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A Working Faith
September 6, 2015
James 2:1-10, 14-17
A reading from James:
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?
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.
We’ve had quite the summer together haven’t we? From pastoral comings and goings, to missions trips and memorial services, movies and suppers, Mo-Ranch and VBS, and not to mention the great Blue Bell Crisis of 2015, it all seemed to happen so fast. Anyone who says that church life slows down in the summer clearly has not been to UPC.
As I read over the lectionary text from James for this Sunday, it got me thinking about something else that we experienced this summer. It started in late spring, as the rains pummeled our city and flooded the streets of Austin.
We began to see a bit more trash than usual in the courtyard. Then a lot more trash.
We began to see a few more folks that usual sleeping under the arcade. Then a lot more folks.
You began to notice the frustration of the church staff as we struggled to keep up with an increasingly hostile environment, often encountering verbal abuse and even violence in the process.
We began to see the population on the street grow in number and in desperation, overflowing the familiar corners and alleys until we found them on our doorstep.
As the temperatures rose, so did the conflict. This was no longer the occasional gentleman taking shelter under the arcade during a rainstorm. This was no longer the husband and wife knocking on our door asking for their daily bread. As one of our preachers put it earlier this summer, we were in the midst of a valley of dry bones.
Despite the best efforts of our members and staff to reach out and offer help, the hostility and aggressive behavior of this group kept escalating. We soon found ourselves at a congregational crossroad, an intersection of identity. We found ourselves wondering how to be the church at the corner of 22nd and San Antonio. And this wondering lead to questioning… What is causing this problem? How can we reach out to these folks? How will we keep our children safe? How will we keep these homeless people safe? How can we protect the property? What are we going to do? What kind of church are we going to be?
Really good questions. Really tough questions. Questions that not only addressed the immediacy of the situation in the courtyard, but also spoke to the crisis of identity that our church, like every church, has to deal with from time to time. In the midst of these questions, we soon realized that there are no quick fixes, no “just add water and stir” solutions for identity-level issues. We learned that when we are dealing with an issue that speaks to the core of our Christian identity, you had better believe there is going to be a committee involved.
And there was. The Session of UPC appointed a three-person task force to research and recommend responses to the challenges our church and our neighbors were facing. They prayed, wrestled with scripture and theology, examined the research, and talked to as many experts as they could. They listened to the voices of our members and they listened to the voices of the people on the streets. They sought to understand our identity as a church family and what the boundaries of communally acceptable behavior were. They took no short cuts. They trusted the process and trusted the Holy Spirit even more. It took time, but the work was done right. After weeks of scrutiny and discernment, the task force presented a number of recommendations to the Session for their approval.
After further discussion, the Session approved the proposed responses and changes started to happen. Almost immediately, we began to see a transformation. There were no longer groups fighting and using drugs in the courtyard and the piles of trash, human waste, and graffiti all but vanished. No Trespassing policies were adopted and signs were posted around the campus. APD and UTPD began a partnership with us and stepped up patrols with mental health officers in the neighborhood, returning a sense of safety to West Campus. Within one week of the changes being implemented, our courtyard appeared back to normal.
The church leadership firmly established a set of boundaries for our courtyard. We will not allow our courtyard to be used as a toilet, a drug den, a territorial campground, or as a trash can. The church is safer than it ever has been. The church is cleaner than it ever has been. But this newfound safety and order come with some big questions for our church. They are questions that the leadership of the church has been wrestling with this summer. They are questions that shake us down to the very root of our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. They are questions that we ask ourselves every time we walk past the No Trespassing signs in the courtyard.
Can we still say that “All are welcome” here? Have we, according to today’s Proverb, crushed the afflicted at the gates? Have we fallen short of the Gospel imperative to welcome the stranger and care for the poor? Does our faith have a pulse?
I encounter the text of James as a straightforward conversation partner in our struggle with our identity. While I had always considered James to be an affirmation of the mission and outreach ministries of our church, I was surprised to discover that James is addressing something deeper. James isn’t talking about a program of the church; something that we do. James is talking about what happens in the heart of the Christian assembly; something that we are. James is talking about what happens here, in our Sanctuary, at the heart of our congregational identity.
The text speaks to the sinful partiality that occurs when Christians give preferential treatment to those with means, those who “belong here,” while encountering the poor as shamed and second-class citizens. James is written to people struggling to harmonize their values and their identity in Christ. We too struggle with finding balance between values and our call to radical identity in Christ.
We value safety, we value our children, we value comfort, security, cleanliness, order. We value being good stewards of this church property that has been entrusted to us. These are all good values. At the same time we are called to be ambassadors of God’s love to all people, laying down our lives, eating with sinners and prostitutes, welcoming the stranger, and risking all for love. We are called to be stewards of the treasure of the Gospel, not merely caretakers of the earthen vessel it comes in.
And there are countless other good values that come into play as we struggle with our identity in light of the Gospel. Such a struggle can be crushing to a congregation. It can be divisive and sorrowful. But it can also inspire creativity and fresh thinking, new ideas and courageous responses.
I am reminded of an experience I had years ago worshiping at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, a church similar to ours in its busy urban environment. Right in the middle of the 11:00 a.m. service, I saw one of the side doors of the sanctuary open and a homeless woman attempting to push her grocery cart filled with her possessions into the sanctuary.
To my relief, I saw an usher rushing down the side aisle to intervene. But to my surprise, instead of escorting her out of the church, the usher held the door open for her. With the door opened wide, the woman pushed her squeaky wheeled cart right there into the sanctuary… during the sermon. The usher then showed her to a seat, right on the front pew where she could keep her cart beside her. The woman sat down and then promptly fell sleep. Then she began to snore. Loudly. No one made a face. No one moved. No one jostled her to wake her up so they could focus. The sermon kept on going. The lady kept on snoring. This was a church that understood their congregational identity as one where everyone was welcome, a place where everyone, rich or poor, was in need of the grace and mercy of God.
And I believe that UPC is capable of such an act of mercy as well. I believe that we, as this family of faith, know that all are welcome here. Rich or poor, black or white or Hispanic or Asian, home owning or homeless, young or old, gay or straight, trans or cisgendered, blended families, traditional families, interracial families, citizen or immigrant, you name it, you belong here. I know that I say that a lot in my sermons, and I’m going to keep saying because I truly believe this is who we are. We are a welcoming congregation. So how do we continue to exist as a welcoming congregation with No Trespassing signs in our courtyard? How do we ensure that our welcoming faith is truly alive?
This summer, we made the decision to create a less hospitable environment for the criminal and destructive behaviors that were taking place on our campus. What the leadership of the church is now discerning is how to create a more hospitable environment for encouraging life-giving behaviors here at UPC.
The Session is currently reviewing a proposal to allow the Street Youth Ministry to use the Great Hall on a weekday as a place where homeless youth can learn computer skills, take a shower, and rest in a supervised and low stress environment. The Street Youth Ministry is a local, 501(c)3 nonprofit that offers an astounding array of services to street dependent young people under the age of 28 in our neighborhood. If you would like to check out the amazing work they do, pick up a brochure in the narthex or visit streetyouthministry.org. This new proposal will be considered at the September meeting and is being presented with oversight from the Mission & Service Ministry Team.
The leadership of this church is seeking to find a balance between knowing our boundaries and living into our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.
We will not be a public toilet, but we can provide you a shower and a private place to use the bathroom.
We will not be a place to camp out, but we will help teach you the skills you need to reenter society and find housing of your own.
We will not be the place to use drugs, but will be the place that will help you overcome addiction.
We will not be the place that tolerates violence and abuse, but we will be the place that welcomes you into our sanctuary at 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, into the very heart of our community, to learn alongside you the ways of peace and love. Through our struggle together this summer, we learned who we are not. But we also learned who we are.
So as our summer comes to a close and we prepare for a new season before us, I give thanks for you, for this family of faith, and for the good work of welcoming and serving that keeps our faith alive. As we continue to grow in our identity together, let us unleash our creativity and passion to find new ways of breathing the breath of God into dry bones.
May the courage and energy pulsing though this church be a sign of life-giving hope to all that enter through our doors. And may the Spirit of God, guide and guardian, keep vigil with us, as we pray for and participate in the new world to come. Amen.