Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How Glorious?

A Meditation on the Letter of James.
Sunday, September 9, 2012

It was a day something like today, early September, kids back to school, football in the air, politics, elections on the mind.  And church gearing up after a quiet summer.  The choir was splendidly robed and settled in their gallery behind the pulpit.  Kids and their teachers, all kinds of energy for Sunday School and a luncheon after worship.  This particular church in Connecticut has a series of seven stunning stained glass windows, going all the way around their sanctuary, imagining the color and wonder of creation in seven days.  Seven huge, brilliant windows.  Early September.  All kinds of reasons to look forward to church.

And for me, in 1986, the beginning of a new adventure.  Seminary.  Professional training.  My first Sunday as a student intern in a whole new setting.  A chance to experience church from the inside out.

As the new kid on their block, their new student intern, I was given a chancel seat that morning.  Next to the two pastors.  I had a couple of readings assigned for worship.  So there I was, on the chancel and a little nervous about it, when something happened that nearly finished off my career before it even began.

There was a stirring out in the narthex.  Greeters in navy blue suits scurrying this way and that.  Others in dresses and pearls looking anxious and making eye contact with the pastors.  (Parenthetically, this is one of New York’s tony suburbs and theirs has always been a well-groomed flock.  Greeters there are dressed to the nines.)  And then, out of the narthex, comes a fellow who’s not.  Not groomed at all.  His hair’s going every which-way.  He’s got nothing on his feet: no shoes, no socks.  And by the way folks are leaning away—as he waddles down the center aisle—it’s entirely possible that he smells bad. 

But that doesn’t stop him.  Not this Sunday.  Not that September.  He waddles down the aisle, past the folks with their folded bulletins; and he sits himself down in the first pew.  The very first pew.  And then, he has a look around.

Now I don’t want to call him homeless, because that seems too simple, too singular, as if being homeless was what he was, what defined his life, his spirit, his value to the world.  But it struck me, from a distance, that he knew something about homelessness: no place to sleep, not much to eat, a dollar here, a dollar there.  And I don’t want to call him poor, because he may have been so much more than that.  He may have loved music and poetry.  He may have had a dozen friends and wept when the sun rose over Long Island Sound.  But there he was.  Disheveled.  Making a beeline, OK a crooked line, for the front of the church and sitting down in the very first pew.  Looking around at the seven windows of creation.  

From the back of the church, the morning’s greeters watched this rather anxiously.  Two or three were huddling, whispering and waving bulletins toward the front pew.  Looking back on it now, it was kind of surreal.  All the while, the gifted organist playing something airy—something bright and lively.  As those greeters caucused urgently.  Seriously.  Something was amiss.  Something had to be done.    

And it was.  Done.  Quickly.

Before another minute had passed, two greeters, exquisitely dressed and responsibly grim, marched down front, invited their guest to follow, and escorted him back like prison guards, past the well-groomed flock, and then to an appropriate seat.   In the very last, the very back, the very farthest pew from the front.  Where his bare feet were less of a problem.  Where his strong stench was less of a downer.  Where, I guess, they believed he belonged.     

I was stunned that morning, stunned and saddened and so shocked that I found myself wondering if this was the life I’d signed up for.  How could this church ever change the world?  How could this kind of community offer an alternative to all the greed and judgment and cynicism loose in the land?  I wanted a career, a profession that promised something else, something different, something compassionate and daring and wise.  Throughout that Sunday service, I kept looking to the back pew, where the guest looked sad and seemed self-conscious.  I noticed, during communion, that he stayed right there, glued to his pew, and couldn’t bring himself to go forward for the bread.  As far as I could tell, no one made much of an effort to see that he got any either.  When that service ended, he was gone, just gone, and I wanted to bolt too.  If this is what ministry was, if this is what churches did, I wanted nothing of it.


Photograph by Carol Roberts
We don’t read this little Letter of James all that often.  But when we do, when we sit in James’ congregation for a bit, when we listen to his instruction around faith and practice, his words pack quite a punch.  Just those first few verses in the second chapter: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  Let’s start there.  On that edge.  Favoritism, chauvinism, sexism, racism, heterosexism: all these kinds of bias and prejudice cancel out Christian faith.  That’s what James suggests.  Cancel it right out.  “Do you with your acts of favoritism; do you with your unexamined racism; do you with your misogyny or bigotry—do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  The answer, of course, is no.  Not for James.  Our glorious Lord Jesus Christ rejects all bigotry.  Belief isn’t a complex creed you recite every Sunday.  Belief isn’t a theological argument you defend at all costs.  Belief is a way of living; belief is a way of being with others.  And bigotry has no place.  Favoritism has no place.  Not in Christian community.  Not at Jesus’ table.

So James presses on.  “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’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  You see: What happens in community matters.  What happens at this table on Sunday morning matters.  How we treat one another matters.  The quality of our relationships matters.  James packs a punch.  “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  Makes you wonder what’s been going on in James’ church.  What kind of favoritism?  Who’s been making distinctions?  Are they embarrassed by the poor?  Do they turn away the barefooted one percent?  Has James noticed elders escorting the poor to the very back pew?  You get a feeling that something’s going on.  And James seizes the moment.  Makes it a teachable moment.  “Has God not chosen the poor in the world,” he asks, “to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”  Favoritism has no place.  Not at James’ table.

So I want to tell you how that day ended, that September day in Connecticut all those years ago.  As much as I wanted to bolt, find a new gig, I couldn’t.  Mostly, because I was responsible for the church’s youth group; and that afternoon was our first meeting.  I had a little program in mind, the usual icebreakers.  But ten kids arrived at 4 o’clock with just one thing on their minds—and there was nothing I could do to shut down that conversation.  Thanks be to God.  They wanted to talk about that morning.  They wanted to talk about the man with no shoes.  The man banished to the back row.  There was fire in their eyes, most of them; they were angry and incredulous that something like that could happen in their church.  In Jesus’ church.  So the pizza got cold.  We must have spent a solid hour with all that anger.  “Why?”  They wanted to know.  “How?”  And what could be done to make sure it never happened again?  Their questions were deeply held and profoundly important.  And they committed themselves to raising those same questions with their parents and elected church leaders. 

When it was all over, I was exhausted.  I rode the train back to the city that night with a full heart, a befuddled heart.  I felt that I’d seen both the worst of the Christian church, and maybe the best of it.  All in a day.  That night, I remember asking friends at seminary if it was always like that.  The befuddlement of church life. 


So here’s what I’m thinking this morning.  I’m thinking community matters.  I’m thinking things happen in community that can’t happen any other way.  I’m thinking that community is the befuddling, bewildering, beguiling gift God gives us—because God loves us so very much.  Community is the surest and strangest sign of God’s love, God’s grace, and yes, God’s sense of humor. 

It can be exasperating, sure; it can be onerous and exhausting.  Folks can walk through that door and unsettle, undermine, destabilize everything we hold true and dear.  And sometimes they do.  And even so, God gives us these relationships.  God gives us these people.  God gives us one another.  Because God loves us.  Because God believes in us.  Because God believes in who can be together.

Jacob Needleman—who taught for many years in Berkeley and San Francisco—spins it this way: “We obviously cannot confront this tangled world alone,” he writes.  “It takes no great insight to realize that we have no choice but to think together, ponder together in groups and communities.  The question is: how to come together and think and hear each other in order to touch or be touched by the intelligence we need.”  How to come together.  That’s really the compelling question at the heart of Christian community.  Not who’s saved and who’s not.  Not whose Jesus is the right Jesus or whose God is the best God.  But how will we come together?  Can we touch and be touched by the intelligence, the grace, the spirit we need?  For all that lies ahead.


Several years ago, a raggedy young man showed up in worship at Calvary Episcopal Church, the red church downtown on Center Street.  He’d recently moved from Stockton to Santa Cruz because he suspected there was more garbage over here, more recycling to collect, more collectables to gather off the street. 

The folks at Calvary welcomed Richard—and soon invited him to join their church.  Before long, he was serving communion on Sunday mornings, cooking meals for hungry folks on Monday evenings, and feeling very much a part of his new congregation, his new city.  Richard started to feel confident, hopeful about his future.  Folks in town helped him find a job and a place to live.  The broken pieces of his life came back together.  And before long he enrolled at UCSC and got himself a first-class education.

And every Sunday Richard marches into Calvary Episcopal Church and sits wherever he wants.  Every Sunday he knows he’ll see friends there, friends who love him and pray for him and go out of their way to make him know.  That’s he one of them.  That he’s a child of God.  That they’re all in it together.

And that’s not even the end of it.  In a couple of weeks, Richard from Calvary will step into a UCSC classroom as a PhD student in psychology.  A PhD student!  See what I mean?  Community matters.  Showing up on Sunday morning matters.  Breaking this bread—together—matters.  Community is the befuddling, bewildering, beguiling gift God gives us—because God loves us so very much.  Just ask Richard.  If you can find him—he’s kind of busy these days.

Irenaeus of Lyons
The second century bishop Irenaeus once said that “the glory of God is people fully alive.”  The glory of God is people fully alive.  Once you start loving God—with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength—once you start loving God like that: you’re in for all kinds of adventure.  And God’s going to bring people into your life: lovely people, and not so lovely people; odd ducks and big beautiful birds; huge hearts and narrow-minded ones; rich people and poor people.  Community matters in Christian life, because community is God’s most precious, most sacred gift.  It’s how God moves among us; it’s how God plays with us and works on us.  Bringing people into our lives so that we can be fully alive.  So that we can sing great hymns and dance like children.  So that we can clothe the naked and feed the hungry and share a single loaf, the bread of life broken in love.

A lot of great things happen on the mystic’s mountain top.  A lot of great things happen in the hermit’s cave.  But community is God’s most sacred gift.  And the glory of God is people, like us, fully alive.