And on top of that, they were getting thirsty. They didn’t have any water to drink.

And so they went to Moses and said to him, “Hey, why did you make us leave Egypt? Just to kill us?” Because back home in Egypt they may not have been free, but at least they had water.

And so it’s understandable that in this moment, so far away from the only home they’ve ever known, away from food and water, away from a Promised Land that they’re not sure even exists, and that they’re really not sure Moses knows how to find, they start to wonder why they ever left Egypt in the first place.

Moving from one region of the country and leaving a captor in search of freedom are two very different things. I’m not trying to compare them. But I do know what it’s like to make a change in your life, to run into obstacles, and then to wonder whether maybe things hadn’t been so bad back where you came from.

The fix for my problem was simple. I bought a thicker jacket and after a while I learned to really love the change of seasons here. And I know that moving north opened up a world of opportunities for me that wouldn’t have been available at that time in the South.

But for the Israelites it wasn’t so easy. They really thought that this change they had made might kill them. Yes, being Pharaoh’s captives had been terrible, and no they hadn’t liked it, but at least back in Egypt they didn’t have to worry about dying of dehydration. At least back there they knew what to expect.

I get that. I think we all have our own Egypts, and our own Pharaohs. We all have times and places in our lives where things aren’t ideal, but at least we know what to expect. We might not like it much, but captivity is somehow less scary than the wildness of freedom.

But here’s the catch: we all have our own promised lands too. They’re there waiting for us. But in order to get there we have to let go of what is holding us back. We have to tell our Pharaohs that we are leaving. And we have to head out in the wilderness and look for a place that no GPS can find for us.

And sometimes, that takes a long time, and we have to cut our own trail to get there.

I’ve talked before about how in my 20’s I wrestled with my drinking, and eventually got sober. I don’t tell this story here to draw attention to myself, but I’m sharing it, first, because I believe it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s important to break stigmas around addiction. And I also tell it because I know what it’s like to let a personal Pharaoh keep you in captivity, and away from the Promised Land.

Before I finally got sober, and I’ve been sober for a double-digit number of years now, I got really comfortable living in Egypt. And I started to be way too loyal to a Pharaoh who had no loyalty to me.

When I finally did get sober, I expected everything to be better automatically. I thought, “I’ll be in the promised land in no time.” But here’s the thing: the first two years I was sober were probably the worst two years of my life.

photoSeriously, if you told me I had to go back and relive any period of my life, I’d probably go back to my most awkward middle school years before I went back to those first two years. Everything seemed to go wrong. Nothing turned out the way I planned. Every day was a struggle. I was out there in the wilderness saying, “You know, at least back in Egypt I wasn’t dying of thirst.”

In retrospect, those years probably seemed so bad because for the first time in a long time I was being honest with myself, and I was seeing the world around me honestly too. I was seeing what I hadn’t seen for a long time. And so I kept moving forward, cutting a new path. And year three was pretty good. And year four was even better. And year five was amazing. And it’s been pretty amazing ever since.

But that promised land didn’t come easy.

I think it’s like that for a lot of people who have to make hard changes. Recently I was reading about people who leave abusive partners. Do you know on average how many times it takes someone to leave an abusive relationship and not go back? One? Two? Three? Four?

On average it’s seven times. Seven. And that’s no judgment on the person who is leaving. It is incredibly hard to walk away from someone who says they care about you, no matter how much they hurt you. It’s even harder when you have to walk away with little money or resources. Leaving that behind is as hard as leaving Pharaoh. Harder even, because at least Pharaoh never told the Israelites he loved them.

And those are just a couple examples of the Pharaohs who want to hold us back in captivity, and keep us from the promised land.

Chances are, there has been a Pharaoh in your life too. Maybe there’s one there now. Maybe there is something holding you back from the place that God is calling you to. And maybe you know there is something better out there, but the wilderness you’ll have to cross feels so big and forbidding. Maybe you’re afraid to leave what you know in order to become what you know you are meant to be.

You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last. And the good news is that while it may not be easy, you will not go alone, and you will not go without God.

When the people started to yell at Moses that he was going to kill them all, he went to God. And he said, “look God, these people are ready to kill me. I need help.” And God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and that water would then pour out.

Moses did that, and it did, and the people drank. And they were strengthened enough that they could keep on walking, keep on searching for the promised land.

If you are in the wilderness, if you are breaking free from Pharaoh, God is walking this journey with you. And if you need it, God will give you living water, the kind that will see you through to the end. And on those days when you might look back, choose instead to look forward. Because what kept you in captivity is never better than the journey that can take you home. Amen?

Bravery is Not a Contest.

This week Caitlyn Jenner’s picture appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair. Immediately people online began to juxtapose her photo next to photos of veterans and first responders, saying that “real bravery” looked like the latter, and that Caitlyn was not brave.

The cover in question. Copyright, Vanity Fair.

The cover in question. Copyright, Vanity Fair.

I reject that false dichotomy. Bravery is not something that only those who have been in certain experiences can claim. Rather, bravery is the manner in which we respond to situations that occur in our lives. Some make the front pages. Most do not. Here is where I have seen bravery in my life and my work as a pastor:

Bravery is my father putting his family on a plane in Saigon in 1965, while he stayed behind. And bravery is my mother, 26 years old with two small children, waiting in the aftermath of an explosion in Vietnam for a call that took days to come telling her that her husband was alive.

Bravery is the police officer who walks the streets everyday. And bravery is the police officer who turns a partner in for brutality.

Bravery is the person who finally stands up to a bully. And bravery is the bully who faces who they have become, and chooses to change.

Bravery is walking into your first AA meeting, and saying “I’m an alcoholic”. And bravery is the family member who finally refuses to bail someone out again.

Bravery is the politician who votes for an unpopular bill, even though they know it will cost them the election. And bravery is the citizen who lobbies for a bill they know will never be passed.

Bravery is the woman who gets up, and goes to work, despite the crushing depression. And bravery is the man who goes to the ER after days of a manic episode and says “I need help”.

Bravery is going to war when asked. And bravery is saying your conscience will not let you do so.

Bravery is a bunch of gays and trans folks seeking shelter together in a bar named “Stonewall” in 1969. And bravery is the young man who tells his evangelical parents “I’m gay”.

Bravery is the woman who lives everyday fighting PTSD from that time she was assaulted. And bravery is the man who talks about how once he was raped.

Bravery is allies standing up to bigots. And bravery is walking past armed men with guns so that you can pray in your own mosque.

Bravery is coming home from war. And bravery is the veteran who fights everyday to stay alive.

Bravery is the firefighter who walks into their first burning building. And bravery is the family who picks up the pieces when their house burns down.

Bravery is watching your loved one’s coffin being lowered into the ground. And bravery is saying you will try to keep other families from ever facing the same kind of loss.

Bravery is the trans man who injects testosterone into his thigh for the first time. And bravery is the trans woman who says “call me by my name”.

Bravery is not a contest. Bravery is a choice. True bravery is often hard to find. When we see it, no matter where, it should always be applauded.

The Church as Enabler: Further Thoughts on Heather Cook, and the Rest of Us

“Did you ever get a DUI?”

“No.”

“Were you ever arrested?”

“No.”

“Did you ever lose a job because of your drinking?”

“No.”

He looked at me confused for a moment, then said, “I don’t think you were really an alcoholic.”

“Really?” I said. “Because I do.”

That conversation could have happened pretty much anywhere. As much as the discussion on addiction has changed in recent years, too many people still cling to the stereotype of an alcoholic as someone who is a falling-down-drunk, lying in the gutter. The idea of a well-educated professional with a retirement fund never crosses their minds.

But this wasn’t just anyone asking me the questions. It was the counselor who was conducting my routine denominational psychological exam when I switched my ordination to the UCC. I had honestly written about the fact I was in recovery in my pre-interview paperwork, and I was prepared to talk about it. But here I was, at the center where prospective clergy for my denomination and several others were screened for red flags, and I was having to educate the one doing the assessment on what addiction looks like.

In my case there was no rock bottom crash. There was just the awareness that I was looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, instead of from healthier places. Added to that was the knowledge that my extended family has had trouble with alcohol for generations. I was still a young adult when it became clear to me that I could either quit drinking then, with relatively little lost, or I could quit drinking years later, when I had managed to destroy everything.

Untitled copyI consider myself to be especially blessed by the fact that my family, friends, and clergy “got it”, and supported me. But I know that in the stories of others too often those same people become “enablers”. They help the alcoholic to justify their continued drinking by either refusing to admit there is a problem, being too scared to intervene, or, in the worst of cases, actively covering up another’s addiction.

Addiction is a family disease. And when a family member enables an addict, the entire family remains sick. That should hit home for those of us who are church members, because we often talk about the church as a large family. And there’s a hard truth we need to admit.

Our family has an addiction problem,

A few weeks ago I wrote about Bishop Heather Cook and who is qualified to be clergy. In the weeks since I have been struck by what has been revealed about what the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland did and didn’t know. On one hand we’ve been assured that the diocese had no knowledge there was an issue. Given the graphic description of Cook’s first DUI, complete with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, a shredded front tire, and more, I don’t know how anyone could say that there was no evidence there was an issue. Add to that the most recent revelation by the diocese itself that other bishops had been concerned that Cook was drunk at a pre-consecration dinner, and it’s clear that the diocese had some inkling Cook had a problem.

Heather Cook is responsible for the death of Thomas Palermo. Nothing I am writing here should in any way be taken as an attempt to excuse her actions. But we in the mainline denominations, with our extensive theologies around systemic sin, must admit that there is more than enough responsibility to go around here, and the church bears some of it. Because far too often we have been enablers.

The research is incomplete, but it has long been acknowledged that clergy have high addiction rates. I believe this is especially true in mainline and progressive denominations that often put an emphasis on not being like “those Christians” who do things like ban alcohol. When I’ve suggested that maybe every clergy event does not need a cocktail hour, I’ve more than once been told, “We’re not like those Christians…we don’t believe anything is wrong with drinking.”

Neither do I. If you can drink safely, and are able to stop, then I say go for it. I don’t even mind being with people who are drinking. I’ve never had an issue with someone having a drink or two while we are out at dinner, or with sitting with someone who is having a beer while we talk theology. But when cocktail hours, or trips to the bar, become the main source of community and fellowship at wider church events, I begin to wonder how many of my colleagues might be walking a fine line between responsible drinking and addiction. And when I go to dinner parties and watch respected clergy drink to excess, and say things I know they will regret in the morning, I feel incredibly sad for them.

I don’t think you have to be in recovery yourself to feel the same way. As the national Episcopal Church prepares to gather this summer for their General Convention, Bishop J. Scott Barker of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska has made a commitment to not drink during the gathering. Barker writes, “I’m mindful of the recent tragedy in Maryland, and the chance to make a small witness for delight in sobriety as a bishop of the Church. I note that in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska so many wonderful disciples are in recovery and could use some support – and so many parish churches are hobbled by alcoholic family systems long in place.” (Read more here: http://nebraskaepiscopalian.org/?p=2578)

It should be noted that Bishop Barker’s stand is especially prophetic given the fact that others going to General Convention seem to be a bit tone deaf about the church’s public image problems around alcohol. For instance, the House of Deputies is holding a fundraising competition with a grand prize of a beer tasting: http://houseofdeputies.org/campaign-for-episcopal-relief-development-kicks-off.html Surely, if a denomination can’t take a step back from alcohol for at least a few months after one of their own prominent clergy kills someone while drinking, that is a sign of a problem.

So, how does the church move forward? How do we stop being enablers?

First, there has to be the will to change. And that will not come until people who have been touched in some way by addiction, either their own or that of others, speak up and say “enough”. Then, there has to be a willingness to tell the truth about how we have failed to address the crisis of addiction, both in our own ranks, and in the larger community. And then we have to start the work of healing.

We need to follow the examples of the legal and medical communities who have set up fair and rigorous systems for those who wish to get clean and sober. We need to provide clergy with a way to get help when they need it, without worrying that stepping forward and getting healthy will ruin their careers. We need to educate everyone from parish pastors to denominational execs to those who screen candidates for ministry. We need to talk to our seminarians about what addiction looks like, and how to take care of themselves. And we need to be willing to lovingly intervene when we see someone struggling, no matter how big their steeple may be, or how angry they might get.

Our country is in the midst of a full-fledged addiction crisis. We in the church, with our belief in new life, should be leading the charge for recovery and healing. But we can’t do that if we are too sick to even deal with the addiction crisis in our own house. Now is the time for our whole family to get some recovery. Because if we can’t look at what happened in Maryland and say “we’ve finally hit rock bottom” I am scared to death of what our next family tragedy will look like.

Addiction, Recovery, and the Church: Coming this summer to Star Island

I’m excited to share that this summer I am going to be the Speaker of the Week for the United Church of Christ gathering on Star Island. I’ll be speaking on addiction, and what 12 Step recovery communities can teach the church about spirituality, ministry and life together. The conference will be held from Saturday, August 1st to Saturday, August 8th on the island.

IMG_3288If you’ve never been to Star Island, you are missing out on an amazing place. The island is a part of the Isle of Shoals, a group of small islands off the coast of New Hampshire, and stranding the line with Maine. Star is independently owned by a corporation of United Church of Christ and Unitarian-Universalist individuals, and is a non-profit organization. It is a strikingly beautiful place, and the community that gathers is warm, inclusive, and welcoming.

Discussions about addiction and recovery have taken on new importance in faith communities, across denominational lines. Come and learn more about how recovery principles can inform, and complement, the life of the church.

Learn more here: http://starisland.org/conferences/2015-conference-listing/star-gathering-1-ucc-family/

On Bishop Heather Cook, Sobriety, and Who is Qualified to be Clergy

A few people have asked me, as a clergy person openly in longterm recovery, what my thoughts are on whether Bishop Heather Cook, the Episcopal bishop in Maryland who struck and killed a bicyclist and who had a history of driving under the influence, should have been serving as a bishop. Here are my thoughts.

First of all, the person we should be remembering, and whose family we should be lifting up in prayer, is Thomas Palermo, the man who was struck and killed by Bishop Cook, and then left to die in the roadway. Mr. Palermo and his family, including his children, should be our first concern as the church. In fact, if you would like to make a donation to his children’s education fund, here is the link: http://www.youcaring.com/tuition-fundraiser/children-of-tom-palermo/283939#.VKQf_XwNgGw.facebook

But to turn to Bishop Cook, and the discussion of clergy and alcoholism, this is what I can say. In the aftermath of Bishop Cook’s actions, I have seen a number of posts on social media debating whether or not a person with substance abuse issues should have been elevated to bishop. In my mind, most have lacked nuance. Several things need to be taken into account.

Untitled copyFirst, there are many clergy persons in recovery from addictions. Second, there are many more who should be in recovery. Third, I don’t know to which group Bishop Cook belonged.

That said, her 2010 DUI charges were particularly disturbing. Many of us in recovery never drove drunk, but the facts of her prior case seem to indicate that substance abuse was indeed a problem. My hope is that when she was charged she saw the need to get sober. My other hope is that the Episcopal Church supported her in that endeavor.

But as far as her consecration as bishop, a very short period of time had elapsed between her DUI incident and her elevation. If she was sober, she was still in “early sobriety” and taking on a position like this, with higher stress and demands on time, would have likely been discouraged. And, if she relapsed, as now seems likely, it was on her to step back and say “I need to focus on getting healthy.” But Bishop Cook alone is not at fault. Church communities are often too quick to push those who have had major falls back into the spotlight. They are not doing the one who is recovering any favors by pushing a false rhetoric of “forgiveness” or “grace”. Sometimes grace means saying “you need to work on yourself for a while”.

With Bishop Cook too many questions are unanswered, and too little time had elapsed since her “rock bottom” of a few years ago. Something went wrong, and she found an even lower “rock bottom”, and this time a man is dead, not because she was in recovery but because of her own choices. Add to that the fact that this was a hit and run, and Bishop Cook took no responsibility for her actions until she was chased down, and it is clear that her behavior is exactly the opposite of what we are taught in recovery, regardless of whether or not she was drinking when she hit Mr. Palermo.

The question for me is not “should a person in sustained, active recovery be elevated to a position of leadership” but instead “should Heather Cook been elevated”? Because what we don’t need in the discussion of Heather Cook’s actions is a knee-jerk response that people in recovery shouldn’t be in leadership positions anyway. That will only add more reasons for people to hide when they are struggling. And I know plenty of clergy who are struggling, and who fear the reaction of the church and their parishioners should they seek help. In the end, if they do not get sober, they will cause far greater harm than if they continue to carry on as functional alcoholics.

In the recovery community we have a saying: “you’re as sick as your secrets”. I believe that’s true. And I believe that the church is sick when it makes people who need treatment hide out of fear for their professional lives. This is what happens when we don’t encourage honest discussions around alcohol and addiction within clergy circles. We need to be able to talk about it, and to encourage recovery.

In the end this will not just benefit clergy, but the entire church as well. As I have written elsewhere, our inability to talk about our imperfections as clergy has only been a detriment to the church. We have somehow communicated the idea that Christians must be people of perfection, and not people of grace.

That’s too bad, because when the day is done, I think that people with long-term sustained sobriety actually are assets to the ministry. Staying sober requires a sort of spiritual journey and honesty that can only help clergy. I would not hesitate to elevate a person with sustained recovery to a position of leadership.

And in the end, a story of recovery is a story of grace, and a story of the healing power of God’s love for us all. This is the story the church should be telling, because it is a Gospel story. I long for the days when our clergy’s stories of recovery are celebrated, and our stories of tragedy and destruction are avoided. This is possible. But it’s going to take a huge cultural change in the way we talk about recovery and addiction in the church.

The good news is that, like Jesus said, the truth can set us free.

Falling: Recovery, Silence, and the Church

Untitled copyTwice in my life I have competed in contact sports. After a childhood spent envying the boys on my block who could play on the football team, I joined my college’s rugby team. It was a club sport at my school, more adventure than varsity, but it was one of the few places I had found where women could play a rough-and-tumble game without others trying to protect us. After college I found my way to the local judo dojo where that same truth held. There on the mat we sparred together, a mix of genders and abilities, starting standing face-to-face and ending with throws and pins to the floor.

What struck me about both sports was what I learned at my very first practice. My first night on the rugby pitch I learned how to throw a tackle. But, more importantly, I learned how to be tackled. A friend of mine knelt down on the field and, as I ran at them, threw a perfect tackle just above my knees. I soared over their shoulder and hit the ground safely. We did this again and again that night until being tackled was second nature.

My first night in the dojo was similar. Before I was allowed anywhere near the other students, I spent an evening sitting on the mat and practicing falling backwards. Each time I fell backwards I would strike the mat with one arm to absorb the blow. Once I mastered the art of falling down from a sitting position, I fell backwards from a standing position. That first night I thought judo must be the most boring athletic endeavor ever, but after I was thrown to the mat the few times I realized the point.

With both sports the idea was this: you’re going to fall. You’d might as well learn how to fall safely, with minimal injury, so that you can stand back up.

So what does this have to do with the church? At first glance maybe not that much. But last week I found myself lying face up in our village market’s parking lot thinking otherwise. I’d slipped on a patch of Vermont black ice while carrying a bag of groceries, but as soon as I had felt myself lose balance I immediately, instinctively, did what I had learned in the dojo: I fell back, didn’t panic, and tried to distribute the impact as broadly as possible. In the end the only thing injured was my pride. I stood back up, picked up the groceries, and drove home unscathed.

And that’s when I started to think about the church. Recently a clergy friend told me that he had been advised by older clergy mentors to hide the fact that he is in recovery from addiction. I immediate felt sad about that. This is a person with sustained sobriety, and an incredible story of recovery. His testimony could be a powerful witness to God’s healing, as well as one of hope to those “still sick and suffering”. But his congregation might never hear it.

My friend had been told that clergy shouldn’t show weakness. They shouldn’t admit to perceived failures. They should allow those around them to live under the impression that, no matter what is going on, everything is fine. And, while I do believe clergy need to be careful not to overshare our personal lives or to preach our own stories more than the Gospel, I believe this is the attitude that not only contributes to clergy burn-out but hurts our whole church.

The reality for all of us is this: we fall short, we mess up, we lose our traction, and end up on the ground. In short, we live life. Clergy and lay together. But often we don’t talk about that in church. Instead we bring ourselves to worship in our Sunday best and hide the truth that sometimes things just aren’t that great.

It’s no surprise. For too long we’ve been taught to do just that. We clergy have taught, often by our own example, that appearances are more important than honesty. We’ve taught that appropriate vulnerability is career suicide. We’ve taught that falling down defines us no matter whether or not we get back up. And, inadvertently, we’ve taught a sanitized, powerless Gospel.

Somehow we have taught that Christians are people of perfection, and not people of redemption.

This past year, as the Boston mayoral race heated up, eventual winner Marty Walsh ran television ads that briefly mentioned his recovery from alcoholism. I watched the ads and thought, “that’s brilliant”. He, as Robert Kennedy used to say, hung a lantern on his biggest problem, the thing that might have come out in sneaky attack ads and bombed his candidacy. Instead, his recovery became a part of his story. It showed that he knew how to get back up and rebuild.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?

In my ministry I’ve never hidden the fact that I am in recovery. I’m blessed to be able to say that because of that I’ve been able to be a first call for parishioners and non-parishioners alike when they finally hit rock bottom. But I’ve also never talked about it in my writing all that much.

This Sunday marks another year of sobriety, one day at a time, for me. It doesn’t matter how many years, but I can say that it’s far more than a much younger me ever thought I could string together the first time I admitted I needed help. I give thanks every day that I got it.

I also give thanks for the ones who I’ve met in recovery who have taught me that falling down in life is as inevitable as falling on the rugby pitch or in the judo dojo. Most have had much more dramatic and devastating falls than my own. Most have made far more dramatic and inspiring recoveries. And, though they may not have realized it, and though most have never stepped into a pulpit, they have preached the Gospel to me in the most powerful ways I have ever heard it.

I only wish that those of us who did occupy the pulpits could preach the Gospel of redemption with such power and transparency and strength.

But then again, maybe we can.

God’s Welcome, and Our Welcome: Sermon for September 9, 2012

429279_10150562577556787_1270530573_nJames 2:1-10, 14-17
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

2:2 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,

2:3 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,”

2:4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

2:5 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?

2:6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?

2:7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

2:8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

2:9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

2:15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,

2:16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

2:17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

________

Have you ever felt unwelcome? Have you ever had an experience where you were pretty sure people would rather you not be around? Or, at least, they didn’t seem too happy that you were there? I think all of us at some point in our life have.

When I lived in Provincetown there was no UCC church in town, but there were a few others. I wanted to go to church while I lived there, so I checked one out. I got there, parked, went inside, sat through the service, and the left. With the exception of the pastor, who quickly shook my hand at the door on the way out, I don’t think anyone said anything to me the entire time. I felt pretty unwelcome. I left wondering what I had done wrong.

A couple years later I was talking to someone I know who visits Provincetown frequently. He asked me if I had ever found a church to go to there. I told him I’d tried this particular church, and that the service was okay, but that no one had talked to me at all. He then told me that he had too and that the exact same thing had happened to him.

I felt a little better. It wasn’t about me. But I hadn’t known that at the time. And, even worse, it seems like a lot of folks had left that church feeling that way.

You probably have a story like that somewhere in your life. Maybe not in a church, but somewhere. None of us likes to feel like we are not welcome, and, hopefully, not of us intentionally tries to be unwelcoming to others. And churches should be places that “get it”. Churches should be places where all who come through the doors are welcome. But the sad thing is that many people have at some point in their lives experienced churches as an unwelcoming place.

The text we read today is from the Epistle of James. The writer is essentially talking about how to treat people who come to church. He gives the readers an example. He talks about two people who will come into their church: one is wearing expensive clothing and gold rings and the other is poor and in dirty clothes. And he tells them that if they take the wealthy person and give them the best seat in the house, and then take the poor person and make them stand in the back, that they have no clue what Christianity is all about.

He goes on to tell them that at the end of the day if they will send the one who has nothing back out into the world and they say to them “take care, keep warm, don’t go hungry”. But if they the church does nothing to ensure that they actually stay warm and aren’t going hungry, then they just don’t understand the Scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I used to attend a church in Atlanta that had a big meal on Sundays after church. This is more common down South. Church starts at 11, so by the time it gets out everyone is hungry. And they had a chef who cooked, and it was always pretty good. It didn’t cost a lot. Maybe $5. Cheap enough that I could afford it as a grad student, and certainly cheaper than eating a meal out.

But this church was also located in an area where a lot of folks lived on the streets. And to be fair this church did a lot to help those folks. And they welcomed them into worship. But on Sunday afternoons, that meal that only cost me a few dollars became a feast that was out of reach for them. If they didn’t have the money, they didn’t eat. And they’d go back out onto the streets hungry.

I wonder what James would have said about that? More importantly, I wonder why it took me so long to notice that it was happening for myself? I was comfortable and fed, but I never noticed that none of our homeless guests were staying for lunch, or that there was no system to allow them to do so, until someone pointed it out.

I wonder how often I miss that. I wonder how often I overlook the fact that while I might be feel welcome, others may not. One time in Georgia I was talking with a friend about this small barbecue place about an hour outside of Atlanta. I’d gone there and really liked the food. And she was from the same area originally, so I suggested that someday we try it. She agreed and asked me the name. And when I told her, her face sort of sank. And she said, “I can’t go there…I wouldn’t be welcome.”

I said, “What do you mean? Of course you would.”

And she shook her head and said, “Emily, you don’t get it…I grew up here, and I know that place. Black folks like me aren’t welcome.”

Of course I didn’t get that. I hadn’t had to even think about the color of my skin when I went there. I just went in, paid my money, and got a plate of barbecue. But she did. I had no idea how much I was taking for granted just being welcome in certain places.

Now, we hear that story and we all realize how horrible it is. But what I want to stress here is that unless she had told me she was unwelcome there, I never would have known. And I believe that she genuinely was unwelcome. This is an area that still had Klan marches when she was a kid. But the take away for us today, and for churches everywhere, is that there are some folks who are sure they will be unwelcome in this church because they have genuinely been unwelcome in other churches. And as much as we genuinely want to welcome them, that’s keeping them from coming through our doors.

It might be surprising to hear the questions I have had from people in this valley who have met me and found out I was the pastor at this church. They’ve been curious about coming to church, but they’ve had bad experiences other places and they just assume that they will be unwelcome here as well.

A few have been members of the 12 step groups who meet here regularly. They actually spend more time in this church every week than just about anyone else. And they wonder whether someone like them, a recovering alcoholic or addict, would be welcome here.

Some have been folks we as a church have helped financially. They wonder if they are allowed to come here after receiving help from us. A few have asked me whether they would be welcome despite the fact they really have nothing nice to wear or nothing to put in the plate when it goes around.

Others have told me about how they or there families were judged for who they were when they tried to go into other churches.

We hear these words from our neighbors, and we say “of course your welcome. Everyone is welcome here.” We are appalled to think that there is any question. I can truly tell you that you are a warm church when folks walk through the doors. I hear that all the time. But this is not about you, or who you are. It’s about the fact that unless we make our welcome explicit, they’re not going to walk in the doors.

We might not realize that because we’ve never felt anything but welcome from churches in our lives. But for those of us for whom that is true, we are very lucky. For some people walking through the front doors of this church, of any church, is more than an act of faith. It’s also an act of courage.

So, we try to change that. We try to be explicit about our welcome. And we often reinforce it by using the slogan from the United Church of Christ that so many of you have told me you like so much: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

I love that slogan. But we can’t just give it lip service. We can’t just say it or print it on our letterhead or have it on the bulletin. We have to live it.

The church is not a selective club. We’re not a place where eligibility for membership is determined by someone’s bank account balance or the car they drive or where they went to school. It’s not determined by whether they can put “x” number of dollars in the collection plate. And it’s not determined by whether or not they’ve made some bad mistakes in life or whether they’ve ever been down and out. It’s determined only by this: that the person loves Christ, no matter how imperfectly, and wants to be a part of this community of disciples. All are welcome here because we don’t own this church. Christ does.

That’s good news. That’s really good news because it doesn’t just mean that others are welcome here. It means that you are welcome here too. And not just the best version of yourself. Not the part of you that cleans up well and says the right things and has it all together.

It means all of you. The part that has doubts. The part that doesn’t have things quite together. The part that yelled at your spouse or kids when you know you shouldn’t have this week. The part that deep down you would rather no one else knew about. That part is welcome here too. All of you is welcome here.

We are welcomed here because we have been welcomed extravagantly by God. God loves us so much, that the doors of God’s heart are open to all of us and to us all. Even the parts we’d rather hide sometimes. That’s the beauty of grace. That’s the beauty of what God has done for you.

And that’s the beauty of what those of us who are already here can do for those whom God wants to be here. That’s the beauty of being extravagantly welcomed by God. It makes it possible for us to extravagantly welcome others. We don’t do it because we want our church to keep growing bigger, though, make no mistake, an unwelcoming church is a dying church. We do it because if God’s grace is real, than we can do nothing other than this. We welcome others because God welcomed us first.

This week, as you go about your usual life and work, who could you pass that welcome on to? Who could you assure that God’s love and grace for them is real? And how can we as a church make our welcome more explicit to our neighbors? If God’s grace in us is real, than these are the questions we can’t help but ask ourselves. You can’t truly understand that you have been welcomed by God without in turn opening the doors of welcome wider to others.

May we as a church keep striving to live into what we proclaim: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Really. Amen.