September 6, 2015

James 2:1-17

“Hospitality without Partiality”

Perhaps you have seen this message on a church sign, as I have: “God shows no partiality, but the sign guy does… Go Riders, Go!” Although the biblical quote, “God shows no partiality” comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is a concept that appears elsewhere, including today’s passage from the letter of James.

Rooting for a particular football team or voting for a particular political party or leader is fine, but James is telling the Christian communities that they need to treat each other, and their guests, and their neighbours without distinctions. There are no VIPs in the Church! Or to put it another way, everyone is a VIP in the Church.

I came across a story some time ago about a pastor who tested his congregation on the very matter that James is addressing. When the people expected their pastor to be on holidays, he dressed up in a disguise with a beard and some old dirty clothes, and he came to Sunday worship to see how he would be received by his own congregation.

I can’t remember exactly how it turned out… whether they welcomed the down-and-out person in their midst, or just awkwardly coped with the fact that this strange man was among them on Sunday morning. I know they didn’t make him sit on the floor like the situation that James was describing, but the reception was certainly different than what he would have received in his usual outfit.

This morning’s scripture passages challenge us, not only in what we do here on Sundays, but in how we live throughout the week, to resist becoming judges of one another. They invite us to remember what James refers to as the “royal law” – the commandment Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, the one Jesus used to summarize the whole law concerning relating to others: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The idea is that it is not up to us to judge and determine who is deserving of our respect, our hospitality, or our help. We are to treat others as we would wish to be treated. We are to love and care for whoever we see is in need of love and care. Just as God has shown mercy to us (loving and forgiving us despite our sins and failings) we are asked to show mercy to others (loving and caring for them without judging whether they deserve it or not).

Here at St. Andrew’s we have a Session Benevolence Fund which many of you know about. Some of you make donations to the fund throughout the year, and our Christmas Eve offerings are always designated for that purpose as well. As the minister, I have access that the fund, and I’m able to use it to assist people who are in urgent need in our church or community.

And one of the things I find most difficult about using the Session Fund to help people is resisting the temptation to judge the people who need help. Sometimes someone needs assistance because of a terrible set of circumstances: They got laid off, or their child got sick and they had to stay home from work, or someone messed up their paperwork at Social Services. But sometimes they need assistance because they haven’t looked for a job, or because they just got out of prison, or because they spent their child tax credit on drugs instead of food for the kids. Often they tell me the circumstances of their need, hoping that I will show more generosity because they are in this situation through no fault of their own.

I read recently that during the Reformation period in the 16th century, the church distinguished worthy poor from unworthy poor. Haruka Ward explains that late medieval Europe experienced rapid urbanization. Due to constant war, famine, and plague, uprooted people migrated into cities, seeking housing, food, medicine, and employment. Only the fortunate found such, and the streets were flooded with “beggars.”

Previously, during the Middle Ages, Christians had believed that beggars played an important role in the economy of salvation. Born at the bottom of the ranks of society, the poor in Christian nations depended totally on the mercy of God and Christians for their survival. While the more affluent escaped such a fate, the poor suffered vicariously in their stead. The poor symbolized Christ who was also poor. And by assisting beggars, richer Christians honoured Christ.

However, the sudden increase of vagrants on the streets led to a change of attitude. Reformers taught an ethic of hard work and self-reliance, but many beggars did not learn any new skills and kept on begging. Reformers considered these people too lazy and unworthy to receive charity. The churches aided only the upper-class “shame-faced,” who suddenly lost their income in social upheaval and were reduced to poverty, but were too ashamed to beg.

People no longer saw the image of Christ in the poor beggars but feared them as carriers of contagious diseases and moral decay. Cities banned begging, and cleaned up their streets by expelling them.

I think that somewhere deep inside, I inherited a bit of that attitude from the 16th century. Especially when there are limited funds to help, I have to resist the temptation to become the judge, showing mercy and offering help only to those who I think deserve it.

This week, perhaps more than other weeks, we are very aware of the biblical directive to care for the poor and welcome the stranger. We have been hearing about and praying about the plight of Syrian refugees for a long time, but this week Canadians came face-to-face with the magnitude of the refugee crisis when a photograph of a drowned little boy who had been trying to escape with his father and brother was shared around the world.

It hit home especially hard when we learned that the family was trying to get to Canada where they had relatives. We were horrified that they became so desperate that they risked a dangerous journey in a small boat.

Our news has been filled with debate and argument about Canada’s policies and limits in receiving refugees, side-by-side with shocking images of thousands of people cramming onto trains, struggling to get across borders, and walking hundreds of miles with little children in their arms.

I heard one politician refer to it as “a crisis of biblical proportions” as she called on her own party leader to receive at least 100,000 refugees from Syria to Canada immediately.

It is strange that all of this is coming to a head in the middle of an extended election campaign when the parties are making policy announcements and promises every day. James’ challenging words to the early Christians come to mind again. He says, “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is that if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?”

The politicians can make all kinds of promises, and quote all kinds of numbers of refugees that they will budget for, and plan on welcoming. But if they don’t actually do it, it will make no difference. It needs to actually happen now, and quickly.

This summer, the Moderator of the 141st General Assembly of our Church, the Rev. Karen Horst, wrote to the Prime Minister, encouraging him to do more to respond to the crisis. The General Assembly had adopted a motion “urging that the number of government-sponsored refugees be increased to, at a minimum, match the number of privately sponsored refugees.” She explained that the Church is concerned that Canada is not playing its traditional role in responding to UNHCR resettlement appeals, and thus is not fulfilling its international responsibilities.

Horst wrote, “As Christians, we heed the call from Jesus Christ to seek ways to welcome the stranger, to protect the vulnerable, and to affirm the dignity of all. This is the heart of the Church’s ministry with refugees… We are asking Canada to do significantly more in refugee resettlement and humanitarian assistance.”

Yesterday I heard that there is a rally and march happening in Saskatoon today at 1pm, starting at City Hall and ending at the offices of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Organized by the Saskatoon Refugee Coalition, Amnesty International, Global Gathering Place, and others, the rally’s purpose is to show support for Syrian and Kurdish refugees and to lobby for changes to Canadian refugee policy.

As was done in the past during other humanitarian crises such as in Kosovo in 1999, these groups are calling the government to commit to immediately increasing the number of government-assisted refugees to our country. Perhaps some of us might attend, and lend our voices to this important call. And I would add to that call the plea that refugees should be accepted without discrimination – without giving priority to certain religious groups – but welcoming those in need without partiality.

But government action alone is not going to do it either. As Canadians, and as Christians, we cannot think of either lobbying or even voting on October 19th as our only ways of impacting how our rich nation cares for and welcomes the poor of the world. Because if we are going to receive thousands more refugees into Canada, it will be up to us to welcome them and assist them.

Although The Presbyterian Church in Canada is a Sponsorship Agreement Holder that works with Citizenship and Immigration Canada in sponsoring and helping refugees coming to this country, our congregation has not been directly involved in refugee sponsorship for quite a long time.

In addition to the other ways that we try to put our faith into action through the Session Fund, and supporting helping agencies in the city, and giving to Presbyterian World Service & Development… we may be called upon soon to assist with refugee sponsorship, and I pray that we will find the energy and the resources to do so.

I heard this morning that Pope Francis has challenged every parish and monastery and religious house in Europe to sponsor one refugee family. I also heard that when Iceland announced that they could receive only fifty refugees from Syria, eleven thousand volunteers came forward, offering to open their own homes to receive needy families.

Some of you may have heard of Jim Wallis, an American Evangelical leader, writer, and promoter of social justice within the Church. In his first year in seminary, Jim and some of his friends did a thorough study to find every verse in the Bible that deals with the poor and social injustice. They came up with thousands, in the first three Gospels one out of ten verses, in Luke one out of seven!

Strangely, they noted that they could not recall a single sermon on the poor in their home churches. One of them found an old Bible and began to cut out every single biblical text about the poor. Much of the Psalms and prophets disappeared. That old Bible would hardly hold together. They had created a Bible full of holes.

But even when we know that care for the poor is a critical part of our response to God’s goodness and grace to us, it is still a challenge for us to put that knowledge into action… to offer hospitality and help without partiality as we seek to fulfill the royal law: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

It is easier said than done. James knew that, as do we when we listen to the political pronouncements and promises.

May God help us to put our best intentions into action, so that we may honour our merciful and gracious God in our worship and in our lives of faithful service. Amen.