Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Royal Law

 Faith without works is like a screen door on a submarine

A sermon on James 2:1-17, preached September 9, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
(c) Christina Berry

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
2:1 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?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

I was going to preach about welcoming today.
It’s the second sermon in our series on Disciples, and this text is a good one for Rally Day.
I was going to talk about how important it is for us to welcome strangers, especially here in worship, because we want them to feel welcome, and come back. And we do welcome folks who come to worship with us. Not just people who look well-off, but all people. We do that pretty well. And then I was going to recall all the things we do to make sure that the poor are clothed and fed and cared for – all the missions we do, like FISH food pantry, and Loaves and Fishes, and Good Neighbor Emergency Center, and PADS, and how proud I am of that. That’s what I was going to say.

Have y’all ever heard of Will Campbell? He’s getting on in years now – he’s 88 years old. I got to see him in person a little over a year ago, and then after that I looked him up on Wikipedia. This scripture from James made me think of him.

I don’t know about you, but I found this scripture today pretty challenging. I can’t claim I’m one of the poor, never have been. Sure, there have been some times when I was strapped for cash, but never a time when I didn’t have any resources. I grew up hearing people’s stories of the Depression, sad stories. They really were poor, but I’ve never been that poor. Not even close.

I’ve always had a roof over my head, enough to eat, and clothes to wear. I’ve never lacked medical care, and if I missed going to the dentist for an annual checkup, it was not for lack of money but lack of courage. Even during the times when we didn’t seem to have much, we always had enough, and if we hadn’t, there was family to help if we asked. So I don’t know what that is like, to be really poor.

I also don’t know what it is like to be really rich. I’ve known a few really rich people. Millionaires. I’m sure all millionaires are not like the ones I knew. The ones that I met were pretty self-absorbed. But I’ve never been in a position of managing servants, or giving Rolls Royces to my friends, or planning a trip on my private jet to my private island or my palatial getaway in the south of France. I’ve never had to worry whether my security crew patted down my guests, just in case one of them took pictures of me to sell to the tabloids. I’ve never had so much money that I didn’t have to pay taxes because my income was not from a job but from all my money making money for me. So I really don’t know what it is like to be part of the 1%. Even though I like to imagine it. It sounds much nicer than being poor.

But I’ve always been just a regular old middle class Midwestern Christian. I know I’m a person of privilege –  stable family, educated parents, access to education, lots of opportunities – but I’m a person who cares about the poor. I fancy myself as a person who cares more about the poor than most. I care about them -- I really do.

And when I read this text from James, or others like it, where Jesus blesses the poor, and commands us to care for others, I feel pretty smug. I’m a pretty good Christian. I’m in a great church, a generous church, a mission oriented church. And I’m open minded. I welcome everybody. I don’t show partiality to the rich or mistreat the poor. This past Tuesday, in adult Bible study, we looked at this scripture. We tried listening to it from the perspective of a poor person, and from the perspective of a rich person. It makes a big difference in how we hear the text. But in the end, the message is the same. The Royal Law, as James calls it, is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

We had a good discussion about our responsibility to the poor, and God’s call to welcome everyone. We talked about how we live that out, as a congregation. Then, wouldn’t you know it, Jesus is at it again – we spend the morning talking about the poor, and Jesus starts messing with us! Just as Bible study ended, Judy, our church secretary, came and got me. There was a person in her office who wanted to talk to a pastor. Inwardly, I sighed. I think I sighed outwardly, actually. I had a lot to do on Tuesday, and talking to some guy looking for a handout was not on the list.

I walked down the hall to her office and found this very agitated, very malodorous (that’s my nice Christian way of saying “smelly”) man who immediately began talking to me. I took him out to the narthex, where he talked for about 30 minutes. He was not somebody who makes a person feel comfortable – Judy and Ed and Dorothy kept drifting into the narthex, like they had all kinds of important business in the kitchen. Every five minutes or so.

This fellow had obviously had a lot of experience with churches and pastors. He knew what we all say: “I don’t have a discretionary fund. Our church gives to the agencies that help people, and I’d be happy to direct you to one of them.” He knew that drill, and he knew every reason why that just wouldn’t work for him. He had what he thought was a very pointed and cogent critique of ministers and of our churches’ charitable and mission giving.
Of course, he wanted money.

He didn’t want to go to Loaves and Fishes, or the food pantry, or Firehouse of God, or Good Neighbor Emergency Center. He wanted some money so he could get back on the road on his bike. And of course, the story he wove was pretty thin, and there were some big holes in it. There was a lot in there about other pastors, and other churches, and I thought, “This guy has a pretty good rap – he appeals to a pastor’s pride—gets us thinking “I’m not like those other guys,’ but makes it look like he is appealing to Christian charity.” You may remember that I have a little bit of counseling experience, some of it in chemical dependency. That experience told me that he was not telling the truth.

But on the other hand, Jesus didn’t say, “Talk to the poor and see if their stories check out, then give them some minimal help.” He said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Of course, Jesus also said, “Be gentle as a dove and wise as a serpent.” And you just heard what James had to say about the poor. So I was in a quandary. I wanted to be helpful to this man, this child of God, in some way. And I also wanted him to leave. I wanted that a lot.

When I was thinking about this later, I got to thinking about Will Campbell. Will Campbell was born in Mississippi in 1924, and was ordained a Baptist minister when he was still a teenager. He was one of the people who served as escorts to the nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock. He was the only white person present when Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He got a lot of hate mail from Southern conservatives. But Campbell started to realize that he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people he hated – bigots, racists, excluders. He admitted to himself that after twenty years in ministry, he had become – in his words -- a "doctrinaire social activist." He had lost track of the royal law. He had let go of God’s extravagant and unconditional love for all people and substituted a kind of "liberal sophistication" that justified his discrimination.

So he changed that. He befriended Ku Klux Klan members. Visited them in prison. Took them communion. He still got hate mail, but this time it came from the other side. At the murder trial of KKK Grand Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Campbell went back and forth from the Bowers’ table, to table of the family members of the murder victim. When asked why he would do this, Campbell replied, “Because I’m a blankety-blank Christian!”

So anyway, here I sit, with this guy in front of me, and I don’t know if what I chose to do was right. I just know that I had been sitting at a table with a group of church folks, not an hour before that moment, and we had read these words: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin  and are convicted by the law as transgressors… For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Those words were ringing in my ears as I tried to listen to that guy, and his convoluted rant about prisons, and preachers, and needing to go to Chicago. And like I said, I wanted to follow Jesus, be a true disciple. And I wanted that guy to leave. But I’m a … blankety-blank Christian!

So I told him, “I’m going to give you five dollars out of my own pocket, and I’m going to give it to you in Jesus’ name. Will that help you out?”
He said, “You know it will.”
And I gave him the five dollars, and he left.

As I said, this is the second sermon in our series on Disciples, today is Rally Day, when we kick off the new season of Christian Education. And we are gathered here together in the name of Jesus, who told us to welcome strangers, here in worship, and everywhere. And we do welcome folks who come to worship with us. And we do all kinds of things to assure
that the poor are clothed and fed and cared for – and I am so proud of that. I don’t know if it was the best choice – to give that fellow five dollars. I don’t know if what Will Campbell did with the KKK was the best choice. I don’t think I could do that.

And I realized later that I should have prayed with that fellow. That’s what Jesus would have wanted me to do – to pray with him, and ask God’s blessing and protection on him, and to mean it. That’s what that Royal Law is all about – not just giving a guy five dollars to get rid of him, but praying with and for him, actually welcoming him. Actually loving him, no matter how he smells.

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."That’s what Jesus said is the great commandment, what James calls the Royal Law. Love your neighbor as yourself.

No matter who he is, no matter what she looks like, no matter what color his skin is, no matter how she smells.
Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s what a disciple would do.
That’s what I wish I had done.

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