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Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 116:1-9; James 2:1-18; Mark 9:14-29
I’d like to begin this homily on James 2 by introducing you to one Mrs. Turpin. Mrs. Turpin is the protagonist, or perhaps antagonist, of a short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” Now, we get a good indication of the type of person Mrs. Turpin is right from the beginning. She enters a doctor’s office with her husband, and immediately her gaze, and her judgment, starts falling on the poor souls sitting, waiting for their appointments. She quickly sizes up the 6 year old, or more importantly his mother, as inattentive and unwilling to correct her child. Rather than ask for a seat, she remains standing, in the best tradition of Southern passive aggression. She internally critiques the state of the waiting room, knowing she would whip it into shape if it was her responsibility. Another group sitting there she pegs as white trash, to which she thinks, “worse than n-words anyday.” She knew she wasn’t rich, but to her mind, “at least we’re not trashy.” She proceeds to comment on the laziness of African-Americans, and thinks to herself how her pigs are cleaner than the child across the sitting room. She reflects on how good she is to others, giving to them when they need it even though they won’t change, and thanking God she isn’t like them, meaning black or white trash. After an altercation with one of the “white trash” as she calls them, she is filled with rage. She goes home, still thinking she is a good, respectable woman, and that she has been wronged, though we the reader know that her heart is full of judgment and disdain. She is a “good person,” and she knows it.
James has a hard word for the person who sees some people as more deserving than others. Chapter 2 of his letter builds on chapter 1, which told us that the rich were oppressing the poor Christians, followers of the Messiah Jesus. What is revealed in this chapter, though, is that the rich aren’t just those on the outside, but within the Church itself, and that the sin of partiality will destroy the assembly.
Kids, you know favoritism all too well. You know what it feels like to be ignored while others make friends, what it is like to see others exclude you. But you have to careful that it isn’t you who is excluding others, who ignore the presence of another person because to you, they don’t matter. Jesus showed us something different, because he sat with the people who were lowly, who everyone else thought were gross.
Vs. 1 opens up the real issue for us: Favoritism is inconsistent with true belief. James gives the example of a rich man, in finery, and a poor man, dirty and smelly, coming into the assembly, coming to church. And what do the people do? Give a seat of honor to the rich man, while telling the poor man to sit on the floor. This is definitely a broad example, but also has the ring of truth to it, as if James has seen or heard a specific example of this. And what James tells the reader is that this is not the action of a child of God, but is that of a “judge with evil thoughts.” In other words, partiality and favoritism of this kind is satanic, pure and simple.
You have made distinctions, James says, that God does not make. Now it is worth noting, James is not saying that the rich are, by merit of being rich, evil. What he is saying is that their wealth means nothing to God, and I do mean nothing. God doesn’t need human wealth. More importantly is what we saw last week concerning human beings: we are all made in the image of God. Each and every one of us, male and female, all ethnicities, all cultures, all talents and classes. The sin isn’t being rich; the sin is partiality.
James draws on the Old Testament book of Leviticus, 19:15 here, which says: “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.”
The Gospel is meant to destroy such favoritism, and is utterly incompatible with it. All people have worth. All people are loved by God. All people are made in the divine image. All people must be treated with the same love as God treats them, treats us. The principle here is so much wider than rich and poor. Who among us has not shown favoritism, even in church? Who among us has not despised someone else because they are not like us? We want people to be like us: other artists, or laborers; other fans of the shows we like or the games we play; people who get our cultural references, or are our age, or who look like us or behave like us. But when we show partiality, we gut what the Gospel is meant to accomplish: The reconciliation of all people, of all creation, in Jesus Christ. And partiality like that described here is in fact acting exactly as the world would have us act. We let tribalism enter the Church, a tool we use to exclude. To fail in this is to fail in the whole Law of God, according to James. If we fail in one point, as he says in vs. 10, we fail all. For God is one, and the Law is a reflection of God’s nature. One crack in the dam is all it takes for the floodwaters to press in and destroy.
“Judgment will be without mercy to those who show no mercy” James says. We pray the same in the Our Father. Mercy and grace are divine equalizers, breaking down what separates us to make us one. And this must be demonstrable, must be something we can point to for proof. If you like detective stories, you know it isn’t enough to have a hunch that someone is guilty. There has to be proof, evidence.
That is where verses 14-18 finally demand that those who are undermining the Gospel put up or shut up. “Faith without works is dead,” James says. Now, James has sometimes been thought to be contradicting Paul when he says that we are saved by faith alone. But James is speaking in a different mode, to a different context; he is not so much contradicting as clarifying Paul, by pointing out that someone who says they have faith, but does not live according to that faith, has no proof that they truly believe. Faith without works, without kindness, and mercy, and love, is a pretty worthless “faith,” and not demonstrably faith at all. It’s like a dead body, a body where the life has left it, leaving a husk. You believe? James says. You have faith? Prove it. Show me, James says. And while you try to show me faith without any proof, I will show you my faith by the deeds of love I do in Christ’s name. This is not works done as a form of spiritual “elitism,” but by recognizing that I am a sinner in need of grace, and by living as Jesus did as a result, in humility and self-giving.
We cannot ever give in to the sin of partiality. If you ever see someone sit in those pews that makes you uncomfortable because of the way they dress or speak, or that you think lacks “class,” or doesn’t fit your ideal vision for the dominant culture of this church, then you need to take a hard look in that mirror James talked about last week. If you ever treat someone as lesser, as different, as not a part of the club, then repent, because what you have done is sought to undo the work of Christ, and given in to the hierarchy of the world that you yourself has been victim of. Partiality divides, rots, and destroys, but the gospel, with the love given to us lived out together, builds up and restores.
“Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor makes the point beautifully in its final lines. While Mrs. Turpin rages about at her house, hating the white trash, the African-Americans, and thinking herself so good, so noble, so kind, and so deserving, she sees a vision, the Revelation of the title, and it is this: “A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n*****s in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”
The one’s despised, leaping with joy as they enter the kingdom first, and the ones who sit in judgment, despising the people around them, enter last. Who will we be?
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