A Workable Faith -- Sermon for Pentecost 16B (James 2)

James 2:1-10, 14-17

Every once in a while I get asked about the rainbow flag that flies next to our sign. I think most people know what it means, but what they want to know is what it means to us as a congregation. This is the way I answer. I just say that the flag is a sign that  everyone is welcome here and fully included. This includes our sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Not everyone is pleased with my answer, of course, but many others see this flag as a sign that we are a people of love and grace and mercy. 

I thought about these questions as I pondered our reading from James 2. It opens with the question: “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” When James wrote this, he was thinking about the divide between rich and poor. But I think we can expand the question a bit.

Years ago, church growth experts taught churches the homogeneous principle, which can be described as “birds of a feather flock together.” Church growth experts told churches that if they wanted to grow, they should find their niche, and focus on it. After all, it’s easier to be around people who look like you, think like you, and talk like you. It may work, but I’m not sure James would agree that this is a good principle on which to grow a church.  

In our reading last Sunday from James 1, James encouraged us to be doers of the word and not mere hearers. If we act on the word and not just listen to it, then we’ll be blessed. Now, following James’ words of wisdom isn’t easy, especially when it comes to showing favoritism to those who might benefit us. But that’s James’ word of wisdom.

It would seem that James makes these comments about favoritism, because the communities he writes to are experiencing this very problem. I don’t know if this is a hypothetical question, but James asks them to consider whether they respond differently to a wealthy visitor than one who is poor. I can imagine, of course, leaders of the community rolling out the red carpet when a possible patron stops in. I can imagine it, because I’ve had those thoughts. If only we had a few more wealthy members who tithed, wouldn’t that be great?That’s every stewardship chair’s dream. If they give a large enough sum, we could name the sanctuary after them.  As for the poor person who comes in dressed in dirty and probably tattered clothes, a person with not much to offer the congregation, it’s not likely we will roll out the red carpet. I say this only because I think James understands human nature all too well. 

James’ question is this: why do you make distinctions between rich and poor? After all, hasn’t “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?” If that sounds familiar, it’s because it parallels the Beatitudes. In Matthew 5, Jesus declared: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).  When James raises the question about acts of favoritism, he’s not talking about etiquette, he’s raising a theological question. Do you really “believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

I don’t know about you, but I find passages like this to be challenging. I know I’ve fallen short. I’ve shown favoritism. I’ve looked at people as they come into church, and I’ve judged them by their appearance. If a person walks into the church with fingers covered with gold and dressed in the finest of clothes, I take notice. The same is true when a person comes in dressed in dirty clothes. But then again, looks can be deceiving. I once took a man to the emergency room. He was dirty and didn’t smell nice. The ER folks asked if he was homeless. I told them he probably had more money than any of us. That’s just who he was. As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover. 

The more telling statement on the part of James is that by showing favoritism, we sin. We are convicted by Torah as a transgressor of the Law. Now before we take refuge in Paul’s offer of grace, it’s important to remember that Paul made similar, if more subtle, statements about such things in his Corinthian letters. So, I’m not sure Paul is going to let us off any easier than James. 

This conversation about showing favoritism and believing in Jesus leads me to the conversations that have been taking place in the congregation about our identity. These conversations are rooted in the question of how we can grow the church. We’ve talked about programs and worship styles, and how to advertise ourselves. These are important questions, but there is a deeper question we need to answer. That question has to do with our identity. Who are we? That question leads back to the flag and its offer of welcome to everyone. You see not every church welcomes everyone, and some people need some kind of sign that tells them they’re welcome in this place. 

I titled this sermon “A Workable Faith,” because according to James “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Faith in Jesus should express Jesus’ royal law, which is the second great commandment. In the Gospel of Matthew, a group of religious leaders asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest? Jesus started with the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first commandment, but there’s a second: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus said: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt. 22:34-40). The first commandment is found in Deuteronomy 6. The second one comes from Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Scot Mcknight has called this the “Jesus Creed,” and James offers it to us as a guiding principle for life in the realm of God. 

Our identity as a people is defined by these two commandments. Love God with your entire being, and then love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, James asks whether we can truly love God with our entire being, if we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves. In the Gospel of Luke when the question of neighbor came up, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate his point. 

When we have this conversation about our identity, we need to keep this second commandment in mind. It’s good to remember that if we go back to Leviticus 19, we’ll discover that the Torah has a lot to say about the way we treat our neighbors, especially if our neighbor happens to be poor.

Getting back to the flag once again, because there have been questions about why we put it up, I thought I might share my thoughts on it. I believe that it represents the commitment we made in 2016 as a congregation to be fully inclusive, to be “open and affirming.” The Elders drew up an inclusion statement, which the congregation overwhelmingly affirmed. It’s worth repeating:
We are an open and affirming congregation, striving to reflect God’s unconditional love for all God’s good creation.  Acknowledging that Christianity has been used historically and presently to justify oppression, we covenant with God and one another to provide a loving invitation to all who seek to follow Jesus, welcoming them into the full life and service of the church.  We celebrate diversities of race, ages, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical and mental abilities, family configuration, political affiliation, economic circumstance or theological perspective. We offer hospitality, healing, and hope to all who have been traditionally marginalized, ignored, or excluded from the body of Christ.
This is a powerful statement that we continue to live into. It is, I believe, an expression of the Jesus Creed. That is, Jesus’ extension of the Shema, which confesses faith and loyalty to God, to include the call to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. As you read through Leviticus 19, which is a statement of Torah, you discover that this call to love one’s neighbor is rooted in God’s act of liberation of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt (Lev. 19:35). Faith is expressed in actions. This is how we show love of God and love of neighbor.  

We’re living in a time when many of our neighbors gather together in tribes, segregating from one another. We tend to live in echo chambers, listening only to news sources that confirm our political and religious biases. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But the word I hear from James is a call to break free from this bondage and embrace our neighbors, all our neighbors, because like us, they are created in God’s image. Finally, let us remember James’ message to us: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
September 9, 2018
Pentecost 16B


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