Rev. Teri Peterson
30 August 2015, Pentecost 2-7 (We Follow By Grace)
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not 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? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Last week we read from chapter 1 of James’ letter, which ended with him telling us to be doers of the word, not only hearers—and today we pick up where we left off, with James asking if we really believe what we say. Do we, with the ways we show favoritism and partiality, actually believe in the gospel? Do we believe what Jesus said and did?
All week, as I’ve been living in the very small space between these two chapters, I’ve been hearing a song in my head. Some of you may recognize it.
If you’re in love, show me.
This is James’ plea to us: if we love God, if we have known God’s love, then show me. All the words in the world cannot make up for even a single action. We can claim to be God’s chosen people, but if we then exclude others who are made in God’s image, what speaks louder? We can say that we have accepted Jesus’ love and forgiveness, but if we don’t forgive as we have been forgiven, do the words matter? We can believe all the right things and say all the right prayers and subscribe to all the right doctrine, but if we care more about some people than others, we have broken the central tenet of God’s law: to love others as we love ourselves.
We are people who have known amazing love, incredible grace. To count the ways God has blessed us would take all day and then some. When we consider what God has done in our lives, it’s almost as if we run out of words.
Which is okay, because James isn’t interested in our words. For a guy who is writing during a time when nailing down the doctrine, making sure people believed the right things and worshipped the right way, was of crucial importance, he is decidedly dismissive of the doctrine. While all around him raged debates about how to talk about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, debates about who is in and who is out, debates about how much of the Torah we have to keep, James says that the doctrine is not enough. Prayer is not enough. Attending a worship service is not enough. Keeping part of the law is not enough. While we bristle at the idea that God demands something of us, it is still true: God has given his all…and wants ours in return. God is love, and created us to be love too.
James is relentless in making his point—he tells a story that we shudder at, insisting we would never privilege the wealthy-looking person over the poor one. And that is probably true here—whether a person is in a three piece suit or sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt, they would be welcome in this room. What about when we aren’t in this room? When we’re at the office, at home, on the train, at a restaurant, at school, at the theater, watching the news—how do we react when someone of a different color, or different class, or different religious tradition appears? Do we love them the way we love ourselves? Or do we start to use loaded words like “thug” and “cheap” and “dangerous”, or to say words like “Muslim” and “poor” and “Mexican” with a tone that betrays our disdain and fear?
If you’ve been loved, show me.
James summarizes thousands of pages and thousands of years of scripture with one phrase: “God has chosen the poor.” While we are making judgments about who deserves what, God has opened the gates and offered space to all those the world has left out. Where we have spent hundreds of years constructing systems that make it difficult for people of color to thrive, and thousands of hours concocting requirements for getting help when the money runs short, and billions of dollars bombing homes and building fences, God has spent eternity loving every single being that has made its way into the universe, and preparing the kingdom to receive them.
When we are all tell and no show—or worse, when we tell one thing and show something different—we are as guilty as if we’d broken one of the Big Ten. For the whole law is summed up, according to Jesus, in two commandments: Love God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. And love is never just words.
If you’re in love, show me.
If we love our neighbors, we will work for their prosperity and safety alongside our own. If we love our neighbors, we cannot simply walk away shrugging our shoulders about generational poverty, gun violence, street gangs, language gaps, food deserts, rising sea levels, and drought or flood. If we love our neighbors, we will want them all to be housed and fed and educated and healthy. Otherwise, when we simply pray for peace and justice from our comfortable chairs, James says our faith is dead.
If you love God, show me, he says.
Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”
This is the Jesus truth: that love is stronger than anything else in the universe.
This is the Jesus way: to love God so much that he was obedient to God’s will all the way to death, loving God’s people even when they were torturing his body and spirit.
This is what James—or rather, Jesus—asks of us. To love as we have been loved—even when we don’t feel it, even when we would rather keep them over there, even when we’re not sure, even when they don’t deserve it.
Faith with works, together, is alive and vibrant. Our service is our worship. When we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way, we too will have the Jesus life. If you’re in love, show me.
May it be so.