Proper 18, B Sept. 9, 2012
Readings: Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Ps 125 James 2:1-10, 14-17 Mark 7:24-37
In the past two years, we have heard a lot about the 1% and the 99%. Comparatively speaking, the 1% are rich. The 99% are not. Yet we must remember that historically there has always a yawning gap between the rich and the poor. Before the twentieth century, the “modern sociological usage of the term ‘middle class’”did not even exist. There have always been rich folks and poor folks.
It was Christian attitudes about both that James, in today’s epistle, addressed. Most scholars believe that the writer of the book of James was James, the brother of Jesus. If so, then he, of all people, would have understood Jesus’ attitude between the haves and the have nots. James would also have understood the reality of life for the early Christian church before the year 70 CE. “Christianity was still illegal, and persecution was always a possibility.” It is possible that the person with gold rings and in fine clothes who showed up for worship had heard a rumor that these Jesus-followers were teaching “insubordination against Roman religion, acting as atheists (i.e. nonbelievers of pagan gods).” So special treatment for someone who looked rich—but who might have been sent in to spy for the government—might very well back-fire. Those who curried favor might very well have been thrown in jail, then dragged into an arena for execution.
Yet James insists that if you are going to say you follow Jesus, you have to act like you do. God does not play favorites where rich and poor are concerned. There is evidence of this in the Hebrew scriptures. The writer of Proverbs noted “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” Everything Jesus did lived out this truth. He taught that regardless of consequences, you must treat the rich and the poor equally.
Yet perhaps James was looking deeper than the obvious political and class distinctions which existed in the first century. Perhaps some in that Christian community watched some of the folks who came for Sunday worship and decided the strangers just did not measure up to their standards. So they were dismissive of whomever they judged to be “less than”—for whatever reason—and conveniently forgot several things. One thing they forgot was that Jesus had taught them to love unconditionally. Another thing they forgot was that the rich had always dominated and oppressed the poor—that meant them. No one who had money had ever done anything except tax them, wield political power with an iron fist, make fun of—or scorn—the one whose name they have taken. What were they thinking? Jesus had taught them better than that!
James reminded the Christians that God’s law supersedes human law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your brothers and sisters as much as you love yourself, or in the same way you see yourself. James pushed the point further. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
That was pretty clear to the first century community of faith. It is pretty clear to the twenty-first century one as well. You and I can read or hear this passage today and fall into the trap of thinking that we have matched faith with works. You may think immediately of the canned food and non-perishables you have brought to put in our LARS food basket. Since the founding of Laurel Referral and Advocacy, this parish has supported—with food, with financial gifts, with real people power—the efforts on behalf of the poor. Some of you go regularly to feed poor folks at Elizabeth House. Our charitable giving has benefited many organizations in this area, including Lovely Ladies of Laurel, the Bishop John Walker School for boys, children and youth at local schools who need school supplies or whose families need food over the holidays.We feed homeless and working poor—as well as some of our own parishioners who come to enjoy fellowship—at our annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner. We shelter homeless men and women every winter in a winter shelter.
On another level, this parish truly welcomes into our midst a wide variety of people. Five years after coming to be your rector, there is something that I am as delighted about now as I was when I first arrived. I love the fact that this community of faith is so diverse. Like most churches, we reflect a diversity of ages, socio-economic levels, marital status and educational levels. We come from both sides of the political aisle. Yet St. Philip’s really does attempt to welcome all people—folks from different national and cultural backgrounds, gay and lesbian people and their partners, people who have come from religious backgrounds that range from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal to no faith at all. Regardless of our differences, we really do attempt to live out the vision statement we profess every Sunday: “Through our words and deeds we inspire, welcome and encourage others to journey together in Christian faith and growth.”
Yet the writer of James challenges us to match our words and deeds even more closely. How deeply are we really hospitable to a new person, couple or family in this community of faith? If James arrived today to survey us, what would he say to those of us who want to welcome others, we just don’t want them to sit in “my place” or “my pew”? What would he say to those of us who hurry over to coffee hour to sit with friends instead of stopping to welcome a newcomer or to offer to walk the new folks to coffee hour? What would he say to those who say they need help with a ministry, then when a new person shows up and suggests a different way to do something, the response is “Oh, we’ve tried that. It didn’t work. Besides, we’ve done it this way for years.” Every one of us has our own ways of making distinctions among ourselves. It may not be as obvious as avoiding a smelly homeless person. It may be as subtle as an unconscious avoidance of anyone who might disturb our own comfort level—someone whose presence and ministry might challenge ours in some way.
Yet if we profess to be Christian, Jesus’ call resounds through the centuries from his to ours. Jesus challenges you and me to be welcoming on every level: from a smile and handshake at the Peace to inviting a new person to sit with you at coffee hour or to work with you at a parish event. As we practice deep, radical welcome, we show our faith in real time, through our actions. It is through the deep, radical welcome—to all of God’s children—that our faith is not only professed by our lips, but lived out in our lives. When that happens, I suspect that James and God would be well pleased. Amen.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Picture accessed at www.textweek.com.
 David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 38.
 Ibid., 38.