Quick to Listen

Quick to Listen

The first major decision I made was racist.

A young white man in his twenties, I was going to change the world. The new director of an urban early childhood program dedicated to providing services within a multiracial, multicultural, mixed-economic setting, I was passionate about the mission. Giving my confession of faith in a storefront church with a strong emphasis on inclusiveness and educated in the St. Louis city and Ferguson-Florissant school districts, I was not a novice to racial tensions.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

When you’re white you journey through life assumed by our culture to be a worthy human being. My experiences with racial conflict in the late sixties and seventies, while upsetting and confusing for me, were still experienced through the lens of a white child. In my church I was blessed to have an African-American man, whose weekday ministry was about healing racial strife,  mentor and help me to process and understand race during that turbulent era. Looking back more than four decades later, I see the divine breath moving in our weekly conversations.

The pie is big enough for all peoples. It is time for those of us who are white to  respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security. Photo by Tim Graves
The pie is big enough for all peoples. It is time for those of us who are white to respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security. Photo by Tim Graves

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

Part of the problem is that I still understood racism in personal terms. I made a racist decision, not because I intended to favor a white employee at the expense of black employees, but because my white lens filtered out the experience of my African-American staff. Personal prejudice did not cause me to make a racist decision. Not understanding the systemic and institutional nature of racism, caused me to make a bigoted decision. The inability to perceive the whole picture particularly the role of power and privilege within which I was operating, caused me to make a racist decision.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

I’d like to be able to report that I was able to effectively and quickly fix my mistake. I cannot. The damage was done. I had stepped in the proverbial doo doo and early in my tenure I lost some credibility.

I was fortunate, however, to have a United Way representative — who herself was African American — help me to understand the significance of the mistake I made. I also was able to seek out an African American colleague, the director of a sibling early childhood program, a former professor specializing in racism, and several of my staff members. All were extremely patient with me. I am grateful for their help; they were under no obligation to teach me.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

As a result of that decision and other experiences I grew in my understanding and awareness of racism. I learned to accept the racist thoughts and impulses within me that are a part of growing up white in America. (Awareness of my shadow feelings, helps me to guard against acting upon them.) I made better, though imperfect, decisions after that day. I continue to learn about the insidious character of racism.

***

More than four decades later, I am no longer an active early childhood educator. I am the pastor of a small church in a tiny frontier town in eastern Oregon. By my count, we have no people of color within the membership of the church and less than a handful of African Americans among the 650 souls who live in our town.

During my nineteen months serving this progressive church, I have preached only twice about the injustice of racism. (This is a luxury that white pastors in white settings have which pastors of color do not.)  The first time followed the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the second was in response to the shooting of Michael Brown by a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer.

Two weeks ago when I preached about the sin of racism, a couple of individuals pushed back against my words with examples of individual African Americans acting in prejudicial ways. This is not an unusual response among whites. It reflects a personalizing of racism (which is really about power and systems) and a failure to hear the voices of our oppressed sisters and brothers.

A recent tweet that crossed my feed implied that Progressive Christians are all talk and no action regarding racism. Sadly, I think there is too much truth in this perspective. In my case, I’ve talked about racism only twice in nineteen months. No actions have been forthcoming from my community of Christians.

It is time for substantive action to end the institutional racism that results in the shooting of young black men. Those in the African American community cannot be expected to wait one moment longer for change.

Nonetheless, as a white pastor in a white community, I know that until whites admit that racism is real, they will not be a part of a solution. In ignorance, we will continue to make racist decisions until we listen and believe the lived experiences of our sisters and brothers. We must pay attention to the teachings and modeled life of Jesus: we must hear the cries of the marginalized and oppressed! Then, we must confess our past sins, personal and collective. When that happens, I am convinced that we will respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security.

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…
James 1:19 CEB

____

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The Sin of Exclusion

My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. (James 2:1 CEB)

Don’t show favoritism. Favoritism is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Favoritism is a sin.

If you like folks who get right to the point, you gotta love the writer of Sin of ExclusionJames. Unlike Jesus who tended to favor parables that often had to be explained to his disciples, James doesn’t mess around.

Don’t show favoritism.

***

Writing between the years 60 and 80, James is writing to Christians and non-Christians alike. We don’t know who he was for sure. The tradition that tells us he was Jesus’ brother is doubted by most contemporary scholars.

James’ primary audience included two groups: the extremely poor and the working poor. The extremely poor were the folks who barely survived. They had to beg just to eat. If no one took mercy upon them, they would die.

The working poor were the folks with jobs but not very good jobs. They were typically taken advantage of by their wealthy employers. When they were not paid wages due — which happened too often — they did not eat. Too many days without pay and they would be in the same position as the extremely poor. They, too, would be facing starvation.

In this passage, James is not speaking to the extremely poor. Nor is he speaking to the wealthy oppressors. (Though he will have words for them as we move through James’ letter.) James is speaking to the working poor. He’s speaking to the near-slaves or what Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias described as day laborers.

Hear James as he speaks to this group about their favoritism:

But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? (James 2:6-7 CEB)

James is appalled that rather than siding with the oppressed, the extremely poor, some of the day laborers, the working poor, are siding with the wealthy. In contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, they show favoritism to the wealthy. Recall, the wealthy are oppressing not only the extremely poor but the working poor as well.

The working poor have turned away from their Jesus-taught obligation to God’s justice. They have instead turned toward the values of this world. Writes scholar Aaron Uitti,

“Their favoritism for the wealthy aligns them with the world and places them at odds with God (4:4)… [but] it is not possible for them to have it both ways—to claim the faith of Jesus and to discriminate against the poor.” (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1578-1584)

In the words of James,

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin. (James 2:8-9a CEB)

***

There’s a bumper sticker. (I used to have one on my car ten to fifteen years ago.) The sticker reads: “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.”

James should make us squirm.

If the western church doesn’t squirm, we’re not paying attention to James’ indictments. In James’ age, the church was still made up primarily of the poor: the extremely poor and the working poor.

It makes sense when you read the gospels. Jesus and the writers of the gospels lift up the dignity of those at the edges of society and offer hope. One out of every ten verses in the first three gospels deals with poverty and social injustice. In Luke, it is one out of every seven verses. (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1657).

Theologian Elsa Tamez reminds us that,

“For James poverty is the result of a scandalous act of oppression.” (The Scandalous Message of James, p. 23)

If the Bible is the authority through which we primarily hear God, then it is clear that we ought to be more concerned about poverty and social injustices. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, that means more than believing the “right” things. It means heeding the lure of the Holy Spirit and being Christ and doing God’s work in this place.

And, frankly, I don’t think American Christians in the twenty-first century are doing such a hot job: We worry about saving our old buildings. We worry about our denominational structures. We worry about attracting young folks and the right folks.

We worry about those inside the church more than those outside.

 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin… (James 2:8-9a CEB)

We favor ourselves at the expense of the poor and those living on the margins.

Consider that how we spend our resources — our money, our time, and other wealth — reflect what we value. For example, in this very church, we spend thousands and thousands upon thousands for building maintenance and heating.

We spend thousands on a building that is empty most of the time and we sent less than $250 to One Great Hour of Sharing.

Yes, we do other things. We gave land for the memory care unit. We open our building to AA. We sent seven emergency buckets to Church World Service. We open our building at minimal cost for the Senior Meal and more.

This example is not the whole picture but no matter how we slice it, our expenditures imply we are more concerned about maintaining the institution known as Condon United Church of Christ than we are about anything else.

If you’re not squirming, you’re not paying attention.

While I know that not every one in this room lives in the lap of luxury and some of us do struggle financially, I also know that there are plenty of folks in this community who struggle under significant burdens of class and poverty who are not here.

Where are they? Where are those of poorer socioeconomic status?

We are not totally homogenous in this room but we are far from reflective of the demographics of Condon or Gilliam county.

Somehow, we are sending the message that we are not as open and welcoming to the poor and near-poor as we’d like to think we are. I have had more than one non-middle class person confide in me that when they’ve visited here, they’ve felt uncomfortable and excluded.

Now, I know that you all are loving and caring folks. Absolutely.

I feel it. You feel it. That is real.

I am not implying that we mean to exclude others…

Somehow, however, we are not always as welcoming to everyone as we mean to be. Somehow, we favor those like us more than those different from ourselves. Somehow, we have at times inadvertently excluded others.

If we are to respond to James’ indictment to avoid favoritism, something has to change.

For starters, We must confess that we have sinned. We have excluded others — whether intentionally or unintentionally. And we need to pray about it, talk to one another, and begin to reach out to those who make us uncomfortable.

There are plenty of organizations that reflect the values of the world but we are called to reflect God’s values. The church — Christ’s church — is called to be a reflection of God’s realm on earth. As church, we are called to reflect the diversity of God’s people in this place.

We live in a very different world than the first readers of James’ letter. Still, James’ God-inspired words have something to say to us. God uses James to speak to us across the millennia.

The question is how will we respond to those words?

Amen.

___

I shared this sermon with the Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 18, 2014. The text for the sermon is James 2:1-13.

Ready. Set. DO!

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 1.03.18 PMBob sat through the worship service and near the end Pastor Judy said it. She said, “As we sing our final hymn, if there are those who would like to commit their lives to following Jesus, please come forward.”

Bob was halfway down the center aisle before he realized what he was doing. “I guess that’s what they call being moved by the Holy Spirit,” he would later tell Pastor Judy.

After the hymn was finished, the congregation sat down. With one arm around Bob’s shoulder and the other extended offering a handshake Pastor Judy said, “I offer you the hand of fellowship. We have just one question to ask you,” said the Pastor.

“Do you believe that Jesus is the son of the Living God and do you affirm him as Savior of the world?” And with his “Yes” Bob became an official follower of Jesus Christ.

***

Historically, church doctrine suggests that in order to be saved one must “accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” That action is considered evidence of faith and according to historical church doctrine  it is the entry point into salvation. Of course, most church bodies insist upon baptism and sometimes a class or other process to be assured of personal salvation. Salvation equals grace in this historical dogma.

In my tradition of origin, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the confession of faith is typically very similar to Bob’s experience. I was asked essentially the same question. Baptism, which comes shortly thereafter, is one of the mysteries of the faith. Yes, there is human action but in a way in which we don’t quite understand, the Holy Spirit acts.

In our own United Church of Christ tradition we typically — though not always — baptize infants. Infant baptism represents a decision by parents on behalf of the child.  Later, when the child is older, he or she chooses to confirm that decision. Like in my tradition of origin baptism is one of the great mysteries of the faith. God is active in baptism and confirmation.

***

James has gotten a lot of grief from traditionalists because of his emphasis upon works. That is, he’s been accused of suggesting that we earn salvation not only by faith but by works. James has been accused of insisting that salvation requires more than baptism and a confession or confirmation of faith. He has been accused of suggesting there is something we must do to receive God’s loving grace.

Martin Luther, perhaps the most famous of the early 16th century reformers of the church, called the Letter of James an “epistle of straw” because it did not fit with his doctrine of justification by faith alone. And, yet, I suggest that even “accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior” and insisting on baptism are works

That is, when the historical church — including Martin Luther — have insisted that we are justified by faith alone, they too are implying that we must do something to be saved, to receive salvation.  Yet, in my studies of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, I find much evidence that humanity is loved when we least deserve it and have placed ourselves at great emotional distance from the Divine.

The Letter of James was late in its inclusion in our Bible because of the controversy about James’ emphasis on the practical — on works. The confusion is understandable. Consider this verse from today’s reading:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24 NRSV)

Well, there you have it. Luther and others did not make it up. James, in all his clarity, says that it is not enough to have faith. In order to receive God’s loving grace, in order to be saved, in order to receive everlasting salvation, according to James we must not only have faith, we must have works.

As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead. (James 2:26 CEB)

Unfortunately for clarity’s sake, the Bible is not just James and James is not the whole Bible.

Our Bible is a collection of writings by many different people. Written over the course of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, our Bible reflects the experiences, beliefs, and theologies of ancient peoples. Even though those people were inspired by God, it is easy to see how they might occasionally contradict one another in nuance or emphasis. In his letters, Paul focused on grace. James focused on works.

This is why prooftexting — or the practice of pulling out single verses or short passages to make a point — is fraught with risk.  Prooftexting can lead to searching the Bible for verses that fit what you want it to say. It can lead to using the Bible as a weapon to convince others that you have all the answers.

Alas, the Bible is a tool. It is our holy and sacred tool but it is not the literal word of God. It is ancient literature written by human beings inspired by and seeking God. It reflects their culture and their circumstance. It reflects their personal and communal experiences of the Divine.

Through prayerful reading and dialogue about the text we, too, can come closer to understanding God’s will for our lives.

And, so, I suggest that rather than getting embroiled in a nearly 600-year-old controversy, about whether James is as legitimate as Paul, we seek to listen to God through both the experiences of James and Paul.  I suggest we approach the Bible holistically.

For me, I find Paul’s assurances that God’s love for me is boundless, very VERY reassuring. His letter to the Romans in which he reminds early Jesus followers that they are beloved by God — despite the challenges of living in a culture that disdains them — is like mood magic when I am discouraged. Writes Paul,

…nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:38-39 CEB)

But I also need a reminder from the prophet Micah that the love of God comes with a price. There is a joy in discipleship but there is also a cost. Our faith comes with responsibility.  Hear Micah as he reminds the ancients — and us — what is expected of us:

He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 CEB

We need the whole Bible. Prayerful interpretation of our sacred book requires a holistic approach. It also requires that we are in dialogue with one another so that we hear God rather than our own wishes.

And, so, I put forth an interpretation of our passage from James that I believe places it within the context of the whole, that I believe allows it to reside side-by-side with Paul’s letters.

Ready. Set. DO!

Consider our lives of faith. And, though, our lives of faith are more of a journey than a race, I use the metaphor of a foot race.  Like the sprinter or long distance runner, the first step is to be ready. Ready is recognizing that something is not right in your life and/or the world.

Perhaps you realize that your accumulation of things that you thought would fill you up has left you empty. Perhaps, you carry a deep sadness with you because of a broken relationship with your brother. Perhaps, you look at the poor and unemployed in our nation who, rather than receiving help, are being villainized and you are appalled.

Perhaps, you’re just not happy. Being ready is being unsettled. It is recognizing that things are not as they should be.

Once you’re ready, it is time to get set. Getting Set is opening ourselves up to the Spirit and listening to God’s call on our lives.

When you’re getting set you develop spiritual practices that connect you to something beyond yourself. When you’re getting set you finally decide to read the Bible daily or you finally come to Bible Study because you know our holy and sacred tool is a path to further insight.  When you’re getting set you let go of things — feelings, conflicts, or anything that separates you from hearing the Divine.

And when you do these things, you open up space to hear the One. Though it probably won’t happen right away, a commitment to listening always results in hearing.

Finally, when you’re getting set you make a confession or confirmation of faith. You do this either formally or doctrinally or maybe you reaffirm the faith you committed to so long ago. This is the spot at which Luther and others have argued that salvation and God’s grace begins. Respectfully, I suggest that God’s presence doesn’t wait until we’re getting set. God love always surrounds us.

When viewed through parts of the Bible as diverse as the books of Job, Ruth, Judges, and Luke, I perceive a God who is always present.  Sometimes our “Ready” stage is the Holy Spirit pointing out to us that the world or our lives are not quite right.

When we finally listen, when we finally hear God’s claim on our lives and we commit to that call, I imagine God dancing a jig but as implied by the prophets and James, there is more to faith than just “accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior.”

Jesus was not a selfish savior.

He did not teach us to focus on how we are going to get to heaven. As contemporary theologian Brian McLaren suggests, Jesus came to show us the way to creating heaven on earth. Hear part of the Lord’s Prayer with this idea in your head:

Our father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

And so once we’ve opened ourselves to the divine and accepted God’s love, we are changed. To be open to the Divine is to feel compelled to do. Do. Doing is responding to God’s love in our lives by living in a new way.

When we do, we can’t accept racism, or any other “ism” for that matter, in our midst. We call others out for it. We seek to build the beloved community in which all people are valued. 

When we do, we work for marriage equality, or stewardship of the planet because the image of God within us cannot be contained. When we do, we are generous. We give of our time, our talent, and our resources. We even find joy in a baby shower for folks we will never know.

Though it is easier to buy a Snickers and coffee at the market when we have a chocolate or caffeine craving, we eat and drink only slave-free and fair trade chocolate and coffees. When we snap at someone, we go back to them and apologize. We are different when we’re doing.

That mystery that I said happens when we are baptized? It changes us. It matters.

And, so I think, that when James gets bitter about those who were oppressing others and claiming to be followers of Jesus, he is suggesting that our faith is not faith if it doesn’t show in some way. He’s suggesting that the behaviors he is observing are inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. The apostle Paul did the same thing in his letters when necessary.  The prophets themselves called folks out for behavior contrary to God’s expectations.

In terms of the Ready-Set-DO process? We’re never really done. This is where the foot race metaphor breaks down. We can run through it over and over again. We are human after all.

The Good News is we have the opportunity to run and re-run the foot race. We have the opportunity to keep trying. Grace is ever-present. God’s extravagant love belongs to everyone.  We don’t have to accept that love to be loved. But when we get even a hint at the wideness of God’s love and mercy, we are transformed.

***

As Pastor Judy lowered him beneath the water saying,“I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” Bob felt the Holy Spirit come over him.

For days, he’d just smile for no apparent reason. Even the guys at work noticed and said something. They were right. He felt different. He was different and because of God’s love he acted differently. How could he not?

Amen.

___

I shared this sermon with the Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The text for the sermon is James 2:14-26.