The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018
For thousands of years, people have gathered around fire. Obviously, before electricity, the fire provided warmth and light. It was where food was cooked. From prehistoric caves to the great nomad caravans - the fire was this great egalitarian meeting place. Everybody needed light, everybody needed warmth. Imagine the ancient halls of Europe. They used to have one common room with a fireplace in the middle of the room and a hole in the roof for ventilation. The lords and ladies would gather in that common room with their servants; eating together, sharing the same light, the same warmth. No matter if you were the richest of the rich you were around the lowest of the low. You shared light, you shared warmth, you shared space.
This is the world as the book of James knows it. James is describing a social world in which the rich and poor share space. He imagines a rich person and a poor person walking into a common room together. James says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” You can imagine this, right? The rich person would get the best spot - not too hot, not too cold. The poor person would get the worst spot - smoky, cold, and dimly lit. There were distinctions among them, even if they were sharing one space. And this, James says, shows our hardness of heart. That we would play favorites.
But then something happened in the 11th century, a thousand years after Jesus. That was when fireplaces with mantels were first built into walls with chimneys. The chimney provided a way for you to have a fire for heat and light in individual rooms without a giant hole in the roof. Plus, it was a great help for Santa Claus.
Anyway, soon enough the lords and ladies had their own dining and living quarters with their own private chimneys. The historian Barbara Tuchman put it this way: “No other invention brought more progress in comfort and refinement, although at the cost of a widening social gulf.” Instead of sharing, rich and poor were now split apart. Masters and servants no longer shared space.
When you think about it, the image in the book of James of a rich person and a poor person walking into the same assembly room doesn’t even make sense in the modern world. We’ve been divided up since then. Not only by chimneys. But by the railroad tracks - some real, some proverbial. We’ve been divided by ethnicity, think of our neighborhoods - until not that long ago, some people could get housing loans, some people could not depending on what they looked like. The modern day chimneys are where the buses run and where they don’t. The chimneys, the dividing lines, are everywhere. How I see it, is that the rich and poor don’t really share spaces anymore. There are no common rooms. Make no mistake, the Church has done this, too. Before we had pledge campaigns to raise money, churches would rent out their pews. You paid for your spot in church. If you couldn’t pay, if you couldn’t afford a pew, you sat in the balcony. I know that some of you in the back might like that now, but that is a different point.
We have built chimneys around us so that we do not have to share. We have our own little rooms. We have made distinctions. With our acts of favoritism, do we really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
This, I think, is the great challenge laid before the Church in this generation - to create space for all people. The challenge is for each of us - regardless of our status - to share space with people we wouldn’t otherwise share space with. The challenge for the Church is to be the common room for all of God’s children.
In other words, we have got to step out of our individual rooms with our own little chimneys. We have got to stop making distinctions. And maybe it’s here, in the church, in this great common room that we can get to know each other again; where we can all see each other, and share space with one another. That’s the way to rip the chimneys out of society. It’s got to start here, with you and me. We’re creating space where the rich can learn the problems of the poor and where the poor can receive dignity again, without judgment. Then, and only then, when we actually know each other will we see that we’ve belonged together this whole time. God created us to be friends, we were created to love each other.
This is the work laid before us, as a church. To rip the chimneys out of our souls so that we can be with each other again.
In a very real sense, this is my vision for Holy Comforter and for my priesthood. Hanging in my wall is the certificate from the bishop proving that I am the rector of this church. It says that it is my solemn duty to care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. In the words of James, I am to make no distinction. I am supposed to rip out the chimneys wherever I find them.
That is not my work only, but our work. And this is going to be hard work for us. It is going to be hard to make sure that Holy Comforter is truly a common room with space for everybody. And yet, that is what makes this place so exciting. As I see it, Holy Comforter is at the nexus of this great melting pot that is north Houston. To the west of us is the first wave of suburban development. The the north of us is ExxonMobil with its immense power and prestige. To the south of us is 1960 and the enormous problems of homelessness and poverty. The the east of us is new development as far as Kingwood. And here we are - stuck right in the middle of it. On some old farmland. I see chimneys everywhere I go; I see distinctions everywhere I go. And I know that I cannot change everything that needs changing. I cannot solve everybody’s problems. Geez, I can barely handle my own problems. But what I can do is help make this place a common room, where we share space. I can make sure that in this place we try, as hard as we might, to fulfill the royal law - to love our neighbors as ourselves.
That is my vision for this church. A place for all of God’s children - young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. It’s what the world needs, it’s what we need, and I believe that’s what our community needs. We don’t know each other anymore, we need a common room again.
And in this common room is a table, and a meal given to us by God. If you’re wondering what a world would look like without chimneys, without distinctions; if you’re wondering what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself; it’s this meal. The Holy Communion instituted by the Lord Jesus himself. We know that in this meal, nobody is greater, nobody is lesser. There are no young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak. Whether the Queen of England herself or the homeless woman with three kids sleeping in her car or the smallest child comes to this altar rail, they receive the same communion. The same bread, the same cup. The same Lord Jesus Christ. Here, at the holiest part of our lives, there are no distinctions. Young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor are together again. As we were always meant to be.
This holy meal is not just something that we do on Sunday mornings as part of some tired, old ritual. This Holy Communion is not something that we receive, it’s something that we become. As we have received his body and blood, we become his ambassadors, his presence in the world. We now are to look at the world in the same way that Jesus does.
This, for me, is the best news I could have ever heard. It seems that everywhere I go, I’m ranked by how much I have, or how much I’m worth. The neighborhood I live in, the restaurants I go to, where I buy my groceries - my whole life is a reminder that what the world values in me is my purchasing power. The world wants to know what kind of chimney I can afford.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that your worth, your value as a human being has nothing to with what you have. The good news is that Jesus Christ loves you just as much as he loves everybody else. And in this place, we will by the royal law - to love our neighbors as ourselves. We will have no chimneys here, only a common room where all people are welcome.