Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
September 23, 2018
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. 2Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3Then 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.” 4Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5My 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? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
8You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 11The 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. 12In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.
14My 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? 15Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16What 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? 17In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
There is a lot going on in this passage. First, James talks about favoritism—this tendency we have to favor certain people for certain reasons, and as a result to treat those people better than people we don’t favor. After that, James touches on the Law, essentially saying that when we are bound by the Law, we are bound completely. “In every way, then,” James says, “speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom.” Finally, James urges us once again to be a people who make our faith known. “What good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it?” And that’s ultimately at the heart of this passage, and really the heart of all of James. It’s grounded in the long-standing command to “Love you neighbor as you love yourself,” and it recalls Jesus’ own words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.”
Like I said, this is a lot to take in, but every aspect of this passage is critical to our day-to-day lives as Christians. If we are not showing mercy rather than favoritism or judgment; if we are not living by the law of freedom, if we are not showing the faith that we have, then we are not following Christ, we are not doing God’s will, we are not being “salt and light.”
A few years ago, the Living Hope Church purchased a run-down pool hall on the South Side of Chicago (you know, the part of Chicago that’s always in the news because of violence). Anyway, the plan was to renovate the old building and make it home for the church. They soon began the massive renovation project, but attempted to keep costs down by including church members, volunteer construction workers, and soliciting generous donations. As they worked, the folks noted that they were often approached by neighborhood residents who would stop by the project looking for money or some kind of assistance. There were also a number of break-ins and burglaries resulting in expensive tools and fixtures being stolen. The unemployment rate in this South Side neighborhood was 23% at the time, and it didn’t take long for the church to realize that this community desperately needed a church that would reach beyond the walls of some newly acquired building. So, the church started hiring local people. If someone stopped by looking for assistance, they were invited to put their skills to use, or learn a new skill. The church hired 50 people off the street, giving them a paycheck and teaching them new skills. This hiring led to even more, the church founded “Hope Works,” a community development ministry that has helped 74 people find permanent jobs. In reflecting on this shared renovation project, Pastor Brad Beier noted, “Along the way, we realized that completing a day’s work together seemed to release a shared, God-instilled purpose.”
We can play favorites, or we can love our neighbor. We can be legalistic and burdened, or we can follow the law of freedom. We can do what’s prudent in any given moment, or we can do what’s right. This is where the rubber meets the road, this is where we put actions to our beliefs. And for James, this was central to the Christian life!
Let me share another story. Do you all remember several months ago when the power went out at the Atlanta Airport for several hours? If you recall, it was a total outage, and it lasted several hours on a Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of the Christmas season. Thousands of flights were cancelled, and passengers were stranded in terminals throughout the airport. But while the city of Atlanta was frantically deploying utility workers to reverse the outage, the government also took a moment to tweet a message to the stranded passengers. It said, “Chick-fil-A will provide food for passengers.” Now, remember, this was a Sunday, and Chick-fil-A is always closed on Sundays. Always closed for Sabbath observance—worship and rest. (And believe me I know, because invariably it’s a Sunday when I get a craving for a Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit.) In any case, Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays, but they’re not Pharisaical about it. While Chick-fil-A observes the Sabbath, it seems they also follow the law of freedom; the law of love. The company saw a moment of need, and they made thousands of chicken sandwiches and delivered them (free) to stranded passengers at the airport.
As Jesus taught, he reached into the depths of God’s commandments; there was one that he repeated over and over again, and that James repeats in his own writing, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Everything else pales in comparison to this, to freedom in Christ himself. All human status, all pride, and wealth, and fine clothing; every law that we raise up on some sort of pedestal like an idol; the things that WE want or try to make important in our lives; that is not what we cling to, there is no life in that. Our life is in Christ, and living life means following Christ and doing what Christ did, loving our neighbor—even when that means we have to set aside our own ideals.
Now, lest we get a little too comfortable with these nice, feel-good stories, let me tell you just one more. Because I think our true character is most clearly revealed in the moments we are least expecting; we might even be caught off guard, or scared. I think that’s why James raises this point about favoritism—its gets to the heart of our gut reactions. But I believe that our gut reactions in such moments most clearly reveal our character.
Late this past Spring, 14-year-old Brennan Walker overslept and missed his bus. When she realized her son was not yet awake, his Mom did the best she could to rush him out the door, but it was too late. So, she instructed him to walk to school, but Brennan had never walked to school before. He did his best to follow the route his bus took each day, but at one point he got to an intersection and wasn’t sure which way to go. Without a cell phone, Brennan did probably what any of us would do. He walked to the nearest house and knocked on the door. Here’s the rest of the story in his own words: “I got to the house, and I knocked on the lady’s door. Then she started yelling at me and she was like, ‘Why are you trying to break into my house?’ I was trying to explain to her that I was trying to get directions to Rochester High. And she kept yelling at me. Then the guy came downstairs, and he grabbed the gun, I saw it and started to run. And that’s when I heard the gunshot.” Thankfully, Brennan got away unscathed, but after the incident, his mother reflected, “We should not have to live in a society [like this]…If I have a question, I should be able to turn to my village and knock on a door and ask a question.”
It might’ve been that he was young. Or maybe the way he was dressed. It might’ve been his gender or his race. I don’t know. What I do know is that if Brennan had been dressed in a fancy suit and carrying a briefcase, that probably wouldn’t have happened; the lady probably wouldn’t have yelled at him, the man probably wouldn’t have fired any shots. Favoritism can blind us. Our own biases can keep us from loving our neighbor in the radical ways Jesus called us to love one another. What if we have faith but don’t show it? Or what if we simply show our faith in all the wrong ways—by *just* showing up on Sunday morning and nothing more; by indulging in potlucks but never serving in the soup kitchen; by inviting your favored friends and neighbors to join you, but not the homeless family camped out under the bridge? What if we read God’s word, but never actually do God’s word? What good is that?
These are the questions that James forces us to ask. This is the self-reflection that is required of us as people who say we follow Christ. I read an article this week speculating that modern Western Christians actually adhere more closely to Christendom than to Christianity. In other words, perhaps we value the institution more than the belief-system. But what’s striking is the reason given: they speculate that people are suspicious of “Christianity itself because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil.” That is, following Christ takes us to places we wouldn’t normally go and asks us to do things we wouldn’t normally do.
Being a Christian, following Christ, requires much more of us than most of us are ever ready to willingly give. It takes us to places we may never think we would go and compels to act in ways that may seem foreign to us. It’s difficult for us to step outside of our comfort zones. The easiest thing for us, always, is to hang out with the people that look like us and think like us. It’s a lot more fun to go out and be served at a restaurant than to serve someone else—poor and homeless. It’s easy to worship for an hour a week with our friends, and then to simply go about our lives the rest of the week. But “claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?” Our actions have to be consistent with our faith, reflective of Christ himself, and grounded in love of neighbor. We have to do the right thing.