I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Another Sermon

Once again I feed the content monster with a sermon. In this case, it is the one I gave yesterday.

We had a presentation during the service from the chair of the Outreach Committee (the "Barbara" in the sermon) who outlined a project we are doing in partnership with the Pine Street Inn and our neighbors (and fellow UCCers) at First Congregational Church. It should be a good one. We are working to furnish a variety of apartments...

I seem to be doing a series on the Epistle of James. If you haven't read it in a while, you might want to. James was less concerned with the niceties of doctrine and much more concerned with living faithfully. Social Action is, of course, a big part of that living. Obviously, this Sunday we talked about that. My previous sermon tried to get folks thinking about the other ways in which we live faithful lives...

Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
September 17, 2006

James, the brother of Jesus was a poor man
Leading the dangerous life of a religious dissenter
So when he and the other members of this early Jesus movement
Read or heard (and most of them, being illiterate, they heard)
The 22nd Chapter of Proverbs
Tell them that The rich and the poor have this in common:
God is maker of them all
It was understood by them in a way that only the poor
(Or those who have been poor) can understand it
Because it is (at its essence) revolutionary

What a concept
In a world where wealth and power
Were viewed as gifts from God
When rulers, both secular and religious
Used theology as a weapon to enforce
The social order that placed them on top

To the comfortable this passage can be viewed
As something of an abstract concept
A reminder not to be arrogant and to remember
That what we have received is meant to be shared
So it would have seemed to the priests at the temple
The aristocrats of Rome and elsewhere
Perhaps it hung around their consciousness
Making them feel a little guilty about all that they had

But, in the context of the early Christian movement
And to the Jews living in occupied Jerusalem
(And James thought of himself as a Jew)
To the impoverished, the truly destitute
This idea of equality (coming as it does
From sacred scripture) is an affirmation
Of the fact, so hard at times for some to believe
The fact (to put it in terms we would understand today)
That the CEOs
The Kings and Queens
The celebrities and socialites
Who always seem to have so much and appreciate it so little
These people are no better than the mother on welfare
And the homeless person living in the park
Or in the basement of a friend

James, a leader of the rapidly growing movement
James, saw this tendency,
The tendency of those with more power
And more prestige to work,
(sometimes unconsciously)
To marginalize those who had less
So Chapter 2 of his letter starts out with a story
Whose setting should be familiar to all of us
That is, the beginning of church
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…while to the one who is poor you say… “Sit at my feet” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Remember, James had little money
And Jesus, then Peter and Paul
Were homeless, imprisoned, tortured and killed
Because of their belief in a religion for all
This aspect of the faith
Was what helped it to survive and grow
During those centuries before Constantine
Made it the religion of the state
For hundreds of years
The faith was held in the hearts, not of respectable people
But of the outcast, the oppressed
The ones in need of shelter and community
Of hope and love
It was the religion of the ones in dirty clothes
It was the faith of people who (like James)
Weren’t so much concerned with the various formulations
Of who Jesus was
But in the manifestation of what he taught

Christianity back then belonged to the marginalized
They owned it
And you know what?
They still do today
It may not seem like it when we see
So many in the mainstream draping themselves
With extreme displays of piety
People from politicians to actors to sports heroes

But it is true/All we have to do is remember
That story of the Widow’s Mite
When Jesus, observing the wealthy
Come and lay their gifs before the altar
Saw a poor widow come and contribute her pennies
Truly I tell you [he said] this woman has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all that she had
When we look at this story
Not from the perspective of people
Who have been given much
But from that of Jesus and his friends
You realize that, yes,
She has paid for her place in full

Now, a faith for all should and does hold a place
For the “haves” as well as the “have-nots”
But at the same time, it is important to understand
Who built the house we inhabit
And who else lives here
Before making a home

The rich history of our religion
Demands that we pay the rent on our tradition, if you will
And that means more than putting money in the plate
For the continued health of the congregation
(Although that is very important)
It also requires that we turn the secular world upside down
And give power and respect to those in need
To make it possible for them to also contribute
To society, to lead a rewarding life
Defined by something more than survival

This is one of the reasons—a theological one
A Biblical one
For why we serve,
For why we work with groups
Like the Pine Street Inn or the Heifer project
For why we send volunteers to the Open Door
And to the housing ministry in West Virginia
Our faith speaks in a special way to the margins
And we are privileged when we have the opportunity
To witness and participate in that message

A message that can bring the power
That Will Campbell
Wrote about being present
At the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins
A power [he says] that they had not seen before
Now this ability to organize as people of faith
Is what the MICAH project is all about
An ecumenical dialogue that we
(As a church) are participating in
This is not to say that we are planning any sit-ins
But it is, as in the civil rights struggles that
A fulfillment of the biblical mandate to give power
To the dispossessed

That is the strength of advocacy, of theology from the edge
It gives people the freedom to make choices
Our best Outreach and mission work is that which
Gives others a voice and a platform
It starts with providing necessities
Food, housing, a way to make money
And continues by building
A shared forum and means to be heard

We are fortunate in that by giving these gifts
Enabling this freedom
We also receive
Our participation helps all of us,
For (as W.E. Channing wrote) We are thus, without parting with our own human nature, to clothe ourselves with the Divine

Our giving teaches us to look outside our own difficulties
To see how communities help each other
And to feel the depth of faith possessed
By those who are going through challenges in their lives
We learn when we help each other
Through our InReach activities
And we learn in more formal ways as well

Consider the relationship our Sunday School children have
With the Heifer project
Again, an organization
(In this case a global one)
Providing people with the means
For self-determination
In this case a Cow,
Sheep, goats, rabbits--an addition to an equation
That may lead someone out of poverty

Our kids send money, many of you
(their parents, certainly)
Are aware of this
But did you know that a portion of our Religious Education curriculum
Is based on their materials
And that the kids are planning to go soon on a field trip
To one of Heifer’s local farms?
They have given us an opportunity
To broaden our own world
And that of our children

These two aspects
One: our acting out of our faith
Acting on the call to work for justice and equality
That we find in the teachings of Jesus and of James
And Two: the very real spiritual benefits we experience
From our service work
Combine to make us a stronger, livelier church

Now, I am not going to speak for much longer
As I have the honor of introducing Barbara
To present to you a new program for us
But I would like to say this about what we are doing
In partnership with the Pine Street Inn and First Congregational Church

This is the sort of thing that is perfect for our congregation
And it is perfect because it gives us the chance
To do something lasting right here in our own back yard
It lets us build connections
With two other great local institutions
And it makes it possible, through our teamwork
To do something that separately we probably wouldn’t be able to do
That is, to help people transition from poverty to well-being
To help our fellow human beings
Fellow Children of God
Restore their dignity and rebuild their lives
In so doing
We make our own lives just a little richer
Just a little bit better lived