Associate Rector, Rebecca Tankersley Sermon by: The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
September 9, 2018
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18

Texts:

Feed People, Not Coats!

 “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

_______________________

Good morning. Today, we pick up where we left off last weekend: chapter 2 of the Letter of James.

Last week, James called us to “be doers of the word, not merely hearers.” We are hearers every week in worship, but if we leave worship and don’t respond to what we’ve heard through action, our faith, according to James, is “worthless.” Last week, James used a powerful illustration to make this point: “if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they’re like those who look at themselves in a mirror … and, ongoing away, immediately forget what they were like.” Fr. Casey used an ingenious illustration to drive home James’ point: the scene wherein Dumbledore cautions Harry Potter about the Mirror of Erised. “It does not do to dwell on dreams” – especially dreams about our faith – “and forget to live” that faith.

This week, James continues his effort to shape the first Christians into a “community of character” standing in “radical opposition” to the world which, by its actions and values, opposes the Kingdom of God.[1] Here, James urges his readers away from favoritism and toward responsibility to the poor. The second chapter opens with an illustration that pulls no punches and that remains as relevant to us today as it must have been to James’ first audience. Who among us hasn’t, from the altar, a pew or a position in the gallery, watched a stranger enter our nave “and immediately, without meaning to, … inferred from their dress or demeanor” that they’re really here for a handout, not a hand to hold?[2] This is favoritism, says James, and when we engage in it we “become judges with evil thoughts.” I warned you: no punches pulled.

Now, in order to explore the second chapter of the Letter of James with you this evening/morning, I want to read an excerpt from another book. No, it’s not Harry Potter. Today, I’ve brought a Turkish tale called The Hungry Coat.[3]

[Here, I read an excerpt from the book.]

Favoritism. It’s inconsistent with godly living. “You do well,” James says, “if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” James is quoting from the end of a conversation between Jesus and one of the Pharisees, recorded in Matthew 22. Asked “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, Jesus responds, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When we make snap judgments about others based upon their clothing or their cloaks, their seemliness or their status, we are not loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are engaged in the worst kind of sin: that of professing faith and fidelity to God, all the while violating the royal law – as summarized by Jesus. This is how James arrives at his conclusion: “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” If you love God and don’t love your neighbor, you don’t really love God.

I don’t know about you, but that hits me where it hurts.

James presses on.

“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’s the good of that?”

Who among us hasn’t pulled up to a red light where one of God’s children stands with a sign reading,

Out of work. Hungry. Please help.

and brushed them aside, refusing to provide anything for their needs? Maybe we roll down the window to explain we’ve nothing to give, but “God bless you, sir. God bless you, ma’am.” That, James says, that’s “faith by itself.” That’s faith with “no works.” It’s “dead.” It’s not really faith at all.

These two topics in our passage today – favoritism and care for the poor – may seem unrelated. They are not. For the poor – those folks we pass by with a “God bless you” but no food – are the same people who, if they walked into our midst, we’d be most likely to judge based upon clothing, cloaks, seemliness, and status. As our friend Nasrettin Hoca illustrates in The Hungry Coat, James wants us to understand that who we welcome and who we feed are intimately related.

James’ message is clear, albeit painful to hear. As Christians, we have a moral responsibility to care for the poor, both as individuals and in the collective. We are not to mistreat or dishonor them. And, we are to provide for basic needs such as food and clothing.[4] Why? Because God is the giver of every perfect gift: God has given us all that we are AND all that we have. Caring for the poor is about accepting the outpouring of love God has for us so that we can pour out love towards others.

Thus, says James, our identity as Christians is only as strong as our treatment of the poor in our midst. “Do you,” he asks, “with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

This notion that our identity as Christians – our claim that we have faith in Christ Jesus – is inextricably related to our treatment of the poor is behind Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s reflections about how it will go down on judgment day. Working with James and Matthew 25, he observes “when we are judged about whether we will go to heaven or to hell,” Tutu says, we will not “be asked: ‘Did you pray? Did you go to church?’ … But [we] will be judged by whether [we] fed the hungry, … clothed the naked, [and] visited the sick and those in prison.”[5] Because to be a Christian is to be, in the words of Paul, “predestined to be conformed to the image of” Christ (Rom 8:29). That’s the Good News for us today: that we’re being remade in the image of Jesus Christ who fed the hungry, who gave his own self as food for the world, who says to rich and poor alike “I love the you you are. Abide in my love.” Such good news today. Of course, as Tutu aptly puts it, “the good news to a hungry person is bread.”

Brothers and sisters, we honor God when show forth our praise, “not only with our lips, but in our lives”[6] – when we feed people, not coats. We do this is many ways at Transfiguration: through teams who serve at Austin Street, through gifts from clergy ministry funds, and through relationship with the Richardson Interfaith Alliance who will, this very afternoon serve 100,000 meals at the Richardson Civic Center through an event called “Feeding Children Everywhere.” Through these and other actions, we feed some people here at Transfiguration. Today’s message is a stern reminder that we have a moral obligation, both individually and collectively, to feed more. To be living bearers of Christ who took 5 loaves and 2 fish and fed thousands. Feed more. Welcome more. Love more.

_______________________

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Amen.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Perkins Prothro Lectures on James, First United Methodist Church of Wichita Falls, 2012.

[2] Sandra Hack Polaski, “Commentary, James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17”, from Preaching This Week by WorkingPreacher.org, 2012. Accessed online on September 5, 2018 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1426.

[3] Demi, The Hungry Coat: A Tale From Turkey, ISBN 978-0689846809.

[4] For a beautiful discussion of this moral obligation, see The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, “Poverty, Wealth, and Equality?”, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2012. Available online at http://day1.org/4216-on_scripture_margaret_aymer_on_james_2_poverty_wealth_and_equality.

[5] Desmond Tutu, “On the Gospel’s Secular Teachings.” Available online at https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/quotes/desmond-tutu-on-the-gospel-s-secular-teachings.

[6] The General Thanksgiving, Morning and Evening Prayer, BCP.