September 2, 2018
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Yesterday, was move-in day for first year undergraduate students at the University. The sidewalks around the church were filled with excited, anxious energy, and I imagine a couple tense and/or teary family conversations. The Princeton-orange “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly” banner is up. The beginning of the academic year is upon our community.
What does this Scripture reading in James have to say to us as we embark on a new season? “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.” “Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers.” I often take in these directives in James as an individual. But James is not writing to an individual. James is writting to communities in diaspora, and we are a community reading it today.
Part of the reason I first take these words in as an individual is because I am a white, well educated millennial and citizen of the United States—part of a demographic more likely to “go it alone” than depend and invest deeply in community. Recently, I attended an anti-racism training led by Crossroads Organization. Over the weekend, a couple groups of attendees gathered for an experiential workshop. It was a simulation challenging each group to cross the river of white supremacy. The facilitator taped down paper stones across the floor, and the object was to get everyone in the group across the river, without stepping in the water, within a short period of time. I imagine many of us in that room had led similar team building activities in other contexts, so it was particularly embarrassing when we failed at our first attempt. I later heard our group approached the task as individuals much more than the more successful group before us. Many of us were trying to lead and none of us were listening well. The facilitator helped us debrief our less than stellar attempt, and gave us a second chance. After we took more time to listen and less time ignoring the quieter members of the group, we were able to make it across the “river.” The experience was humbling.
Reading James is humbling. Its clarity, its call for discipline, its simple charge to care for orphans and widows in their struggles, highlights all the ways the church fails to live into its calling. Churches have a history of imposing harm on those who are vulnerable. It is not only some long time ago in history occurrence. Rather, any of us listening to the news will know there are fresh wounds being inflicted daily by church leaders. As we look at the law of liberty, as we gaze into the good news of God’s love, we know we have not clearly and consistently mirrored this love in our life together. Reading James prompts confession and a more disciplined life. But if we think about this with an individual mindset we will only fail or be paralyzed by the work that is left to do and we will have also missed the point. In acting individually, not one of us are able to get all of us safely across that river. James reminds communities, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” All good gifts come from a God who loves us and who loves the world. It is in remembering the truth of God’s love that we can have patience, perseverance, and knowledge that we are not in this alone. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that the Church is empowered to care for orphans and widows.
Dr. Christine Hong, Assistant Professor of Educational Ministry at Columbia Seminary, lectured on prayer at the same anti-racism training as the humbling river crossing simulation. Hong included the following four steps for prayer in anti-racism work: confess, invoke God, look up, begin again. Acknowledging there is much to confess in our institutions when it comes to racial injustice is important. But to not get stuck there, we must also call on the God who loves us and loves the world. In so doing, we realize how small we are in comparison to God’s great cosmos. Then, only then, are we ready and energized to begin again. Just as James’ direction to “welcome with meekness the implanted word” is not a one time occurrence, but an ongoing process, so is Hong’s pattern of confession. God’s love, which this pattern of prayer revolves around, is something to remember. We need to give it more than a glancing look. Rather, we look intently into the great love of God and God’s good provision.
With James’ reference to mirrors and the beginning of new academic year, Harry Potter came to mind this week. The Mirror of Erised is a feature in Harry’s first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In J. K. Rowling’s masterful coming of age story, the main protagonist Harry Potter was orphaned before the age of two. So it is a shock when he stumbles upon a mirror in an empty classroom and along with his reflection, he sees his parents. Harry’s striking green eyes, messy hair, and knobbly knees are evident in the images of these adults who smile at him in the mirror. Harry later learns that the Mirror of Erised reflects to the viewer the deepest desires of their heart. For Harry that desire is to know and be with his family. This is an image Harry remembers, it holds his attention, and communicates the truth that he is not alone and that he is loved. Harry comes back to sit in front of the mirror three nights in a row, not wanting to miss one moment with the reflection of his family. It’s not an image he forgets. For those of us familiar with the entire series, we know the strength Harry gains in remembering his parents and those who were willing to sacrifice themselves for his life and the future of the world. Similarly, we remember in the book of James the good gift of God’s love. One that provides perseverance and courage.
Near the close of Aretha Franklin’s funeral service on Friday (well into hour 7), Stevie Wonder’s spoken tribute began, “Giving all praise to God. For the truth is, were it not for God’s goodness, greatness, we would have never known the Queen of Soul. We would have never known the joy that she brought to us. We would have never known…someone who could express in song the pain that we felt.” He went on saying, “The reason we are here today is because of love. … The greatest gift that we have been given in life itself is love. Yes, we can talk about all the things that are wrong, and there are many, but the only thing that can deliver us is love.” He is right. We are loved and we are called to love. James reminds us, our power to care rests first in God’s love, in God’s goodness. We remember God’s love every time we come to this table. God’s sacrifice for us and for the world is a visible sign of God’s enduring grace. We remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We are honest that we are in need of this meal. We invoke God through the power of the Holy Spirit to be present with us. We acknowledge that we do not come to this meal alone, but in community, and among the universal church that spans all time and space. We come to be fed, so that we may begin again. We are given strength at this meal to live into a religion that is pure—to care for orphans and widows in their suffering.
As this summer comes to a close, the orphans who come to mind first for me are those whom the United States recently separated from their families at the border. 497 children, 22 under the age of 5, remain in detention facilities as of August 31. Church, James makes it plain: we are called to care for the orphans and widows in their distress. There is clearly more work to be done for the vulnerable in our communities, nation, and around the world.
We come to this table, confessing we have failed to eradicate the systems of white supremacy. We confess we have abided rhetorics of fear. We confess we turn away and forget your abundant love, O God. We confess we participate in institutions that create and keep orphans and widows in distress. Forgive us, dear God.
Gracious God, you are the one who gives us all good gifts. You show us what love is. You love us and love the entire world. Remind us that you have called us together, as your body, to love as you have loved. Give us eyes to see the truth that we need one another and that we are not alone.
Holy Spirit, give us strength to begin again. Amen.
 Sleeper, C. Freeman. “James” Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Abingdon Press, 1998), 62.
 Rowling, J. K. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (Scholastic Inc., 1997), beginning on 194.
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