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Pentecost 15B Sermon
James 2: 1-17
September 5, 2021


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James 2:1-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For 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, 3and 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’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, 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? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For 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. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

It is very, very difficult not to show partiality in life. Unfortunately, whenever we see someone, we make dozens of judgements on that person’s character based on many, many factors - their age, gender and race; the color of their hair, the clothes that they wear; the way they carry themselves or speak - do they use good grammar or is it obvious that they have a rather superficial education. Signs of their religion, their tattoos, piercings or lack thereof. We are all guilty of it every day, and that is why James hits this topic pretty hard in our second reading this morning. 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? Evidently this is not a new issue for the church, and even though I have never seen one of you tell someone to sit or stand somewhere pre-assigned based on the way that they look, we still make those judgements in our minds. We are all guilty of it, including me. And, according to James, this is enough for us to be guilty of the whole law, open to judgement based on what he calls, “the law of liberty.” We are all convicted.
James is strongly critical of those who are rich. He sees that the quest to gain and protect wealth often frays the bonds of the community. In James 5, which is not part of the scripture assigned for this preaching series, he accuses the rich of growing richer by taking advantage of others. And as one grows wealthier, greed and self-centeredness make an individual more and more friendly with those who are admired by the world, and less friendly with those for whom God has called us to care. It seems that being a friend of the world and a friend of God often comes in conflict with each other.

This doesn’t always have to do with riches of money either, but in any gift that God blesses people with. It could be health and athletic achievement, looks, intellect or even musical abilities, among other things. Favoring anyone over others does irreparable harm to relationships and community, and these are more important than financial wealth or talents. We always judge ourselves as more desirable than we do others, it seems, so when James says that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, that begins with throwing away those partial judgements based on the factors I have mentioned. It begins with showing grace, both to ourselves and to others. Yes, the love of God is freely ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; AND it is also our neighbors, even the ones that we judge as inferior or undeserving, or less important than some may be in the eyes of the world.

Then this grace-filled attitude informs our words and actions toward and about our neighbors, especially those who may need spiritual or physical healing or comfort. When James talks about faith and works and criticizes us when we do not supply the bodily needs of someone who is hungry or naked, it reminds me of something I heard somewhere along the line that it does no good to read recipes to a hungry person. And this is what James accuses us of - being heavenly minded and showing love to ourselves, but only being heavenly minded without the love when it comes to how we treat our neighbors, especially those who are in need around us.

Some of the challenge is to consider the systems in which we knowingly or unknowingly participate. I read an anonymous quote that said, “There is more fruit in the rich man’s shampoo than on the poor man’s plate.” This is symbolic of the fact that the products that we buy may continue ingredients which would be better served to feed the poorest of our world. It also points to the fact that our products often come to us at a cheaper price at the expense of the poorest of our world. It is no wonder why James uses that phrase, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Friends, I say all of this with full knowledge that I need to hear these words from James more than anyone. I show favoritism based on my own judgement. I judge myself more leniently than others. I am not as generous with my time or resources as I should be. I benefit from systems that harm the neediest in our communities and our world. What are we to do, then? Well first and foremost we pray. We pray in thanksgiving for the many, many blessings that all of us receive because of the grace of a generous God and Jesus Christ. Then we consider how it is that we treat others with whom we come into contact. Do we love them as much as we do ourselves? How can small changes in our lifestyles make big differences in the way that others experience life and community? And how can we give through trustworthy and efficient organizations to get the most food to the hungriest people during this time when so many are in need?

Most of you know that we have a raised bed garden between the parking lot and High Street. It has been there for probably about 10 years I suppose. When we first considered it, one of the questions we got was, “well, what if someone walking along picks a tomato or other vegetables for themselves?” I think I responded, “so what?” If someone who is hungry picks some food to eat then God has blessed them through our efforts just as much as if they were to pick some up at the pantry after it has been delivered there! Now if they throw it at our building, that’s another story, but I thought it was a good chance to take. And to be sure, I don’t believe any vegetable have been thrown from our garden in all of these years!
We Lutherans have certainly focused on the free gift of salvation over and above the encouragement of works over our 500 years of history; and yet, we have so many outreach ministries and partnerships that feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help folks recovering from hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, and to provide education and a sustainable way for farmers to raise crops and flocks. We as a congregation have been generous in our support of so many outreaches over the years. May we continue to pray for forgiveness for when we judge people unfairly based on their looks or personality, and for when we don’t love them as ourselves. We all do it, don’t we? Knowing and confessing this is the first step to a faith made complete by the works that are witnessed by others around us which light and warm a dark, cold world. Amen.