Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Love is the Only Solution, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56342 [retrieved September 6, 2022]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/5653108193 – Thomas Hawk.
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour 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 judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
The Victory of Mercy: James 2:8-13
Even though I was a pretty religious kid and college student, at some point, when I was in seminary, I realized that I didn’t know much about the book of James. I learned that Martin Luther, the great reformer, once called James a “right strawy epistle.” That means he had some theological issues with it. Since I grew up in one of the denominations that more strictly adheres to his interpretation of Christianity, it makes sense that I wouldn’t have learned as much about this book as others (though current Lutheran denominations have a less conflicted relationship to this book). From what I remember from my Bible courses, Luther was concerned about the part of James that I like that best, that is the clear instruction to do good works as a reflection of your faith.
Luther worried that people would think that they could buy their way into God’s good graces by working hard, which, fair. Plenty of sketchy wealthy people donate money to philanthropic causes in order to hide the ways that they take advantage of their employees and hurt the environment. I know such people would try hiding their abusive actions from Jesus the same way if they could. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I do not share the same concerns as Martin Luther. I believe that our faith should direct our actions and, even when we don’t understand exactly who or what or how God is, the Gospel guides us on the actions that we can take as followers of Christ. I think Jesus is revealed in actions in the world as much as in whatever we think in our brains and feeling in our hearts. And, James really wants to make sure Christian faith is a holistic faith, a faith of actions, as well as beliefs.
In his commentary on James, Rev. Dr. Cain Hope Felder says that the goal of the entire epistle is to urge “those who call themselves Christian to adopt a courageous faith that will help them cope effectively with the trials of life, and will produce in them heightened moral integrity and loving actions.” The book of James is credited to Jesus’ brother James, who eventually became the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem. In his introduction to the book of James, he shares that this whole epistle probably began as a sermon James preached shortly before he was killed for his faith. Then, maybe 15 years later, a skilled writer added to it and edited it, then shared it with other churches.
The new letter would have been passed from one church to another, particularly to churches that were part of the Diaspora of Jewish people who didn’t necessarily live in Jerusalem anymore but would still understand that a leader from Jerusalem had a measure of authority. While we have recently talked about Paul’s letters to church made up of either a mix of Jewish and Gentile Christians or that were wholly Gentile, this letter that we call James was for Jewish followers of Christ who needed help navigating what Felder calls a “tension between their allegiance to the Torah and their newfound faith in Jesus.” It can be difficult to tell when Christianity stopped simply being a part of Judaism and became a whole separate religion. Felder argues that this book is probably one of the parts of the New Testament that shows us most clearly the theological and practical concerns of those who called themselves both Jewish and followers of Christ.
Works. That’s a central theme of this text. Works are the things that you do because of your faith. Or, as Feld describes them, “the acts that spring from the love of the believer for God.” Chapter Two of James is about a particular action, that favoritism based on social class, and whether or not this kind of action is acceptable in their faith. The short answer is: No. It’s not. You could probably guess that even if you’ve never read a word of this epistle. But, it was an issue then and, frankly, is still an issue now. People who are perceived as wealthy continue to be treated with higher measures of respect and held to lower standards of accountability than people perceived as being poor. James reminds us that while that behavior is common, that doesn’t mean it’s Christian.
In the verses leading up to today’s reading, a particular discriminatory behavior is described. People wearing fine clothes and jewelry who visit the assembly of Christians may be offered a seat and be given a warm welcome while people who appear poor are told to stand or sit on the floor at someone else’s feet. Scripture here is clear: this kind of behavior is evidence of evil thoughts. In verse 5, James says “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom of heaven that God has promised to those who love God?” James assumes, and I think this is in line with Torah, that God has a particular concern for the poor and that poor people should be treated with the same kind of respect as one would treat an heir of a wealthy family. Moreover, James points out the way that wealthy people abuse their power, particularly the ways that they drag poor people to court. Then, as now, poor people were less likely to be treated well in court and had fewer resources with which to defend themselves.
For James, to show favoritism of the wealthy is to forget one of the most important parts of the Law and the Gospel: Love your neighbor as yourself. The author and editor of this text go on to equate favoritism of the wealthy with other behaviors that go against the Commandments. In doing so, James is making it clear: the wealthy should have no favored place in Christian community. They should not be granted more rights or more respect or more care. To mistreat the poor is to mistreat a neighbor and that goes against the Torah. For these Christians, who very much uphold the Torah as a guide for everyday living, that would be important to hear. It would show them how to actually live out their faith... give them one specific way to clearly act in accordance to both the religious law handed down to them from their forbearers and the interpretations of that law passed along from Jesus.
Act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. That unfamiliar phrase seems to has with how one offers mercy. Liberty does not mean the freedom to do whatever you want. Liberty means the freedom to choose behaviors that reflect your faith. In this case, it means choosing mercy. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Wil Gafney says that the Christian is encouraged here to “deal with each other in mercy rather than judgement, assuring mercy for ourselves at our judgement.” The ones who deserve the most mercy are the ones for whom God has particular care, that is, the poor and those who struggle financially. To do right by the poor is to achieve victory through mercy. As you go through this week, especially with all these conversations about means testing and who deserves forgiveness... as you yourself have the opportunity to decide how to live out your faith, I hope you remember this text and think about what it means to choose mercy. For James, this is question of mercy is foundational to the Gospel. How will you live like it is foundational to your own faith?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Proper 18 (Closest to September 7th)" Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Cain Hope Felder, "introduction to the book of James," The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.