Approximately two years ago, a small group from our parish participated in Neighborhood Prayer Walks. It was a fantastic experience, but one that is quite counter to the pace of our society today. Participants were invited to come, some on weekday afternoons, some on Saturday mornings, and to simply walk in silence, to walk in prayer around our neighborhood. We walked in all four directions of our very uniquely positioned parish. We walked up the hill toward campus, we walked toward the tracks and the county jail, we walked to the historic district with its grand old houses, and we walked down to the square with its vibrant business life. What we learned from these prayer walks is that our community, not Bowling Green in a large-scale sense, but literally our neighbors who live in walking distance of our parish vary drastically.
Each person who participated took away different things from their time praying the neighborhood, but one of the things that stands out the most for me, even two years later was how difficult it truly is to love our neighbor. And, I’ll be honest, I think it’s kind of difficult to love anyone with whom you are not close to, and right now, I know that I’m running on very thin margins, so this feels extra tricky. But in these walks, I realized it was so hard to love our neighbor as Christ Church because our neighbors are not one thing. In a one-mile radius of this parish, you’ll find just about every financial status from those experiencing homelessness to those who have never had to worry about what comes next. In this same one-mile radius, you’ll pass an obscene amount of litter from the previous night’s college party while also encountering those who are getting their small business on its feet. I don’t know that it’s ever really easy to love our neighbor, but when our neighbor looks like so many different things, it makes it even harder.
This, I kind of wonder, is where we can see some points of connection to the twelve tribes in diaspora to which our Epistle writer, James, is writing. We heard read in the second lesson this admonition from James. This admonition that we should not be the ones to judge, and that in these communities there was overt and intentional favoritism to the wealthy. And not only that, but that there was intentional and overt subjugation of the poor. “You do well,” James says, “if you really fulfill the royal law according to scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” For James, this is the ultimate litmus test of a vibrant faith; that when push comes to shove, or rather when rich and poor gather together, that you could not tell the difference in how they are treated by the people of God.
James minces no words when he articulates what is perhaps the most quoted line of this short book in the Bible, faith without works is dead. It’s an intense line, but for James there is no life in our faith if our thoughts and prayers are not followed by actions and deeds. We cannot claim to follow the crucified and resurrected Messiah without being changed and being moved to make change. The truth is, it matters very little what we do on Sunday morning if it does not impact how we act on Monday. My friends, God is calling us to a vibrant faith, but we cannot get there until our actions align with our prayers.
I have had many a conversation, often with a college student or with a young family who ask if they will be welcome in our church. They ask from a practical standpoint, but there are often layers behind it of fear of being unwelcome; unwelcome because of how they dress or who they are or for how loud toddlers can be. I always assure them that they will be welcome here because I know the people of Christ Church, and I know that this is a community that truly does try to seek and serve Christ in all persons. But I also want us to pay attention to who is not here; who is not here, and not just physically absent for COVID reasons and realities, but who is not a part of our congregation? Which of our neighbors would walk in and struggle to find the welcome that we want to extend?
Our parish is blessed with a diverse neighborhood, but this blessing is a challenge as well; it is a challenge ripe with opportunities for us to live out the practical implications of loving our neighbor as our self. It provides us space to ask, what is the Good News for the recently released prisoner from the Warren County Regional Jail? What is the Good News for the overwhelmed and homesick college student? What is the Good News for those whose homes are part of Bowling Green’s complex history? What is the Good News for our neighborhood and how can we live into God’s call upon our common life to live a vibrant faith—one that is active in both prayer and action?
When St. James says faith without works is dead, he is not slamming the coffin shut on a faith that no longer has life, he is giving a warning sign that without works, without action, our faith will die. It’s a warning that without being active in both prayer and action, our faith will be unresponsive to life-giving opportunities, as one dictionary put it. Unresponsive to life-giving opportunities.
I wish, I very deeply wish that I could simply articulate for you what some of these life-giving opportunities are. I would love nothing more than to be able to say, “Your faith can be active on Sunday, just make sure you do this on Monday.” But it’s just not that simple, and I think that we are in a collective time of discernment and listening. I see it in my own life, in others, and in our common life. I don’t know what works we need to do to have a vibrant faith right now, but perhaps part of the call of this season of life is to listen and to pay attention to life-giving opportunities. We may not have the capacity to solve the world’s problems, but the first step in being responsive to life-giving opportunities is to notice them.
We would do well to love our neighbor as ourselves, and our neighborhood is vast and diverse and full of opportunities, full of life-giving opportunities. One of my prayers for us as a community is that we will continue to be responsive to those life-giving opportunities. That we will be able to hear where God might be leading us and to discern what is our right next step. That we will treat all our neighbors with the same love and respect that we hold for those siting in the pews next to us. That we will answer God’s call to a vibrant faith, and that we will be moved to act as deeply and as quickly as we are willing to pray.
A sermon on James 2:1-17 delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Proper 18B on September 5, 2021.