We are spending the month of September thinking about generosity with the book of James as our guide. Last week’s sermon was “Generous Hands,” and we talked about generosity as “openhandedness” and God’s call to us to be openhanded with others, the poor especially. This week I invite us to think about openheartedness, and God’s call for us to open our hearts to others, especially those we perceive as different from us. This past week, I met someone whom I would have thought was as different from me as different can be.
When I walked into Apex Tattoo Factory last Wednesday, I did not expect to find a fellow traveler along the Way of Christ. I expected to find a creative and skillful artist, of course. I expected to find a meticulous craftsman who took pains to ensure that my husband and I remained safe and healthy in his care. But I did not expect to find a kindred spirit. Chris and I were there to fulfill my birthday wish for matching tattoos. Chris went first, and I started reviewing my day with him.
“Oh! I didn’t tell you my happy news! Lori Pistor emailed me today to ask if I would sit on a panel at the Women’s Preaching Festival in October! It’s a panel of women telling how they came to be called to preach, and she wants me to tell my story!”
We went on sharing more of our days as Jax inked Chris’s skin. And then when it was my turn and I was settled into the chair, I got really quiet, and Jax got concerned that maybe I wasn’t doing so well. “How are you doing, Susan? Talk to me,” he said, “I heard you telling about giving your testimony.” And with that we dived into a wide-ranging conversation about faith, about direct experience of God, about church, and about who is and who pretends in the family of faith.
Jax, of course, is heavily inked and pierced. I’m not sure I would have trusted him with the needle if he were not! And he told us a story of rejecting God and leaving his home church, the church where he grew up hearing the stories of faith from his own grandmother. Having left the church at fifteen after his grandmothers daughter died of the most terrible form of cancer He was sure no God could exist that would let this happen to his family. He returned many years later—drawn back irresistibly by God’s call—and found that he was no longer welcome because of his appearance. He didn’t look like the “type of person” that they wanted around. And they misunderstood scripture passages about what tattoos mean.
“If you can just pass by a person in need and not help out,” Jax said, “You have no business calling yourself Christian. Just because you show up to an auto parts store an hour a week, doesn’t make you a mechanic. How does one hour of church a week make you a Christian?”
James would have said a loud “Amen!”
In today’s epistle lesson James reminds us of God’s call to be openhearted with the folks we encounter: especially with the poor among us:
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?
James is concerned here with how we treat people that we perceive as different from ourselves, especially in church, as my friend Jax experienced. In the community that James was addressing, they were making distinctions among the rich and the poor: welcoming the one and snubbing the other. But communities of faith have struggled with distinctions for as long as the Christian faith has been on this earth. At various times and in various ways, we have been inclusive of the wealthy, the white, the free, the citizen, the straight, the male; and exclusive of the poor, the black or brown, the slave, the immigrant, the gay, and the female. We make distinctions between ourselves and the “other.” We open our hearts to those who are “like us,” and we close our hearts to those who are “different.”
But James calls us back to our first and greatest commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves. I’ve never really been settled in my mind what that commandment is asking of us. To love others, of course. But how? To love them as we love ourselves? Or could it be to love them as if they were our very selves? Hearing James pull this commandment into the context of “making distinctions among ourselves” draws me toward the second meaning: that we should love others as though they were our very selves.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples to “abide in” him. Abide—the Greek word is meno—is the word that Jesus chooses to describe how his disciples are to relate to him in his Farewell Discourse—his long speech that he gives on their last night together. “Abide in me” are important words to Jesus, among the last words he has to share with his disciples. And—as anyone knows who has lost a father, a mother, a sibling, or a dear friend—last words are the ones we cling to, the ones we revisit in our memories again and again, the ones we savor—or regret—in our broken and longing hearts.
“Abide in me,” Jesus says, as a branch abides in the vine. It’s a lovely image to hold up before the community as Jesus prepares to leave them for a while. In the church’s early years, its leaders used many images to convey just how much a part of Christ and each other the community of faith is:
- Adoption conveys the notion that we who were not of the family of God have been taken in and cared for as children, co-heirs with Christ.
- The image of the bride of Christ conveys Christ’s deep love for the community of fasith.
- The image of the flock of the Good Shepherd conveys Jesus’ knowledge of, protection over, and guidance of the church.
- The image of the kingdom of God conveys Jesus’ lordship over the church.
- The image of the temple not built by human hands conveys the notion that we are built on the foundation or cornerstone of Christ.
- The image of the body of Christ conveys the idea that we, though gifted differently, are, nevertheless, equally important to the life and health of the body.
Each of these images is beautiful in its own way and conveys our relatedness to Christ. But the image of branches abiding in a vine conveys an organic relatedness to Christ in which it is nearly impossible to tell the parts from the whole. For the branch not only takes its life and its nourishment from the vine, but carries the very DNA and substance of the vine. The vine and the branches are so intertwined and so closely related that they are one, they are whole, and they are indistinguishable from each other.
Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
How do we open our hearts so wide that we make no distinction between ourselves and others? Jesus’ commandment that we do so—to me at least—is clear. But how?
The Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance, talks about the importance of spiritual practices to developing openheartedness. She writes:
When we look at our own lives and at the history of humanity, we realize that hatred, anger, and all forms of dislike are a pervasive and natural part of being alive. Aversion arises because we are so deeply conditioned to feel separate and different from others. . . . [And she asks,] “I [wonder] how many people each day I am unable to see and respond to because I unknowingly classify them as “other.”] . . . Only by dedicating ourselves to some form of intentional training can we dissolve this tendency and embrace all beings with Radical Acceptance.
Serving the poor and dying was to Mother Teresa a practice of viewing each person as “Christ in his distressing disguise.” By doing so she was able to see beyond the differences that might have hardened her heart and to serve with unconditional compassion each person she touched. As we train ourselves to see past surface appearances, we recognize how we are all the same. For Mother Teresa this meant that each person carries a spark of divinity.
One way to begin to open your heart to others is by practicing a form of prayer called metta, which in the Pali language means lovingkindness, benevolence, or good will. In the practice of lovingkindness, you offer a series of lovingkindness phrases to others:
May you be safe.
May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you live in peace.
These phrases are offered first to yourself, then to a benefactor, then to a beloved person, a neutral person, a person with whom you have a conflicted or difficult relationship (sometimes called “the enemy” in metta literature), and finally to yourself again. The purpose of this kind of prayer is to develop compassion, both for yourself and for others, and an expansive, inclusive heart. While the self, the benefactor, the beloved, the neutral person, and the enemy are the classical objects of metta prayer, the goal is to become increasingly inclusive:
May all beings everywhere be safe.
May they be healthy.
May they be happy.
May they live in peace.
Notice the inclusiveness of the word “beings.” It encompasses all forms of life and life-sustaining matter: people, animals, plants, rivers, earth, air—anything that has existence.
I’ve included instructions for lovingkindness prayer in our bulletins today, and I encourage you to give this a try in the coming week. I’ve also included lovingkindness in our communion prayer today so that we can practice it together.
As we think and pray about stewardship and generosity this month, I hope we will think not only about being more openhanded with the poor among us, but also about being more openhearted. The heart of God is limitless in its capacity for love and compassion. May God so open our hearts that we really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
 Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance (New York: Bantam Books, 2003), pp.222-223, 228.