Sunday, August 23, 2015

Working Faith

James 2:1-17
August 23, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We continue with our series on the book of James this week remembering that this brief epistle is primarily intended as a moral lecture for its recipients. James is not terribly concerned with doctrine or right belief, but with practice – right action. He makes it a special point to instruct his readers to make their Christian faith not just talk but action.

We heard last week that idea expressed as being doers, not merely hearers. This chapter addresses an issue central to Christian morality: the treatment of the poor. Today’s reading is in three sections, all of them linked by a warning not to show partiality, not to discriminate based on wealth or poverty.

In the first section, James suggests again that discrimination is not compatible with faith. In the second section he points out that showing special honor to the rich and discriminating against the poor dishonors them. In the third section, he makes it clear that showing this kind of partiality is sin and a violation of God’s law. In James, failing to provide for the poor “undermines the ethos of the entire community.” Those who claim faith without works have a faith that is dead. Let’s listen for God’s word in James 2:1-17:

James 2:1-17 CEB
My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?

My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker. In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom.

There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment. My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

If you are following any of the news about the ever-growing field of Republican presidential hopefuls, and if you happen to be Presbyterian, you probably heard last month about Donald Trump’s comments in Iowa. He was there to speak at a very conservative Republican gathering, the Family Leadership Summit. This group is not only politically conservative, they are also religiously conservative, so it was only natural that there would be a question about Christian faith.

Moderator Frank Luntz asked Trump whether he has ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions. "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so," [Trump answered]. "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't."

Trump said that while he hasn't asked God for forgiveness, he does participate in Holy Communion. "When I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed," he said. "I think in terms of 'let's go on and let's make it right.'"[1]

Trump had earlier said that people were surprised to find out he is Presbyterian; many Presbyterians were surprised by that. Naturally, this came up at lunch after church that week. Someone asked me, “Would you want Donald Trump to join our church?”
I answered, “Sure, if he will tithe!”

Seriously, though, it is a question worth asking. If a well-known public figure pulled up at 410 Second Avenue this morning, and walked into the church to worship with us, what welcome would we offer? Would we all want to shake his or her hand? Would we want to find her or him the best place to sit? Would our welcome be any different than the welcome we extend to any new person who walks in that door? I daresay it might.

If the writer of the book of James were here, he’d say, “See, THAT’S what I’m talking about!” The particular population that James is concerned with is the poor. In the time this letter was written, that would have been most of the church. To be Christian was not mainstream, not high status. It could cost you your job, your family, or even your life. In our time, that is not the case; in fact, the opposite is the case, so much so that every politician who aspires to office had better be ready to answer questions about his or her belief, and so far, every President we have ever have has been at least nominally Christian.

So what if Donald Trump came to church and right behind him, the lady who cleans the rooms at Super 8 came in? Or the guy who does odd jobs over on the other side of town? This scripture tells us that our welcome and care for them should show no partiality – unless it is partiality for the poor one. This scripture actually says that God prefers the poor.

Those are hard words to hear. Because we are in a different time and context. We are not the poor; we are the privileged. We are in a time and context when many of us are challenged by the divisions in our society many of us are struggling to understand our place in this world. Many of us are struggling with understanding our place of privilege particularly white privilege, and what that means.

We want to understand what that means in terms of our faith, and James is making it harder for us. I wish he would stop it. Remember I told you last week that Martin Luther didn’t like the book of James, that he called it “an epistle of straw”? I’m thinking I’m going with Martin on that one. Because it is hard.

It is hard to listen to these words and to let them take hold of us. After all, we didn’t create our own privilege and status. The nature of privilege and status is that they are conveyed without effort. We’re born into them. We are born into a family in particular time and location and historical era. We are born a certain gender, a certain skin color, in a particular geographic area. We don’t control whether we were born into a rich white family in Dallas or a poor black family in Ferguson.
Or Nairobi.
Or Mumbai.
We don’t control that.

We can’t be held personally responsible for institutional structures that have maintained our privileged positions over time. Can we?
We are not racists, right?
We are not high class rich people who look down on others, right?

James challenges us to take a closer look at ourselves, not just at our beliefs, but at what we do. Jesus did something similar, in the 19th chapter of the gospel of Matthew. A man came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
So the young man asked, “Which ones?”
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’
Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

You notice that when Jesus named the commandments, he only mentioned commandments five through ten, the ones that have to do with our relationships with others? Then he added the great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

James echoes Jesus, and he calls it “the royal law.” Did you hear it? Verse eight: “You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Working faith is hard work. It demands something from us, and sometimes what it demands is uncomfortable. It makes us squirm. See, I’d like to believe that my position in life is something I deserve. I’d like to believe that I earned it.

There’s research to explain this. Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley explored what they call social class essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people or things can be explained by differences in fundamental identities.[2]

“People hold essentialist beliefs about generally biological categories such as gender, race, and sexuality, as well as about more cultural ones such as nationality, religion, and political orientation. Essentialism leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and a disinclination to mingle with outsiders.

Kraus and Keltner found this to be true: “If you’re doing well, you believe success comes to those who deserve it, and those of lower status must not deserve it.” Kraus and Keltner found that the higher people perceived their social class, the more strongly they believed success comes to those who deserve it, and therefore those of lower status must not deserve it.”[3]

In other words, if I am successful, it is because of who I am and what I’ve done.
And those who are poor, it is because they don’t deserve to be well off.

We all get what we deserve, right?

God loves me because I’m lovable.
I will go to heaven if I’m good.
God especially loves people who are well off and hard working.

Of course, this is patently untrue.
The gospel tells us this, over and over.

Jesus made it clear,
Paul reiterated it, James echoes it.
We don’t get what we deserve.
It’s all grace.

We are indebted, not to mortgage companies and car payments and student loans, but to grace, the grace of God. God’s grace looks past what we deserve, which is exactly nothing – and substitutes mercy in place of judgment.

If we are spiritually rich, it is the wealth of mercy that we have received. If we are spiritually stingy, it is because we have not recognized that mercy and extended it to every single person we meet. And if we are materially well-off, and we are, working faith calls us to share generously with others, not only in welcome and hospitality, not only in care for the poor, but also in grace and mercy and hope.

Because we have been forgiven, we forgive.
Because we have been loved, we love.
Because we have been dealt with generously, we are generous.
Because we have been welcome, we are welcoming.
Because we have been shown mercy, we are merciful.
May God grant that it be so, and that our faith will be working faith.





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