Scripture: James 2:1-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? – James 2:1
There was once a seminarian who conducted an experiment. The seminarian wondered what the Bible would look and sound like if he took out every single text regarding ‘the poor’ in the whole Bible. The seminarian set about his task, and as Jim Wallis describes in his book God’s Politics, it took the seminarian a very long time.
Barely a book of the Bible went by where the seminarian had to remove large swaths of text, sometimes whole chapters were completely eliminated. Old Testament, Gospels, Epistles you name it the seminarian was ruthless in his endeavour.
As the seminarian finished his cuts, the ragged book could barely hold together, it was tattered and torn from too much surgery, too many verses removed. Jim Wallis noted that the Bible instead of being a Holy book had become a ‘holey’ book – that’s holey with an e!
While we might laugh at this story, and the thought of removing references to the poor from our Bibles – the reality is that even faithful Christians throughout history and into this day are guilty of the same, perhaps not literally tearing out verses from the Bible, but if and when we disregard God’s concern for the poor and needy in the world then we have effectively ripped out all the Bible’s call to care for the poor and marginalized from its pages.
Although it is true that God’s care for the poor permeates through the entirety of scripture, the same is sadly not to for the Christian community that James was writing to, and sadly the same is not always true of our Christian communities in this day and age.
In our passage from James we hear the author chastise the congregation for something that had been reported to him or even witnessed: a rich person wearing fine clothing, gold rings, a suit and tie, a gold watch, the best shoes walked into the congregation and a poor person, wearing ragged dirty clothes, beat up sneakers, smelling like they haven’t had a shower in a week walk into the same congregation at the same time and the members of the assembly take notice of the rich one offering them the prime seat in the church, the best pew; and to the poor person they told to sit on the floor or sit at the back.
James doesn’t mince words at this point – he calls out the congregation for making distinctions between rich and poor, for choosing one over the other and then says “Listen my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to heirs of the kingdom of God that he has promised to those who love him. But you have dishonored the poor.” James 2:5-6
James goes on to talk about fulfilling the law, and the call of God to love your neighbour – and he chastises the community for the way that they think they fulfill the law because they love some of their neighbours while shunning others. Partiality, favouritism, choosing one over another is according to James, sin in the eyes of God.
It is impossible to fulfill God’s command to love your neighbour if you don’t love all of your neighbours equally – if you only some neighbours, if you judge people worthy of love because of the clothes they wear, the money they make, their well manicured hair, how well they seem to fit in society or within our sense of normal. To do so is to fail to live up to the life of faith that God has called us into, when we followed Jesus as our Teacher, our Lord and our Saviour.
James finishes the passage rather starkly, saying that if you have faith but do not have works to back up that faith then it is dead faith, it is not a living faith. “What good is it, James says, if you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister 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?” – James 2:14-16
Essentially if you believe all the right things, are nice and peaceable but you don’t act upon it then the faith you have isn’t alive. If you say you love everyone equally, but your time and energy is spent only on certain kinds of people that make you comfortable or are just like you, then the faith you have is not fully alive.
James’ scathing words are pointed as much to the modern church as they were to the church in his own day and every generation. The church has for too long spoken nice words about their care for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized, while remaining focused merely on the desires and comfort of their own members or on the continued maintenance of the position of power and prestige in the world. Whether it is the Catholic Church’s seeming disregard for the welfare of vulnerable children through their endless cover-ups for the sake of their wealth and power; or the rich megachurches doing little for the poor in their neighbourhoods while preaching a Gospel of prosperity while reaping the rewards for their leaders; or the mainline protestant churches, including Anglicans, who continue their inward and exclusionary practices offering small acts of charity instead of meaningful engagement with the poor and marginalized.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells Judas and his other disciples ‘the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me’ – all too often we understand Jesus stating a fact, that there will always be poor people but not always Jesus. But in fact Jesus is declaring to his disciples and to the church that the poor will always be in the midst of the life of the church, that the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the people who are different, will be members of the body of Christ – loved equally by God and by fellow Christians. We are called to show no partiality in whom we share the love of God with.
There is a difference between providing charity, even serving others and actually loving them. To love them, we need to make ourselves vulnerable, we need to seek to understand their pains, their challenges, to put up with their differences and even change things about ourselves, our common life and our expectations to ensure that all are truly welcome in the House of the Lord, that we do not turn them away by our closed off hearts and minds.
Here at Grace Church, James’ words are also for us – for me and for you. Over our short life together as Grace Church I have been overjoyed to see us step out into the community serving others as Christ has called us to. And as we have fostered this outward looking attitude, we have also seen more and more people from that community join us here in worship, at our community events and such.
While we have been learning more and more to serve others, that doesn’t mean we necessarily love them. It is now time for us to practice this love. We cannot seek to serve others on one hand and turn them away by the way we treat them and speak to them. We cannot welcome some of our neighbours and give them the place of honour while neglecting, shunning or pushing away those who make us uncomfortable. Jesus calls us to more than service, he calls us to love – love makes us vulnerable but it is in this love that our faith comes alive.
We are not alone in our endeavour, and we are not forsaken if at times we fail to love all of our neighbours equally. God sends the Holy Spirit to guide us, teach us, form us and transform us. God gives us the church, a family of fellow travelers all learning what it means to live and love as Christ has called us to. God has given us his life, his forgiveness, his mercy.
May you know a true and living faith here in your life, and may God grant you the ability and desire to love your neighbour, every neighbour, just as God has loved you.
Let us pray.