In our tradition, we read from a letter in the New Testament each Sunday (in addition to other readings), and James is the epistle we’re reading for all of September. His letter is both wonderful and hard to deal with. I feel that he is writing not to some Jewish believers back in the 1st century, but to us some 20 centuries later.
In the portion of his letter for this week he tells us that we shouldn’t show partiality. That’s dang hard, especially in the current environment here in the US as we get ready for a presidential election. We like people who agree with us, or who impress us. And we look down on those who disagree or who don’t have the education we do or whatever.
And when we do this—when we judge others—well, that’s not from God.
This sermon also hits on a few “in-house” things here at St. Mark’s. Good sermons always have a context, or so I learned in seminary. But even though I address the good folks here in Southborough, I think the message is one all of us need to hear.
When you’re done, I’d love to hear your responses. How do you deal with the issue of showing partiality?
It’s been a few years for me—okay quite a few—but I still remember what it feels like to walk into a crowded cafeteria with a tray of food all by myself and not see any friends to sit with. If you’ve ever been the new kid, or gone to a conference by yourself, or if you recall those first few meals at college, you may remember it too. When the scan for a familiar face came up empty, I would look for an open small table. If I was lucky, I went there, if I wasn’t, I headed to the least crowded long table that had an opening on the end. I would pull out a book (nowadays, I suspect I’d grab my iPhone) to look busy and shovel in my food. Inside I’d be feeling as if I somehow didn’t fit in. (Those childhood insecurities die hard, don’t they?)
It’s tough walking into a place where you think you might not fit in. But it helps if you look like you belong. At least then you can hope that people will notice you or be kind or at least not give you the once over and dismiss you with the look of their eyes because you are clearly out of place.
But it’s exactly that kind of thing that James talks about in the bit of his letter that we read today. It seems some of the early followers of Jesus were doing just that. “Do you really believe in our Lord,” James asks incredulously, “with these acts of favoritism you show?” He then creates this scene about a wealthy person and a homeless guy coming into a gathering. The rich chap looks like he might be able to help the bottom line, or be able to offer an amazing network to connect with. So the people there fall over themselves to help him, giving him attention and a seat of honor. But the other guy, the one who looks out of place, who has a bit of b.o., and oozes with insecurity, well he barely gets a chance to say hello before he’s rushed off to the obstructed view seating in the back.
“Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
That’s a rhetorical question, of course. They know they’ve been caught. And they’re left holding the bag. Because when a guy shows up in Rolls Royce we notice. The woman in the Pinto? Not so much.
James continues with this partiality talk, about how when they do it, they are in fact breaking the law; they are sinning. With their actions, they dishonor the poor. And when you defame them, you defame God.
But I cannot talk about this without ignoring the elephant in the room. Jesus, in our passage this morning, calls a woman a dog. There’s another, much more harsh word we use today that would result in getting your mouth washed out with soap. Jesus called a woman that.
Trying to soften this—something a few commentators attempt, like claiming Jesus spoke with a twinkle in his eye, or that he really meant a playful puppy—doesn’t stand the truth test. Jesus says that he can’t help her because she isn’t Jewish; thanks for playing, but no.
But this Syrophonecian woman cares much too deeply about her demon possessed daughter. She’s not going away when a Jewish rabbi throws out a racial slur. “Yes, Lord,” she responds, “but even the dogs under the table get the children’s scraps.” And with that Jesus’ eyes are opened. He looks at her with a new sense of compassion, and awe at being beat by her wit, and he recognizes that this kingdom that he is ushering in cannot be contained. That there is more than enough to go around. That even the ones seen as unworthy can share in the goodness of the kingdom.
We see Jesus’ human side in this. He’s clearly showing some bigotry. But when it’s pointed out to him, notice that Jesus doesn’t stand his ground and say, “Listen, lady, did you not hear me before?” Instead he changes his mind. Jesus hears her. Maybe he had a tough day at the office, or was just run down, or still needing that break after John the Baptist’s death. Whatever the reason, Jesus sees he’s in the wrong and corrects his course. He realizes the beauty of his message even more so than before. His kingdom is not about scarcity; it’s about abundance.
It’s easy to see the scarcity though. It’s way too easy to recognize that the best thing to do when you don’t think there’s enough for you and yours is to grab as much as you can and push others away. Jesus came primarily for the Jews, but his message of repentance, reconciliation and restoration couldn’t be contained for the Jews alone. Even then that message was so much larger.
We do this in church, of course. We live thinking there’s not enough. And so we play favorites and find the people we think will bring us more status or clout or money or whatever and focus all our attention on them. We dream small dreams because we think we don’t have the people, the bandwidth, the energy to do anything more.
But there’s a better way. I think what James is getting at in this passage is this: when we focus in on a certain person or individual, we don’t allow ourselves to see the way God can use the other, especially the one deemed too different from us. To say it plainly, we limit God. We don’t see the image of God in that other person because of how we view them based on their clothes, or their car, or their education, or their children, or their hairstyle, or the color of their skin, or the choices in their lives. So we think they are useless to us, and we ignore them.
But God sees them as integral to the kingdom Jesus ushered in; the same kingdom that couldn’t be contained just to the Jews. God’s kingdom oozes abundance. More than enough.
I’m seeing this play out here at St. Mark’s. I’ve heard from some a message of caution or fear or disappointment or frustration that there aren’t enough people here to take active roles in our community right now. We don’t have enough in the way of readers or chalice bearers. We lack people to help our youth program, or to sing in our choir, or to serve at the homeless shelter or to organize the library. When there’s not enough, our anxiety spikes. Maybe there are hard conversations, or we feel like we’re not being heard. Some may suggest that people are just too over committed or can’t make the time or don’t want to help out. With a bit of feeling overwhelmed we might even call someone a name we know we shouldn’t.
But I’m here to tell you there’s more than enough. It’s not just crumbs falling off the table, it’s a meal. We need to look beyond those who think like us or share our views or who live in the same neighborhood or have always done the work. We all can share in the work given to us by God here at St. Mark’s at this time.
Because God doesn’t show partiality. Oh we might. We might think that Sunday School is to be taught just by parents, but we have a number of excellent retired teachers in our midst who could help share our faith for an 8 week session. Or maybe you think you couldn’t teach at all, but if you had the support of someone else with you, you might give it a try. Or perhaps the thought of dishing up a plate of food in Marlborough or Boston scares you but you feel called to face that fear and recognize that God doesn’t have favorites. Or maybe you could sing with the choir, or take part in the Christmas Bazaar, or use the gift of meticulousness for God’s glory by signing up for a turn on the altar guild. Or you might have time to visit a shut in and bring them communion, or help out at the Bargain Box sorting through donated clothing.
I know there is enough talent, enough compassion, enough love for God in this congregation to do the work given to us, and even more. But not if we show partiality. Not if we look down at one another. Or even worse, not if we look down at ourselves.
Which is, I think, one of the biggest challenges today. We don’t think we are capable, or we think that others don’t want our help, or that we don’t have the same skills that someone else has. So we bow out, defer, skulk away. We figure that the group is set and is not in need of others. Sometimes we might even feel a vibe coming off that a group doesn’t want new people to join—like we’re walking back into a crowded cafeteria alone. I know this is simply not true. Every person involved here in some way or another has mentioned how they would love to have more people involved. People who have been here a long time or those who joined last month. Adults or kids. Women or men. We have the gifts we need and then a lot more.
We can change the world, but first me must change our minds. About other people, about God’s kingdom, and about the amazing reality of abundance. “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.”
We are called to so much more, and so on this day, the first Sunday back in this program year, I’d like to invite you to fill out that form you received. Even our younger members. And the ones who have been here more than 40 years. How can you share yourself in the abundance of the kingdom? What ideas do you have for us? In this, our 150th year of worshipping on this piece of land, we can make a difference. As those called to be members of Christ’s body in this place, we must make a difference. If we don’t, if we merely pay lip service or come and go without working toward the kingdom, then our faith is dead. I hope you’ll join alongside me in sharing in the work of Christ. We can do it, but only together. Only when we see the abundance of the kingdom and the reality that Christ’s good news is for us all.