The following was preached as a sermon on September 6, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.
James 2:1-4, 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
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.
When I started seminary, all the area churches came to campus to try to persuade the new students to worship with them. There happened to be a lot of churches from our denomination in town, and they always wanted seminarian members.
One of my classmates went to worship that Sunday at a church where most visitors did not stay for long. He found a pew somewhere in the middle of the congregation, and he sat down and got ready for worship to start. And that’s when a woman came down the aisle, and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Young man,” she said, “you are sitting in my pew! I’m going to have to ask you to move.”
Up until then I didn’t think that actually happened in real life, but it did. And my classmate, a very kind man, got up and gave her his seat. But that’s not the end of the story. Because the woman who had displaced him somehow found out that he was a seminarian visiting for the first time. And now she was embarrassed.
She came up to him and said, “Had I known you were a visiting seminarian, I would never have asked you to move!”
Today’s reading reminded me of that story. Like last week, we are in the Epistle of James, and this week we read this: “if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”
In other words, if anyone treats one stranger differently than another, especially over something as trivial as clothing, then that person is judging them. And it is not the place of a person, and especially of a Christian, to treat other children of God with anything less than dignity and respect.
That was the greater injustice of what happened to my classmate that day at that church. It’s one thing to be asked to move by someone who really likes their pew. It’s not what I hope would happen to a church visitor, but it’s the lesser of the problems here.
The greater was that the woman who did it was only sorry because she found out he was a seminarian, and she was embarrassed about the way she had treated a future member of the clergy, rather than the way she had treated a child of God.
The irony is that when it comes to making someone feel unwelcome in a church, seminarians and clergy are really your last concern. We’re coming back to some church regardless. We’re sort of a captive audience, no matter what you throw at us.
But what if he had been someone who for years had been trying to work up the courage to walk back into church? What if he had felt unwelcome before? What if he had felt so far from God that stepping into those doors had been an act of faith in and of itself? What then?
The way we treat people in our churches is just the start, though. It’s what we do in the world outside of our church doors that really matters. Because like I said last week, our actions speak louder than words. And our actions tell others what we really believe more than any statement of faith. And how we treat other people, particularly those who have nothing to give us, says the most of all.
I’ll tell you another seminary story. At my seminary we paid most of our tuition by working a few hours a week around campus. And one of the places most of us rotated through was the refectory, the seminary dining hall. And I almost always had the breakfast shift. I’d get up around 6am and sort of stumble over to the kitchen and serve eggs and bacon to the few of my classmates who got up in time.
And a few times a year the doctoral students, clergy members, would come to campus for intensive classes. They’d come to breakfast every morning, and mostly they were very pleasant. But one woman was not.
Each morning she’d work her way through the line barking orders at us. And each morning we’d fill her plate and roll our eyes and say nothing. But one morning a classmate of mine was in line before her. And he and I got to talking about an exam we had both just taken in a class.
I saw her eyes get big. And she said, “Are you students here?”
“Yes,” I told her, “Everyone who serves the food is a student here.”
Now she looked downright panicked. And all of a sudden she found her manners. Because now it occurred to her that she was being rude not just to a nameless server, but to her future colleague.
There’s an old saying that if you really want to know whether or not you should date someone, that them to dinner and watch how they treat the wait staff. I believe that. And that day in the refectory, I was pretty disillusioned about the clergy. And if seminary is dating, ordination is marriage. And I didn’t want to marry into that.
I didn’t want to be the sort of person who treated people differently based on what they could or could not do for me. I didn’t want it to matter whether or not they were like me. I wanted to love the way Jesus did, and does. I wanted to love my neighbor as myself. And I wanted to let that love to speak volumes about my faith. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.
But the reality is that I am.
I don’t mean to be. It’s not intentional, anyway. But, I am. And it only took two things this week to remind me of that fact.
The first was watching the county clerk in Kentucky who, despite court orders, will not grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. And let me say first, that I think she’s dead wrong. I don’t think she’s being persecuted, and I don’t think her legal consequences have anything to do with her faith. I think this has to do with her being a civil servant who is using her position to impose her religion on others, and to deny their civil rights. Couples like Heidi and me. Couples like others in this church.
And so when people started to talk about what a hypocrite she was, and how she’d been married four times herself, I joined in. And when they said they hoped she would rot in jail, well, I didn’t go that far, but I understood the anger because I know what it’s like to not have my own marriage recognized.
But when they started to talk about her clothes. And her appearance. And when they made fun of her for being from Kentucky…well, that’s when it got a little less funny. And that’s when I thought about what would happen if she walked into my church, and whether I would give up my pew to her, and see her for the child of God that she is.
That was my first reminder.
Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb
The second was this. A picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey. A refugee. A child who was not rich. Who did not possess the right passport. Who was seen, at least in the abstract, as a burden on the society his family risked their very lives to join.
And the first thing I thought about were our kids here at the church. And how much I really love them. And how this boy was the same age as some of them. And I thought about how I’d do anything in my power to save one of our kids from harm. And I thought about how this boy needed someone to do that for him too.
And then I thought about all the children throughout the world like him. Children on rafts coming from Syria. Children crossing the border into our country. Children right here in Exeter. And I thought about how all Jesus said was that we should welcome the children. And how he never added any qualifiers about which children.
Every child needs someone. Every child needs more than someone. They need all of us. And they need our moral courage.
The fact so many were more outraged this week by the fact that a government employee was asked to do her job than they were by a child who lost his life tells us just how much we miss the point sometimes.
Because we can talk about our faith all day, but unless we are doing something because of that faith, unless we are changing the way we interact with the world, then it’s just lip service. Because James is right: Faith without works is dead
James asks us, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works?…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.”
What good is it? What good is faith if it doesn’t change the world? What use is it if it only comforts us? What’s the point if we only pay attention on Sunday morning? If that’s the sort of faith we aspire to, faith on life support, then it’s time to let it die.
Because that’s not faith at all.
But if that’s not what we are looking for, if that’s not what we think God wants for us, the good news is that there is a better way. But it’s going to take a little work. And it’s going to take a little moral courage.
Scripture tells us that God is “our refuge and our strength”. And we often repeat that. We believe it. But we can’t just believe it for ourselves.
And so here is our faithful work. It is to fling open wide the doors of our church. Yes, our literal downstairs doors, but even more so the doors of our hearts. It is to welcome everyone in. And it is to offer them our pews, and to deny a seat to no one.
I believe God gives us strength for the work our faith requires of us. And I believe God uses us to give refuge to the world. Refuge, because the world is filled with refugees both in the literal and spiritual sense. And they are all fleeing the same hardness of the world. And they are all hoping to find more than just hardness in our hearts. They are hoping to find people of compassion. People of mercy. People of faith.
The name of that child was Aylan Kurdi. And I hope Aylan would have found a pew here. And the name of that clerk is Kim Davis. And I hope Kim would find a pew here. And the name of that woman who kicked the seminarian out of her pew, and the one who was rude to the kitchen staff…well, I don’t know their names. But I hope they would find a pew here. I hope this, because I hope that I, with my imperfect faith, would find a pew here too.
Yes, faith without works is dead. But faithful work…the sort of work that intentionally opens the doors to all, and treats each one with dignity? That work brings new life to the world. And to us all. And there’s always room for more. Amen?