Living Faith: Friendship with God

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: James 4:1-7

What is causing the quarrels and fights among us? Why are we seeing so much hatred?

It is not a secret that this nation is divided. And this division is getting uglier and permeating through the church, through our communities, and into our families. For many years, experts have told us that the number one cause of relationship problems is poor communication. Yet, today we have more excellent tools for connection and communication than we have ever had in the history of humanity. We can video conference with someone who is on the other side of the world. We can text each other immediately and don’t have to wait for a letter in the mail. And yet, despite all this connection, recent studies by Memphis Flyer and National Institute of Health show that Americans are facing a loneliness epidemic. Nothing seems to bring us satisfaction.

Could it be that the causes go beyond poor communication?

The letter of James draws more heavily than any other New Testament letter on the sayings of Jesus, especially the beatitudes. The book offers a guide for following the path to life (James 1:12) and avoiding the way that leads to death (James 5:9-20). And, Jesus said I am the Way, Truth, and Life. This declaration is fundamental to the Christian faith. We can agree that most Christians hold this to be true. But what then is the problem?  Why are we still dissatisfied and fighting?

This is what the letter of James tries to explain to us. James believes, and so does Jesus, that it is not enough to just talk the Christian faith. It is not enough just to believe in God or God’s word. Remember the rich righteous ruler whom Jesus challenged to be more generous with his wealth to be a true disciple? The Bible reports that he went away sad? Many of us can relate to this young man in some ways. It is never easy to give up your comfort. Yet, we must live out our faith even amidst discomfort. “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” That kind of faith cannot save anyone. The proof of the reality of our faith is in a changed life. Make sure your faith is more than just a statement. It should result in action.

What happened yesterday at the Tree of life synagogue in Pittsburgh is a tragedy. We have become all too familiar with evil. And it reflects the kind of society we have created and tolerated. Our faith is weak and compromised. If we can have prominent religious leaders eager to fight over a supreme court nominee, and yet remain quiet when 11 worshipers are killed, and 6 others injured while in the house of God. Something is wrong with your faith. What kind of faith remains untouched by evil and loss of innocent lives? What use is your private prayer if you can’t even stand in solidarity with the grieving families?

Why is it so hard to put our faith into action?

Pastor Joyce Meyer, in Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind, makes a profound statement that; “Our fallen nature obstructs the will of God from us due to reasoning. The Lord may direct us to do a certain thing, but if it does not make sense – if it is not logical – we may be tempted to disregard it.  God leads a person to do does not always make logical sense to his mind. His spirit may affirm it and His mind reject it, especially if it would be out of the ordinary or unpleasant or if it would require personal sacrifice or discomfort.” Although I wouldn’t say that reasoning is the problem, I would say doubt and self-centeredness are. Especially our preference for comfort.

Unfortunately, the church is not exempt from this moral lostness.  The church is made up of individuals in need of redemption. We all need God’s grace to live out our faith. Christians cannot be relied upon as examples of righteous living without the holy spirit working within us. A true testament that we humans are all fallen creatures in need of redemption. We constantly need to rely on God to make sense of our faith and put it into practice.

James mentions three important aspects of our lives that make the most difference in our living as God’s people in the world. Our Desires, our Prayers, and our Posturing.

Our Desires – these can be needs or wishes or requirements that set the parameters of any relationship. Whether it is a relationship with another person, or with God.  If the desires of those involved are in conflict that relationship will suffer. When you come to God; what needs, what wishes, or what requirements do you come with?

Our Prayers – how we communicate our desires to God. James mentions the most common problems in prayer: not asking, asking for the wrong things, or asking for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to assume that we all talk to God. But let’s say we do. When you talk to God at all, what do you talk about? Do you ask only to satisfy your desires? Do you seek God’s approval of your already formulated plans? It is my firm belief that our prayers become more effective when we allow God to change our desires so that they perfectly correspond to God’s will for us (1 John 3:21-22).

Our Posturing – our estimation or feeling of self-importance. Our attitude of pride or humility. We often worry about our position and status, striving to get recognition for what we do.  We should remember that God’s recognition counts more than the accolades we receive from people. People can shower you with praises for your wrong successes that are outside God’s will. One commentary says that the cure for evil desire is humility. (1 Peter 5: 5b-6) “God opposes the proud but favors the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time God will lift you up in honor.”

But is it realistic to seek friendship with God while living in this broken world?

Firstly, it is important to recognize that there is nothing wrong with wanting a pleasurable life. God avails and blesses us with gifts that God wants us to enjoy (1 Timothy 4:4-5). We should give God thanks for them. However, this does not mean we should abuse God’s gifts to us by being greedy and depriving others of the same enjoyment. Or be so self-seeking that we create unjust systems so that others do not have access. Or allow greed to control your life that you are willing to go to extremes of committing murder in the name of protecting your possessions. We should enjoy these things with the goal being to serve and honor God.

Have you thanked God for the things in your life that you are currently enjoying and are you using them to bring honor to God?

The reality is that the Christian life is not a vaccine against evil desires. If Jesus was not spared from temptation, you also should expect it. We will continue to struggle whether to conform to the standards of this world, and do what everyone else is doing, or choose to obey the guidance of the spirit. You will be challenged to be welcoming to strangers because it is the right thing to do or tempted to side with your political party because it is much easier. You will have to choose to speak out against injustice or pretend it’s not as bad as the media portrays it. There is no escaping or neutral ground.

Friendship with God entails courageous obedience to God’s word.  James encourages us not to compromise our faith through devotion to the world. We need to be connected to the true vine, which is Jesus. And Jesus set a vivid example of how to live in the world and bring the Kingdom of God wherever he went. And Jesus said, “greater things than this will you do, if you believe.” With God’s help, we can do far more than we have done to put our faith in practice. We cannot continue to be Christians who love worldly pleasures as much as we love God. In the end, we are going to compromise our faith and we will no longer be the salt of the earth, or the light of the world.

How are you going to ensure that your friendship with God is healthy? Have you taken some time to assess how close you are with God? Is your relationship with God just a shadow of your past, or are you seeking intimacy and desiring to be in God’s presence?

Let this admonition by James keep you from losing your faith to complacency. Faith without works is dead. Faith is made manifest or tangible through our actions. Let the mind that was in Christ be also in you. Always striving to do the will of God.

Ask God for help.

Amen.

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Living Faith: Taming Our Speech

Scripture: James 3:1-12

Once, said Jesus, there was a man with two sons.

The man went to the first son and said, “Go work in the vineyard today.”  The son said, “I’m actually pretty busy, I don’t think I’m going to make it out there today.”  But later he had a change of heart and went.  The father went to the second son and said, again, “Go work in the vineyard.”  And the second son said, “Oh, sure, definitely.”  But he never did actually go.

Then Jesus asked, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted?”[1]

Faith, Jesus told us, is about more than just the words you say.  It’s about what you do to live them out.

This is not a bad paraphrase of the letter of James, which we’ve been talking about for the month of October.  Last week, in chapter 2, James asked us to imagine that we come across someone who was hungry and cold.  “Have a good night,” we tell them.  “Stay warm and have a nice dinner.”  But we don’t do anything to feed them or get them an extra blanket for the night.  Clearly, our actions speak louder than our words.  James tells us that faith without works is kind of like that.  It doesn’t much matter what we believe in theory if we’re not living that out in our daily lives.

But we find out today that James actually has a lot to say about words: about the power they have, and the intentionality with which we should choose them, and the difficulty we face in doing so.

James’s task is to provide us some wisdom for how we should be living out our faith in our daily lives, and back in chapter 1, James said that true religion is made up of three things.  I didn’t preach on this section, so any guesses what makes it on to this list?  What would you put on this list – the Top Three Rules for Living as a Christian?  Those things are 1) care for widows and orphans – who represent the most vulnerable people in our society; 2) keeping ourselves “unstained” by the world, or always choosing God over things that are not of God (admittedly fairly broad); and 3) “bridling” the tongue, or exercising control and intentionality in our speech.  I made that one #3 here for the buildup, but actually, James puts it first.  “If any think they are religious,” he writes in 1:26, “and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”

Just as last week James told us that faith without works is dead, so it seems that faith without right speech is worthless.

I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that words have power.  Our words have the power to make or break our relationships.  They can express love or break hearts.  The wounds they cause can take a lifetime to heal.  Our words can change minds.  Well-chosen slogans or offhand comments can win or lose elections.  An ill-advised Tweet can get us fired.  When our words are empty, like in the parable Jesus told, that can reveal a lot about who we are.

The power of words is a pretty big theme throughout the Bible, starting in the beginning when God spoke creation into being.  “Let there be light” – that’s a powerful statement, coming from the right person, of course.  Proverbs tells us, among many other verses about our speech, that “Rash words are like the thrust of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18).  And Revelation includes liars among others like murderers and sorcerers who will end up getting thrown in the lake of fire (21:8).

And it’s the power of words, the power of the tongue, that James comes back to in chapter 3, in the passage we heard today. The passage begins with a word for teachers: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  This is another one of those verses that gives me pause.  But it would be a mistake for any of us to think this passage isn’t addressed to us simply because we don’t formally carry the title of teacher.  James wants us to know that the more authority our words carry, the higher the stakes, and we all have some place, some area of our lives, where our words carry authority.

He uses some images that were common in proverbs about speech in the ancient Greco-Roman world of his time.  Think of a bit in the mouth of a horse, he says.  It’s just this little thing in the horse’s mouth but with it, you can make the horse move one way or another.  Or think of the rudder of a ship, which is so small compared to the ship itself but allows you to steer the whole giant ship.  The tongue is like that – it’s such a small part of the body, but it has such tremendous power to influence things for better or for worse.

These are also all images of things we have some control over.  The small rudder may steer the giant ship, but someone’s got to move the rudder.  Part of living out our faith is recognizing the power of our words, and also recognizing that we can choose them wisely, and with intention.

He says later that the tongue can be used to both bless God or to curse someone.  But, you know, I’m going to guess that most of us don’t just go around cursing people.  Or maybe we do.  Maybe we curse the customer service representative who is not providing good customer service or the politicians who are taking the whole country in the wrong direction or the people who buy into what they are saying or the people who decided this morning was a great time to do construction on 395.  Just for a hypothetical example.  But what other ways might we use the power of our words for bad instead of good?

Maybe:

-Being mean to someone

-Gossip

-Manipulating someone

-Saying something you don’t mean

-Complaining (we all need to vent sometimes but there’s such thing as unnecessary negativity)

-Spreading fake news

-We can talk a bit about our use of social media and how easy it is to pass on memes that reduce complicated issues to a quip and dismiss or demonize people who disagree with us.  We get “likes” from the people on our side and feel good, while we miss out on a chance for actual dialogue with people on the “other side.”

 

And on the other hand, what are some of the ways we can use the power of our speech for good?  Maybe:

-Encouraging someone

-Praying for someone

-Witnessing to our faith or how we’ve seen God at work

-Telling the truth when it takes courage

 

This is the easy part of the sermon.  These are things we all know.  And yet as we know them, they can be hard.  I know I’ve said the wrong thing more often than I’d like to think about, something meant to be a joke or just completely unfiltered that ended up giving offense.  I know I’ve fallen into the trap of laughing at someone to establish myself as part of an “in” group.  And God knows I complain enough; Jon can probably vouch for that.

It’s worth noting, though, that James sees the whole thing as a little more complicated than just a reminder to exercise some self-control when you open your mouth, as common sense would dictate. This isn’t just about how to be a decent person in polite society.  It’s a real theological issue.  It’s more than just a matter of controlling our tongues when so often our tongues seem to control us.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire,” James says.  “And the tongue is a fire.”

All of a sudden the image moves from something you can intentionally move one way or the other – a bridle, or a rudder – to something that quickly takes on a life of its own.

We’ve figured out how to tame all the animals we find in nature, James says, but no one yet has figured out how to tame the tongue.

I really think that there’s something to this idea of our tongues and our speech having control over us instead of just the other way around.  I’m not just talking about obvious lies that ensnare us in the web of our own deceit or blatantly offensive statements that win or lose elections.  I also mean that the language we use shapes the way we and the people others around us view reality.  I saw a TED talk about a tribe of people who don’t have the concept of left and right, but instead speak everything in cardinal directions, including things like “There’s a bug on your southwest leg.”  Meanwhile my GPS tells me to head north and I’m like, “What, that doesn’t even mean anything!”  That’s a morally neutral example of how our language, our speech, has the power to shape our world.[2]

That’s why the real danger in how we speak may not be the expletives we hurl at the driver who cut us off on a bad morning, but how we thinkingly or unthinkingly use language in way that shapes the world around us.

When we casually talk about food, and dieting, and bodies in a way that implies that certain kinds of bodies are not as good as other kinds of bodies, we are helping shape our world through our speech.

When we buy into stereotypes and assumptions about people of color, or women (or men), or LGBT people and repeat them without further reflection, we are helping shape our world through our speech.

We choose these words, but they create something bigger than we ever even intended, something we don’t even realize because we are so mixed up in it ourselves.

And that even gets into how we talk about God.

You may have noticed that I try to avoid referring to God as “he,” that I may at times refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” that I try to incorporate some feminine images of God from time to time.  And that’s because, again, I think how we talk about things shapes our worldview around those things, and the language we use to talk about God can say a lot about who we believe God is and thus what we think is good and true.  Of course Jesus called God Father, and there is something powerful in that language of relationship between a parent and a child.  I don’t want to throw that out.  But there are also lots of images in Scripture that talk about God as a laboring or nursing mother, for instance – those are the ones we tend to forget.

I didn’t use to think any of this mattered.  It seemed clunky to me to avoid pronouns for God and to use words like “Godself” instead of “himself,” and when I started finding myself around people who did these things, in seminary, I was like, oh, come on.  These are just pronouns; no one really thinks God is a man.

And then I met some people who really thought God was a man.  What they really said was “God is both male and female, but God is more male than female.”  And I had this moment of, ohAll this talking about God as if God is a man actually matters.  Because if God is more male than female, then what does that have to say about those of us who are female, or those of even who don’t fit neatly into categories of male and female, being equally created in the image of God?  What does that say about our relative worth?

Somehow, even through years of seminary and being steeped in inclusive language, when I hear the word “God,” the first image that pops into my head is that of an old, white man.  And that doesn’t even make any sense!  But the language and images I grew up with had an enormous amount of power to shape both my world and my relationship with God.

Of course, language is imperfect.  We can’t obsess over speaking perfectly. We all make mistakes, and even James says that.  And because in the end, the words we have at our disposal can be limited in their capacity to convey truth.

And yet James thinks that one of the worst things we can do, as we seek to live our lives as people of faith, is to bless God and curse one of God’s children in the same breath, to use our words unreflectively both to build up and to tear down – without seeing anything wrong with that.

Our words do have power, more power than we know, and we do need to choose them wisely.

In the end, while we may fall down and fail at taming this untameable creature, the tongue, God’s grace is there to help us as we seek to grow.

So, as God gives us grace, may we seek to use our words for encouragement, and truth, and telling our story of a God who offers us new life and second chances, and invites us to respond in our speech and in our actions.

 

 

[1] Matthew 21:28-32

[2] https://www.ted.com/talks/lera_boroditsky_how_language_shapes_the_way_we_think

Living Faith: Faith That Works

Scripture: James 2:14-26

Back in the year 1789, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, asked an important question: “What a mystery this is,” he said, “that Christianity should have done so little good in the world!”[1]

This always seemed to me to be a strikingly modern question.  It’s easy to look around at the state of the world, at the state of politics in the US, at the state of the church, and wonder whether the faith we claim has really made a positive difference in any of it.  I’m sure some people would even say religion is the problem.  Those of us who don’t want to go there might be tempted to blame all the Christians who aren’t like us for messing it all up.  For what it’s worth, John Wesley thought it was because Christianity had been co-opted by wealth.  In any case, it’s a question a lot of us are still asking.

But Wesley’s question is also a very old one.  As early as 62 CE (depending on when the letter of James was actually written), 30 years into the life of the Christian church, we can hear this question being asked between the lines in our Bibles.

Last week, we began our sermon series on the book of James and read a passage from chapter 2, in which James asked pointedly if those of us who show partiality to the rich rather than the poor can really claim to have faith in Jesus.  (In case you missed it, the answer was no.)  The passage we just heard is the very next part of James’s letter, and as he develops his theme of being doers of the word and not just hearers, he asks another important question.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?”  In other words – what good is it if you claim to have faith but aren’t doing anything to show it?  “Can faith save you?” he asks.  The thing is that for all of us who have grown up as good Christians in Protestant churches, the answer to that question – “Can faith save you?” – is a resounding yes.  Yes, we learn, our faith is exactly what saves us, or rather, it’s Jesus who saves us through our faith in him.  Not anything we’ve ever done, not anything we ever will do, not anything we ever can do – none of these things will earn us our salvation, which is only available to us through faith.  This was, in fact, one of the key tenets of the Protestant Reformation.

So this is a bit of an awkward question to find right there in the Bible and everything.

But James goes on with an example.  Last week he asked us to imagine a rich person and a poor person walking into a gathering.  This time, he says, imagine you come across a brother or sister in need, someone who is part of your community.  You can see that they’re cold, that they don’t have enough clothes or blankets for the weather that is forecast.  You can tell that they are hungry, that they haven’t eaten much today.  So you stop, and maybe you feel a little pang in your heart, and then you say, “Well, stay warm and have a nice dinner!” and then you move on.  (This is James’s version of “thoughts and prayers.”)

Faith without works, James says, is kind of like that.

I have to admit that this is a passage that always convicts me, because I find myself in this situation a lot.  I’ll leave church on a winter evening to find people stretched out on our church doorstep, planning to deal with whatever weather and temperatures come that night.  “Have a good night,” I say.  Or someone will come to my office asking for help with a certain need that seems outside the bounds of what we would normally provide.  “We can’t do that,” I’ll say, “but I’ll keep you in my prayers.” But enough confession time.

James goes on.  You might try to say, he says, that one person has faith and another person has works, kind of like they are different spiritual gifts, but no, he says, it doesn’t work like that. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” he says, “and I by my works will show you my faith.”  “Just as the body without the spirit is dead,” he finally concludes, “so faith without works is dead.”

As I told you last week, not everyone in Christian history has unequivocally loved the letter of James.  Martin Luther called the letter of James “an epistle of straw,” meaning it was worthless, or didn’t hold up.  “It has nothing of the Gospel about it,” he said.  Again, Luther’s reform had as one of its core tenets the notion of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.  If you’ve grown up Protestant, this should sound familiar – maybe even obvious.

Luther was solidly backed up by the Apostle Paul on this.  In Galatians 2:16, Paul writes, “We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the law, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ.”  He follows that up in 3:2 with “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?”  And in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Romans 4 is similar to Galatians – we could go on.

This is the understanding of Christianity and salvation we know and love – that there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation, that we would never be able to do enough to earn our salvation anyway, that all we have to do is believe in Jesus and stop worrying about it.  Right?

And yet James asks, “What good is it if you [just] have faith?”

And James says, “So what if you believe the right things – even demons can believe the right things.  What about what you’re actually doing?  What about how you’re living out what you say you believe and how you treat the people around you and the difference you as a Christian are actually making in this world?”

It’s easy to believe something.  James wants us to do something about it.

I like to imagine James and Paul coming together for a theological showdown.  James vs. Paul.  Who (in the words of Iron Chef) will reign supreme?

Let me ask you this.  If you had to vote right now, who would it be?  How many of you are on Team Paul here?  How about Team James?

How many of you refuse to buy into my false dichotomy here at all?

Probably it doesn’t come as that much of a surprise that both James and Paul would undoubtedly reject the idea of a showdown.

Let’s go back to what each of them has to say about faith and works.  We read in Galatians that “a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the law.”  Well, the focal point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians isn’t whether God expects us to do good things.  It’s a fight over whether new believers have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to follow Jesus.  No, Paul says, they don’t, because salvation doesn’t rest on being part of one particular group of people or the ‘works’ that identify you as such.

He does tell us in Galatians 5 about the fruit of the Spirit, things we should expect to see evidence of in our lives as people of faith: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In Ephesians Paul said that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by our works.  But in the very next verse he says, “We are…created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

In other words, Paul is saying, we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, and a new way of living in the world should be a natural expression of that salvation.

And James is certainly not saying that faith is irrelevant.  He says “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”  He’s not pitting faith and works against each other.  He’s telling us that they are inseparable – not that we are saved by our works themselves, but that if our faith doesn’t result in changed hearts and lives, then maybe that’s not really faith at all.

So in other words, kind of the same thing.

I suspect that part of the problem lies in what we mean by faith in the first place.  If faith simply means I believe something, intellectually, if all I have to do is check a box or sign on a dotted line that I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, if faith means I say a certain prayer and get my ticket stamped for heaven – then I’m not sure that’s the kind of “faith” that even Paul thinks will save us.

But what if by faith in Jesus Christ, we mean actually acknowledging him as Lord of our lives – in a way that means following where he calls and living like he did?  What if faith means trust that Jesus’ way of life is the way that leads to real, true, and eternal life, even when it’s hard?  What if faith means where we stake our claim in this life and the one to come, what kind of future we invest in; what if faith means what we dare to choose and what we dare to risk?

And maybe the other part of the problem lies with what we mean by saved.  If all we mean is getting into heaven, then that’s one thing, but what if, like Wesley, we define salvation as the whole process of being re-shaped into the image of God in which we were created, growing in love and holiness over the course of our lives?

Because then being saved through faith starts to mean a lot for the way we live our lives in the world – the way we love, the way we give, the way we speak, the way we live in community together, the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Those things aren’t the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of faith.  They’re actually part of what faith means.

And yet maybe here I’m veering into the dreaded works-righteousness (dreaded for all good Protestants, that is.)  Because it’s not a big leap from what I’ve just said to tallying up our good works and good deeds and putting them next to the bad ones and seeing if we’ve ended up in the black or in the red, and calling that proof of our faith.  The truth is we can believe in something without living it out perfectly; we can love someone and not always act like it; we can be committed to a person or a way of life and sometimes fall away.  We can have faith and not always be faithful, and grace means God is never just sitting up there in heaven doing the math.

One of the interesting things about this passage from James is we just might actually be able to hear the remnants of an ancient conversation with Paul (or Paul’s followers).  Scholars disagree on whether that’s actually the case or not.[2]  It is notable that both James and Paul use the example of Abraham.  In Galatians and Romans, Paul uses Abraham as an example of someone who was justified by faith alone.  He’s referring to the story in Genesis 15 where God tells Abraham to look up at the night sky and try to count the stars.  That’s how many descendants he will have – even though he and his wife Sarah are old and childless.  Genesis 15:16 reads, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Before he had done anything, he believed God.

But James sees that verse being fulfilled in another way.  You know how much Abraham believed God? he asks us.  Abraham believed God so much that even when he and Sarah did finally have a son, Abraham was ready to give him up when God said the word.  We can certainly have lots of conversations about what kind of faith it is that makes you ready to sacrifice your own kid on an altar – but for James, Abraham’s belief in God’s promise didn’t mean a whole lot until he had to put his money where his mouth was.

For what it’s worth, I do kind of like to imagine that James and Paul are talking here.  Not a theological showdown, but a conversation. Paul says we are saved by faith, and not through works.  James responds, “Yes, AND – what we actually do is inseparable from our faith.”  And Paul says, “Yes, of course, but let’s not delve into works righteousness, here,” and James says, “No, of course we can’t earn our salvation by racking up points, but let’s not think that nothing is expected of us, either.”

The thing is, I think I need both sides of that conversation.

My faith became real to me when I heard God inviting me into this life of service and solidarity with the poor and self-emptying, when I realized that it was through all of those things that real life was to be found.  That’s when faith became not just something I should have, but something I chose, something that compelled me.  I can’t stomach an idea of faith that promises something without demanding anything. John Wesley once called faith without works “that grand pest of Christianity,”[3] and I’m inclined to agree.  So if I had had to raise my hand earlier, I think I would have been on Team James.

But sometimes I really do fall into this trap of thinking it’s all up to me, that I really can be one person who changes the world and that when I don’t it means my faith is lacking.  The truth is I can’t clothe every person or feed every person or comfort every person on my own.  And sometimes even when I can, I’m going to fall down on the job.  And it’s at that point that I need some Team Paul in my life – someone to tell me it’s not my job to save the world or myself.  Jesus already did that.  My faith does tell me that.

It’s never been James vs. Paul, faith vs. works.  My faith comes to life in my works.  My works give form to my faith.

We are saved by God’s grace through faith – faith that puts its trust in God, faith that chooses God and the people God loves again and again, not because we’re earning something or keeping score, but because faith is meant to be not just thought, but lived.

And I believe that that’s the kind of faith that can make a difference in this world.

 

 

[1] John Wesley, Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity. https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-116-Causes-of-the-Inefficacy-of-Christianity

[2] In the Interpretation commentary (First and Second Peter, James and Jude) Pheme Perkins writes that “The particular formation of the slogan being rejected in this section, ‘faith without works,’ seems to be dependent on the Pauline assertion that people are made righteous through faith in Christ, not through works of the law” and suggests that “the slogan seems to reflect a secondhand Paulinism” (p. 112) – i.e. people misuing what Paul had written.  In the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary (Vol. XII), Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “It is very unlikely that James was responding to Paul or that Paul was responding to James.”

[3] John Wesley, The Mystery of Iniquity, https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-61-The-Mystery-of-Iniquity

Living Faith: Playing Favorites

Scripture: James 2:1-8

Today we’re starting a new series on the letter of James.  When we start out reading a letter, it’s always important to know a few things: Who wrote the letter?  Who did they write it to?  Why did they write it – what was the occasion?

Unfortunately, we know almost none of these things about the letter of James. Who is the author?  There are multiple famous Jameses in early Christianity.  This one seems to probably be James, the brother of Jesus, who was a leader of the Jerusalem church.  But even so, he may or may not have actually written this letter himself, since it was pretty common in those times to attach the name of a famous person to your writing for a little extra oomph.

And who is the letter to?  It’s addressed to the “twelve tribes of the Diaspora,” which might mean Jewish Christians, or might just mean all Christians.  Either way, it’s pretty broad.

And what’s the occasion for the letter?  We don’t know that either.  Presumably it’s not just one situation, but a letter meant to be read by different communities facing the same typical church problems.

For reasons entirely apart from how much we know about it, not everyone likes the letter of James. For a New Testament book, James only directly mentions Jesus a couple of times.  He’s big on talking about law, and says that “faith without works is dead,” which may seem to contradict the Apostle Paul’s assertion that we are saved by faith alone, and not through our works.  All these things led Martin Luther to call James an “epistle of straw.”  This was an insult – basically saying it’s worthless.

I, however, have always liked the letter of James.  I sometimes have trouble with the biblical writers who make everything sound so heavenly and ethereal.  James keeps it real.  His letter is all about how our faith and theology come to bear on how we live life here in this world and in community together.

James talks about what it means to choose friendship with God rather than friendship with the world.  He talks about being doers of the word, and not just hearers.  He talks about wealth inequality in Christian community.  He talks about the importance of being intentional in our speech.  He talks about the temptations we face to choose the world and not God, and how this leads to discord in our communities.  He talks about being people of prayer.

And, in the passage we read today, he talks about how we play favorites.

In this passage, James asks us to imagine two people walking into a gathering – either a religious or a civic one, we can’t be sure.  One is wearing “gold rings and fine clothes,” and those gathered fall all over themselves showing this person to the best seat in the house.  The other one is clearly poor, and that one is told, “You can stand in the back,” or maybe “Sit at my feet,” a posture of servanthood.

One of my commentaries had a lot to say about how different James’s world was from our world today, enough that we might not even recognize it.  After all, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the social system was made up of an intricate system of patronage and debt.  You would have been indebted to someone richer and more powerful than you for the favors and protection they could offer, and in return, it’s possible that someone poorer than you was indebted to you for your patronage as well.

So it might be tempting to hear James’s description of two people entering a room and think, well, things wouldn’t go down like that today.  We’re not jerks.

And actually, yeah.  I really don’t think it would go down like that today.  At least not here.  Because we’re not jerks.  We’re nice people who know that Jesus wants us to be nice to everyone, whether they’re rich or poor.

But what I changed the details a bit?

What if the people who walked in the door one Sunday morning were a young family – a father, a mother, and two adorable kids?  Imagine them, clean cut, nicely dressed.

And another person, alone, dirty clothes, carrying a duffel bag.  You get the impression that they have perhaps not bathed for a couple days.

Would you respond to those people equally?  Who would you invite to sit with you, or join you for coffee at fellowship time?

Again, maybe the answer is both.  I really do think that Arlington Temple is one of the most welcoming churches I’ve been a part of.  We do certainly have people here not only from all over the world, but also from all walks of life.  I’ve said before that this church is a place where you might see a diplomat having coffee with a homeless person.  I think that is a sign of the Kingdom of God and I’ve always been really proud to tell people that.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  What assumptions might you make about each of those people (or sets of people) who walked in the doors of the church on a Sunday morning?  Who would you consider part of the community?  Who would you hope to see again?

I couldn’t help but think of a woman I once knew in a different church I was involved in.  Her name was Glenda.  She was friendly and enthusiastic, maybe a bit overly so.  She wanted to be a part of everything the church did.  She also always needed money, and would ask whoever she saw on Sunday mornings if they would give her some.

The thing is that people tried really hard to be nice to Glenda.  No one was rude to her or told her to take a seat in the back.  When she wanted to go on a retreat she couldn’t pay for, they made sure she was covered.  But let’s just say that if she sat down at a table at a potluck, that table was never the first be filled.  It seemed like people mostly tried to subtly avoid her.  I couldn’t blame them.  I did too.  She made me uncomfortable.  I never quite knew when she was going to want something from me, or what I should tell her.  People were nice and polite to Glenda.  But, whether she sensed it or not, she never quite seemed to fit in.

Was it because she was needy?  Was it because she was socially awkward?  Did it make a difference?  Did she upset a kind of subtle idea we had that we, the congregation, were supposed to be helping other people outside of the congregation?  Did God have a place and a role for Glenda as part of this community? I wonder what James would have had to say about that.

James makes playing favorites sound like a black and white kind of thing.  But it’s not.  Not in our day.  It’s actually kind of complicated.

Of course, our human tendency to play favorites hardly stops at the church doors.  The implicit biases of our families and the societies we grew up in form and shape us in ways so subtle we don’t even know they are there.  And so we play favorites: when we decide that the resumes with more pronounceable names move on in the hiring search; when we give more media attention to crimes that happen in white neighborhoods than in black ones; when we decide whose stories we’re going to believe.  Will it be the white police officer or his alleged black victim?  Will it be the woman who makes an accusation of sexual assault, or the man she is accusing?

Maybe given today’s context and even the news of the last week, those things just sound like political flashpoints.  But they are actually complicated questions.

Do any of you follow tennis? Did any of you see Serena Williams lose to Naomi Osaka in the US Open last month?  I don’t usually follow tennis, though I did happen to be watching some of it with a friend at the time.  I didn’t see the end of their match, but I read about the drama afterwards: Williams got in a fight with the umpire when he issued a code violation for her coach supposedly coaching her from the stands, she got angry, broke her racket, stuck her finger in the umpire’s face and demanded an apology.  In the end, she was fined $17,000 for her behavior.

Social media was abuzz.  Did Serena Williams deserve the punishment?  She did demonstrate unsportsmanlike conduct.  And yet, people asked, how did white, male tennis players who similarly got angry on the court get treated differently?  Was Williams treated more harshly for being viewed as an angry black woman?  Was it fair, or was it a case of playing favorites?

Last week many of us watched or listened as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford sat in front of the Senate and testified about how now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had (she said) sexually assaulted her as a teenager.  And we watched as Kavanaugh answered questions, visibly angry at being (he said) falsely accused.  And the country asked questions.  What assumptions are present as we decide whose story to believe?  Would Kavanaugh’s angry and emotional testimony have been received the same way if it came from a woman, or a black man?

I don’t necessarily have all the answers to these questions.  But just like with Glenda, the woman I knew from another church, there’s some unraveling that has to happen: the unraveling of my own instincts, my own gut reactions, my own assumptions, my own bias, my own inclination to subtly play favorites without even realizing it.  And I wonder: whether it comes down to a needy woman who walks into a church or tennis star or a Supreme Court nominee, are we ready to do that unraveling, to figure out how we may be elevating one person over another?

James has some pretty strong words for us: “My brothers and sisters,” he writes, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  The CEB translation puts it this way: “My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism, you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The translations differ somewhat, but I think the implication is clear: the depth of our faith in Jesus hinges on whether we treat all God’s children as equally valued and equally loved.

It’s one of those things that’s obvious in concept – and, sometimes, really, really hard to unravel in our own hearts and our own lives.  It’s that work that James invites us to do.

I think in the end, what Jesus wants us to know is that we need each other.  Rich and poor, men and women, young and old, all of us from the many places we come from and the many backgrounds we bring to the table – we need each others’ gifts, and we need each other’s perspectives, and we need each other’s stories.

In the end, we are the Body of Christ when we welcome one another, and value one another, for all that we are.

In the end, all of us are God’s favorites.