Black History Month sermon: Who is my neighbor by Glenice Robinson-Como

James 2:1-9   Who Is My Neighbor?

“But I was her slave and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.”

Let us pray.  O Holy One, may only your words be spoken, may only your words be heard.  Amen.

In the first slave narrative composed by African American female author, Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs sheds light on the horrors of slavery from a female perspective, while also exposing the sexual exploitation of slave of masters.  Her story begins when her mistress, described as a kind and considerate person dies.  Harriet recounts a promise which was made by her mistress to her mother, that she would receive her freedom upon the death of her mistress.  She writes:

After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read and we learned she had bequeathed me to her niece, a child of five years old.  So vanished our hopes.  My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s word, “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.”  But I was her slave and I supposed she would not recognize me as her neighbor.  I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong.  As I child, I loved my mistress; and looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of injustice.  While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory.”

This passage describes Harriet’s story and understanding of the biblical passage we hear today in James and throughout bible focusing on loving our neighbor.   It is the passage Harriet probably heard most of her enslaved life.  It is also a passage where Harriet recognizes the differences in biblical interpretation.  You see, her mistress did not include a slave in her biblical concept of what it meant to be a good neighbor.  Harriet understood this concept of neighbor probably from passages read to her from Leviticus, the gospels and perhaps even from our appointed scripture today from James.  These are probably passages that were taught to by her very own mistress; these are passages she probably based her hopes and dreams upon.  This concept of loving neighbor as self probably enabled Harriet to endure the cruelty of her slave master, who constantly confronted her with sexual advances.  It was a passage that provided visions of a new future; visions of freedom and family.  The premise of loving your neighbor for Harriet was a promise of new life, now shattered through the reading of her mistresses’ will, where slave, was not embraced as neighbor.  But Harriet still lived on the promises of the scriptures that if the poor, the downtrodden, and the least of these were to be considered neighbor, surely a young slave girl could be as well.

In our reading from James today, he provides his own version of loving thy neighbor, but first he emphasizes and clearly makes the distinction of class division.  James highlights for us the behaviors and parameters of who we deem as acceptable, and who we consider as neighbor based upon worldly things, power and social status.   I believe even today this is where we too struggle with loving our neighbors as God loves us.  It is so easy for us to love those who look as we do, dress as we do and move in the same social circles as we do.  But what becomes problematic is when we are asked to move beyond the realms of comfort into the world and treat all those we encounter with love, respect, justice and mercy.  It is easy to love those we self-define as worthy, but it is harder to love those who may be different than we are or those we pre-judge and label.  It is often difficult to widen the circle of life to include those we discriminate against, those who we would rather not break bread with, those who God has called us to include as sisters and brothers.  James has much to contribute to our thinking about separatism and inclusion.  James jumps right in to remind us of favoritism and the disregard of “other”.   Author Cain Hope Felder observes that James provides what is perhaps the strongest castigation of class discrimination in the New Testament or for that matter any discrimination based on outward appearance. Felder states that these words have particular pertinence for African Americans who still experience such discrimination today. James mention of acts of favoritism should prompt us to ponder those places in our lives when we to have made snap judgments about others and perhaps embraced familiarity on face value only.  But more importantly, from James’ perspective, he directs us to understand that discrimination of any kind is simply not consistent with the Christian faith.  He reminds us that when we discriminate, we sin.

Defining the parameters of “who is neighbor” and “who is not” is sometimes a hard habit to break.  As Christians it should be as easy as ABC, but before we embrace the gift of caring for our neighbors, we have a prelude to neighboring; we first have to define who is our neighbor.  This is not necessarily done so that we can begin to serve others, but perhaps it is done as an unconscious act, where we find ourselves defining neighbor so we can develop a short list–a list which defines who it is that we do not have to serve.  This list serves as a place where we distinguish the haves from the have nots.  The danger in this is that we don’t just exclude the undesirable neighbor but we also exclude the presence of God.  Within all of creation God’s desire is for us to work together using our unique gifts and talents.  We all have been blessed with at least one or two offerings for the kingdom.   But when that list or line is only drawn for those we define as neighbor we work against the gospel message of offering love, justice and mercy.  We limit the means of forming a free and just society for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the disregard of any human life, where discrimination and in-just treatment occurs, speaks volumes about our theological commitments than any ecclesial confession.  Self-defining who is neighbor also reveals the kind of God we believe in and exposes the deficiencies in how we love the God we serve.

The key to allow love and peace to coexist in our world today resides inside each of us. It seems so often today we look at others and wonder what they may want from us or what their agenda really is all about and then we move into protection mode.  We live in a world that is so easily blinded from truth and allows laws to mandate the very core of the treatment of human life.  And as we keep our blinders tightly fastened, our distrust of the stranger grows, our attitudes spill out into the world to add to its distrust, while continuing to make the world a less inviting place.  But the GOOD NEWS is that I am still dreaming, hoping and having faith in a different type of world and I hope you are too.   I still believe there is a world for us, which comes from hard work and discipline, from lessons learned from our ancestors, from treating others as we want to be treated.  I still dream of a world where love for others exists and prevails over envy, power and hate.  I dream of a world where love can make room for the other and a world where we have visible signs and wonders of the living Christ among us.   But this type world is going to cost us something.  It is going to demand that some tables are turned over in the temples and a tenacity to never rest until all humanity is respected and cared for.

There is an illustration that reminds me of the world we must work to create and sustain.  It is an icon in an Austrian cathedral which pictures a small town or community in which people can be seen walking the streets of the town as they attend to the tasks of the day.  In the foreground is a large table with people sitting around it sharing a meal.  Everyone in the icon looks quite ordinary except for one thing-a glow or halo encircles the head of each person.  The icon is titled, Xenophilia, which is the love and friendship of strangers.  Paul Waddell writes that it was the icon’s title which invited him to look at it differently because it suggested that not everyone walking the streets or sitting at the table was a citizen of the town. It seems that some were strangers and outsiders, and immigrants from elsewhere.  But as he described it, all were able to enter the town because there were no walls surrounding it, nothing to suggest that some were welcome but others were not.  Anyone could feel at home in this town because everyone was welcomed as friend.  Instead of Xenophobia, which is the fear of strangers, this little town embodied the befriending hospitality of God.  Everyone who walked its streets glowed with holiness because they truly had learned to love whatever neighbors came their way, especially those neighbors which were easy to fear and exclude.  Everyone in the painting, Wadell wrote, “radiated the goodness of God because whether they were host or guest; Citizen or stranger– love was being given and received.”  It was a holy exchange that characterized true hospitality. (Toward a Welcoming Congregation, Paul Wadell.)

In her book Radical Welcome, Stephanie Spellars also describes this type of care for neighbor, as a spiritual practice of embracing and being changed by the gifts, presence, voices and power of the other. Spellars states, “this care combines a Christian ministry of welcome and hospitality with a clear awareness of power and patterns of inclusion and exclusion.”  This is the type work that we must begin to engage in. This is the task before us today. This is the dream continued.  After the blood, sweat and tears of 50 years of progression, it is up to each of us to carry the torch a bit further.  It will not be easy, it will require much, and it will definitely move us from our levels of comfort.  Brick by brick, step by step I believe this type of world is possible for all who believe.  My prayer for us today who gather to share in the celebration of Black History, is that we leave this place changed and dedicated to love and serve others. May God grant us each the courageous faith of those who have gone before us, so that we may continue this work together of transformation and radical hospitality.  AMEN.