Words and Deeds

a sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown CT, August 29, 2021

The Scripture for Today James 1:17-27 — Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. 

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Or, as Eugene Peterson translated today’s lesson:  “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Don’t let this good news go in one ear and out the other…

Don’t go around judging when you know that only God can judge

Don’t assume you’ve been judged and found wanting by God, when you’ve heard that God loves and welcomes all.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you clicked “like” on that story about refugees that you’ve done all that needs to be done.

Don’t let this good news go from one ear to the other without making a change in your life.

Make what you hear part of your life.  Live by it, depend on it, practice it.  Make God’s endless love your watchword.

This is what the United Church of Christ calls radical hospitality.  Now, in the most particular, most focused sense, radical hospitality is about who and how we welcome others.  But when you step back from that particular understanding, you realize that radical hospitality is really, and only, about living out the Word we hear from Jesus.

Maya Angelou is often attributed with saying that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Guests don’t come back to our churches because of what we do but because of how we make them feel.

Radical hospitality is about living out our faith. 

It’s hard to hear sometimes, because that word radical has vague and unpleasant overtones of going too far…. About five years ago, some radicals chained themselves to the concrete barrels they unloaded in the middle of I93, going into Boston, at rush hour.  You can’t overestimate how angry they made people, even the folks who agreed with their protest.  that’s a kind of radical that’s about making people uncomfortable, maybe even forcing change.  That’s not what this is intended to be.

Radical has other meanings.  Most of them depend on understanding that radical comes from the Latin and points toward roots…. roots of plants, roots of trees, roots of math, roods or foundations of our belief.  And that’s what this radical is all about.  It’s about going back to the roots of our faith.  In our radical hospitality we’re practicing the fundamentals of our faith.

In the Gospel of Matthew it’s recorded (in the Message translation) that Jesus said:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s radical, it brings us back to the root of our faith, the foundation on which we have built this church, on which we conduct our lives.

What we do here, how we welcome people here, can feel so normal that we don’t realize how life-changing, how assumption-challenging it really is in our wider world.  What we do here in welcoming everyone is not done everywhere.  It is not done in every church, not even here in Connecticut.  And there are places here in the United States where our Black Lives Matter banner might have evoked a fire-bombing.  It happens.  It is radical in every sense of the world to return to and live out the foundational beliefs of our Christian faith.

Our way is a way of hospitality – of an intentional welcome, one which has declared an intention to put aside what we’re used to in order to become what we’re all used to.  It is a hospitality which creates a new reality.  In it I am not welcoming you to my table, but making that table, our table.

We are challenging the assumptions of our world about who’s welcome, who’s got a place at the table, who’s got a voice in our decisions.  

In this radical hospitality, no longer does my lesbian cousin have to pretend she’s waiting for the right man to come along.  No longer do we put our cognitively challenged son in an upstairs room.  No longer will we make someone who can’t walk give up coming to church.  

And it’s not just about worship time in church.  Radical hospitality says that everyone deserves enough to eat – and makes it the responsibility of those who can share to do so, to work to create a world where everyone has enough to eat.  Radical hospitality works to make a world where everyone has a seat at the table, where no one is judged by the color of their skin, or where they came from, or what their parents did, or didn’t do.  

Radical hospitality is about breaking down the walls that divide us one from another.  

Yes, sometimes radical hospitality makes us uncomfortable.  Discomfort is the sound that radical hospitality makes when it rubs up against our unconscious assumptions.

I can remember long conversations with some of the kindest church members I’ve known, as they struggled with the conflict between the welcome they wanted to offer everyone, and the tall tales they’d grown up some category of people.  Radical hospitality was pulling them right over their comfort zone and they wanted to go there.  It’s not always easy to make the changes.

We all have heard the  compassion when someone says something like this doesn’t bother me, but it does bother (insert name here)…  That’s when radical hospitality makes us aware of the conflict between the empathy we feel for someone we know and the absolute pain of the folks we have not yet met.  It’s hard to say to someone you love, I know this will make you uncomfortable and I’m sorry, but I can no longer pretend that I can’t see the pain in other eyes.

Radical hospitality calls us to move beyond our own comfort zones; it reminds us that Christian faith is built on love for the stranger.  What is the story of the good Samaritan but a story about the radical outreach of a man for a stranger, robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road?  In the time of the story, Samaritans were despised, the untouchables, the Black people, of that world.  It was unthinkable, radical, that one of THEM, a Samaritan, would stop and help one of US.  And if the stranger had been aware, he might well have cringed away from having one of THEM touch him.  But radical love, overflowing hospitality, carried the day, and a life was saved.

That’s radical hospitality in a nutshell.

Back to James.  James writes that it is impossible to say that everyone is welcome without actually welcoming everyone.  That the basic, foundational truth of Christianity.  Everyone is welcome.  We don’t allow people to use that universal welcome to mistreat others – every person is welcome, every behavior is not – but that doesn’t negate the welcome Christ offered to us and that, in his name, we offer to others.  Radical hospitality is who we are.


© 2021, Virginia H. Child