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?

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

“Jesus Doesn’t Reject People” – Sermon for September 25, 2011

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

My grandmother grew up in Portland, Maine in the Little Italy. Her parents were immigrants who had left their homeland to come here carrying little else other than their Catholic faith. Like everyone else in her neighborhood, she was raised in the church and taught that it was the one true faith.

And then, as a young woman in the 1930’s, she met my grandfather. A soldier whose family had lived here for generations, and who was very Protestant. As best as I can figure it, they eloped. And sometime after she went to her priest and told him. He condemned the marriage and told her she would go to hell. The only way she could avoid hell, he told her, was to raise her children as Catholics. Then, maybe, she wouldn’t be damned.

When I heard this story for the first time I realized immediately that my grandmother must have been a pretty courageous woman. My mother and her siblings did not grow up Catholic. The priest did not scare her into compliance. And when you think about the insular, tight-knit community where she grew up, it’s pretty remarkable that a young, religious woman valued her love for her husband over the scare tactics of a clergyman. In the end she trusted her relationship with God over fear.

That’s the story I remembered when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus is entering the Temple, the most holy place in Israel, and he is stopped by the chief priests who want to know why he thinks he should be there. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask. And Jesus tells them a parable about two sons. Both are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. And one says immediately that he’ll go, but he never actually does. The other complains and says he won’t go, but then finally does. Jesus asks which one, the one who said he would do the right thing but didn’t or the one who didn’t want to do the right thing but did it anyway, did his father’s will. The priests agree it’s the one who went.

Jesus uses that story to show them how much they are like the son who says he will follow his father’s will but never does. And he tells them that the tax collector and prostitutes, the most looked down upon of society, will enter the kingdom of God before them. He tells them that these least of society, they truly believe.

I want to have the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes. I want to have the faith of my grandmother. I want to have so much faith that I trust my relationship with God over the clamor of those who want to tell me God does not love me as much as them. I want to trust it over the voices of those who say others are going to hell.

My freshman year of college I had a friend who also later went on to be a pastor. One night after our campus Christian fellowship had worship, we were walking back to the dorms and chatting. As we came close to my dorm he stopped and looked at me and said, “Emily, I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

I’d heard that before. I didn’t really believe it. Not in most parts of my soul, anyway. But it still stung. Now, years later that classmate is now pastoring a church in the town where I grew up. A church where some of my friends who he would have also thought were going to hell attended. And I worry sometimes that some 14 or 15 year old kid will come into his office, and hear the same thing. And one of two things may happen. They’ll either believe it, and believe that God hates them. Or they won’t, and they won’t believe in the church anymore.

I hope neither happens, but I know that more often than not, one or the other does. When my grandmother left the priest’s office that day, she made a decision not to raise her kids in the Catholic Church. But, beyond that, she made a decision not to raise her kids in any church. And so my mother and her siblings didn’t grow up in the faith. In fact, most of her grandchildren and now her great-grandchildren didn’t grow up in the faith. And that’s all for two reasons. First, someone tried to convince her that she had done something so awful that God didn’t love her anymore. And, second, no other church came along and told her that wasn’t true.

Those of us who represent the church, and you are among them, have an incredible influence. And it can be used to inspire incredible things. And it can also be used to hurt someone so deeply that they think we are doing it in Christ’s name, and that they believe they have no place here.

When I was a chaplain I was often called to talk to someone who was dealing with some kind of addiction issue. They were often brought into the hospital because they finally had decided to go to rehab, or they ended up needing treatment for some illness the addiction was only making worse. And they would ask for a chaplain to be called.

We would talk and, since they called me, I would ask about whether or not they were involved in any religious community. And more often than not I’d get a response like, “No, they don’t like folks like me,” or “I live in a small town and everyone knows about my problem,” or “I’ve never been a saint. I won’t be welcome.”

I always wanted to say, “that isn’t true, you’d be more than welcome” when I heard something like that. I wanted to tell them that there would be no judgement because there were plenty of people in the pews, and, yes, even behind the pulpit, who had been through the same. But I sometimes found it hard to say that in good conscience because I know that welcome is not always universal. I know that I’ve even heard other clergy, not here in Vermont but in other places, complain about the AA groups that use their churches. It’s hard to have to give someone a cautious recommendation about going to church.

But the sad truth about churches, is that when many people think about us, they don’t think about people who will love them. They think about people who will judge them. And most people in this world get enough of that elsewhere.

Martin Luther rejected the view that we were all either saints or sinners. Instead, he said, we are all simultaneously saints AND sinners. Five hundred years later most churches still haven’t caught on to that. That those of us who come to church on Sunday morning are here both because we need God’s grace AND because God loves us beyond our deepest understanding. And what’s true of us is true of every one of God’s children. And it’s not our place to withhold the church, Christ’s body here on earth, from any of them.

There is a story by an author named Flannery O’Connor. She was a writer from Georgia, and a devout Roman Catholic. She wrote a short story called “Revelation” about a good Christian woman who was very assured about her place in heaven. The story follows her throughout her day as she judges the people she encounters. She enters a doctor’s waiting room and looks around and makes a judgment about everyone there, in her head making racist comments, judging the poor, belittling the appearance of others. And all the while assuring herself that she is “grateful” and a “good Christian”.

At the end of the story she is struck by a religious vision. She sees a line of people ascending to heaven. All the people she had seen that day are in it, and they are following one another up into the clouds. And she is not leading the line into the kingdom of God. She is at the very end of it. And she is shocked.

I see myself in the people she judged. But more importantly, I see myself in her too. Like Luther said, we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. All simultaneously the one who closes the door of welcome, and the one who opens it.

This summer, when I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod down in Tampa, we were greeted by a huge banner as we walked in. It read “Jesus didn’t reject people. Neither do we.” The UCC put a number of those banners up all over Tampa that said that. And I remember thinking what it was like, to grow up not even two hours from there, and to sometimes believe that the church was full of people who could never welcome someone who was in any way not like them. And I thought about what it would be like for a kid growing up there now to see those signs, and know that there were people who loved Jesus so much that they loved him beyond what he thought possible.

When I first realized what those signs might mean to the people who saw them, I cried. I’m not a big crier, and it shocked me to cry over a church sign, but I did. And when I realized that the simple act of a church making clear that they welcomed everyone no matter who they were or what they had seen moved me so much, I cried even harder. Because an act of hospitality, an act of welcome on behalf of a church, shouldn’t be so rare that it’s existence shocks us. I cried out of joy for the one who would find Christ’s welcome. And I cried out of pain for a church that has often withheld it.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We are welcoming churches, I believe that. I believe anyone who comes through those doors will be welcome. But I also believe that there are some outside those doors who have been so hurt that they will never dare to come in on their own. And so maybe, the welcome needs to go outside. I’m not saying a big sign on the lawn, though I wouldn’t object. But a big sign in our hearts, a big sign on our faces, a big sign unfurled by the work of our hands: you are welcome here. Jesus would never have rejected you. Neither will we. Amen.