Sermon for James 2
What group do you belong to? How does that define you? Who you are? Does it undermine you? Does it pigeon-hole you into some sort of identity that causes you to pretend to be something you are not? Or maybe you clutch it like the only thing that matters – the guy from high school who was the star quarterback 40 years ago. Has to wear the letterman’s jacket to the high school reunion just to remind everyone.
On the other side, let’s say you are retired. A man with a college education. People may say you are the luckiest, most blessed person in the world. Privileged. Should have everything. Nevermind you have marital problems, or financial woes, or children who are estranged from you, addicted to drugs or in prison. People look at you and decide about you because you are “rich,” never knowing you cry yourself to sleep at night.
Or we joke about men’s and women’s work. Male nurses and female construction workers. Women doctors or male nanny’s. Manny’s? Girl mechanics and boy seamstress’s? Seamsters? I don’t know. Anyways, it’s this notion of categories. Of decisions. Judgement. Deciding about where someone belongs, who they are, etc. Decisions and categories are not necessarily bad until we put fences around them and put them in order. Prioritize them. Make one better than the other. Blue-collar vs White-collar. College educated vs trade school. Rich vs poor. Man, woman. Adult, child. Hierarchy. We’re good at that.
Unfortunately, being well organized like that does not bode-well in the hands of sinners. Our sin causes us to do it all the time. Making distinctions. Preferential treatment to one group or another. Whole societies have been based on that, even our own with centuries of racism and slavery. The Civil Rights Movement was meant to get rid of that. A call for people being judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
However, even today we see the sides widening. The categories growing. People being proud of the color of their skin or gender or age. Which isn’t bad, but then using those things we can do nothing about, had no hand in them, we were born that way, and we champion them as though we should be favored because of them. Calling for preferential treatment to one group or another. People saying that white men are the most attacked group of people in this country, which I have no clue where they get that stat from, but its absurd. Or someone making the pitch to be elected to public office not because they have good ideas, or because they are the best person for the job, but because they are of color, or a woman, or young, or have their father’s last name, or were married to a president, so let’s elect them. We do all of this in our society all the time and we call it justice. Doing justice.
Yet, what does James tell us? Remember we are trying to read what he says, not go with what people tell us he said - My brothers and sisters, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor person dressed in filthy clothes also comes in, if you look with favor on the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor person, “Stand over there,” or “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
How quick we are to take this and run with it as some slamming against the rich, or to fight for the poor. No. He damns us for our favoritism. For our distinctions made within the body to say. The problem is that we see the distinctions because we walk by sight and not by faith so often, that we just think its normal. It’s the way of things. Yet James tells us that if we believe that we are saved by grace, through faith, and this not of ourselves, but it is a gift from God, how does that work for you in your life? Were you in need of saving? Are you that desperate sinner? Is there nothing in you that God saw worth it apart from his own mercy? Is that grace meant for you, treasured by you, or is it like that sweater your mom got you that sits in your closet worn once in the last 10 years?
James calls for Christians to live as though they are to be judged by the law of freedom. Now remember what I said last week, this law of freedom is not the requirement of salvation to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s that in Christ there are no requirements save that you truly believe that when Christ says I forgive you all your sin, that you have sin in need of forgiving, and you believe that. That you have this dire need for Jesus. That Christ is essential to your new identity in him, rather than yourself. James telling us that we are to speak and act as though we are to be judged by this law of freedom, which is no law at all, but grace. Grace for us and grace for the other in us.
For James, he calls us out on our faith to tell us that it is not faith unless it has come to believe something that is true. Faith believing that Christ is your Savior. Your way to God. The one who suffered and died for your sin. You being that sinner who has found peace, warmed by the embrace of Jesus, and fed by his sacrifice for you. So that when you see another brother or sister, a neighbor who is fighting battles that they cannot win, who has been left out in the cold by society and our categories, who hungers for life, you can take them by the hand and say “Come with me, I know where the bread is.”
Does that mean physical needs? Yes. You. Do it. For your neighbor. Does that mean spiritual needs? Even more. You don’t have to be broke to be poor. You don’t have to be poor to be broken.
Remember from last week that James tells us of the hearer vs. the doer. The hearer leaves from hearing the Word of God and thinks, that is not for me. The doer hears and believes, this Jesus, this forgiveness, this mercy is for me. Praying that this “for you” message becomes the guiding force for all your interactions with others. Never seeing anyone as anything other than another poor soul in need of God.
Many of you probably know that I am that man. I do not hide it. I am the one who daily has to confess my sin and hear the words of forgiveness. Even this week. The danger is that people make presumptions about pastors too. Thinking we are immune or holy or perfect. “You’re a pastor. You shouldn’t be that way.” No, I am pastor exactly because I’m that way. I am this man of distinctions, judgement, brokenness and sin. And precisely because of that I have a dire need to preach the Gospel, because if you don’t want to hear it, that’s ok. I do.
Recently, I was presiding over communion, and two young children under the age of 4 came to the rail with their hands out. Normally, I was taught, unless the child is of a certain magical age, or has had the special class on First Communion so we can sprinkle the pixy dust on them, “No bread. No wine for you.” But I looked at those children and they had their hands out. Maybe they were only doing what their parents did, which is a lesson for parents, but what I saw of them was wanting Jesus. Needing to hold him and taste forgiveness. It broke me. So much so that I wish I were that way. Because I know my heart and my sins. I can sit there and think of the amount of times I have never been able to live up to any standard and beg God each time to hear the words “for you” just once more. I wish every time that I stand at this table to preside over communion, that when you hear those words, “for you,” you would realize that I am talking to you. That Christ is talking to you. Proclaiming this law of freedom. Destroying the categories we make. Knowing that you are Christ’s. He is yours. And no work of man. No fence or distinction can take that away. Thanks be to God. Amen.