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.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
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.
In their book Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Emily C. Heath, shares a story of two churches that they were acquainted with when they were going to seminary in Atlanta. One church was large, so large that it was the biggest church in terms of membership in the entire denomination to which they belong. We’re talking about thousands of members. Millions of dollars in their endowment. Programs galore. Huge staff. Huge bunch of volunteers. By so many measures, this church, located in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of the city, is an incredible success. And, during the era when Dr. Heath was living in the city, the senior pastor of the real big church occasionally invited the pastor of a really small church in the city to come preach.
This second, smaller church is about the size of ours. Actually, their membership was smaller, about 40 active members. They were a part of the same denomination as the big church and in the same city, though in a neighborhood that was considered, according to Dr. Heath, to have been pretty “down and out” for a long time. Dr. Heath noted that hey managed to keep their doors open, year after year, despite their small numbers. And, with those small numbers, they did incredible ministry. The thing they were most known for was their hospitality. Every night, they opened their door to the people in the community who did not have homes and let men who didn’t have a safe place to stay on sleep on a cot in their sanctuary. They fed these men meals, helped them find housing and navigate the healthcare system. Dr. Heath called tremendous ministry of welcome the church “walk[ing] with them on their journeys.”
When the senior pastor of the big church invited the solo pastor of the little church to come preach, it was often to have them about this particular ministry to people experiencing homelessness. The senior pastor was so moved by the incredible ministry of the small church that he just had to make sure the big church knew what was possible. According to Dr. Heath, the pastor of the big church wanted his church to see what could be done by a dedicated community, no matter how small, that assumed what they had, a good building, some dedicated people, some money, was enough to serve their community. After the pastor of the small church would preach, the pastor of the big church would stand up and say, “this little church manages to do all this ministry every year on a church budget that is less than our own church’s electric bill.” I know that there are lots of measures of successful ministry. It seems clear to me that that small church of about 40 members was pretty successful.
Last week, while Tasha and I took some time off, we stayed a night in a small cabin in Washington County. On our way home, we drove through Cherryfield. I first heard of Cherryfield, Maine five years ago when I learned about the Lamb House. Named for the family that used to live there, this house that was originally built in the 1840's, has been put to a new use by the Cherryfield Congregational church. The church had 33 members when they started the project. But they had their faith, some money, and a calling to serve their community. When one congregant offered to put up the funds to purchase the property, they knew they could use it as a tool for the Gospel. As they observed the needs in their community, it became clear how they could use the house.
In 2011, the year before the church bought the property, 11 homes burned in their county, displacing 30 people. While house fires are always disruptive to the families who lose their homes, such tragedies are particularly difficult in a town as small as Cherryfield and a county as sparsely populated as Washington. I read a testimony of Larry Zimmerman, the pastor of Cherryfield Congregational Church, about how they were inspired to make use of the Lamb House. He said that members of the church regularly saw first-hand how difficult it was to recover from such a major fire and also stay in the community. He said that residents often had to relocate in order to find somewhere to live, sometimes even leaving the state, because there were so few resources to help them re-establish in Washington County after a fire. Rev. Zimmerman said that children often had to change schools, adding the loss of friends and familiar teachers to the loss of their homes. Sometimes families would even have to live separately for a while, with the parent with the better job needing to live near work but unable to find a place suitable for the whole family. The only place that most families could find for temporary shelter were the local hotels and motels or by staying with other family members.
After seeing the need for temporary housing, the church realized that they could provide it. They worked together with people from across their community. Accord to Rev. Zimmerman, one of the church trustees who was a local contractor began the work with start-up money and donations. A retired plumber showed up and donated his time. A local building supply company gave a very generous discount on building materials. Volunteers from all over came to help get the Lamb House ready to host people... neighbors from right here in Maine and folks from Pennsylvania who came up to help at the Lamb House while working at the Maine Seacoast Mission. Even inmates from the correctional facility in Machias came over to help renovate the building. Some volunteers wrote grants, too. And, they got some, including $5,000 from the Maine Conference Resourcing the Local Church fund. They also run fundraisers. I checked out their Facebook page, and they recently made about $3,000 in a yard sale, all of which goes to keeping this ministry going, to doing the work of serving people in need.
They have been hosting folks who have lost their homes as well as service groups since July of 2015. One of their guests, a woman named Tammy, wrote this about her time at the Lamb House: "I give many thanks to the good people of the Cherryfield Congregational Church. The Lamb House was a cozy and quaint home for myself, (my pets) Love Bug and Angus while I waited for my new house to come." That’s pretty strong work from a church of 33 people in a small town in downeast Maine.
We don’t really know who wrote the book of James. As you heard in Becky’s sermon last week, it is usually credited to Jesus’ brother James. What is clearer, however, is the goal of this letter. According to Dr. Cain Hope Felder, we should remember that these churches, largely made up of Jewish followers of Jesus, were small and surrounded by what he called “large populations that were indifferent or hostile to their beliefs.” This letter was written to help people to figure out how to live out their faith in a community that didn’t necessarily believe like they did when there would have been a lot of pressure to follow the norms of the broader culture, a culture that valued the rich over the poor.
For James, the key to maintaining a Christian identity is to live out your daily life in a way that reflects your beliefs. Faith is more than just what you believe. It’s what you do in response to that belief. “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 does not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” To love your neighbor is to be moved to welcome your neighbor, to treat the poor as heirs to the kindom of God, to not show favoritism to the wealthy who already have what they need. Dr. Margaret Aymer says, in her commentary on the text, that this part of James challenges Christians to make the faith that lives in our hearts visible in the world around us. You don’t have to have a church of 3,000 people to do that. The small churches in Atlanta and Cherryfield show us that. All you have to start with is enough faith to see the work the Spirit needs done in the world. Then, you look around and see what tools you have to accomplish the work God is calling you to. James suggested that loving poor neighbors, in particular, is probably a good place to start. May we see the Work God needs done in the world and may we not be afraid to roll up our sleeves and do it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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.