Life Together

Posted 9/9/2018

Scripture: James 2:1-17

I’ve never met a church that didn’t say it was friendly. Yet when you look more closely there are many churches where their life just may not bear that out. For example, more than once I’ve done a little experiment with church members. I ask them to begin talking with one another like they might do after (or before) worship. They immediately gather in small groups, cheerfully chatting away. I then approach each group, each of which is gathered in a rough circle. Most often not a single one of the groups opens up their circle to include me. I then ask them to think about this question: If they won’t move to include me, their pastor, how likely is it that they will move to include a visitor who is a stranger?

Today’s lesson from James challenges us to think about how we include or exclude people in our church gatherings. In James’ day and among his church community the biggest problem was how the church responded differently to those who were wealthy and those who were poor. Much like the society around them, they were likely to show great respect, and give great honor, to those who were of higher status in the surrounding society. We may find this to be true in our churches, but just as often our divisions are based more on who does how much for the church and our own personal friendships. 

Now I’m not saying personal friendships are wrong. What I am saying is in the church we need to make a real, conscious effort to be sure to include everyone. And without a doubt, the respect a member of the church receives shouldn’t be based on either their standing in the community or how much they do for the church.

The story is told of a congregation that was eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new pastor. On that Sunday morning a shabbily dressed, somewhat dirty and smelly man showed up before the service began. The ushers were embarrassed by the presence of this man who was clearly a bum. Why did he have to come on the day they were to celebrate the arrival of their new pastor? They suggested the man might be more comfortable going to the Rescue Mission service, but he insisted on worshiping with them. So, they seated him in the very back, in a dark corner where they hoped no one, and especially not their new pastor, would notice him. 

The service began, with great fanfare. Everyone was awaiting the arrival of their new pastor. At the appointed hour, the worship leader began the service, even though the pastor hadn’t been spotted yet. As they came to the point in the service where the new pastor would preach for the first time, the worship leader hopefully called out the pastor’s name. The congregation was alive with excitement and began clapping.

At that moment, the bum got up from his seat in the corner, moved to the center aisle and walked up to the pulpit. Every eye in the sanctuary was on him. Many heads were shaking and everyone in the congregation was clearly embarrassed at this man’s behavior. 

When the bum arrived at the pulpit, he simply recited Jesus parable:

 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

'The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

He then told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many in the congregation suddenly felt ashamed. 

While this is a story, not a true account, it vividly points out how we in the church today often treat others. If they don’t look like they “fit” in our congregation, we are inclined to ignore them, exclude them or even potentially suggest somewhere else they might go where they would be more “comfortable.” 

Yet it isn’t just those who are markedly different from us who may find it hard to enter our fellowships. Having served mostly small churches, I am well aware we tend to think of ourselves as families. In some ways that is both a Biblical image of the church and a very good description of the congregation. There is one problem, however, with our thinking of ourselves as a family: there are only 2 ways to enter a family — be adopted into it or marry into it.

So how do we, as small churches which are really like families, go about including others? How do we begin to break down the barriers — often barriers we aren’t really conscious of even being there — that can exclude others?

The first and main thing we must do is make an effort to include others. In this day of bullying and school shootings it is not uncommon to hear advice given to children that they say “Hi” to the kid that doesn’t seem to fit in or go sit with the child who is sitting all alone at lunch. But do we adults take our own advice? How often do we approach someone who isn’t part of “our circle” to have a real conversation with them? How often do we say more than a brief “hello” to people who might come into our congregation? How often do we go sit with the person who is sitting all alone in the pews or at fellowship time? Do we make a real effort to include those who may seem to be excluded by the group? The first thing we must do is to begin to make an effort as individuals to include others, especially watching for those who may be “excluded.”

The second thing is to begin as a congregation to “adopt” others into our groups. In one of my congregations, a session member was a township road commissioner. That meant he often was aware of people who moved into the community within a week or two of their arrival. He’d stop to visit any newcomers, introducing himself, telling them he was their road commissioner, and inviting them to let him know of any road issues they might notice. He also, before the conversation was over, would invite them to his small, very much family-like church. In fact, he would stress that they were a family — but at the same time assure the newcomers that they would become a member of the family on the first day they attended. 

And the fact was, that was exactly what that congregation, as a congregation, did. When a young family with children showed up, several older members would immediately begin to adopt them as their own grandchildren. They would begin to bring a piece of candy that the children would get after worship if they had been “good.” When the family had a number of children, one or two of the younger couples would offer to have one of the children sit with them during worship so Mom and Dad didn’t have as many kids to try to handle. 

It is easy for us to become comfortable in our own social circles here at church. But James reminds us that we need to stretch ourselves out to include those who are not a part of our circle. We need to be aware, so that no one is excluded. We need to not simply say we welcome everyone; we need to be a community that truly does welcome everyone.