Proper 18, Year B
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
James 2:1-14, 17
September 5, 2021
A few years ago, a young man came to our church for the first time. He was homeless for a number of reasons, and he found St. Mary’s to be a welcoming place, kept coming week after week. One time, he told me about an experience he had when visiting another church here in town. He told me that they required the homeless to sit in a designated area of the church. Yeah. They segregated the homeless people in church.
In the epistle lesson from the book of James, we see a hypothetical scene unfold in which a rich person and a poor person show up in the assembly of early Jewish Christians. The rich man comes into the assembly wearing two markers of status in that culture: The gold rings on his fingers are not only indicative of wealth, but that he’s in the upper echelons of Roman nobility. In contrast to this rich, important figure, the poor person wore filthy rags. One can imagine him smelling as if he hadn’t bathed in weeks, and living in a perpetual state of humiliation because he has no money, or social standing, or place to call home. The greeter in this early Christian assembly responded to the rich man by rolling out the red carpet and seating him in a prominent and important place, while the poor person was told to stand off to the side or to sit on the floor by the greeter’s feet.
The greeter made a distinction between the rich man and the poor man, a distinction that society continues to make in our day. The values represented by the rich man in this story – political and social status and wealth and outward beauty – these are the values of this world. The kingdom of heaven has an entirely different value system. The kingdom of heaven is the reality of existence brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in which the poor have been chosen to be rich in faith – in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The most important in the kingdom of heaven are the worthless rags of earth. We experience this kingdom partially now, but the powers of this world are not yet vanquished. The distinctions made in this story between rich and poor represent the spiritual forces of evil we fight as we battle on for the advancement of God’s kingdo here on earth. As we use our weapons of kindness and tenderness and love to fight this battle, we fight the urge within ourselves to make distinctions. To show partiality. To play favorites. Our ultimate goal in this battle is to fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
When people ask me, “What is the congregation like at St. Mary’s,” I usually find myself talking about how diverse we are – from a socioeconomic perspective, sexual orientation, age, etc. It’s one of the things I love most about this place – that the distinctions that human beings usually use to build barriers are the very least less important in this community. But before we pat ourselves on the back too quickly, let us ask ourselves this question: what values of the world do we hold too dear? With whom do we play favorites? Where do we even give the appearance of making distinctions?
James’s challenge sounds so simple and cliché: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The word “love” here is agape in Greek, which means “divine love.” This kind of love is far above and beyond all other forms of love and is distinctive to Christianity. This divine love trumps conditional love and partiality. But in much of our lives, partiality appears to win the day over agape love. St. James reminds us today that we are called to resist the urge to play favorites and make distinctions: we are called to unconditionally love others just as Christ loved us.
Many in our congregation bear a certain level of privilege. I don’t just mean those who have plenty of money, but many in our congregation have family members who love them, a steady and meaningful job, a shelter to go home to, plenty of food, and so on. St. James’ point isn’t to make anyone feel guilty for the privilege that we have, for whatever reason. For as the writer of our lesson from Proverbs said, “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” We are being reminded this morning that when we were baptized, we were buried with Christ in his death, and we began to share with Christ in his resurrection. In baptism, we signed on to the values of the kingdom of heaven, and committed to fulfill the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – to unconditionally love everyone. And every time you walk through the doors of St. Mary’s, you’re at least given the opportunity to dip your fingers in the holy water stoop, make the sign of the cross, and put on your baptism once again. And in so doing, recommit yourself to joining in the spiritual battle with all of your fellow misfits here at St. Mary’s using the weapons of kindness, tenderness, truth, and love to build a parish – even a world – where there is no favoritism, distinction, or partiality.
Let us ask the Lord to open our eyes to the opportunities we have this week to love others unconditionally – without partiality, without distinction, without favoritism. And let us ask the Lord to show us how we can continue to break down man-made barriers and welcome all in Christ’s name here at St. Mary’s Church. Amen.
 Vs. 5.
 Vs. 8
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 40.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!