James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
We pride ourselves here at St Benedicts on being inclusive. But being inclusive is not always as easy as like to imagine. Inclusivity is easy when the people we are including behave like we do, look more or less like we do and have similar customs and habits. I have heard people say that they like to come to classes and events here because they really like the people at St Benedicts. But sometimes we have people who are loud, who like to talk about themselves all the time, who have bad table manners, or for a whole variety of reasons are a pain. That makes it much more difficult.
This morning’s reading from the Epistle of James is quite challenge. Obviously there were those in the first or second century who only wanted to mix with people like themselves. The epistle writer questions whether they really know Christ. He reminds them that the second great commandment is to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. As Jesus showed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the neighbor we are asked to love is not necessarily the neighbor we would choose to love.
I wonder whom you find difficult to love?
The work of our transformation into the Christ-like beings we were made to be does not just happen effortlessly without our cooperation. For most of us it is a hard work of co-creation with the Holy Spirit. Those whom we find difficult to love are key. I’m going to say that again. Those whom we find difficult to love are a key to our transformation. They give us the opportunity to grow.
Black Moses was a converted Ethiopian highwayman who became one of the desert fathers. He said ‘The monk must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all in any way whatever.’ He also said ‘if you are occupied with your own faults, you have no time to see those of your neighbor.’
When we find it difficult to love someone else it is easy to blame them for our difficulty. They are unlovable because they are self-centered, or because they gossip, or because they always seem depressed, or because they are so needy or because they are untrustworthy. Now those things may seem to be true but they are not reasons not to love someone. Each and every person is beloved of God. It is possible to love someone including their negative behaviors.
The fact that it can be difficult is a sign of our humanness. It is also an opportunity to grow by allowing ourselves to soften around the difficulty that the person creates in us. Instead of listening to our critical inner conversation we can pray for them and send love to them. I am annoyed by the fish that some Christians still like to put on their cars because I imagine that it means they are a particularly rigid type of Christian. When I see one, I try not to grit my teeth and to thank God for the person, praying that they may truly know God’s love. It is an opportunity for me to practice not being judgmental. It is an opportunity for me in Black Moses’ words to ‘to die to my neighbor and never judge him’.
There are people who are drawn to St Benedict’s either at the church or at the Abundance Shop who do not do things the ways we do. For example, there are those who come into the shop who always want to bargain down the already low prices. We do not have to agree to bargain, but we are called to love and respect those who want to. Loving someone does not mean allowing them to walk all over us. Loving someone means seeing them and their behavior clearly, and seeing our own responses clearly enough that we do not have to react from an ego position but can respond from a place of love. We may not agree with a behavior such as bargaining but we do not have the option to be critical and judge those who want to bargain. Our love for and loyalty to Jesus Christ demands that we learn how to love and forgive our neighbors without being judgmental.
The process of coming to love and respect everyone even those with whom we disagree or those whom we find difficult to tolerate is a process of inner healing and transformation. It is the path of discipleship. It is the path of discipleship because it is the path which Jesus took. He was not critical and judgmental. He allowed himself to be manhandled and stripped and punished and crucified even though he was blameless, and he did not blame those who did it. He prayed for them.
Tomorrow is labor day – a day to acknowledge those who labor so that we may have all the things we take for granted. In San Luis Obispo it is impossible for someone to manage on minimum wage. Many people who are working are also homeless. Many people who are working go hungry. Many people cannot find work. Sometimes we see people coming to the church for assistance again and again. Obviously they are in chronic need and it’s tempting to say that they must be taking advantage of us. But when a daughter or a grandson can’t make ends meet we will do without ourselves in order to send them a regular check to help with the rent. The writer of the Epistle of James addresses this directly in the last few lines of our reading. ‘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.’
Luther described this epistle as a ‘letter of straw’ because it goes against the doctrine of justification by faith which he articulated. That says that we can do nothing to be reconciled with God. James says we have to work at it. To me it is clearly a both/and.
God’s unconditional love is always calling us into relationship, into unity with God. But this is not yet fully realized in our lives and since, like God, we are free, we have to choose to be transformed. We have to choose to allow the Holy Spirit to show us the places where our hearts are hard, where we are closed down, where we are critical and judgmental. Then we get to change.
This is discipleship. It is also healing. Our true nature is like that of God. We are created to be free from the chains of habit and of negative thought patterns. We are created to be free from guilt and from holding on to other’s guilt. As we let go of these things, as we learn not to be judgmental – in the words of Black Moses to ‘die to our neighbor and never judge him at all in any way whatever’. As we do this, we are ourselves healed. The places of pain and anger are gently touched so that we can release them in forgiveness. The places of fear are released so that we can give and give again without worrying about whether there will be enough for us.
The spiritual life is not one lived in isolation in a quiet and still place but one lived in community. Those whom God brings into community with us are not necessarily those we would choose, in fact they are often people we would not choose. We can welcome them with open arms and open hearts knowing that these are the hidden saints and teachers that God has sent to us specially to help us to heal.