Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10, 14-17
The book of James is one of the most straightforward and convicting books in the Bible. At least, it feels that way to me every time I read it. James speaks tough love about the way we speak to each other, about the way we use our resources, and about the way we favor those who can help us and turn away from those who need us most. James 2 is no exception. From start to finish, I feel myself confronted as I read this chapter. It’s like James has inside knowledge on the things I struggle with most and is personally calling me out. Or, as the young people say today, “Just @ me already.”
James begins this chapter with a talk about showing favoritism to the wealthy, to those with power and who might be able to help us get ahead in life, while turning our eyes away from the very real needs of the poor in our midst. And, he ends it with perhaps the most famous verse from the whole book of James: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Martin Luther felt convicted by the book of James, too, so much so that he wished it were not in our Bibles. He called the book an “epistle of straw” because it seems (on the surface) to contradict the writings of Paul that say we are not saved by our works, but by grace through faith. For someone who has a hard time feeling adequate and who worries they haven’t done enough good works to be considered a Christian, this chapter of James doesn’t feel like good news. If anything, it feels like confirmation that we can never do enough good or be good enough to be saved.
This week, we are continuing our sermon series through James called “Faith on Display.” The idea behind this series is that just like an artist imagines a beautiful work of art and then has to make the art real by painting, or singing, or dancing in order to bring their inspiration to life, we, too, need to move our faith from being just some thought in our minds to something that moves from our minds to our hearts and out through our hands. In Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong she writes, “We are born makers. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands.” Though she did not write these words specifically about faith, her sentiment still applies. Faith can’t remain an abstract thought. It needs to be lived.
But what if I don’t live it well? Am I still a person of faith? This is the question many of us are left with when we read from James, but I think perhaps we are asking the wrong question. I don’t think the question is, “Are we living it well?” A better question might be, “Are we living it at all?”
One of the biggest struggles writers face is writer’s block. I have faced it when I write – whether I’m writing a sermon, a newsletter article, or working on a book – and there’s nothing more frustrating. Sometimes a blocked writer sits down to write and has no ideas at all. This is the least frustrating form of writer’s block, at least in my opinion. If you have no ideas at all, it’s very likely that you need to read something inspiring or get out into the world and live a little. An empty well needs to be filled back up. It’s as simple as that. The more frustrating type of writer’s block is when you sit down to write and your mind is teeming with ideas, but nothing moves from the mind to the page. Jeff can attest that there are times when I can speak a whole sermon to him, or verbally write an entire chapter, only to sit down and write nothing on the physical page for hours.
In those moments, I think the writer is getting in her or his own way. They are allowing self-doubt or worries about what other people will think of the writing get in the way of doing the actual work. For that second type of writer’s block, the only thing that can help is figuring out what’s getting in the way.
The same is true of other disciplines, too. A runner can easily get too up in his own head and fail to meet running goals or even stop running altogether. A painter can be so worried about making a mistake that she never puts any paint down on the canvas. A potter who has had something crack in the kiln might hesitate to make anything again. I wonder if James was writing to Christians who were so afraid of getting it wrong that they never did anything at all. Or, maybe they were worried if they actually showed love to the poor, to their neighbors, and to those in need, that they would lose out on the power and security of buddying up to the powerful. Perhaps the people James was writing too were suffering from a case of faith block, and James lays the truth out on the line for them in plain terms so they can see what’s at stake.
Am I a writer if I never write?
Am I a runner if I never run?
Am I a movie maker if I have scripts in my mind but never put anything on film?
Am I a painter if I think about beautiful paintings but never make anything?
Of course not. So, James lays it out there. If you are a Christian, but nothing you do in your life shows it… well, there’s a problem, isn’t there? Saint Benedict once said, in what is called “The Rule of Saint Benedict,” “He should first show them in deeds rather than words all that is good and holy.” And in a quote that sums up much of the teaching of Saint Francis it says, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” In other words, if you are a person of faith, show me. If you believe in Jesus, live how he called you to live. If you claim to love God and love your neighbor, do it.
Or as professor of preaching Karoline Lewis put it on a podcast not long ago, “Theology as a verb is ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The community James had written to had a problem: they were showing favoritism to people with wealth and power, even though it was the people with wealth and power who were oppressing them. James said it this way: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” I am reminded of the story of Peter and Cornelius is Acts 10. Peter has a vision and he is told to go and spend time with Cornelius, a gentle who was not keeping Jewish laws about what things to eat or abstain from. Peter refused at first, but when he eventually went to Cornelius’s house, he discovered that the Holy Spirit was on the move. In Acts 10:34, Peter says this, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” God does not show favoritism. And if that’s true, how can the people James was writing to claim to be Christians if they were showing favoritism to others?
James continues in verse 5, “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?” Wait a minute. Doesn’t that seem to contradict the part about God not showing favoritism?
I’ve struggled with this verse a lot over the years, and I got some insight into it in the most unlikely of places: the sitcom Superstore. The series follows a group of people who work at a big box store called Cloud 9. Over the course of the series, one of the employees Mateo discovers that his parents had brought him over illegally from the Philippines when he was a small child. Mateo struggles because he does not know life in the Philippines and is terrified of being deported because he is undocumented. At first, he hides this from the store manager and his other co-workers, but over time they all figure out what is going on. Eventually Mateo is arrested, and then released while waiting for hearings to see whether he will be deported or will be able to begin the process of citizenship.
His boss Amy comes up with a plan to help him get a job in the store again while he waits, and when she announces to the rest of the employees that she was going to hire him for a special position, one of the Cloud 9 employees accuses her of showing Mateo favoritism. She decides to open the job to any interested applicants to ward off accusations of favoritism, and she creates a series of hilarious interview “tasks” for anyone who is interested in applying, including a karaoke sing-off. In the end, Mateo did not win, but Amy offered him the job anyway. When she explained to Marcus, the employee who had done the best in the interviews, why she chose to hire Mateo anyway, she told Marcus about Mateo’s situation. Even though Marcus would have been great for the job, Mateo needed it more.
As strange as it sounds, this hilarious interview process on the show reminded me of James 2. It’s not that God loves any person more than another, it’s just that those who are poor, down on their luck, and struggling just to get by need the compassion and mercy of God just a little bit more. And if that’s true, then we – as the body of Christ – need to offer that love, care, support, and help because it is important to God, and should be important to us, too.
I love this verse from our first Scripture reading, Proverbs 22:9, “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” When we give of what we have, yes, we are blessed because we are following after the example of Jesus. But, verse 9 says that our blessing is sharing our bread with the poor. I absolutely love that. We don’t do good works in the hopes of being blessed in the life to come. The blessing comes to us as we live out our faith. The blessing comes when we share. The blessing happens as we spend time with others, as we listen to their stories, as we realize that they, too, are made in the image of God just as we are.
What would it look like for us if “Love your neighbor as yourself” made its way from our minds to our hearts through our hands? What would it mean for us to live out our faith, as though we were a writer living out the call to write, or a runner living out the call to run? We might be afraid that we aren’t doing things as well as someone else. Or, we might be worried about what will happen if we take the leap of faith and follow after God’s call. Perhaps this will be some consolation: I believe you are a writer if you put words down on paper. You don’t have to be a best selling author. You don’t have to have published books. You are a writer if you write. You are a runner if you run. You don’t have to be Usain Bolt or run in marathons. If you lace up your shoes and run, you are a runner. Perhaps James would say that we are Christians if we are living it out the best we can, even if we make a lot of mistakes, have to apologize or repent and try again, and then keep on doing the work.
In this moment, let us listen to the word and be encouraged. Let’s partake of the bread and the cup and be strengthened and nourished, and then let’s go out and put our faith on display by the way we live. May God encourage us and equip us as we follow after God’s call.