James 2:1-10, 14-17 CEB
My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then 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.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
My 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? But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it.
My 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? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What 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? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
We all have favorites. Favorite foods, movies, books, music, and hobbies to name a few. However, do we also have favorites within the church? Do we play favorites with the people of God? James sure thinks we do, and in our scripture reading this week, James lays out how favoritism and empty words of faith oppose God's reality. This reality found in God’s kingdom has one guiding principle, love your neighbor as yourself. Now, this might just sound like an ideal that we should all aspire to, but for James, this principle forms the basis of how we should be living right here and now, especially if we make any claim of having faith. Our faith should be visible in how we treat the least in our midst. If our actions fail to honor and care for the poor and marginalized in our communities, that faith might as well be dead and buried for all the good it does the believer and this world. In order for our faith to live, it must move and breathe in our actions, to show that our love of neighbor is more than words but instead our dearest reality.
You know one of the most common things I hear in church is this command to love our neighbor, but I wonder how seriously we take this principle. As with everything in James, actions matter more than what we say, especially when words simply fail to live up to the realities of God’s world. Remember, we can choose to live in this world’s reality or God’s reality, and we show which reality we live in through our actions. James makes this point too by asking about how we treat different people in our own congregations of faith. If we say that we live into God’s reality of loving our neighbor as ourselves, we must ask whether we treat everyone as our neighbor or are we more neighborly to some over others. How about our community? Who do you want to see walking through that door? Now, you might say anyone and everyone, but let’s ask the question another way. What kind person walking through those doors would make you nervous and uncomfortable? Who are you ready to love?
Before we respond with our words that we love everyone, let me remind you that love is not just a word, it is an action. James provides us a story of a rich person and a poor person to explore whether communities of faith actively love as they should. The rich person in his example receives a welcome and a prime place in the community of faith, but the community makes the poor person stand at the edge or if they are to sit it is at the feet of the others, like some submissive animal. To translate this for our modern day reality, who are you going to sit next to this morning? Who are you going to talk to today? Who do you insult with your words? Who do you praise? Who do you see as moral and who do you see as immoral? I ask these questions because this is at the heart of what James is talking about. We are all guilty of playing favorites. We are all guilty of saying we love our neighbor, but instead through actions we prove that we love some more than others. We often create justifications for our favoritism as well, but what we might miss and fail to see is how this kills our faith and makes our love empty and hollow.
Since James gives us this example of wealth, something that certainly divides many of our churches today, let’s explore this to see what happens when love of neighbor fails. Tell me, does the church’s treatment of the wealthy and the poor match the values of this world or do they match the values of God’s world? Well, let’s start by looking at how we view wealth and poverty in our world, and whether we have a different reality within our communities of faith. I believe wealth divides people so often in this world because we have built so many myths around it! Often we see it as a sign that someone worked hard, as we all love a rags to riches kind of story! We attach success to being wealthy, as I don’t see many financial wellness books written by someone who went from being poor to staying poor. Sometimes, we may also cater to wealth, hoping that we might just get a small slice of their success! Now, these myths not only apply to wealth, but they also apply to the lack of wealth. If someone is poor, we often believe it stems from a personal failing. The person does not work hard enough, choosing sloth and easy money over thrift and effort. Often when someone is poor, they become immoral. They are described as smelly, dirty, dangerous, and someone to be pitied. The world’s reality holds wealth as good and poverty as bad, so its morality is skewed around this value of money and whether people possess it or not.
Okay, we have the reality and the values of this world, how about our faith communities? If we look to James this morning, verse five sets the standard we should hope to find: “My 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?” These words stem from the very similar words from Jesus and the Beatitudes in Luke 6:20 where it says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” God’s reality holds those on the margins, those at the bottom, and those the world rejects as the very center of God’s society, holding places of honor. However, instead we have attached religious significance to wealth as well. We may see wealth and success as signs of God’s favor and blessing. Wealth becomes something for some Christians that can even be obtained if you please God enough. We may even see the wealthy as people to have in our congregation as we hope that they will give a lot. Poverty, in our Christian circles, can be treated as a moral failing. The poor are often at the edges of our community, never at the center. They are people to be helped but never too much as then they will not overcome the moral and spiritual failings of being poor. They are certainly not people who make decisions in the church or lead a congregation. Sadly, our religion has been stained by values opposed to God’s own words, so our faith slowly dies. Favoritism around wealth as described by James kills faith and harms our communities.
More than that, favoritism of any kind, wealth or otherwise, kills our faith because it violates the one guiding principle of our new reality in God, to love your neighbor as yourself. You know this principle is so central to God’s reality that it didn’t even originate in the New Testament, it first pops up all the way back in Leviticus 19:18, where it again says, “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” In fact, a rabbi once told his students that this was the one law and all the rest of the Torah was just commentary. That’s how it is for James as well. This is not some vague ideal to aim for but a concrete reality that must be lived into now through all of our actions. God through Christ tells how to live this out. Instead, we have been guilty of living this out by half measures. We value the rich over the poor. We value Christians over non-Christians. We value our immediate neighbors over the strangers we have never met. I have seen this too many times where communities say we will offer you assistance and help but only if you join our church and profess to be a Christian. We will help you but only if you are a native of our town, our state, or our country. If you are a stranger or undesirable, there is no help for you. My goodness, there are even some churches who will say that someone cannot feast at this communion table, this literal sample of God’s heavenly feast in this world, if they are not already a Christian! If we claim to have faith in God but do not live this principle out amongst all people, we are liars and lawbreakers of the worst kind.
James gives us a powerful example at the end of our reading this morning of what a dead faith looks like and what a living faith acts like. Here in verse fifteen we have people without clothing and without food, and their own neighbors simply say that they will pray for them and wish them warmth! They do not lift a finger! They say that they have faith in God but do not live like they have faith! If God places a hungry person in our path and we have food, God has made us the vehicle for blessing them with the answer to their need! If someone comes before us naked and cold and we have clothing and warmth, God has placed us there to be God’s own hands and feet! If you have doubts about this, look to Jesus in the gospel of Matthew where he speaks of the sheep and the goats in the twenty-fifth chapter. The sheep lived out their faith and are called blessed by God! The goats did not live it out, preferring favoritism and empty words and so they did not care for God’s people. You see, Jesus does not say that you did well by simply praying for me and wishing me well when I was sick and hungry and cold! Jesus says that you fed me when I was hungry, cared for me when I was sick, and gave me warmth when I shivered!
As I said before, James is very practical in guiding us in our faith. If we have faith then we should have the fruits of that faith in the way we live our lives. That’s not simply believing the right things, it is living out our faith in active ways. It is seeing the needs of this world and answering them. It is about moving those on the edges into the very middle, to the very places of honor in our communities. Did you know that in the United Methodist Church, the same question is asked about every candidate for ministry throughout the entirety of our global church. Have they fruit? In other words, do you see the outward evidence of their inward reality? Does the tree of their lives and being produce the kind of fruit that comes from loving their neighbor and actively caring for them? I am going to flip that around this morning to all of you. Where are your least favorite people? If you asked them, would they say you have produced good fruit in their lives? Has your living faith pushed you toward acting in their lives this week? Have your actions moved them to the center of this community of faith? That is how we keep our faith alive my friends, it shines or dies in the ways we treat our least favorite and our poor and all those on the margins. If we say we are Christians, if we claim faith in God, let it be found in the ways we move and act in our community of faith. Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman