September 9, 2018
Today’s scripture reading comes from the Letter of James, who scholars have traditionally identified as the brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Other scholars argue that the excellent Greek of the text makes it hard to attribute it to a rural Galilean. We will probably never know for sure who the author really was. It is written almost like a sermon, or a piece of wisdom literature, not a letter to a specific church, but addressed more to the church universal at the time.
The lectionary this morning gives us two excerpts, each on a different theme, but both having to do with how we treat each other, especially those in need. In the first, he chastises his readers for showing partiality for the rich over the poor, something forbidden in Jewish law. That would never happen today, would it?
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?
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? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
Well, he doesn’t mince words, does he? If we were to write James in response, what would we tell him about the Eliot Church? Perhaps some of what we would say is written in our Open and Affirming statement printed in your bulletins under Order of Worship. Let’s read it together:
We’re glad you’re worshipping with us today. We welcome and invite you to join in the fellowship, study and service of this community of faith. We provide childcare for infants and toddlers during worship from 9:30 - 11:30 AM. Please silence your cell phones. (well, maybe not that part) “We affirm that all people are children of God. We honor and warmly welcome everyone, and we are committed to being a uniting church that embraces the rich diversity of God’s creation. We recognize, celebrate and give thanks for the many gifts of all of God’s children. We encourage those of every race, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, faith background, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, economic circumstance, marital status and physical or developmental ability to join in the full life and ministry of Eliot Church.”
Perhaps we would send him photos of our rainbow flag and signs out front declaring “We Are All God’s Children”, and the many ways we are ‘Being the Church’. We would pat ourselves on the back, congratulating ourselves for all the ways we do not show partiality. But are we being totally honest with ourselves?
Do some of us rush to welcome some people who walk through our doors and ignore others? Do we sometimes pre-judge people without really getting to know them, both here at church and in our daily lives? I think we all have a tendency to do that sometimes - myself included. Who do you talk to during coffee hour?
Let me give you one other example. Last year we invited families in transitional housing to join us for our Thanksgiving Dinner. Those who came were thrilled, and so grateful. Did you welcome any of them personally? sit at a table with them? engage in conversation to get to know them better? This too is what James is talking about here.
I think he would respond: “Yes, you are doing a great job Eliot, but there is always room for improvement. So let each of us take a good look into our hearts and see where we need to live more fully into the words on your signs out front.
The second passage is one of my favorites. Like James, I also disagree with Paul, who believed that we are saved by faith alone. How I live my life, through mission and service, and loving my neighbor, is more important to me, and I hope to God, than what I profess my faith to be - although, they are both important. My faith should result in works, if it is a true faith.
James 2: 14-17
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.
Words are not enough, James tells us. A sign out front, a statement in our bulletins don’t count for much unless they are followed up by actions - by works. And those works are defined by our mission as a church. What is our purpose for being? On the front of our bulletin I put a quote from John Dorhauer, the president and general minister of the UCC, from his book “Beyond Resistance.” Let’s read it together:
“The church is birthed for mission. Peter Drucker, a man who has done consulting with churches for a long time now, always asks two questions: what is your business? And, how’s business? Speaking for the Church, I will argue that our business is mission. If asked to name the primary cause of the Church’s malaise today, I would argue it is that we have abandoned a core, foundational sense of calling to mission. It is my observation that those churches that have a clear sense of what their mission is are strong, healthy, and vital. That won’t be true in every case since, of course, other factors matter. The centrality of mission as a core organizing principle, however, cannot be overrated; and is often simply absent from too many churches.”
He gives an example of a thriving, progressive church 30 miles north of the Arizona / Mexican border, one of the most vital churches he knows. The first time he visited them, the pastor announced, “We are a church on the border, called to serve the immigrant.” Everyone in that congregation knew the reason God called them into the desert to be Church.
“Every day they send out jeeps with volunteers to drive through the desert to look for migrants. … (They) place water in the desert. They negotiate differences between immigrants and the border patrol. They hold workshops and seminars and training events … teaching gringos the truth about border politics and policies, about the causes of migration, about the impact of the wall on our psyche, the environment, and relationships with our otherwise peaceful neighbors to the south.
They sit in courtrooms when migrants are processed through our judicial system. They write their elected representatives about a myriad of political hot potatoes that few other churches would touch. This is a church with a mission. This is a church with a purpose. This is a church whose members know when they join that they will be sent into the desert. They hear the cries. They witness the misery. They embrace their mission.”
Back in the days after the Vietnam War, I’m told Eliot had a mission. Susan Nason spoke about it last year when she talked about the history of Eliot. She wrote:
The congregation came together in a remarkable way when Eliot Church folks were asked to help sponsor some Southeast Asian refugees following the war. Working through Church World Service we learned that our family would be from Vietnam: mother and father, Bo and Muoi Ly and their four children. Finding housing was the hardest part, but Eliot was able to buy a duplex in West Newton from the Archdiocese of Boston for about 1/3 of its assessed value. Many hours were put in to repairing and preparing the house as a home.
Then a whole contingent of Eliot folks went to the airport very late one night in March, 1980 to meet the family. There followed health exams and treatment, school enrollment, finding clothing and furnishings for the house and helping the family become acquainted with American customs. An English as a Second Language (ESL) class for adults was established at Eliot with many Eliot, Grace and Newton Baptist church members serving as instructors. Everyone pitched in to help in so many ways.
What is our mission today? What stirs our passions enough to move us into action? How are we being called to love and serve our neighbors, not only in Newton, but in our neighboring communities? When people hear the words “Eliot Church”, what do you want them to say about us today? What do you say about Eliot when talking to others? I know our signs out front, and our website draw visitors into our doors, but the one thing researchers say brings them to church most often is an invitation from an excited member. Who have you invited?
I wrote an article for the TAB this week about our cookouts and parties for the families living at the Home Suites Inn. So many of our outreach and service projects in these past years focus on the homeless and affordable housing. Thank you Josephine. Are these efforts we can expand upon in the coming year and involve more of our congregation? - tell our friends about? - invite them to participate in?
If we sent a letter back to James listing all the “works” we have been doing over these past years: cookouts and events for the homeless, Cradles to Crayons, The Friday Night Cafe, Charles River Clean Up, The CROP Walk, the Hunger Walk, City Mission Christmas Shops, MLK Day of Service, (I’m sure I’ve left some out.) I think he would write back, “Great job Eliot! What’s next?!
Churches are living, changing organisms. We grow, we shrink, people die, people move on, new people arrive. The world is changing around us and so are the needs out there. There are people looking for a great church like Eliot. We must continue to ask ourselves: Who is God calling us to be and who are we uniquely equipped to serve? Answer that, and broadcast it, and they just might find us.