Hear now the new testament reading from James the second chapter. This translation is the NRSV with a few alterations by Pastor Dexter.
My family, 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 siblings. 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 fulfil 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 judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
What good is it, my friends, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a family member 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.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” James, the author of this letter, starts right at the beginning with a hard hitting question. The community that he is writing to has apparently been engaging in some pretty blatant acts of favoritism based on wealth and class hierarchies. Two people enter their gathering, one who appears rich is given the best seat, while the other who appears poor is told to sit at their feet. How demeaning?!? There is a clear issue happening here where the community that claims to be worshiping God is making a hierarchy of people based on money.
So I wonder for us today, what is our relationship with money and those who have it or don’t? If someone who looks well to do entered our sanctuary, how would we respond? If someone came in and had a strong odor or some mental health issues would we respond the same? What hierarchies do we live in our own lives?
We sit here in the richest country in the world and with that comes all sorts of myths and rumors about the role of money in our world. The pull yourself up by your bootstraps is a common myth that says any individual through pure hard work can make enough money to really thrive in this country. The same belief often gets codified in the teach a person to fish metaphor that we like to use. But what happens when not everyone has bootstraps or fishing poles? Is every individual treated exactly the same or do some face systemic barriers that others do not? This myth of individualism or that wealth is based on hard work or being good can be very alluring, especially to people who have wealth.
So it is an interesting turn in James’ letter when he says, “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?” God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Not the rich. And how much exactly is this God choosing and setting up a binary as opposed to a reality that when we are poor we know our reliance on community and on God but when we are rich we rely on ourselves or our money or our comfort? When confronted with a consumeristic world that says every discomfort or pain can be fixed with money or a pill or a little elbow grease, what do we need God for? Where does God fit? Did we even invite God?
We come into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. In the face of manmade disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, in the midst of global pandemic, and facing our own mortality on an ever expanding daily basis, we know better than ever that we have no guarantees in life. Our dependence on each other and our dependence on our earth and our dependence on God are more in question now as a wealthy country than perhaps ever before. Our myths of self dependence are crumbling as we realize our deep need for one another.
And so James asks us this third question, “What good is it, my friends, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” This long debated question, wondering if it somehow negates the need for grace. And I do not come to you with all the answers. But perhaps the situation surrounding the proclamation can be of use to us. James pointedly says, “If a family member 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?” The question between our belief and our action is a long debated one. But in the end shouldn’t our faith inform our actions? Can we have faith in something if it is disconnected from our actions? What good would it be to support loving your neighbor with vaccinations but to refuse to get one yourself? Faith by itself without works may in fact be dead.
And as we think about how we act, who we favor hierarchically, and our dependence upon God, should we not be motivated by our belief in a good and gracious God to be more good and gracious ourselves? Christians should be the most imaginative and generous people in the world given the large amount of scripture that talks about working for the future world of peace and joy and thriving for all that we so often call heaven or the kingdom of God. But so often we get afraid or lose focus. We get stuck in the rat race of scrapping with others to fight over the little allotted to us. We get overwhelmed thinking about the overwhelming spread of poverty that we pass by the person right in front of us in need. How can we train ourselves to keep that loving world of God as our focus for our actions and our time? And here I think more than ever faith without works will die. Because those actions continue to reinforce our beliefs and our beliefs continue to support our action. We cannot have one without the other. We believe so we do it. “So speak and so act” as the author James puts it. We do it because we believe.
So let us go forth not looking at human hierarchies but instead focusing on the abundant grace of God so that we can affirm God’s life giving love through our talk and our walk. Let us be a people of imagination for that day when all will be at peace, and let us take steps toward that end together. Amen.