Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 14, 2003. 
Based on James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18 and Mark 8:27-38 (Proper19, Year B).

 If you’ve ever experienced a fraternity or sorority rush party, you know how awkward it can be. The fraternity brothers or sorority sisters do everything they can to make it feel like it’s a natural environment. Like the party is a simple gathering of old friends. But it’s not. Everyone’s on edge. Everyone’s checking everyone else out for signs of good character or character flaws. People walk around with a certain forced nonchalance, trying hard to look comfortable, but in reality it’s a socially stressful environment. So, you mill around trying to make a good impression with witty and engaging small talk, while the brothers stare at you and make quick judgments about your worthiness. Anything you do or say is subject to judgment. And it’s tough not to take stock afterwards. Did I talk too much or not enough? Did I laugh too much or not enough? Did I wear the right clothes or the wrong ones? Did I meet enough of the brothers? Did I meet the right ones? It is an artificial environment, kind of like a cocktail party with winners and losers.

I always thought it would be much more comfortable from the other side and it was in a way. But it was also so superficial from the perspective of being on the inside. How were you supposed to decide if you’d like to spend your college years with a group of guys you’d only met a handful of times? And in anxiety-producing situations.

But as foreign as this concept is for our daily lives, we are all guilty of living our lives like a fraternity rush party. We make snap judgments about people all the time. We look at the strangers we encounter at the office or at the grocery store and we size them up. We can’t seem to help it.

And it’s hard not to judge other people. At this time of year it’s especially easy to fall into this. September seems to breed new gatherings – school begins, we return from vacations and go back to work or the routine of daily life and invariably we encounter new people and new situations. And it’s hard not to judge them. I don’t mean reasoned impressions taken over time. I mean snap judgments based on first impressions. And we usually reduce people to single words: Smart/dumb, slob/neat freak, rich/poor, fashionable/nerdy. And this is just what the letter of James warns us against. The author speaks about the sin of showing favoritism and partiality. 

In some ways this is the perfect passage to reflect upon how we welcome people new to this community. It’s easy to welcome people who look like us or think like us or act like us. If that initial impression is positive, it’s easy to open our arms and welcome the stranger in our midst. Because that stranger is somehow familiar, a stranger in whom we see ourselves. The person who James says, is the one “with gold rings and fine clothes.” For us that might translate as the person with a cell phone and a mini-van.

The more challenging person to welcome is the one James refers to as “the poor person in dirty clothes.” The one who sticks out around here. The one who doesn’t look like us or think like us or act like us. Is that person just as welcome?

Our gospel passage is the famous confession of Peter. In response to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?” he replies, “You are the Messiah.” And we often turn this question back on ourselves and ask “Who do we say that Jesus is?” Or, put another way, “Who is Jesus to us?” This is a good question, an important question and it’s a question we spend our entire lives seeking to answer. 

But in the context of James, I think the question for us this morning is, “Who do you say that your neighbor is?” “Who do you say about the stranger in your midst?” If the answer is “a child of God,” our penchant for snap judgments is exposed as the sin it is. And maybe that should be our snap judgment. If it’s human nature to judge one another, maybe we can discipline ourselves to first see one another as God’s beloved. That should be our first impression of everyone we encounter. 

Believe me, this is not easy. It means reserving our snap, one-word judgments and replacing them instead with God’s view of the world. And that view is to see everyone first as a child. Broken, maybe, but blessed. It’s worth a try. Because if you try to see others in this light you will gain a new perspective on life and those you encounter. Sit on the train or in a diner and look around with fresh eyes at the people you see. Look beyond their clothes and the expressions on their faces and see them first as a child of God.

Imagine a God who doesn’t make such superficial judgments. Imagine a God who knows us at the depths of our souls and yet still loves us. That’s the God we worship. That’s the God who sees us and loves us for who we are. And we come to see that life is not just one long fraternity rush party. Maybe a better image is a heavenly banquet to which all are invited, all are welcomed, and all are loved.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

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