Faithful Work, Faithful Welcomes: Kim Davis, Aylan Kurdi, and all of us.

The following was preached as a sermon on September 6, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.

James 2:1-4, 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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, 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,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When I started seminary, all the area churches came to campus to try to persuade the new students to worship with them. There happened to be a lot of churches from our denomination in town, and they always wanted seminarian members.

One of my classmates went to worship that Sunday at a church where most visitors did not stay for long. He found a pew somewhere in the middle of the congregation, and he sat down and got ready for worship to start. And that’s when a woman came down the aisle, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Young man,” she said, “you are sitting in my pew! I’m going to have to ask you to move.”

Up until then I didn’t think that actually happened in real life, but it did. And my classmate, a very kind man, got up and gave her his seat. But that’s not the end of the story. Because the woman who had displaced him somehow found out that he was a seminarian visiting for the first time. And now she was embarrassed.

She came up to him and said, “Had I known you were a visiting seminarian, I would never have asked you to move!”

Today’s reading reminded me of that story. Like last week, we are in the Epistle of James, and this week we read this: “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, 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,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”

In other words, if anyone treats one stranger differently than another, especially over something as trivial as clothing, then that person is judging them. And it is not the place of a person, and especially of a Christian, to treat other children of God with anything less than dignity and respect.

That was the greater injustice of what happened to my classmate that day at that church. It’s one thing to be asked to move by someone who really likes their pew. It’s not what I hope would happen to a church visitor, but it’s the lesser of the problems here.

The greater was that the woman who did it was only sorry because she found out he was a seminarian, and she was embarrassed about the way she had treated a future member of the clergy, rather than the way she had treated a child of God.

The irony is that when it comes to making someone feel unwelcome in a church, seminarians and clergy are really your last concern. We’re coming back to some church regardless. We’re sort of a captive audience, no matter what you throw at us.

But what if he had been someone who for years had been trying to work up the courage to walk back into church? What if he had felt unwelcome before? What if he had felt so far from God that stepping into those doors had been an act of faith in and of itself? What then?

The way we treat people in our churches is just the start, though. It’s what we do in the world outside of our church doors that really matters. Because like I said last week, our actions speak louder than words. And our actions tell others what we really believe more than any statement of faith. And how we treat other people, particularly those who have nothing to give us, says the most of all.

I’ll tell you another seminary story. At my seminary we paid most of our tuition by working a few hours a week around campus. And one of the places most of us rotated through was the refectory, the seminary dining hall. And I almost always had the breakfast shift. I’d get up around 6am and sort of stumble over to the kitchen and serve eggs and bacon to the few of my classmates who got up in time.

And a few times a year the doctoral students, clergy members, would come to campus for intensive classes. They’d come to breakfast every morning, and mostly they were very pleasant. But one woman was not.

Each morning she’d work her way through the line barking orders at us. And each morning we’d fill her plate and roll our eyes and say nothing. But one morning a classmate of mine was in line before her. And he and I got to talking about an exam we had both just taken in a class.

I saw her eyes get big. And she said, “Are you students here?”

“Yes,” I told her, “Everyone who serves the food is a student here.”

Now she looked downright panicked. And all of a sudden she found her manners. Because now it occurred to her that she was being rude not just to a nameless server, but to her future colleague.

There’s an old saying that if you really want to know whether or not you should date someone, that them to dinner and watch how they treat the wait staff. I believe that. And that day in the refectory, I was pretty disillusioned about the clergy. And if seminary is dating, ordination is marriage. And I didn’t want to marry into that.

I didn’t want to be the sort of person who treated people differently based on what they could or could not do for me. I didn’t want it to matter whether or not they were like me. I wanted to love the way Jesus did, and does. I wanted to love my neighbor as myself. And I wanted to let that love to speak volumes about my faith. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But the reality is that I am.

I don’t mean to be. It’s not intentional, anyway. But, I am. And it only took two things this week to remind me of that fact.

The first was watching the county clerk in Kentucky who, despite court orders, will not grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. And let me say first, that I think she’s dead wrong. I don’t think she’s being persecuted, and I don’t think her legal consequences have anything to do with her faith. I think this has to do with her being a civil servant who is using her position to impose her religion on others, and to deny their civil rights. Couples like Heidi and me. Couples like others in this church.

And so when people started to talk about what a hypocrite she was, and how she’d been married four times herself, I joined in. And when they said they hoped she would rot in jail, well, I didn’t go that far, but I understood the anger because I know what it’s like to not have my own marriage recognized.

But when they started to talk about her clothes. And her appearance. And when they made fun of her for being from Kentucky…well, that’s when it got a little less funny. And that’s when I thought about what would happen if she walked into my church, and whether I would give up my pew to her, and see her for the child of God that she is.

That was my first reminder.

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

The second was this. A picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey. A refugee. A child who was not rich. Who did not possess the right passport. Who was seen, at least in the abstract, as a burden on the society his family risked their very lives to join.

And the first thing I thought about were our kids here at the church. And how much I really love them. And how this boy was the same age as some of them. And I thought about how I’d do anything in my power to save one of our kids from harm. And I thought about how this boy needed someone to do that for him too.

And then I thought about all the children throughout the world like him. Children on rafts coming from Syria. Children crossing the border into our country. Children right here in Exeter. And I thought about how all Jesus said was that we should welcome the children. And how he never added any qualifiers about which children.

Every child needs someone. Every child needs more than someone. They need all of us. And they need our moral courage.

The fact so many were more outraged this week by the fact that a government employee was asked to do her job than they were by a child who lost his life tells us just how much we miss the point sometimes.

Because we can talk about our faith all day, but unless we are doing something because of that faith, unless we are changing the way we interact with the world, then it’s just lip service. Because James is right: Faith without works is dead

James asks us, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works?…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

What good is it? What good is faith if it doesn’t change the world? What use is it if it only comforts us? What’s the point if we only pay attention on Sunday morning? If that’s the sort of faith we aspire to, faith on life support, then it’s time to let it die.

Because that’s not faith at all.

But if that’s not what we are looking for, if that’s not what we think God wants for us, the good news is that there is a better way. But it’s going to take a little work. And it’s going to take a little moral courage.

Scripture tells us that God is “our refuge and our strength”. And we often repeat that. We believe it. But we can’t just believe it for ourselves.

And so here is our faithful work. It is to fling open wide the doors of our church. Yes, our literal downstairs doors, but even more so the doors of our hearts. It is to welcome everyone in. And it is to offer them our pews, and to deny a seat to no one.

I believe God gives us strength for the work our faith requires of us. And I believe God uses us to give refuge to the world. Refuge, because the world is filled with refugees both in the literal and spiritual sense. And they are all fleeing the same hardness of the world. And they are all hoping to find more than just hardness in our hearts. They are hoping to find people of compassion. People of mercy. People of faith.

The name of that child was Aylan Kurdi. And I hope Aylan would have found a pew here. And the name of that clerk is Kim Davis. And I hope Kim would find a pew here. And the name of that woman who kicked the seminarian out of her pew, and the one who was rude to the kitchen staff…well, I don’t know their names. But I hope they would find a pew here. I hope this, because I hope that I, with my imperfect faith, would find a pew here too.

Yes, faith without works is dead. But faithful work…the sort of work that intentionally opens the doors to all, and treats each one with dignity? That work brings new life to the world. And to us all. And there’s always room for more. Amen?

What We Do is Who We Are

The following was first delivered as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on August 30, 2015.

James 1:17-27
1:17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

1:18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

1:19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;

1:20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

1:21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

1:22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

1:23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;

1:24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.

1:25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act–they will be blessed in their doing.

1:26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Last week I read an article in the New York Times about a long journey. A woman and her husband were on vacation in Germany, and they went out to an island in the North Sea. And one day as she was walking the beach, she found a bottle that had washed ashore. That’s not so unusual. But when she picked it up, she saw a note inside that told her to break the bottle.

So she did. And she read a message from a man named, George Parker Bidder asking the person who found the bottle to write to him in England and let him know where they found the bottle.

There was just one problem. She couldn’t tell George Parker Bidder because he had died in 1954. And the bottle had been cast into the sea as an experiment around 1906. Bidder had been trying to study the tidal patterns of the ocean. And it had taken far longer than his lifetime, 109 years, for the message to reach its destination.

That article reminded me of another letter, one sent not in a bottle, but one that has been passed on for even longer than George Parker Bidder’s. The author wrote this letter not really to anyone in particular, but as a letter to followers of Christ in general. And he cast it out into the waters of the early church, the way George Parker Bidder cast his bottles, hoping for it to find its readers and inspire a response.

18590526-mmmainThe only thing is, the waters weren’t always friendly ones for James’ letter. At first it was in doubt whether it would become a part of the Bible. And Martin Luther, at the start of the Protestant Reformation, even argued that it should be taken out. He even called it an “epistle of straw”.

A lot of the resistance to the letter is that James concentrates on the way Christians act, and not so much on the grace of God. And for people like Luther in particular, early Protestants who wanted people to concentrate on the grace of God, they worried about how parts of James, verses like “faith without works is dead”, would be read. They didn’t want people believing that God’s love or grace was in any way dependent on our actions.

That’s a good caution to hold, of course, but there is so much in this letter that we Christians can’t stand to leave just floating out on the tides anymore. So much that modern Christians in particular need to hear. Like today’s passage.

James writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” and he ends, “…religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

In other words, to be a Christian is to be generous. It is to give freely of ourselves. And it is to care for the least among us, even when the world itself has turned its back.

We are not asked to do these things in order to be saved, or loved by God. We are asked to do these things because God already loves us, and because we are living our lives in gratitude for that grace.

But James says that sometimes we forget that. He says sometimes we are like people who look into the mirror, and see ourselves, but then forget who we are the second we turn away. We lose our sense of identity that quickly.

For Christians, that means we lose our sense of what we are meant to do and to be in this world. We hear the words while we are reading them, or thinking about them, but we forget them as soon as we turn away.

James tells his readers to care for the widows and the orphans. In his time, when women and children had so few rights or resources, he was telling Christians to care for the least of these. He was saying look out for the people who have nothing to give you, and who are falling through the cracks. Look out for the ones whom the world has thrown away.

Two thousand years after James cast those words upon the waters, the message still hasn’t quite made it to shore. At least, not everywhere. We get it right sometimes, when we think about it, but far too often Christians get it wrong.

Who are the widows and orphans of today? Who are the ones who are so disenfranchised, so forgotten, so written off that they are at best ignored and at worst used as a debating point? Sometimes they are literal widows and orphans, but often they are not. They’re the people who people say “brought it on themselves”. They’re the ones we argue should just “try harder”. They’re the ones whose choices we are fortunate enough to be able to Monday morning quarterback from our places of comfort.

That’s not what we are called to do. And that’s not who we are called to be.

Christians, far too often, are not seen as the ones who step in to care for the widows and orphans of our time. Too often we are seen as the ones who judge. The ones who turn a blind eye. Or the ones who only add to the suffering of others.

And our actions are more than just what we do. Because our choices become who we are. They become signals to the world of what we really believe. Because the reality is that when people look at Christians, and wonder why we come to this place every week, they don’t want to know about the finer points of our theology. They want to know what we stand for, and they’ll figure that out by watching how we act.

That true for all of us. That’s true for us as we walk into our offices Monday through Friday. That’s true of us in our own homes. And that’s even true of our youth as they navigate the halls of their schools. The way we act, all of us, directly communicates to others who we really are, and what we really believe.

And that’s especially true when it is hard, or unpopular.

I occasionally go into our archives downstairs and read a little of our church’s history. I did that earlier this summer, and I found myself drawn especially to the church annual reports from the 1960’s. That hardly sounds like riveting reading, I know, but whatever particular file I choose, I always seem to find something interesting, and this trip was no exception.

This time I found the annual report written early in 1966. In it was the report of the then pastor, the Rev. George Booth. He was recounting all that he had done in 1965, and there towards the end, just after a paragraph about some routine committee work he had done, was this sentence:

“In March I went to Montgomery, Alabama to join the Selma-Montgomery march. I went as representative of the New Hampshire Conference, but also – in my heart and with approval of the Board of Deacons of this church – representing you.”

The end of the Civil Rights story had not been written when Rev. Booth went from Exeter, New Hampshire to Montgomery, Alabama to march with Dr. King. It was 50 years ago, and no one knew how it would end. In many ways, we still don’t. But Rev. Booth, with the blessing of this church, decided to go to Alabama and stand as a witness to the love of Christ for all.

It wasn’t enough to stay here in the safety of New Hampshire and say what he believed. He had to act. And his church agreed with that, and sent him with a blessing.

The days for action are not over. There are still those who need our voices. They need our support. And they need our action. How we respond, will define who we are. And it will tell the world what we believe.

And so here is my challenge to you this week. You have found the bottle on the beach that James cast onto the waves so many years ago. You have opened it, and read the message. And now, just like the woman who found that bottle on her vacation, you have a choice. You can let the world know you got the message. Or you can just throw it back into the waves.

The choice is yours. The choice is all of ours. And there is a world out there that needs not just our thoughts and prayers, but also our prayerful action. It’s time to open the bottle, and to respond to the word.

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.