“The author of the Book of James is on a tear against the rich and powerful,” said the Rev. Mary Luti. “They are getting away with murder now, fattening themselves on the misery of others.”
James told his congregation that Christ was returning soon, that the days of the rich were numbered and said, “Therefore, beloved, be patient.”
Luti preached at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday Ecumenical Service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “The Power of Patience: Therefore, Beloved,” and the Scripture reading was James 5:1-8.
“Patient?” James’ congregation might have asked. “While the wicked prosper? If Jesus is coming back this afternoon, we could wait.”
The wicked are still flourishing and Jesus has not returned, Luti said.
“It is almost irresponsible to preach patience in the face of the mayhem in the world,” she said. “Christians are used to actively resisting injustice. They can’t do nothing, just sit tight. Is there a word from the Lord? I think so, but it depends on the meaning of patience.”
Luti shared a story about her time in Mexico City, teaching English at a very expensive boarding school run by her order.
“I was 19, and it was the first time I ever saw real poverty,” she said.
Every day a group of sweet, quiet women came and cleaned. They worked hard.
“I thought they took a bus home, maybe two or three neighborhoods away, to simple houses,” Luti said. “But I learned there were no such neighborhoods. I did not know what the high wall around the school was hiding.”
Every night the cleaning women went through an opening in the wall to cardboard shacks and cooked on open fires that their children often fell into, scarring them for life. Every Friday their wages were spent by despairing men who got drunk on cheap, fast intoxicants.
“The distance between luxury and misery was an 8-inch cinder block,” Luti said.
She was assigned to teach catechism to the children who lived there.
“I would go and teach these children about Jesus and then come home and take a 15-minute shower to get the stench and the crawly feeling off of me,” she said. “I would cry in the shower and cry myself to sleep over what I had seen and wondered what I was doing and where God was.”
Luti learned that life was like this for a sizable part of the world. She longed to go back to New England and not know what was going on, where it would be easier to believe in God.
“I did go back to the shanty town, even though nothing got better,” Luti said. “The children taught me a bottle cap game. A Christian is not meant to do nothing, but even the most earnest desire and effort to make the world better felt like nothing.”
Change, she said, “feels like two steps forward and 150 back. It is the same old rock going up the same old hill. Does any of this make a difference? There is a real possibility that it is all for nothing.”
The key, she said, is a peculiar kind of patience. Paul Farmer, in his work in Haiti, said people have to accept the long defeat. People need to accept that progress toward justice is not irreversible.
“The odds are not in our favor, but this is not pessimism or defeatism,” Luti said. “It is the foundation for work that is truly of God.”
John Shay called this the long courage — the grace to go back again and again.
William Sloane Coffin, former Yale University chaplain and senior minister of Riverside Church, was giving a lecture at Harvard University. After he finished, a student stood up and said he “felt disillusioned with the progressives.” Coffin shot back, “Who are you to have illusions in the first place?”
“We can have illusions if we have patience,” Luti said. “If we believe the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, then resurrection and love win. The mystery of evil is vast and tenuous and will not just lie down and die. There are limits to our power and our virtue. The best we have is our tears, nothing more, nothing less.”
The calling of the believer is to take up the discipline of unprotecting the self.
“We have to march through the high walls and make human contact,” Luti said. “We pray every day ‘thy kingdom come.’ In every moment we have to be more and more willing to go and see who is living next door, who is living and dying in any neighborhood.”
The Lord comes, refuses to flee, and the Lord will return.
“Our turning, our conversion, is going back to the pain even if it only produces tears,” Luti said. “Tears in the presence of pain are hope.”
To close, Luti returned to the idea of high walls.
“By going through the wall, we see. If we see, we will feel. If we feel, we will weep,” Luti said. “If we weep, we are connected. If we are connected, we might be saved and overcome the whole world. Therefore, beloved, be patient.”
The Rev. Virginia Carr presided. The Rev. Katie White, host of the Baptist House whose work in refugee resettlement and racial justice provided interfaith bridge-building and the founding of Erie, Pennsylvania’s, One Table, read the Scripture. For the introit, the Motet Choir sang “What Shall I Render,” by John Ness Beck, and for the anthem performed “I Am the True Vine,” by Julian Darius Revie. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. Thanks to the magic of Chautauqua and a few generous souls who connected here, there are a few braille worship books and hymnals available during the weekday worship services. They are available at Gate 4, the Ralph C. Sheldon Gate. Ask any usher for assistance. The Mary E. and Samuel M. Hazlett Memorial Fund provides support for this week’s services.