Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 5, 2021
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 Commentary
When I hear James tell his brothers and sisters in Christ in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson not to “show favoritism” (1), I’m tempted to respond, “That’s easier said than done.” Favoritism isn’t, after all, both common and dangerous. It’s also terribly difficult to eradicate.
Favoritism is an at least perceived fact of daily life. Almost all children, for example, assume their parents play favorites. Experts devote entire articles to favoritism in the workplace, including how to both recognize and remove it.
James 2’s proclaimers might provide an on-ramp for the Holy Spirit into contemplation of this text by inviting hearers to get in touch with feelings of having been treated as second or third best in their families or workplaces. They might even share examples of the favoritism they’ve experienced (or practiced).
Our text’s James, of course, addresses the favoritism played by people who are materially rich against people who are materially poor in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. He invites us to imagine how on a day on which his readers’ worship service was just getting started, two people walked into it. One of them clearly had much money that he had spent on his clothing and haircut. The other person was obviously poor, with little money to spend on his clothing, haircut, or personal hygiene products.
Since James’ audience’s church wasn’t very big, everyone could see the head usher make a big deal of the man who was rich. He eagerly greeted him, gave him a bulletin, and showed him a good seat that he may even have held for him as he sat down. Perhaps the usher even nudged a few people out of the way to make a place for the man who was rich.
However, the same usher indicated that there was no place in his church for the man who was poor to sit. He might even have told him there weren’t any bulletins left. The usher certainly told the worshiper who was materially poor that all the seats were so full that he’d have to stand somewhere in the back near the door.
God’s adopted children can almost picture the kind of church to and about which James writes: all the people with PhD’s and money are spread out across the front of the church where everyone can see them. However, their employees and students are packed like sardines way into the back corners of church.
James noticed what was going on. So he may have taken out his pen and scratched out a letter of protest to the church’s members, including its leaders. “My brothers and sisters in our glorious Lord Jesus,” he grieved, “don’t show favoritism” (1).
Many of the churches about which I know try to make a difference in the lives of people who are needy. The church I serve, for example, runs a food pantry, mentors students who are at-risk, and conducts a Bible study in a senior citizen controlled-rent apartment complex. Yet not many people who are impoverished even walk through our doors to join our largely white, middle- to upper-middle class congregation for worship. So we don’t get much practice at welcoming people who are poor into our building during our worship service.
That’s a reason why I wonder what would happen if what occurred in a neighboring church took place in our church. A man walked into the sanctuary of one of our area’s largest and loveliest evangelical churches and down its center aisle to a seat right behind the pulpit as the pastor preached.
His fellow worshipers’ recognition of that worshiper’s various struggles seemed to paralyze all of them – except my friend whom I’ll call Joe. He quietly climbed to where the man had taken his seat and sat down next to him. While many of Joe’s friends may have hoped he’d talk their visitor down from his lofty perch, Joe simply took his place right next to him for the rest of the service.
If someone were to walk down our churches’ center aisles during worship, wouldn’t we naturally prefer they be mentally and economically healthy? Jesus’ friends naturally prefer to surround ourselves with the kinds of people who look, sound, give and even smell quite a bit like us. In fact, studies suggest North American churches are becoming not just more racially and politically, but also socio-economically monolithic.
It isn’t, however, just socio-economic status that naturally engenders favoritism. This week I read about a Christian Reformed Church that a colleague whom I respect pastors. In an opinion piece in one of his local newspapers he wrote, “This week, our church leadership team decided that when our church opens for live gatherings next month, all attendees 12 and older will need to be fully vaccinated.”
When God, through James, calls us not to discriminate against those who are different from us and/or disagree with us, God graciously disrupts our natural ways of treating them. When God calls Jesus’ friends to welcome them as warmly as God welcomes us, God invites us into the joy of imitating God.
However, the protection that God uses James to extend to people who somehow differ from us goes even deeper than just calling God’s children to welcome them into the church. Some of James’ contemporaries apparently believed that faith is more a matter of what we believe than of what we do. In fact, he suggests that some of his fellow Christians were contradicting what they said they believed by what they actually did.
God, however, won’t just let James’ readers walk past people who are different from them, leaving them only flowery words. God reminds James’ readers that true religion is not just a matter of what we believe or even the rituals we practice. It’s certainly not just a matter of the nice words we sometimes say to people. God insists that true religion is also about how God’s adopted children treat especially those whom society so easily marginalizes.
In fact, God goes so far as to say through James that faith without Christlike activity is actually dead. Religious practice on Sunday without faithful living the other six days of the week is basically worthless. Instead of faithfully receiving God’s grace that grants eternal life, it only perpetuates spiritual death.
Thankfully, then, the faith that God graciously gives God’s dearly beloved people is a living faith. It doesn’t just say and know all the right things about God, God’s world, and God’s creatures. James insists that the faith that God graciously gives us is a faith that, among other things, actively cares for the poor, as well as people with whom we disagree.
Readers may know, of course, that such talk made people like Martin Luther nervous. Once he rediscovered the grace of justification by faith, he didn’t appreciate James’ repeated calls to do good works. However, one theologian wonders whether Luther had other reasons that some of us share for criticizing James. The great Reformer could be, after all, very critical of peasants and other people who were poor.
James implicitly asks how the ways the church treats people differs from the way society often treats people. Do Christians view the poor as well as people with whom we disagree the way Jesus viewed them? Or do our congregations just duplicate our culture’s deadly and deathly standards of prestige and conformity?
Mary Glover lived in Jim Wallis’ neighborhood and helped distribute food in his ministry’s weekly food pantry. She was so materially poor that she needed a bag of groceries each week. Yet Mary was also a kind of leader of the food ministry; she often said its prayer before it opened its doors on Saturday mornings. She was, after all, the ministry’s best pray-er. She was one of those people, writes Wallis, “who pray like they know to whom they’re talking.”
Mary would often begin by praying something like, “Thank you, Lord, for waking us up this morning! Thank you, Lord, that our walls were not our grave and that our bed was not our cooling board. Thank you, Lord!”
However, Mary also prayed in a way that showed that God had shown her what was at stake in Christians’ treatment of people who are materially poor. After all, she always prayed: “Lord, we know that you’ll be comin’ through this line today, so, Lord, help us to treat you well.”
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