September 9, 2012

 

ON CITIZENSHIP

                                                          Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                             at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 9 September 2012 
 
                                                       Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 34: 4-7
                                                       Reading from the Psalter:                          Psalm 146
                                                       Reading for the Epistle:                      James 2: 1-17

 

These last couple of weeks our television channels and newspapers have reveled in the news, so-called, coming out of Tampa and Charlotte.  Looking on as a complete outsider I could not but feel I was watching something akin to a prelude for “West Side Story” as two gangs get themselves hyped up for some very serious turf warfare – and as that turf war gets fought out there is a very real risk that some very real damage will be done and not just to the reputations of the participants by their opponents, but to those over whom the struggle is being waged.  Is it too late to remind those seeking office and their supporters that the name of this country is the United States of America?  Is it too naïve to point out that the United States of America proclaims itself to be One Nation under God?  Is it really too much to expect that those who seek office are elected to represent all the people in their constituency, be it at the city, county, district, state or national level?

In all the shouting and posturing of the last couple of weeks, how many times did we hear mention of an event the eleventh anniversary of which occurs in a couple of days?  Yes, we heard, and quite properly, about our gallant service men and women from one candidate, and we heard about the need, the obligation that this country has towards providing substantial assistance to them once they are discharged from military service, especially those tens of thousands who have been wounded in the service of this country – and that means you and me.  And we heard of the need to support those who have been widowed and orphaned as a result of the ultimate price paid by those four thousand and more who served on our behalf.  But did we hear substantial remembrance of the catastrophic effects on those who gallantly went to the aid of others during the events of September 11, 2001? 

So let us pause this morning and recall, those of us who can, what we saw on our television screens that morning eleven years ago.  What we saw were men and women simply doing their job, knowing full well that as they marched into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan they might well not come out alive – and yet in they went.  And they went to give whatever aid they could to the victims trapped in those towers with little hope of any escape.  We saw the pictures, and we saw men and women giving of themselves without asking who it was they were assisting.  It did not matter whether the victims employed in those buildings were Republican or Democrat or Independent.  Why, it didn’t even matter if they were citizens of the United States of America or of some other country.  It didn’t matter whether the aliens were legal or illegal immigrants.  It didn’t matter whether they were Catholics or Protestants – or Episcopalian! It didn’t matter whether they were Christian or Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh, Jewish or, let it be said, Muslim.  All that mattered was that there were people in those crumbling buildings in need, and those public servants did their duty no matter what the cost to them personally, and to their families. 

In all this they epitomized what those who call themselves Christian – and that means you and me – are called to do, and that we pledge to do in our baptismal vows. James spells this out in his letter, as we heard just now.  All too often this short letter is overlooked.  We spent about ten minutes on it when I went through seminary!  The tendency has always been to dismiss it as somewhat lightweight.  Martin Luther dismissed it as “strawy”, since it did not have any theology, only Christian morality and ethics, which were not all that different from Jewish morality and ethics.  Yet that is to miss the point.  For James’ morality and ethics grew out of his understanding of theology.

James was the brother of Jesus, the second-born of Mary’s five sons.  They had grown up together and James subscribed to many of the same views as did Jesus, so much so that he did not feel the need to remind his readers of this.  When we look at James’ words we can hear the voice of Jesus.  The parallels between the verses in James and in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the parables in the Gospel of St Matthew are a sure sign that James continued to teach what Jesus had taught about living together in this world.  We can easily imagine the two brothers talking long into the night, and when the time came for the Church in Jerusalem to choose a new leader it was to James that they turned.  He it was who presided over the first Council of the Church as is recorded in Acts 15.  So, when we read a passage such as the Epistle reading this morning, we can be assured that we are hearing the words of one who was very close to Jesus and was recognized as being close to Jesus by their contemporaries. 

Like Jesus, James claims that we are to treat everybody in the same way.  It does not matter who they are or from where they come.  It does not matter whether they are rich or poor.  We do not give extra attention to the rich while ignoring the poor.  Indeed, James, like Jesus, urges that rather than giving special attention to the rich we should give it to the poor because they are the ones in the most need, and needs need to be met.  That is why we call them needs.   The hungry are to be fed, the homeless are to be given shelter and adequate clothing, and no one is to receive less favourable treatment simply because they cannot make a substantial financial contribution to the needs and work of the community, let alone its maintenance.

In all this James, and Jesus, are at one with the prophet Isaiah and the Psalmist, as we saw from our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures.  The prophet had written about healing the blind, the deaf, the lame and the dumb.  He had spoken of the absolute necessity of a clean water supply.  The Psalmist wrote of healing the blind, of extending supportive justice to the underprivileged, including the alien, and seeing to it that the needs of the widowed and orphaned are fully met.  That is what the Lord expects of us – and especially of those who are blessed with the wealth of this world.  What is the old saying?  Unto whom much has been given, much will be required. 

Sometimes, I dare say usually, it is those who are not richly blessed with the material things of this world who are the most supportive of those in need.  They know the cost of survival, and so they will march into crumbling towers in lower Manhattan and not mind the cost.  They will lay down their lives, if need be, in support of their colleagues on the battlefield, and they will bear the cost to themselves, whether it is permanent injury or death.  And if they are not called upon to face such dangers, they will still reach out constructively to those who have real need. 

James urged this upon his congregation, and it was to cost him his life at the hands of those who chose to put their own wishes before the needs of others.  He lived the life that Jesus urged, and he died the death that those who opposed Jesus imposed upon him.  And that is what is required of all of us who claim to follow Christ Jesus.  We are not called to be a Republican or a Democrat.  We are not called to be a United States citizen or an alien, whether legal or illegal.  Our true citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, and as citizens of that Kingdom we are expected to live lives worthy of our citizenship.  And we know what is demanded of us – to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our minds, and with all our strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves, whoever those neighbours might be.

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