Sunday, September 23, 2012

When God is a Child: Children as Guide and Goal

Text: Mark 9: 30-37

"The Peaceable Kingdom" by Paul Mariani*

There can be something scary about all the energy, unpredictability, forthrightness, and frankness packed into little beings who look so much like us but don't know athe social codes that buffer us from awkward encounters.  So we are uneasy if the child we greet ducks her head and refuses to reply.  Or if the baby placed in our arms starts wailing and can't be consoled.  We don't know what to say if a toddler asks, "Why is your nose so big?"  Which is exactly why we need children in our all-too settled and certain lives.  Many of the world's religions teach that a little child will lead us, that a divine child will save us.  But it is not sweet innocence that makes children such good emissaries of the Holy. It's their ability to strip away pretense and privilege.  It's the fact that they are the iconic "least of these" Jesus said are the best ambassadors of God's realm.

We tend to romanticize childhood but ignore children.  We imagine Jesus gathering around him children who were as well-behaved, well-scrubbed, and well-dressed as the cast of the Cosby Show--because those little ones are easy to welcome: the precocious ones who say amusing things . . . the precious ones who warm our hearts.

But real children sometimes, if we're honest, make us uncomfortable.  They are unpredictable. They are often troubled.  They make so much noise and have so many needs.

Paul Mariani's poem--and Mark's Gospel--will not let us sentimentalize children.  Like the speaker of the poem who nervously faces eighteen kindergartners, Jesus's disciples don't know what to do with the little ankle biters who follow in his wake.  In the next chapter of Mark we will read that the disciples try to block the children's access to Jesus.  Shooing away the children  after Jesus had just told the to welcome them shows how persistent is human resistance to welcome the least welcome.

On this hard truth hangs the doctrine of incarnation: God comes to us as a child.  We tend to pull out this doctrine once a year with the Christmas ornaments. But God comes not only as the peasant baby born in ancient Bethlehem.  God is the child on the streets of modern day Calcutta or Khartoum.  Or Mobile.  And though we think our culture is both child-centered and God-fearing, 22% of children in the U.S. live below the poverty line (according to the 2010 US Census) through no fault of their own.  More sobering still is the statistic that 38.2% of African American children live in poverty, numbers suggesting we care less about these Christ-bearers and the ways of God than we profess.  In our culture we turn a blind eye to the most vulnerable as we overindulge the children of privilege.  Yet even children living in physical comfort can be impoverished in terms of affection and care and guidance.

Perhaps even we at Open Table, so proud of the beautiful and brilliant children and young people in our midst, might improve our welcome.  I wonder if sometimes we assume that a gentle smile is someone else's job.  Or if we go to the other extreme and make too much of a young person who might dislike too much scrutiny? Do our children smell the awkwardness or impatience on us?  Do we sometimes forget that children are not here to amuse us but  connect us to the divine?  We have an obligation to teach them about the life of faith, but they have much to teach us. Jesus said when you welcome them, you are ushering me into your midst.  When you listen to a child, you are hearing the voice of God.

And if that claim sounds strange to our ears, it was even more shocking--probably even offensive--to most 1st Century citizens, who very intentionally marginalized children.

However, children are quite literally at the center of Mark's Gospel account of a counter-cultural Jesus.  For the last 3 Sundays I detoured from the lectionary's progress through Mark in order to preach from James, but as we return to Mark's Gospel, let's place today's scripture in the context of the Mark's entire 9th chapter, which is almost smack dab in the middle of that brief Gospel and certainly at its thematic center.

Chapter 9 begins with the indisputable climax of Jesus's ministry, the story of his transfiguration atop a high mountain. Having just been so exalted by God, Jesus immediately warns the disciples that his ignoble death is near.  Having just been elevated, his next miracle is to heal an epileptic child in the most detailed healing story of Mark's gospel (Mark 9:17-30): from the pinnacle of glory to the service of the lowly.  Then, as Jesus and followers pass through Galilee, he again tells the disciples that he will be killed--and will rise on the third day. Their insensitive response to Jesus' sense of his imminent death? They begin arguing about who among them is the greatest--perhaps to determine who would become his successor.  As the disciples jockey for power, Jesus spies the most powerless figure nearby, a little child, and brings him silently into the middle of the circle.  He holds the child as he explains that the way we treat little ones (like the child in his arms) is the way we treat him--and the way we treat him is the way we will experience God.  The child leads us Godward.

An advent song by Brian Wren is titled "When God is a Child" and the refrain says this:

When God is a child, there's joy in our song.
The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong.
And none shall be afraid.

At a former church we often sang this hymn during Advent, a different verse each week, as a different child each week would light the appropriate candle in the Advent wreath.  One Advent the child lighting the wreath sang part of the song as a solo each week.   The congregation sang together the verse and refrain--until the last line.  On the final line, all other voices dropped out and the child sang, alone, "And none shall be afraid."  What a powerful image of the weak being strong, of the power of vulnerability.

As we see in Mark's Gospel, Jesus welcomed the children, not because they were cute, but because they were considered the least, the most vulnerable, and they were the key to this great reversal of priorities at the heart of his teachings.  When God is a child, we "get" this reversal.  Then God's realm, if momentarily, holds sway.

Our children--the children of the world and the children right here at Open Table--are not only our guides to God but also our very goal.  Again, Jesus welcomed the children because they were living reminders of our goal.  Not by virtue  of their adorableness.  But because a life of stripped-down vulnerability relies on trust. That is my heart's goal.

Have you ever seen the movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"?  Brad Pitt plays the title role as a man born with the body of a very old man who gradually grows younger and younger with each passing year until, after more than 80 years of life, he returns to infancy.  And dies.  His life culminates in a new born state.  And that may be what Jesus was recommending to Niccodemus about being born again.  Our goal in life is not to acquire and attain and achieve more and more but to become like a child, bare and vulnerable and dependent totally on God.

Author Bruno Scholz put it this way: "If it were possible to reverse development, to attain the state of childhood again, to have its abundance and limitlessness once more, that 'age of genius,' those 'messianic times' promised and sworn to us by all mythologies would come to pass. My ideal goal is to 'mature into childhood'."

Robin Maas asks this: "How is it, then, that such a fundamental aspect of revelation should continue so consistently ignored, sentimentalized, suppressed?  Why do we steadfastly resist the obvious implications of Jesus' teachings on childhood and even more, his own childhood, as a sign not of the beginning of our spiritual quest but, in a very real sense, as its consummation?"

Why indeed?  Because it is hard to pursue a goal that is about not pursuing a goal.  The spiritual goal is paradoxically achieved by giving up, by "falling upward" as Richard Rohr suggests in the book we'll study in October.

Working hard and being responsible and taking on challenges is healthy and necessary.  We're talking here about a spiritual process that totally redirects our lives.  We're talking about receiving love as trustingly as a baby nurses at the breast of his mother.

The child is both guide and goal.  And children embody the world's hope.  Every time a child enters the world--a child who is like none other--there is fresh hope for the just and peaceful reign of God. Our planet would not be so imperiled if we had been listening to the future generations not yet born but for whom we are responsible.  We need to be led by the child of hope.

Hear the prophet Isaiah:  "For unto us a child is born . . .  and her name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Mother, the Princess of Peace."

Whether we have literally birthed children or not, each of us has the responsibility to give birth to hope. Each of us must nurture new life on this planet.  We are charged to be both parent and child, generating hope and embodying hope, listening to children to hear God directing us.  And each of us lives on faith that God is already upholding us. There is a new way, there are novel thoughts, there are fresh possibilities.  There is hope.  When there are children.  Because God is a child.

PRAYER.  Young God, we would follow your voice that we often hear best from those this world considers the least.  Thy kingdom come, we pray. Thy will be done so that to be first we must be last and the servant of all.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Guided Meditation: Not A Tongue Lashing

Text:  James 3: 1-18 

For the last two Sundays we have been talking about the topic of listening.  Now I hope you have some interest in listening to the topic of talking. After the service tonight we’ll do both in the 6:00 hour: talk and listen in ways that help us understand how better to meet needs within our church family. We want to take seriously our responsibility to listen deeply so that we can understand others—and also take seriously our responsibility to speak directly, honestly, and gently for the common good.  

Previously, the writer of James urged us to speak less and listen more.  That’s hard enough advice to take.  But today’s passage reminds us of how difficult it is, when we do say something, to choose those words carefully.  James warns me with vivid examples—as if I don’t have plenty of personal experience with this—that what I say can get me into a world of trouble.

You, too, have agonized over words that felt good to get out but later came back to haunt you. You, too, have replayed in your mind statements you made with the best of intentions but later realized were, at best, unnecessary. Maybe you, too, have noticed the way random thoughts wandering harmlessly around inside the brain somehow sneak out of the mouth. How does that happen?  Why couldn’t God have created our bodies with greater distance between brain and tongue. If only our tongues were attached to our feet—then the tongue might be far enough from the brain so we might intercept the errant idiotic comment before the tongue could broadcast it.   

Sometimes the problem is not even the words themselves but the tone.  We have to guard not only what we say but how we say it.

These days we have the power to spread embarrassing or hurtful words like wildfire by emailing or texting or tweeting.  New technologies increase the reach of our words and thus the probability we might say something injurious.

Sadly, poor communication can create estrangement, unhealthy relationships, job incompetence and dissatisfaction, stress, medical problems, even death. Sadly, too few of us give the gift of selfless listening to hear another soul into some newer understanding or some deeper connection.  Too seldom do we take the risk of sharing what really matters: those carefully guarded feelings, a differing point of view. Relationships wither for want of the chance to listen deeply and to speak authentically because “proximity without intimacy is inevitably destructive” (Bolton 6).  Congregations and families become dysfunctional when members can’t hear differing perspectives without feeling anxious, when they can’t speak directly while remaining gentle and respectful.

Like any congregation, we’ll benefit from occasional refreshers on good communication skills.  But a faith community relies more on the loving work of the Spirit than on communication skills we learned in Speech 101. Compassionate listening and speaking are less about proper technique than a centered self. This hour is dedicated to prayer and meditation, which give us the spiritual foundation to care enough about others, about our church, and about ourselves in order to speak compassionately and honestly, to listen generously and discerningly.

The passage from James, if we read it through our own culture’s predilection for control, can cause us to fear the vital power that is human communication, to try to achieve power over the tongue.  In dire tones, James warns that the human tongue, so small compared to the whole body, controls our destiny.  The tongue controls us, says James, like a bridle guides a horse or a rudder directs a ship.  The tongue, like a flame that can set a whole forest blaze, wields great potential for destruction.  It’s true.  Let’s recognize this power!  But let’s not refuse to use it. Let’s become mindful of the patterns of our speaking and listening without becoming paralyzed by self-consciousness and guilt.  Let us know ourselves at a very deep level through a union with God and a love of all others.

So for this moment let James shake you by the shoulders and tell you to watch what you say.  Truly great harm can come from our words.  This very week we have learned that an anti-Islam Youtube video likely had a role in sparking Muslim protests that fanned into destructive fires across the Middle East. But rest in the awareness that we don't have to strive anxiously for control of our tongues; instead, we yield to God's compassionate and empathetic way.

I invite you now into a time of guided meditation.  If it helps you focus, feel free to take a pen or pencil and jot down thoughts during this meditation time: Get comfortable.  Remember that our life in God deepens by letting go rather than achieving and attaining.

As you gaze upon the candles on the altar, image that one of those flames is a word you believe you may need to say to someone.  Maybe what you want to say is fraught with risk. Maybe you don’t want to say it but you feel you ought to say it.  But you’re not sure.  As you continue watching the candles burn, imagine that your words might bring greater light to someone.  However, your words, if dropped carelessly like a candle on the altar cloth, could cause destruction.  Should you have this conversation or not?  First consider if the impulse to share comes from compassion or ego. Sometimes we’re quick to appoint ourselves as God’s advisors to folks we may not even know well and who’ve given no indication they would appreciate our counsel.  Other times we’re cowards about confronting an injustice or asserting our needs.  If you’re having trouble discerning whether or not to confront someone with your truth—it’s never THE truth—or to confide in someone with your vulnerable feelings, then consider the following widely recommended 3-question test, attributed variously (from Socrates to Sufi sages).  Ask yourself in a spirit of prayerful discernment:
Is it true?     
Is it kind?       
Is it necessary?

Then once more use the heart test.  Can you speak to him or her while holding that person compassionately in your heart?  Imagine your heart expanding so that you make space for him or her.


Move now from considering a future conversation to reflecting on past experiences when you’ve said things you later came to regret.  Try to think of two or three examples when you afterward regretted your words.  What’s the common thread that runs through each of these scenarios?  What was steering you to say these words?  Were you overly influenced by another person?  By an uncomfortable emotion? What do you notice about your motives going into that conversation or the people who heard the regretful words or the way you said the words?  Is there a pattern worth noticing?

SILENCE . . . .Give thanks for this new insight.

Finally, imagine that someone wants to speak to you, someone who is troubled, someone who has perhaps never before approached you, or someone who seeks you out from time to time for your listening ear. This person has a difficult word to share with you.  It is hard for him or her to share it.  Or it might be hard for you to hear.  Prepare yourself for this conversation by extending compassion to this person, imagining this conversation as opportunity for personal growth. Begin by aligning your intentions for this person and your self-care with God’s loving intentions.


The next song we sing as a prayer includes this plea: 
“Christ, restrain me.”  Christ, restrain me from saying too much or from saying the wrong words.  But the song also pleads, “Christ, release me.”  Let’s now pray silently for both of these things: that we would withhold words that are not serving Christ’s peace and love; that we will feel released and indeed emboldened to say words of love and justice.

*Bolton, Robert.  People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflict. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Believing in Jesus = Honoring the Poor

Believing in Jesus = Honoring the Poor
Subtle, Sinister, Systemic Privilege

Text: James 2: 1-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For 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, 3and 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,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, 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? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. 14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

          The writer of the Epistle of James charged the early churches with privileging the rich.  A similar charge could be leveled at today’s churches, perhaps even our own. If you think Open Table is exempt from this flaw, consider these two hypothetical scenarios: 
          Scenario 1: Our worship service has begun, a meditative mood has been set, and footsteps are heard down the aisle.  You turn to see a disheveled woman in tattered clothes who appears to have slept outdoors for some time.
          Scenario 2:  Our worship service has begun, a meditative mood has been set, and footsteps are heard down the aisle. You turn to see a woman in an elegant suit, the picture of a successful professional. 
          For some congregations the salient question might be this: Would the poor person have been greeted as warmly as the rich one?   But I’ve seen you extend an equally warm welcome to rich and poor alike. Yet despite our congregation’s commitments to radical hospital and inclusion, subtle prejudices remain in us all.  I’m going to ask you to imagine what would be not only your actions but also your hidden thoughts and feelings. Though your actions would be welcoming, might you see a poor man or woman and think thoughts like these, however fleetingly? 

Bless her heart. I wonder if she is just looking for a handout.

She could be the type who would drain our resources of time and money.

I don’t want her to think we’re prejudiced, so I’ll be quick to greet her after the service.

Now imagine the rich woman entering. Might she prompt these thoughts, though fleetingly?

Wow, what an impressive person. Is that her Lexus in the church parking lot?

She seems the type who could contribute in a significant way.

I hope we get her contact information. She looks well-educated; I think she’ll fit right in.

          Here’s my point: A hidden camera probably would not be able to record any discernible difference in the way we at Open Table would behave toward these two women.  Unless that camera were trained on our hearts and minds.  I’m taking James’ point a step further because Jesus said that what a person thinks in her or his heart matters, too.  And those biased thoughts could cause us eventually to treat these two people differently after the initial friendly greetings are over.  Coming to an awareness of those subtler biases can be difficult. As novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote:
Every man [or woman] has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.

          If you are genuinely curious about prejudices of which you may be unaware, a test for implicit attitudes has been developed at Harvard and is available online.  When I used to prepare my college students for service-learning experiences with diverse members of our community, I invited them to take the Implicit Association Test online at Versions of this test can gauge gender bias, racial bias, age bias, political bias.  There is not yet a test for a bias against the poor.  Maybe that’s because we would all admit to that bias, even the poor who sometimes in our country vote against their self-interests. But the point here is that it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we don’t have biases. Culture conditions us all to have some automatic associations in our minds. However, even if our automatic responses are biased, we can still overcome those reactions and choose to act in ways that resist prejudices, like biases against the poor.
          So my first point this evening is that favoritism can be more subtle than we think.
          My second point is that favoritism can be more sinister than we think.  Disregarding the plight of the poor is not a matter of simple thoughtlessness or cultural bias.  According to James, favoring the rich calls into question our very belief in Jesus.  You heard that right. Read James 2:1 again.  The word “belief” (pistis—in the Greek)—is used here and elsewhere in the New Testament to mean something other than intellectual assent to a truth claim.  Believing in Jesus, as Marcus Borg and others have been telling us, did not originally mean “accepting certain statements to be true.” Believing in Jesus, in fact, has nothing to do with whether or not we think Jesus did, does, or will do certain things.  Believing in Jesus is about what we do.  Believing means “orienting one’s life toward.” Think about how we use the word believe when we talk about believing in someone who is a leader.  If I say I believe in a particular presidential candidate, I don’t mean I believe he or she exists, which is how people speak of believing in God; I mean I trust in/believe in a particular candidate’s ability to lead us.  That’s closer to what the New Testament means about believing in Jesus. 
          Even in these paradigm-shifting times for Christianity, many Christians rarely consider orienting our lives in the ways of Jesus as the real test of Christian orthodoxy.  But we talk about it a lot at Open Table because this fairly recent recovery of the original meaning of belief or faith is such a game changer for Christian theology. In the larger Christian culture, folks question another’s Christian credentials based on whether they honor certain doctrines. James says we may not be Christian unless we honor the POOR. We may not be Christian if we do not HONOR the poor. We do not have faith in Jesus if we do not HONOR the poor.  We are not believers in Christ IF WE DO NOT HONOR THE POOR.  Condemnation is not for those who question or deny particular theological statements but for those who dishonor the poor.  Such an emphasis on loving neighbor is absolutely consistent with the Gospels portraits of Jesus, who never asked us to worship him but instead to follow him by caring for the least. 
          Kind of puts a new twist on the tiresome political rhetoric about whether or not we’re a Christian nation, doesn’t it?  The Right and the Left trot out the First Amendment, Supreme Court decisions, and quotations from the Founding Fathers.  But Jesus and James might say the real test is whether or not we are honoring the poor.  Does America’s treatment of the poor make her a Christian nation?
          Bono, lead vocalist of U2, put it this way at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2006: “Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives. . . I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill… I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff… maybe, maybe not… But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
          Privileging the rich is both subtle and sinister. My last point is that it’s also systemic. While I appreciate the point that solutions to societal problems start within the heart of individuals, I also believe that transformed individuals can do only so much by themselves—and usually their efforts are interventions after an injustice or Bandaid solutions rather than preventions or deep solutions to extinguish the problems.  A case in point is what I believe to be an unjust tax code in the state of Alabama that includes taxes on groceries. This tax unfairly burdens our poorest citizens because they pay a higher portion of their income for basic necessities. Taxation of groceries disproportionately affects lower income families by almost four to five times the amount that high income families are affected. The fact that only two states “continue to apply their sales tax fully to food purchased for home consumption” tells you something.  The fact that the two states taxing groceries are—you guessed it—Alabama and Mississippi and you, too, may be convinced this form of taxation dishonors the poor. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 
          If I want to help hungry families in my state, I could offset an unjust law by donating some of my income to charities that serve the poor or donating canned goods to my local food pantry or donating my time to serve lunch at 15 Place or dinner to Family Promise guests or inviting a neighbor on a fixed income to my house once a week for a good meal. But I will not be addressing root injustice in the system which will continue to disadvantage the poor.  That inequality cannot be overcome by my individual acts of charity.  But if the tax system changes, not just one family but thousands will benefit—and this benefit continues.  Of course, it takes concerted effort to intervene systemically because those who created the system continue to have great control over it. 
          It’s important for us to admit that good-hearted people can reach different solutions for society's problems.  Certainly Jesus told us to meet needs of individuals—by visiting those in prison and healing the sick and feeding the poor.  But Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him did not have the option to vote or write their legislators or run for public office.  Jesus did engage in political protest when he rode a donkey into his capital city—and days later was arrested and executed for that unsuccessful attempt to make systemic changes in a nation under foreign occupation and oppressed by ruthless taxation. We, thank God, have ways to engage political and social systems. We can disagree about what’s the best strategy for alleviating suffering and for honoring the poor.  But as Christians, as believers in Jesus, we have to DO something about poverty itself. And you, friends, have the savvy to lead toward systemic changes.
          William Sloane Coffin said, “Public good doesn’t automatically follow from private virtue.  A person’s moral character, sterling though it may be, is insufficient to serve the cause of justice, which is to challenge the status quo, to try to make what’s legal more moral, to speak truth to power, and to take personal or concerted action against evil, whether in personal or systemic form” (Credo, p. 49).
          The writer of James asked Christians then and asks us now, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

PRAYER: God of the poor, come to those who are impoverished through unawareness. The systems of this world are so invisible and entrenched.  Help us see ways to work for peaceful, creative changes that honor the poor—that we may honor Jesus. Amen

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gimme That Real Religion

Text: James 1: 17-27
      Richard Rohr, author of the book we’ll be reading for our October book study, says “real religion” doesn’t force us into oppositional thinking.  The writer of James, the New Testament epistle we will be reading over the next couple of Sundays, also rejects the religious tendency toward dualism and judgmentalism by emphasizing proportion, pacing, and paradox.  James says, for instance:
         Speak. Just be readier to listen.
         Be angry. But don’t get there too quickly. 
         And when you do, hold together both your anger at injustice to the orphans and widows as well as your compassion for even the perpetrators of injustice. Otherwise, you’re deceiving yourself about what kind of religion you have.  Because if your religion causes you to hate anyone, then you have been stained by the world’s ways.  
         Real religion doesn’t polarize.  It "paradoxizes." It helps us respond proportionately, with the right pace, with room for paradox.  Even Jesus became angry at injustice. Sure, it’s easier to list the good guys and bad guys, the dos and don’ts. It’s easier, for instance, either to take a vow of total silence or to speak without any restraint.  We can’t deny the necessity of categories like good and evil, right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, creative and destructive.  But James tells us not to let simplistic labels rush us into reactivity or extremism. And experience tells us that traces of goodness hide in the meanest person you know, while the best of saints are flawed. We have peered into our own souls and seen, stirred together, a gumbo of vice and virtue. Real religion doesn’t stop us from taking action and making strong stands. But it does slow us down enough to see things more complexly and to gaze into the mirror with honesty.  Recognizing paradox, refusing to force others into neat compartments, sometimes points us to the Really Real.  
         I’m especially interested in the way today’s scripture brings together the actions of hearing and doing.  A religious experience for some is all about hearing the Voice of God within or from religious authorities.  Others lead a religious life by doing good deeds.  But the book of James assumes that people who follow Jesus are hearers and doers, they both commune spiritually and act politically and socially; they withdraw from the world and they engage in the world.  In fact, Open Table’s mission statement tries to capture that feature of Christian faith:  we follow Jesus through spiritual and social transformation. We do both inner and outer work.  In fact, we believe the spiritual is the social and the social is the spiritual. We pray/think/reflect AND we do/engage/act and we don’t so much alternate prayer and action as we combine them. Prayer or meditation or thoughtful examination should both precede and follow and be all mixed up with our actions.*  Real religion is not simply about prayers on Sunday and good works on Monday. Action and prayer become recursive and mutually supportive. James says, “Be doers of the word . . .not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22). 
         “Gimme that ol’ time religion,” an old Gospel song pleads, because what was “good enough for grandma” is “good enough for me.”  But unreflected religion is not real. Real religion invites us to bring our encounters with a hurting world into this place to shape our prayers, change our hearts and our opinions, and help us hear where we should join God at work in the world. Real religion then uses us as God’s hands and feet in the world as we continue reflecting honestly, prayerfully on our experiences that teach our spirits and adjust our future actions.
         One of the earliest documents we wrote together as a new faith community was a list of principles to guide our service to others and commitments to global issues. (  In this document we pledge “to serve others as a recursive spiritual practice that stems from and leads to theological reflection and discerning prayer.”
         As we anticipate our quarterly responsibility to host homeless families through Family Promise this Tuesday evening, let’s recall those other principles as one way of reflecting before acting. 

1.   Our guidelines begin by saying we commit to see “Christ in those whom we serve as well as being Christ to those whom we serve.”  I grew up in loving, well-intentioned churches that saw their goal as bringing Christ to poor, benighted souls.  The missionaries we supported with our money and the mission trips we took as young people assumed that we possessed a crucial Truth other people were lacking.  That is not Open Table’s premise. We assume God is already at work in the world—long before we arrive on the scene.  In fact—and to be very blunt—God’s ways may be more in evidence in the lives of those we’ll help shelter Tuesday night than in our own lives.  We don’t claim to own the Truth about God. We don’t even claim to share identical beliefs within this congregation. Therefore, we don’t seek to impose our beliefs onto others.  While we hope the families we meet Tuesday night will glimpse something of Jesus’ love in us, we expect they will help deepen our experiences of God. That should shift our attitude from missionary (in its traditional connotations) to friend. 

2.   Which leads to our next guiding principle.  We partner with those we serve in “relational, respectful, and mutual” ways. We try to be good neighbors to folks we meet through Family Promise. Our agenda is not to save someone’s soul but to be a friend, a friend hosting a dinner. Of course that doesn’t mean we pretend to be instant buddies with strangers.  We respect their privacy and, should we meet these families later in another situation, we maintain that privacy. We are friends, but we are also hosts, so we might offer a harried mother some help feeding her baby in the high chair, as Linda T. did at a previous Family Promise night.  Fundamentally, we will be sharing a meal with some folks who’ve had a hard day, maybe a hard year. This Tuesday we will sensitively listen for cues as to how we might make this one night a little easier for three families.

3.   Our guidelines also encourage us to seek ways to be in sustainable places of service, not to simply parachute in with a one-time action or a not-well-considered donation. We hope to come alongside others to empower them.  We also hope to learn from ongoing relationships and projects that we help develop and improve upon.  Serving others is the chief curriculum of the church. While we may never see again the families we meet this Tuesday, we nevertheless are in an ongoing relationship with Family Promise.  We have in the past noted ways that organization can improve its good services to others.  Thanks to your attentiveness, Mary’s leadership, and Family Promise’s openness, some of our suggestions have been implemented.  We have not merely acted; we’ve reflected. 

4.   Open to fresh understanding and new relationships with diverse people, we try to LISTEN humbly to others, as the book of James advises. We will sit at tables Tuesday night not to entertain one another—though we always enjoy the conversations.  But we can be there to listen if someone needs to talk.  It’s a special gift to a spiritual community when the folks we listen to differ from us because we have a chance to see life afresh when we talk with folks who are different from us.  Do you know one reason we needed to become an Open and Affirming congregation?  Not simply to provide LGBT folks with a faith community that explicitly says you are welcome here and loved just as you are.  We needed it for our sake, gay and straight, because the LGBT community, in this time and place is, unfortunately, often marginalized and demeaned, which means that’s a sure place to find God’s spirit at work.  The Spirit moves on the margins. Think about the civil rights movement.  The Spirit was working and leading there well in advance of the mainstream Church.  If you want to follow the Spirit of Love, then move to the margins.  Go to a rally for immigration justice in Alabama and tell me if you can’t recognize the Spirit of God there.  Have dinner Tuesday night with families living one week at one church and one week at another and listen for God.  Let’s not romanticize others.  These families will not necessarily tell us sweet stories about miracles God is doing in their lives.  They may or may not be people of faith.  But you will recognize God’s movement in some small gesture, some fresh word that seeps into your soul, some heroic act written on a very small and human scale.

5.   Finally, our service through Family Promise will give us regular opportunities to think systemically.  We have committed to maximize our efforts by making sure our gifts, experiences, and passions match up to the community needs we hope to address. We must continue to ask: Does Family Promise continue to be a place where our gifts and the community’s need meet?  We have committed to examining root causes of problems in our community to respond not just with aid but also advocacy and empowerment.  Does Family Promise give us a way to work for justice rather than simply offering charity? 

         It is your responsibility and mine to engage in actions with commitment—and yet (here’s another paradox!) hold that commitment lightly enough that we can critique it for improvements and even move on to other avenues of service as needed.  It’s your role to suggest, as you feel led, new opportunities for service—and then step up to lead us there.  Some churches have been doing the same community outreach projects for years, never asking if they are making an impact or if they are themselves growing from the experience.  Right now, as a new church, we are “building this plane while we’re flying it.”  I’ll be glad when this plane gets built. But even then, let’s not rely on autopilot. 
         The more we think of our worship service and our service to others as the warp and woof of our faith fabric, the more beautiful that fabric will be.  Are we seeing social and spiritual transformation as one?   If we are not intentionally journeying inward while reaching outward, we can do more harm than good.
         Research has shown, for instance, that students doing community service without guided opportunities to reflect critically on that service can end up objectifying the people they serve and misunderstanding the problems they are hoping to address. Without a chance to process the community service experiences, some people never develop what one researcher calls “social imagination” to allow them to “critically question a world that [can otherwise seem to them] natural, inevitable, given” (Hertzberg).  I would call this ability to question the world critically an act of faith, a gift of the prophetic imagination. Research also warns that doing service without critical reflection can lead to despair and helplessness. Caring volunteers can feel overwhelmed by the problems they are trying to address. However, carefully processing service experience can actually empower volunteers and give them ways to “frame the nature of the problem” for constructive responses (Giles and Eyler 102).
         If it’s important that our service to others forms us in healthy ways, it’s also important that our service to others is genuinely helpful.  Without research, respect, and reciprocity, we risk offending those we hope to serve with paternalistic attitudes or ineffective solutions. Riding into the community on the white charger of good intentions is often not salutary.  One reason we donate offerings through our denomination for disaster relief, advocacy, and social action of all types is because the United Church of Christ has a track record for smart, respectful, non-coercive, culturally sensitive practices with people we serve.
          But you and I need to be doing hands-on work, too.  So let’s remember that intending to do good is not good enough. We’re not serving at Family Promise to feel smug about our goodness or grateful someone else has it worse than we do.  Instead, let’s consider both the real good that we can do and the real motivations behind our actions.  When we look into the mirror that might reflect our prejudices, our privilege, our pride, our complacency, our fears—let us not walk away with all those things still intact. 
         In our private prayer life and in times for congregational reflection, let us be honest so that our religion can be real. Thanks be to God that we can be hearers and doers.

* My emphasis on action and reflection (which I often translate as prayer) is influenced by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire, especially Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and from the scholarship of Service Learning that shaped my teaching of college students years ago.

Eyler, Janet and Dwight Giles.  Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning.  San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1999.
Herzberg, Bruce. “Community Service and Critical Teaching.” College Composition and Communication 45(1994): 307-319.