Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims. Our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved. Our thoughts and prayers are with the hungry. Our thoughts and prayers are with the homeless.
“Thoughts and prayers”: a very common phrase these days. We hear about thoughts and prayers for Haiti; thoughts and prayers for Black Lives Matter; thoughts and prayers for Afghanistan, for victims of wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, school shootings, gang violence, Covid-19 – the list goes on.
To offer thoughts and prayers in times of crisis is nothing new, as we hear in today’s reading: A thought that you keep warm and eat your fill. A prayer that you go in peace.
But as James also shows us, the condemnation of this phrase used without accompanying action is also nothing new. If we give them our thoughts and prayers, yet we do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
The value of thought and prayer alone was already being questioned by James nineteen centuries ago.
But I suggest that the omni-presence of social media and the increasing partisanship of our society has caused us to rely on “thoughts and prayers” more than ever, actively discouraging us from action.
The condemnation of faith without works in today’s world often takes the form of a denunciation of the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” We decry it as a spineless substitute for any sort of action, and we denounce public figures who solemnly message “thoughts and prayers” at every single natural or man-made crisis.
But though it is indeed far too easy to tweet “our thoughts and prayers are with you”, without actually doing anything to help, it’s just as easy to tweet back “NO MORE THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS” without actually doing anything to help, and in both cases, we may get that righteous feeling that we’ve accomplished something. When of course, we haven’t done anything at all.
James’ answer to the emptiness of expressing “Thoughts and Prayers” was action. Today’s answer seems merely to self-righteously denounce the inaction of those expressing “Thoughts and Prayers” while continuing being as inactive as we were before.
In last week’s sermon, Pete Strimer mentioned a theology of thoughts and prayers alone in the form of Martin Luther’s theology of Justification by faith alone. Luther, as Pete said, based this on the words of Saint Paul, which James countered – or, perhaps one could say, clarified, by saying, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Pete then moved on to how he was drawn to the path of works – of doing – by a particular credo which asked not what is to be believed, but what is to be done. The name of this credo was Liberation Theology. A term which makes many people very uncomfortable because it sounds highly partisan.
And this discomfort which comes from any partisan-sounding action brings me to the illusory comfort of inaction as an alternative to action.
Over the past few decades, “thoughts and prayers” has become a handy, neutral catchphrase considered ‘safe’ for everyone to say and hear: conservatives, liberals, city folk, country folk, the rich, the poor: everyone can get behind thoughts and prayers!
- Even agnostics and atheists can skip by the prayers bit and still support the thoughts!
- Thoughts and prayers are economical: they don’t cost anything, so thoughts and prayers won’t affect our net worth!
- There’s an infinite supply, so we don’t have to worry about running out of them.
And this safeness, this comfort, is understandable. Action is scary. Action is where the rubber hits the road. Action is also where our nonpartisan, safe thoughts and prayers get translated into behavior that might be interpreted as partisan and divisive. Our motives might be questioned. Our methods might be critiqued. Some might accuse us of having a hidden political agenda.
Two weeks ago, in his sermon, Doyt talked about the eternal power of hope when it appears among “the least of these”, without an external agenda of empire-building, whether it be political or personal (Because so many of us build our own little empires of fame, recognition, power). When one reaches out to the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised for their sake, not for the sake of an institution, or a political movement, or for one’s own advancement, one is unshackled from the chains of partisanship.
I am reminded of Chapter Six in the Gospel of Matthew: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” and “when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do” and “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.”
Why is Jesus telling us this? Don’t we want to shout to the world how wonderful we are? It could increase our status at work; drive “likes” to our Instagram feed or it could help our political career! But all of these are results intended to feed our ego, our personal empire, the kingdom of Me. Jesus is more concerned about feeding our souls. Because I will argue that when we do work for “the least of these,” without fanfare or social media, we are feeding and nurturing our own souls. It is in giving that we will receive. It is in showing grace that we will be shown grace.
Partisanship has gotten to the point where, in the words of the Reverend Jim Wallis, politics are shaping our faith, rather than the other way around. But we can consciously flip that upside down. The Good Samaritan didn’t help the traveler because it was a good photo op. He didn’t help the traveler because it would play well to his base. He didn’t help the traveler to get more retweets. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
Epiphany is very generous in funding our Service and Outreach team. We support many worthy organizations financially and with volunteer efforts. And these organizations, in turn, often work with social service agencies run by the city, county, state or federal government. And because of that, somewhere, someone likely has a partisan gripe about some aspect of a program because they believe it’s pushing a political agenda. But if we actually spend time with some of the people that our partners serve, get to know their names, visit their apartments – or tents – we realize just how meaningless partisanship is. How the partisan opinions of bystanders opposed to our point of view—OR supportive of it—are ultimately irrelevant. Those we serve aren’t wondering if our actions would be considered conservative or liberal, woke or tough love. They are wondering if they should spend their meager paycheck on rent or food. Or whether, in the time of COVID, they should risk staying in the close quarters of an overnight shelter or take their chances in a tent by the freeway.
To Recap – The Ease of Inaction
Social media gives us the illusion of a third option to faith and works. Rather than actually doing something, we can feel like we’re doing something just by posting a comment or liking a tweet.
Extreme partisanship creates a strong disincentive to act. Every little action is seemingly condemned for being too jingoistic or unpatriotic, being too woke or not woke enough. No matter what we do, half the country will disapprove.
So it is so much safer for everyone to stay with “thoughts and prayers.” So much easier to tweet our opinion on the subject rather than do something. Safer. Easier.
Except that James says that doesn’t cut it for us as Christians.
As Christians, we shouldn’t be playing it safe and easy. We should be in the thick of it, rolling up our sleeves and asking, “What can I do for you?”
How Can I Help at Epiphany?
As fellow Service and Outreach team member Nabatanzi Bewayo said to me the other day, we as Christians are called to express our faith by what we do to help each other. To show our Faith by and in our Works. Here at Epiphany, what do “works” look like?
As we all know, Seattle (along with most major American cities) has a serious housing problem. Over five thousand of our neighbors live in tents, doorways, on sidewalks and in cars. Two years ago, another Service and Outreach team member, Terry Proctor, created a small group that strives to heed the words of James in today’s reading and act in the manner of the Good Samaritan in Saint Luke’s Gospel, by helping some of these neighbors transition into permanent housing.
This Homelessness Task Force, which we call Radical Love, is dedicated to a hands-on approach for helping the unhoused, one individual or family at a time. It puts a face on the faceless and gives life to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are more than just statistics for us to shake our heads at sadly.
While serving on the Radical Love team, I have felt a deep spiritual growth within me. It has given me greater clarity in my priorities. It has cut through the haze of empty social media postings and the smoke screen of partisan arguments such as excessive social spending vs inadequate social spending, bloated bureaucracy vs. anemic oversight, over-policing vs under-policing. Such arguments too often ignore the people themselves, who are treated as mere plot elements in some ideological storyline. Such arguments skirt around the direct question, “neighbor, what can I do for you?”
It doesn’t matter
There is also an excuse we often hear for why we shouldn’t help; why we shouldn’t act: Because it doesn’t matter. For example, “If I give a sandwich to a stranger, he’ll be hungry tomorrow. So it doesn’t matter.” Or “If we keep someone from getting kicked out of their apartment this month, they’ll have the same problem next month. So it doesn’t matter.”
This excuse — “it doesn’t matter” — is rooted in a nihilistic view that works are futile. One might say this view argues in favor of Martin Luther’s 16th century philosophy of salvation justified by faith alone. But the thing to remember is that while faith without works is empty, it is also the case that works without faith are equally empty.
It reminds me of the story of the person who picked up a turtle trying to cross a busy road and carried it to the other side. Their friend asked, ” There are thousands of turtles that try to cross that road every day! Why did you bother picking one up? It doesn’t matter.”
And of course, the carrier answered, “It matters to the turtle!” I would go further, however, and suggest that our Turtle Samaritan could add, “it also matters to me, and it matters to God.” Because the Turtle Samaritan had faith that their kind action, which some might ridicule as insignificant, has a big impact in the Kingdom of God.
They had faith that although what we do may not seem to matter – or even make sense – in the worldly kingdom of money, ego, power and politics, it most definitely matters in the Kingdom of God.
Our Radical Love team has found permanent housing for four out of the six people we have helped. That may not seem to matter much when one looks at the five thousand homeless in Seattle, but it certainly matters to those four. Four of our fellow children of God housed may not seem like a big number, but there are only four of us on the team. Do the math. Imagine what Seattle might look like if every homeless person had an advocate along their journey to find permanent housing. It might look a little bit more like the Kingdom of God.
Do We Want to Help?
Jesus reminds us, in the Gospel of Mark, “The poor you will always have with you.” Do we think He means that we should all throw up our hands at poverty and homelessness as a monolithic Unsolvable Problem? I suspect not. Rarely is the full sentence quoted: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” But do we want to? Do we want to ask “neighbor, what can I do for you?”
I encourage all of us to ponder that question.
Thoughts and prayers, Black Lives Matter signs, A HOUSINGFIRST hashtag – these can be great first steps. But have we asked ourselves how we are following up on them with actions? If not, what’s stopping us? What’s stopping us from saying, ‘Neighbor, what can I do for you?’
All of those here today can learn more about what we are doing right here, right now at Epiphany with our Service and Outreach programs, such as Radical Love. And how we can be part of those programs.
Visit epiphanyseattle.org/engage or contact Laura Sargent. You can find this web address and Laura’s contact info in the bulletin.
Discover how works done hand in hand with faith can feed our souls.