In the second chapter of his letter to the churches, James the brother of Jesus, gives us some good, but difficult guidance: “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? My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
I have been blessed over the years to serve churches that not only sing, but believe, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world: red and yellow, black and white,” and I would add, rich and poor and everyone in between. I have seen these churches welcome God’s sons and daughters of all shapes and sizes and races and incomes and beliefs and political persuasions. I have also seen how difficult this can be to live into as we strive to do what Jesus would do.
James continues, “God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him.” I believe James is reminding us that we all have something to learn from one another. He is reminding us that we are to work for justice and peace for all people, rich or poor, and to fight oppression wherever we find it.
James is reminding us that Christianity is not a Jesus and me kind of religion, but a community joined together by Christ, called to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
“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.”
All this sounds good, but how do we live it? I share one such experience with its challenges, failures, and blessings, and invite you to reflect on your own experiences.
For 12 years, I was the Pastor of St. George’s Episcopal Church in the middle of New Orleans, Louisiana, a city with a tremendous diversity of people. The church is on St. Charles Avenue, a boulevard with mansions under the trees as far as one can see. Four blocks away we enter neighborhoods with much smaller homes and in some cases very poor families inhabiting them. The church is also just a streetcar ride from the French Quarter and therefore easily reached by street people, beggars, and those who dance in bars and sometimes moonlight as prostitutes.
For several years we had a wonderful midweek book study held in the homes of various members who lived near the church. The studies were open to all, usually involved a light lunch, and were an important and enjoyable part of our life together. And then they were not. Two of our French Quarter members, a man who sold books on the street and his friend, a bar dancer and sometimes prostitute showed up for the study at the home of one of our wonderful uptown ladies. And she truly was a wonderful person. The two “new” people were also wonderful, if somewhat dirty and smelly and, to say the least, different from most of the people in attendance. This woman came to me and said that she did not want these two people in her home. I understood, so we moved the book study to church, which I believed would be an acceptable solution for all. As in so many situations in which theory and even scripture become practice, the simple solution was not as simple as we believed it would be
The woman quit the church, she truly wanted to host the Book Study in her home, but with restrictions. She later returned, remained a friend, thanks be to God, but it was touchy and ugly for a while. This is what happens when we commit to live a Gospel without favoritism, loving one another as Christ loves us: it is not easy, but worth it. It is what I believe Jesus would do.
Ben Alford is the former rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Albertville.