2 My brothers and sisters,[a] do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?[b] 2 For 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, 3 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,”[c] 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] Has not God 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9)
This week is the last in our four-part series on how Progressive, Open and Affirming churches can move from simply welcoming marginalized people into our congregation to intentionally working with marginalized people to make our space accessible for all. In the past three weeks, we have talked about how to create space for the transgender community in our church, how to be more accommodating and accessible for people who are living with a disability, and what we can do to make our church safer for people who are living with a mental illness. Videos of these three sermons are available online on our facebook page or in a text copy on our church website, so if you missed them I invite you to check them out.
Today, we are thinking about the ways that we can make our church a place where people who are living in poverty can be included as full members of the congregation. In New Mexico, 1 in 5 people are currently living in poverty and as of this year our number of children living in poverty ranks our state as 49th nationally. This means that 27% of our state’s children are living below the poverty line.
In our scripture for today, James is asking us to critically examine the ways that we behave towards the rich and the poor. He says that if we are partial to the rich over the poor, we are not loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are not committed to following the teachings of Jesus, who was constantly reiterating that the Kingdom of Heaven is for the poor and the oppressed. And he goes on to ask, “Why are you focusing your energy on the rich, who oppress you? Why are you giving them your attention, and ignoring the people that need you?”
James is pointing out that we might claim that we love everyone equally, but when it comes down to our treatment of those around us, too often we are guilty of showing favoritism to those who hold the most wealth and power in our society.
We have to ask ourselves honestly: If Mack C. Chase, who is currently the richest person in New Mexico, visited our church zoom worship right now, and right after that a homeless woman in rags logged on from a borrowed computer in the Las Cruces library —would we treat them both with the same amount of respect and attention? Would we welcome them as equals into our community? Would we practice what we preach?
We live in a culture which values wealth and power. Paris Hilton and the Kardashian family have reached celebrity status and created careers off of being overwhelmingly rich. Jeff Bezos is a household name because Amazon is making him so wealthy that by 2026 he is expected to be the world’s first trillionaire. When we see money, we have been socially conditioned to see success. And when we see people living in poverty, we have been taught to put value judgements on their worth without truly understanding their situation. Whether we like to admit it or not, societal values leak into our church values.
I have seen it happen. After my Mom and Stepdad divorced, my Mom struggled to make ends meet as the single, disabled parent of three kids. We lost our house and moved into an apartment. My mom budgeted well, but she was barely able to pay our rent off of the part time job that she had as a church secretary—and getting another job was not an option with the amount of physical pain she was in. Because of all this, a lot of our food came from food banks, a lot of our Christmas gifts came from foundations, and a lot of our clothes came from thrift stores.
Since I was the oldest, I was the one who helped my Mom when she went to food banks and clothes closets. We needed the services that they offered, and I am thankful that they existed. However, I also got a painful look at how people living in poverty are treated when they ask for help. Some of the places were fantastic—the volunteers were kind and actually provided the resources that we needed. However, a lot of the time all we were given was expired junk food and dirty, stained clothing. The volunteers were willing to give us a bag of food if we went to their pantry, but if we visited their church on a Sunday morning we were looked down at or ignored. We were treated like charity cases that should be embarrassed of needing help, rather than people worthy of respect and dignity.
In James 2, we are being asked to recognize that there are people in the world who are hungry, and thirsty, and in need, and that it is up to us to do something about it. At the same time, James reminds us that we cannot help people and simultaneously think that we are better than they are. When we place our energy into impressing those with money and ignoring those who do not have money, we are missing the entire point of the gospel.
In fact, some of the things that James says about the rich are pretty harsh. They are hard to swallow. We really need to struggle to make sense of what we should learn from these verses. Is James saying that we should not be allowed to accumulate wealth? That those who work hard should not benefit from the fruits of their labor? Is having money immoral? And if that’s true, how much is too much?
I haven’t reached clarity on this issue yet. I am still wrestling with what it means in my own life. What I do know is that the verses in the Bible that rebuke the rich and advocate for the poor have led me to take a hard look at the way that I use my own resources. I invite you to do the same thing.
As Christians we are called to partner with God to make this world a better place for everyone who lives in it. What good is having faith in something if we are unwilling to actually put that faith into practice? Like James writes, “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?” It is up to us to use our time, our energy, and our resources to do what we can to make this world a better place for all who live in it.
We have a long way to go to end poverty and take care of our poor. Now would be a great time for me to layout all of my solutions to these problems. I wish I could share a five point plan this morning, and we could all leave here with a realistic strategy to solve global poverty. But life doesn’t work that way, and I don’t think any of us have the answers that we need to solve this epidemic. But I think it is important that we keep asking the questions. Even more importantly, we have to do what we can to make a difference.
Here in our church, we can be aware of the language we use in worship. Are we using meditations or illustrations that relate wealth or personal belongings to messages about our worth, value, or goodness?
We can work on being more aware of the assumptions we make about people’s resources. No one should feel like they can’t attend our church if they can’t tithe every Sunday or contribute a big dish to the church potluck.
We can find ways to support our local community and church members who might be having a difficult time economically, and do so in a way that reiterates that we do not believe that a person’s worth is connected with how much money they make or their social status.
I am acutely aware that right now since we are worshiping online, we are cutting off access to worship for people who do not have an internet connection or device to long in on. In these strange times I have not been able to think of a more inclusive alternative, but I think it is something that we still need to be aware of and trying to problem-solve.
We all come with diverse gifts, talents, and resources that we can use. Whatever it looks like for each one of us individually- we have to continue to acknowledge that there is a problem, and to keep believing that it is up to us to work towards a solution. Most importantly, we must remember that our worth is not defined by how much money we make, or how wealthy we are. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity of others.” Will you help make our church a place where people living in poverty are valued and loved?