|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|"Faith and Works"
Frequently on Sunday afternoons in the fall of the year,
when I probably should be doing something more productive, I instead
spend some time watching professional football on television.
And then again on Monday nights, I can often be found spending some more time watching Monday Night Football. But this is because I happen to like professional football. And I'm not alone.
We all have WEAKNESSES something like that; if not for sports, then for cultural events, or for our hobbies. But on the other hand, we also have sports and events and hobbies that we DO NOT like. And all of this is only natural. Our likes and our dislikes are what make us interesting people; and if everyone liked the same things, I suspect that life might get pretty boring.
Yet, those likes and dislikes should have some limitations for us. In the opening to the second chapter of the letter of James we are asked, "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of FAVORITISM really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?"
But when James speaks of favoritism, he's not thinking of how we like games or events or hobbies; he's talking about real live everday PEOPLE.
And James asks the question:
"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?"
But when humans make distinctions, they are not only between rich and poor. They also make distinctions between races. And it hasn't been that long since we told the white children, "You go to school here," and we told the black children, "You go to school there."
And it hasn't been that long since the whites sat in the front of the bus and the blacks sat in the back of the bus.
And it hasn't been that long since there were separate restrooms, separate water fountains, separate swimming pools, separate restaurants, and even separate entrances to movie theatres.
And where were the so-called CHRISTIANS when all this was going on? Well, many of us were probably in church praising God and saying, "Thank God, I don't do those things!" And missing the point. Because there are still other distinctions that we DO make.
Even in the year 2006 a great number of so-called Christians say to men, "You may serve on that side of the pulpit," and to the women, "You stay on the other side."
And if that weren't demeaning enough, there are churches who refuse women the opportunity to serve in ANY meaningful active capacity in a worship service, even refusing them opportunities to serve in the role of an usher.
We make distinctions among ourselves. Some Christians think that worshipping on Sunday morning is the ONLY time to worship. Because they have always DONE it that way! But more and more, worship services are being held on Saturdays.
And in Seattle, Washington, when fewer and fewer people were attending Sunday morning worship services at the churches, and most of the worshipers were of retirement age, it was discovered that outdoor-oriented Seattle residents usually begin their weekends on Thursday nights, using Fridays as a day for leaving town at quitting time.
So one of the churches started holding Thursday evening worship services, and was quite successful.
But James would have us know that even if WE make distinctions, even if WE diminish others, God does not.
"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?"
And we can hear Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain, from the twentieth verse of the sixth chapter of the gospel according to Luke: "Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."
And hear Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, the twenty-sixth through the twenty-ninth verses of the first chapter: "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God."
James continues, "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?"
And James is referring to the name of Christ. And in that name is the character of who Christ was, as we hear in the ninth and tenth verses of the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians:
"Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend." And what is the BLASPHEMY of which James speaks? It is the rejection of Christ above all.
And what ARE we to believe?
"You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." It is the ultimate law, before which all else falls.
If we truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we don't make distinctions between rich and poor, between black and white, between male and female. And the irony of the "royal law" is that it did not begin with Jesus.
Our scripture brings it to us much earlier, as the law which God gave to Moses, and we find it in the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus. But if it was truly a law which God gave to Moses, how is it that the Israelis and the Palestinians have had so much conflict?
And James tells us, "But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors."
"Partiality" sounds so innocent; and indeed, in so many aspects of our lives it is. In fact, I would argue that in so many aspects of our lives it is DESIRABLE, even necessary.
We SHOULD be partial in seeking to raise our children in the best possible way and in seeking to live our lives in the best possible way; we SHOULD be partial in seeking to get the greatest value from the goods and services we purchase; but when it comes to treating our fellow human beings, the partiality must end.
And James emphasizes the significance of the law: "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it."
Now, we're not talking about traffic laws, like parking violations or speeding tickets. Rather, James is talking about laws concerning our fellow human beings. And he is telling us that those laws are all part of a whole; that to violate any one of them is as serious as to violate any other. But even at that, he is only talking about what I would label "major offenses."
And, temporarily at least, we may think ourselves to be "off the hook," to think that he really isn't talking about us.
"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."
Now, the easy thing to do is to once again look to the commandments which tell us what we should not do, and notice that we have, indeed, not done those things. And we can conclude that this passage is not aimed at us. A more difficult thing to do is to look to these commandments and, in the light of the great commandment to love our neighbor, ask, "Am I guilty in any way of making another person's marital or family life more difficult?" Ask, "Am I guilty in any way of making another person's life less healthy?"
For James tells us, "So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty." And in the Today's English Version, it is the "law that sets us free." Now that is a shift from the way the ten commandments are put together.
For when we hear, "Thou shalt not..." or "Do not..." we hear a law of restriction, not of freedom. But Jesus brought us the law of freedom; and in that law we should not limit ourselves to avoiding doing evil.
Rather we should be asking, "What can I do to strengthen the family life of myself and others? What can I do to give more life to others?" To borrow a line from a song from, I think, the 1940's, we need to "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative."
And James wraps up this admonition this way: "For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment." The fourteenth and fifteenth verses of the sixth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew ring out clearly here. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
But it is not only in the forgiveness of others that we earn the forgiveness of God; it is also in the LOVE of others that we earn the love of God.
And then James pushes the issue: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?" And in a sense, he is asking whether our faith is more than lip-service. How deep is our faith?
And what does that depth of faith mean? Are we quite capable of mouthing platitudes but have difficulty with following through on the specifics of our beliefs?
Do we say things that would indicate a great faith in this country and its people, but fail to follow through with works that would underpin that faith?
If we claim to be concerned for the poor and downtrodden, how does that concern manifest itself in our actions?
James gets very specific: "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?"
It's easy to look at the ten commandments in a self-righteous way and say "I've never committed adultery" and "I've never killed anyone." But when broken homes are created by poverty, could the commission of adultery be much worse?
When people's lives are being shortened from malnutrition, from lack of food, could killing them be much worse?
With all the problems in the world, it would appear to me that the person with gold rings and the fine clothes is still being treated better than the poor person in the dirty clothes. The letter of James still has something to say to us today.
And James concludes, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." And I might add that words by themselves, without works, are dead. There are times when it seems that each day my mailbox brings several solicitations for charitable causes, and I am reminded that the work of building God's kingdom is not yet finished. We cannot turn the world around overnight.
But we can continue to remind ourselves of our responsibilities to our neighbors, and we can continue to work toward that time when the poor person in dirty clothes gets as much attention as the rich person in the fine clothes.
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