The Power Among You
A reflection shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 30, 2018, the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. “Activate” series.
Text: James 5:13-20
This past week I spent two days in Kansas at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, a congregation of more than 22,000 people, founded and led by Pastor Adam Hamilton. The church offers a Leadership Institute each year with a variety of workshops and keynotes to provide support and concrete resources for clergy and lay leadership. 1800 folks attended this year’s Institute and I was privileged to be among those offering some teaching. The workshop title I was given was “Spiritual Self-Care in Troubling Times” and the blurb read: “How can pastors and other church leaders navigate the tumultuous waters of culture, especially during times when people—even people who are part of the same congregation—have such strongly divided views?”
These days, on any given week this topic would feel resonant; but this week, for many, has felt like the divides and hostility have gone to new heights (or hit new lows, depending on how you want to look at it). I have heard and seen folks dealing with anger and trauma, outrage and confusion, numbness and exhaustion at alarming levels. I have been trying to figure out how to deal with my own thoughts and feelings, how to process and discern what I am seeing, in short, how to “navigate the tumultuous waters of culture” as a follower of Jesus.
In this context, it was a privilege—and personally helpful—to try to offer those who attended my workshops some guidance, grounding, and encouragement for the living of these days. And the primary claim I shared with them and with you today is this: As the church, we have all the resources necessary to navigate the tumultuous waters of culture—in this moment and in any moment! We have a story that sets our lives in the context of a larger narrative of meaning and purpose. The story reminds us of history—that along with creativity, beauty, friendship, courage, and love—conflict, division, suffering, and injustice have been around from the beginning. The story confirms that God has been busy with the work of mending from the beginning and has called folks like us into the work all along the way. Our grounding story gives us spiritual ancestors and images and words that guide our actions and response—that help us see who we are called to be and what we are called to do. We have spiritual tools of discernment—prayer, study, holy conversations with others, meditation—that challenge us to see beyond our own noses and to receive deeper insight.
Further, sharing life in faith community—serving alongside others, sharing our resources to support the common work, being there for one another through the ups and downs of life, studying the Bible and other books together, sharing the sacraments, and worshiping together, all these things prepare us to weather all kinds of “tumultuous waters” in life. Here at Foundry—and in any engaged community of faith—we get to practice things like deep listening, humility, forgiveness, thoughtful and respectful speech—with people who are really different from us. We get to practice how to work through conflicts in healthy ways when we inevitably offend, aggravate, disappoint, or hurt each other. We also get to practice new skills—perhaps through stepping up to provide leadership for a project or group or through participation on a team, or through trusting others through delegation or stretching our capacity for grace and generosity.
What does any of this have to do with getting through a week like we’ve just experienced? Well, if we are really attending to our spiritual life in community—life with and for God and others—that will form and strengthen and guide us in our responses to whatever we encounter in life. Like an athlete trains with discipline in order to have the capacity to perform, so we are encouraged to be disciplined in our spiritual practices so that, in moments of struggle, pain, loss, and disappointment, we will have the capacity to be generous, gracious, loving, wise, patient, sacrificial, vulnerable, brave, and all sorts of other things—in our homes, workplaces, schools, and in the doctor’s office or in traffic or on social media or at the customer service desk.
Throughout this month and our Activate! series, we’ve been studying the short letter of James. James is focused on the ways that our faith takes shape in our works, and specifically, in our relationships with one another. The teachings in this epistle are directed to the church and are all about how to live together without hypocrisy, partiality, oppression, or greed; how to be gentle, respectful, loving, humble, and wise. Today’s passage is about prayer and about care. We’re encouraged to pray with one another and for one another in struggle and in joy, to pray with and for those who suffer from physical or spiritual sickness, to strengthen the community through our solidarity and support. There is something powerful about being with our faith community when we’re struggling. Hearing again the promises of God’s love and presence, being reminded that there is always hope, having another person reach out in love and concern or just sit with us or listen to us, even just being held in the prayers and songs and stories of our faith in worship—all of this helps us “navigate the tumultuous waters of culture” and of life.
Part of today’s text has been taught and understood in ways that have done pretty severe damage to some folks’ faith and health. The notion that “the prayer of faith will save the sick”—taken out of context and applied to individuals—has led down some very dangerous paths (including rejection of medical treatment). One of my earliest congregants could never get over how his ardent prayers failed to heal his wife’s cancer. He never forgave himself for not having enough faith. This is a whole other topic for a whole other sermon. For now, let me simply say that, while prayer does change lives, we need to be very careful in how we understand its power.
And it is powerful. It may be among the greatest powers in our midst. Not because it can magically make things happen that we desire, but because it is the place where we connect with God—where God’s power can work in us and on us and ultimately through us. You see, the power among us is God. It is God’s power that wakes us up, that helps us see ourselves honestly, that helps us see the world around us honestly, that gives us courage to do beautiful and hard things, that messes with us until we finally do the thing we need to do to move toward healing and wholeness—in our bodies or in our relationships. It is God’s power—the power of God’s love and mercy—that changes hearts and minds and lives. It is God’s power that activates in us a desire to serve and to give and risk ourselves for the sake of love and justice.
Our human power can go only so far and our human power gets corrupted again and again. But drawing close, staying close to God through community and spiritual practices re-forms and strengthens us. As the late, local theologian Verna Dozier taught, worship (and I would add any shared spiritual practice) is where we arrive all twisted up and where God scoops us up and pats us back into shape. God’s powerful love forms us—if we’re willing to offer ourselves—into a more loving, generous, merciful shape, into the shape that is our truest shape. This kind of formation and re-formation is what the writer of James focuses on—how our personal faith and prayer allows God to shape our actions and our communities to care for one another.
God gives us all we need to navigate the tumultuous waters of culture, all we need to live together in peace, all we need to grow and thrive, all we need to experience the fullness of life. All we have to do is choose to receive the gifts of God and engage the spiritual practices that put us in the flow of God’s grace. Our choice will have consequences.
Legend has it that Rabbi Haim of Lithuania, was granted permission to visit both heaven and hell.
The Rabbi enters the gates of Hell, which, he is surprised to find, are exquisitely lovely, as is the lush green landscape that lies beyond them. He could hardly believe the beauty of the place, the sight of the meadows and mountains, the sounds of the birds singing in the trees, the scent of thousands of flowers… And then the tantalizing aroma of a gourmet meal catches his attention.
Entering a large dining hall, he sees row after row of tables laden with platters of sumptuous food; yet the people seated around the tables are pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. Coming closer, he sees that there was something different about these people—they had very large arms, nearly four feet in length. At the end of each arm, they held a fork, but were unable to eat because no one had an elbow. Even though all the food was right in front of them, they couldn’t put the forks into their mouths.
The rabbi then went to Heaven, where he encountered the exact same beauty he had witnessed in Hell. Entering the dining hall there, he saw the same scene—including the four-foot arms without elbows—except in contrast to Hell, the people seated at the tables were sitting contentedly, cheerfully talking with each other, as they enjoyed their sumptuous meal.
As the rabbi came closer, he was amazed to watch how each person at a table would feed the person sitting across from him. The recipient of this kindness would express gratitude and then return the favor by leaning across the table to feed her friend.
The rabbi was determined to go back to Hell so he could share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. Racing into the dining hall, he shouted to the first starving person he saw, “You do not have to go hungry. Use your fork to feed your neighbor, and she will surely return the favor and feed you.” The angry reply came, “You expect me to feed the detestable person sitting across the table? I would rather starve than give her the pleasure of eating!”
It was then that the rabbi understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The only difference is in the way that people treat each other. In heaven people feed one another.
God sets the table before us, gives us all we need, all the resources to navigate this beautiful, broken world. God’s power is among us to form us and guide us to share the feast. May it be so.