Sacred Pathways: The Activist

October 5, 2014


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Oct. 5, 2014


“Sacred Pathways: The Activist”

Acts 2:26 and Genesis`


Seniors at Wichita North High School (and other high schools too) have to complete a “senior project”.  It is a semester-long process including research, a specific experience or activity, a mentor, writing a paper about your findings, and making a display board of your project.   The projects are as varied as the students:

  • Designing and making your own piece of clothing
  • Researching grading scales and protocol for other school districts
  • Shadowing a professional, like a doctor or lawyer.
  • Investing money in the stock market, etc.


When our son, Ian, was a senior, he came up with the idea to spend some quality time with Wichita’s homeless population for his project.  The first time he mentioned it to me, his plan was to spend an entire 2 weeks on the street.  I put a quick kibosh on that.  He ended up going out after school and staying through the evenings and then a 48 hour period over a weekend.


When he set out the first night, I wanted him to take a sleeping bag and pillow, money and food.  He refused.  By then, he had gotten acquainted with people on the streets and had learned about their lifestyle and their personal stories.  He didn’t want any advantages.


Ian reported on his experiences and truly enjoyed meeting some of the guys and talking with them about their lives.  I can’t tell you how many times I have bragged about his experience and what he learned.  What I haven’t said is that it is a project I wouldn’t have ever considered doing myself and one that scared the puddin’ out of me just thinking about Ian doing it.


Don’t get me wrong: I want to be an advocate for the homeless.  I am happy to write a check to the Lord’s Diner and Interfaith Ministries to assist with homeless ministries.  I believe that we can stop chronic homelessness.  But I don’t want to sleep outside with them.


Yet, that’s what hundreds of people in Wichita and around the country do each year – sleep outside one night – to bring homelessness to the attention of the general public.  Some of those same people march on Capitol Hill to make public their stance on a variety of other social ills.


The Bible uses a specific phrase to describe this kind of activism: “pitching your tent”.  When you pitch your tent, you become like family.  The Bible describes the social bond made between those who had tents next to each other and ate at one another’s tables.  But it was more than a social bond; pitching your tent or eating with another meant you had ethical obligations to each other.  For example, quarreling and harsh behavior were not allowed because it did not build up the common good.


Abraham and Lot’s stories of moving from one place to another describes the two carefully choosing where to pitch their tents.  They knew it would not work to pitch a tent on uneven ground, or where they were vulnerable to attack.  They knew that where they pitched their tent would affect their lives, their homes, their friends, their security, and their future.  Later, the Bible talks about where we will pitch our tents.  Acts 2:26 advises:  “Pitch your tent in the land of hope”.


Many ancient writings, including our Bible, indicate the social and ethical bonds made at the table or by pitching a tent.  The by-laws of the Guild of Zeus Hypsistos, for example, forbade making “factions”.  In Sirach, the Jewish sage devoted an extensive section to meal etiquette under the rubric, “Judge your neighbor’s feelings by your own, and in every manner be thoughtful”.


A meal together breaks down social, political, religious, and other distinctions made between people.  It is a theme found as early as Homer, where “equal banquets” are said to characterize the dining habits of heroes.  The equality  that lies at the heart of the ideal communal meal is also reflected in the Passover liturgy specification that the poor should also recline equally at the table on this occasion and receive at least four cups of wine, even if the funds come from public charity.                                                                     Dennis E. Smith “Many Tables”


These ancient meal traditions formed the beliefs and practices of the first century Christians too.  And now, our communion service is meant to bind us together.  We come to the table as individuals and we leave as friends.  Drinking the wine and sharing the bread is a dangerous prospect, says the apostle Paul.  It’s dangerous because you are making a commitment to one another.  To help and to be there for each other.  What does that look like in the modern world?   Here are some ideas:

  • When someone has a death in their family, even if we didn’t know the person well, because we have shared a church home and communion with them, we reach out with visits, cards, food, and hugs.
  • When we disagree with one another, we go first to the person with whom we have disagreement and try to talk it out before talking to others.
  • When we are personally hurting, we fight the tendency to keep it to ourselves and withdraw from the church. Instead, we come with all our vulnerability and we allow others to care for us.
  • Because we share communion and community as a church, we put the needs and interests of the community above our individual feelings. We serve others even when we are tired; we show up even when we are not sure we have time; we encourage and defend even when we are feeling down.
  • Because we share communion and community as a church, we give generously of our time, our abilities and our resources. We rearrange our personal wants so that we can participate in meeting the needs of the community.

This is what it means to pitch your tent in the land of hope and to share bread with one another.  And this is the work of the spiritual pathway of an activist.  At the heart of activism is the belief that all people were created in the image of God.  And “all” means “all”.

  • The homeless who may smell or be mentally ill
  • The guy holding that sign asking for money
  • The immigrant, whether with or without paperwork
  • The imprisoned, including murderers and sex offenders
  • The angry teen, who misbehaves and says hateful things

An activist takes “pitching your tent” literally and is willing to stand up to the status quo for the sake of another.  An activist pitches tent in hope for a better world.  An activist holds the bread and the wine at communion and thinks of his/her responsibility to advocate for those who aren’t at the table.


Classical theologian Karl Barth urged Christians to pray with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Although I am not a Karl Barth fan, I agree with him on this one.  Our prayers and our hopes are seen in the actions we take to make a difference in the world.  When we vote, when we advocate for someone, when we teach a child, when we take a stand, we are praying with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  We are making our faith pertinent to our world.  We are pitching our tents in the land of hope.


When we break bread together, we become responsible for one another, literally and spiritually, socially and physically.  That’s what communion means.  It’s why the word “communion” is also used as a description for a group of believers.  We are people who make commitments to be in community with one another.


You can see that I took a different way this morning with our sermon series about spiritual pathways and the activist.  I think it is time that we put our faith into practice – not just learning about ways people express faith – but actually living in that spiritual path long enough to see the passion and the beauty of it.  How many of you think you might be an activist?


I hope this week you will try to invest energy in an activist role.  Pitch your tent by:

  1. Writing a letter to a political leader about an issue of justice
  2. Participate in a march or demonstration for something you believe in
  3. Volunteer at the Hygiene Pantry or another location to assist those less fortunate
  4. Be creative in finding your own way to reach out and advocate for others.
  5. Take communion to someone who is not here and may be isolated.


I thank God for people like Ian who go, without pillow or blanket and pitch tent with the homeless.  I am grateful for those who stand up to societal wrongs and advocate for justice.  Let’s celebrate the faithful people who visit the sick, mentor the children, go to the prisons, march on Washington, and put faith into action!