Sermon September 5 2021 James 2:1-17 No Conditions Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you heard the story about the Prodigal Son? Many of you will have, but for those who haven't, it's a parable of Jesus. It's in the Bible, in the gospel of Luke, the third of a series of parables that Jesus tells his followers so that they'll understand – so that WE'LL understand -- the depth and breadth of God's love for ALL of us –
and ESPECIALLY God's particular yearning for and reaching for those whom the world of the well-behaved might think of as "lost" – wandered off track, spiralled into trouble, gone bad.
In the case of the Prodigal Son, he sort of does all three. He demands his inheritance from his father before his father's even dead, which is just plain rude...
And then he turns his back on his family and takes off to the city in search of freedom. Which would maybe be fine... except that his idea of freedom is pretty much being prodigal. Wasteful in the extreme. Partying all that cash away in an orgy of drunken debauchery until every penny's gone.
At which point, homeless and hungry, mucking out pigs to stay alive, it occurs to him that the pigs are living better than he is. And the farmhands back at his father's house are living better still.
And he knows he's behaved badly and can't be treated like a member of the family anymore, but maybe if he goes back, he could at least be one of those farmhands. So back home he goes. He's filled with regret, he's spilling out his apologies before his father's even had a chance to say a word –
But his father stops him anyway. Because all the father cares about is that he's home. Lost, rude, uncaring, prodigal, wandered off track, spiralled into trouble, just gone bad – none of it matters. The father's love is un-lose-able.
It's an epic parable. The emotional pinnacle of that triad of parables of Jesus about things that are lost.
First a coin – dramatic, certainly, for the woman who needs it to eat –
Then a sheep – and the emotion's definitely heightened, considering the probable fate of any poor little innocent sheep who wanders off without protection –
And then of course, the ultimate emotion of a child gone beyond reach on purpose. But NO, Jesus is saying here: nothing and no one is ever lost to God, who yearns and searches and reaches for and always welcomes back into embrace.
It's at the heart of the gospel, this triad of parables. It's Jesus' message writ large: love one another as I have loved you. With this unchangeable un-lose-able love. It's love your neighbour like you KNOW – that no one is ever lost to God. That everyone matters.
A beautiful set of parables. That when I looked at the passage from the letter of James that we heard earlier, that was assigned in the lectionary cycle of readings for this Sunday, I found myself thinking about.
And then I found myself getting a little frustrated.
The thing about this passage from the letter of James – the thing about the whole letter, in fact – is its absolute unrelenting simplicity.
There's no 'nuance' in James. No caveats, no conditions – the gift of the letter of James to the scriptures and to people of faith is his distillation of "how then shall I live" into essential principles.
The basics, in effect. James is the brother of Jesus. Following the resurrection he becomes a key leader of the first Christian community to arise in Jerusalem itself, in the heart of where the events take place and in the earliest days.
He's not the Apostle Paul, twenty years later, building Christian community within the alien context of the Greek islands. Or the Apostle Thomas, travelling toward south Asia. Or the Apostle Philip, moving into north-east Africa. These men are building from the ground up – introducing the message and Way of Jesus into places where it's meeting completely different traditions and ways of faithfulness.
James isn't. He's in Jerusalem. Where he has the benefit of listeners and early Christians who have the same roots that Jesus does, in the essential principles of the Torah, the books of Moses, the Hebrew Scriptures – what we might call the Older Testament.
James has the benefit of that, in his spreading of the good news. He can speak to these essential principles knowing that they're already THERE in his community. They're real, they're understood, they're fundamental, they're solid roots he can build on. So he does.
And he doesn't have to explain them, he doesn't have to contend with questions or wonderings or challenges – there aren't any "but what abouts" that keep arising, leading to caveats or conditions or nuance –
The essential principles can just be the essential principles. And so for James they are. And that's what we get throughout this letter – the great gift to faithful living of his being able to distill its ethics into the simple straightforwardness of always being grounded in these essential principles.
Like this one: no one is ever lost to God. Not the poor, not the ragged, not the dirty, not the hungry, not the wayward, not the sketchy, NO ONE. No one is outside the circle of the beloved. So who is our neighbour?
Everyone. Yes the poor, yes the ragged, yes the dirty, yes the hungry, yes the wayward, yes the sketchy. Everyone. Because no one is ever lost to God.
And because we live in a world which DEFAULTS toward rejecting the poor and ragged and dirty and hungry and wayward and sketchy, it's then that much MORE incumbent on us as people of faith to be LOUD about that essential principle.
Not just "all lives matter" but "poor, ragged, dirty, hungry, wayward, sketchy lives matter."
So "do you find you're showing favouritism?" James asks his congregation, asks us, in this letter? "Then just don't. Just stop. We have an essential principle. Poor, ragged, dirty, hungry, wayward, sketchy lives matter."
So, someone's neat and tidy and well-spoken, James says, you welcome them. Someone's ragged and dirty and won't quite catch your eye, he says, you welcome them. Full stop, he says. It's an essential principle. No conditions, no caveats.
It's essential in the Torah, in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it's essential in the way of Jesus – it's literally on the ground the way Jesus lived and walked around and dealt with people. Remember the Pharisees, always getting worked up about him? "He eats and drinks with outcasts and sinners!" It's literally on the ground the essential principle Jesus embodied.
So why was I getting frustrated? Because I think we've kind of lost it. But not in a big egregious purposeful way – I actually DON'T think we've lost it in a big egregious purposeful way. I think we generally actually do quite WELL as people of faith in recognizing that all people are God's people and all lives matter.
I think the off-course we've gone is actually a lot more subtle than that. And I think it reflects to some degree the subtext of those amazing epic parables of Jesus about what's lost not ever being lost to God.
It's struck me in all the discourse and conversation and rhetoric there's been about the fact of homelessness in Halifax. The number of people priced out of housing, who simply can't afford what exists, and there are no other options.
Because there are two themes that immediately emerged in the discourse over the past month. That seemed to be the way that a lot of people who haven't ordinarily found themselves getting worked up about homelessness in Halifax suddenly found themselves reacting.
Which has been really good – but interesting. Because the first theme was innocence. A growing awareness in the community that there are people who are homeless in Halifax who've "done nothing wrong". Who have jobs, even fulltime jobs. Who go to school and also work. Who are on disability or a pension, and they've lived somewhere for years, but the owner sold. Or died. Or wants to renovate.
All these people who can't find a place to live in their own community and they've "done nothing wrong". Which rouses us to outrage. Because innocence. It's like that little lost sheep. And of COURSE it's beloved, of COURSE the shepherd searches high and low to bring it home. It's done nothing wrong.
We do often make our care, our concern, our upset demand for change contingent on innocence. It's that lost sheep lingering in our 'remembering who matters'.
And then there's the lost son. Who comes home broken and full of regrets – and we KNOW that's not why the father welcomes him, we KNOW the father would welcome him anyway – but he lingers there, in our minds.
He's full of regrets. And this is what'll help him get back on track, achieve his potential, get past what's been holding him back. He's broken, he's full of regret, he's ready for a new start. All these people who can't find a place to live here and they just "need this leg up". Which rouses us to action – it's literally the language Mayor Savage used in underlining the city's commitment to finding a solution. People need to be housed as that leg up, so they'll be able to achieve their potential, get past what's been holding them back.
We do often make our care, our concern, our upset demand for change contingent on assuming there's regret. It's that lost son lingering in our 'remembering who matters'.
Which -- as a way INTO care and concern, so that's something being felt and raised more broadly -- is great. CLEARLY whatever translates into a broader and more powerful groundswell of demanding action and a permanent solution is great.
But at the same time, what we're challenged by in this letter of James really ISN'T the caveat of treating the homeless poor like they matter because "innocence" or because "regrets".
They just matter. To Jesus, who eats and drinks with outcasts and sinners, there's no requirement they be innocent victims of a system who've done nothing wrong, and so that's why he aligns with them. For Jesus, who eats and drinks with outcasts and sinners, there's no assumption they're filled with regret, ready to get sober, achieve their potential. They just matter, as they are.
James won't let us look away from that essential principle. Who is my neighbour? Everyone. No conditions, no caveats. Innocent or regretful, sure... but just as much poor, ragged, dirty, hungry, wayward, sketchy.
And that's hard! We're way better at innocent and regretful. We're way better at the lost sheep and the lost son. Both of them linger, hovering in our minds and quietly reinforcing our secret belief that surely God's love and our concern need somehow to be deserved.
They don't. God's love just pours out. It doesn't have to be deserved. And neither do four walls and a roof. Not here. Not in our climate. Are you not, Jesus says to us, of more value than many sparrows? And yes we are. All of us. Amen.