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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 9, 2012

After last week’s admonition to be doers of the word, caring for the widow and orphan, James continues the theme in this week’s reading. A Christian’s duty is to provide for the less advantaged because that’s what God wants and Jesus’ commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

A quick perusal through this week’s Washington Post provides two examples of people doing hands-on ministry with the poor and marginalized. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has organized a program called New Roots to help refugees reconnect with the land. Many of them were farmers when they were forced to flee their homelands. There are now 17 gardens in nine cities to help the stranger in our land feel a little more comfortable and at home.

“On a small scale,” says Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of IRC’s Baltimore office, “it’s giving people a little bit of opportunity to grow food for their salad, but on a larger scale, it’s an opportunity for people to grow and build a space with what they have.” Some refugees wonder about the project at first, but as soon as they see plants that need tending, they come from far away and spend long hours tending their plots. “I fundamentally believe that the refugees with a farming background gain some sort of spiritual strength from this kind of work,” Chandrasekar says.

Another example of reaching out to the marginalized, in this case black women, is the Prime Time Sisters Circles, a 12-week program focused on helping African American women in midlife improve their nutrition and fitness and deal with stress. The circles are an opportunity for them to talk about what is really going on with their lives. The circles were developed by Marilyn Gaston, a former assistant surgeon general, and Gayle Porter, a clinical psychologist. They are offered free thanks to grants from many foundations. The women say the Sisters Circles provide them with “emotional and spiritual support akin to a long tight hug”. The organizers say that if you can change just one woman’s midlife behavior, you have a ripple effect. She’s going to change her family and her community. 

I do not know if these two examples are motivated by Christian values or not –note that they both provide spiritual benefits for the participants – but whatever the reasons for the programs, they are certainly activities the writer of James would approve of. Hands-on projects that benefit the poor and the marginalized. Activities that show no favoritism for the rich over the poor. 

James is offering basic instructions on how to live a Christian life in the world. Today he is particularly concerned about acts of favoritism in the Christian community. How can the group say it worships Jesus Christ if it treats people according to the way the world treats people. If a person with gold rings and fine clothes comes into the assembly, people are very solicitous of him, while a poor person in ragged and/or filthy clothes is told to stand or sit near the doorkeeper’s footstool. This group of Christians is supposed to practice love for all and instead they are setting themselves up as judges with evil thoughts, deciding for themselves whom to cater to and whom to treat badly.

It is strange that this happens, says Sandra Hack Polaski,1 because in James’ time, there were the very rich (the emperor and his cohort), the wealthy landowners and the peasants, who had no land and spent whatever money they made on daily necessities. These peasants formed most if not all of James’ community, and the poor person could have been one of them except for a few days out of work, an illness or bad luck. You would think the community would identify with this person, but it did not. The people put themselves above the “poor person” and tried to curry favor with the rich. 

James reminds the community that the poor have a special place in God’s heart. God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith (after all they must depend on God for everything instead of having any illusion of control) and heirs of the kingdom God has promised to those who love God. The pious poor, in other words, have received a precious gift that should draw the faithful toward them, much more than the trappings of wealth. One of Jesus’ stories that provides an example of this concept is the rich man and Lazarus. When Lazarus died, he received a place in heaven, and the rich man who ignored his needs ended up in agony. 

James also gives a far more practical reason for the community to leave behind the dominant power structure of the world and exclude favoritism from their lives. Christianity was still illegal in the empire, and the rich man coming in could be a spy sent to see if the community did things that in their eyes endangered the empire. It was the rich that could have them persecuted and executed. It was the rich that blasphemed the name of Jesus.

There is another dimension to James challenge not to play favorites. People cannot judge the rich either. No one is to be judged. Everyone is to be loved. “Self understandings are to be merged into new enlarged richer identity as faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ,” says Archie Smith Jr. 2

Bottom line, showing favoritism between rich and poor is a sin. It does not follow the law set forth by Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself, to want for your neighbor what you want for yourself, to practice agape or unconditional love. One of the tricky parts of this law was how you carried out self-love. It was important to not get into thinking you were better than others (it’s all about me narcissism) nor to be a living doormat and practice self sacrifice to the max where it was all about the other.3 It was therefore important not to show favoritism or mistreatment to oneself before one could do that with another. Another of Jesus’ parables sheds light on this half of the double commandment, which requires an appropriate level of humility before God, not thinking of yourself as better or worse than anyone. Remember, the wedding guests are told when they enter the banquet hall not to sit in the highest places but to take the low ones, so they could be moved up. If they took the high places and were not high ranking enough they would have to go down. Jesus says those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. 

James reminds the people and us that if we break part of the law by showing favoritism, we are accountable for all of it, even if we don’t commit any other sinful acts. Sin is sin, and we are all in need of repentance and forgiveness. We should speak and act as those about to be judged by the law of liberty. If we show no mercy we will receive no mercy either. 

Finally James returns to our responsibility toward the poor, not just our mental attitudes about them. What good is it to say you have faith but not works. Faith is not just a creed or a set of beliefs. It is not even a non-judgmental attitude toward the poor. It is caring for the poor. Saying go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill does not help them and increases our spiritual poverty. Even if we promise to pray for them, if we don’t do what we can to help them, then our faith is in vain.4

A few weeks ago a man walked into St. John’s in the middle of the service. I doubt if you have seen him before, but I have. His name is Bill, and he is one of our benevolence clients. He was here to ask for money, but he did come to church, he did receive Communion and he was well treated by all who were here. James would have approved. 

At St. John’s we have faith and works together. We bag lunches for the Bailey’s Crossroads Shelter, we donate food to AFAC, we sponsor an Angel Tree project and we are involved in Meals on Wheels. We also contribute to other causes such as the United Thank Offering and Episcopal Relief and Development. We are all God’s children, equally loved and cared for by God. We are to imitate God in loving everyone equally and have God’s desire to care for the disadvantaged among us. Archie Smith Jr. says that “faith with works can lift us beyond confusion and conflicts of our time and help us discern God’s hand building the kingdom”.5 May we offer our hands and hearts to God to help in this effort.

AMEN

- Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works cited:
1. Susan Hack Polaski, Working Preacher
2. Archie Smith Jr., Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, Pastoral Perspective, p. 44
3. Archie Smith Jr., ibid.
4. Susan Hack Polaski, ibid.
5. Archie Smith Jr., ibid.