This is a draft of tomorrow's sermon.
After reading the scripture in James, it is easy to feel scolded. In one way or another, we are convicted, knowing we DO judge people based on their outward presentation.
Perhaps it stems from the ancient need to size up a predator or a competitor for limited food sources. But in today’s world that lacks saber-toothed tigers, we can’t really justify our internal tendency to judge someone based on their clothes or color.
The book of James is our guide for this very human affliction and others because it is full of instructions to help us deal with the tendencies that are most detrimental to Christian communities.
For THIS 2009 community who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, it is helpful to understand what these 1st century instructions meant to the people who first followed Jesus. James offers us a closer look at that early community than you might realize.
(A little investigative reporting gives us a fuller picture.)
First, we assume, with many scholars, that the book was written by James, the brother of Jesus. James led the early church in Jerusalem before he was killed for his faith. His martyrdom occurred prior to the great Jewish War of around 70CE when the Temple was destroyed. If he, or a close colleague wrote it, it is older than all the gospels by at least a decade, maybe more. It is comparable to a 60 year old person writing about their impressions from when they were 30. (This is pretty fresh as ancient writings go.)
We easily see that the book of James places high importance on Torah- JEWISH law. This resonates with James and Jesus’ upbringing as devout Jews. Jesus easily quoted Torah and observed all the festivals with travel to the Temple in Jerusalem. So we aren’t surprised to find an emphasis on the teachings of the Old Testament from his brother, raised in the same household.
As part of this emphasis on OT Scripture, we (might) remember that Jewish Law is practical and specific. Hospitality to strangers and love for one’s neighbor promote strong community. This was important to the early nomads that followed Moses and was important to the first Christians – who (remember) were Jews following a minority religion that faced persecution from both orthodox Jews and the majority of people who followed other religions.
A key to remember is the very important part of Torah – that of keeping Sabbath laws. We forget that Sabbath Laws included a
o Sabbatical from slavery
o Welcome for resident aliens
o A 7th year sabbatical call JUBILEE where ancestral lands that had been mortgaged were returned to the original families.
(Try putting that into context in this day of 30 year mortgages and credit card debt that increases as you pay it off due to compounding and fees.)
IN God’s Law, the poor are incorporated into the Lord’s benefits as part of the entire community. The Law is FREEING and equalizing, not oppressive. It makes sense of the phrases in the Psalms that say, “I love your law, O Lord!” And it helps us understand James’ irritation if the RICH were being favored over the poor.
There is also a scholarly line that says the rich who entered the early Christian congregations may well have been Roman officials really their to spy on this illegal religion. There are layers upon layers of meaning in the words we heard today.
Our investigation of James relevancy to the first church and to ours is enlightening and helps us understand what they heard and what we hear today.
What I LIKE BEST about James is the Echoes of Jesus’ teachings. Some scholars believe the words and phrases in James may be closer to Jesus’ actual language than any other NT writing. After all, who better to recall the way Jesus’ spoke than his brother.
When I first heard that comparison, I began to read James with more reverence. And at times, that makes me feel all the more SCOLDED by its teachings. Yet we know Jesus’ teaching are meant to lift us up into greater alignment with God, not dress us down.
Last week we read, “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.” And I can envision Jesus sitting and teaching with his disciples all around him using just those words to help them make their walk match their talk.
I read today’s
v. 5 “Has not God chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom promise to those who love him.”
IN that I hear the core of Jesus’ own theology wrapped deeply in his experience of walking from small town to small town and seeing the STRONG FAITH and RICH LIVES of those who had literally nothing but a single tunic and perhaps enough bread for one day. And yet, these people took him in and gave him what they had. Why was it so natural for them to offer hospitality?
Perhaps it was this experience that Jesus’ shared with his brother from which the words “faith and works” come. These are famous verses and have been batted back and forth like a volleyball in a match.
v. 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say your have faith but do not have works?
Martin Luther read those words and called the James The “Epistle of Straw” Because he read them as speaking against salvation by faith instead of hearing the integral relationship between the conviction of faith and the action of works.
Brethren do not put one over the other but believe firmly that one’s faith is made visible in the actions of our lives.
And it is our actions that are being “scolded” in James. The not-so-imaginary woman or man who walks into worship, dressed in fine Italian fashion, with the best hair style you’ve seen in a while and we (it could be any of us) escort them most graciously to a seat in the middle of the church, offering them a bulletin, a brochure, nametag and even a church mug – all the while answering the door with suspicion if the man who occasionally sleeps outside on our bench steps in. Which response is ours? Could we pass James test?
JAMES didn’t write the illustration about us but it does challenge us to examine our practices for we are self-preservationists of a sort. Maybe we CAN’T help first noticing their style, manners or even their smell.
The answer lies in Jesus’ life and the story from Mark so excellently portrayed by our talented readers.
In this story, (maybe my favorite) we are shocked to see Jesus doing some judging. It appears that way, doesn’t it?
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Excuse me, but didn’t Jesus just call her a dog? It is pretty hard to get around that.
Opinions vary greatly among scholars as to what was going on in this exchange. It is certainly NOT the kind of response we are used to when someone asks Jesus for help.
Some authors remind us of the inappropriateness of a woman approaching a man in those days without going thru another man. They say Jesus would have been startled and caught off-guard. Yet gender didn’t seem to bother Jesus elsewhere. And cultural conventions never seemed to stop him.
Others say Jesus response related to the imbalance between WEALTHY GENTILES (including this woman) in Tyre (Tire) and the poor Jewish peasants living in the region. In this case, Jesus’ inference is not to Gentiles not being worthy to be fed, but the wealthy. That certainly challenges our standard interpretation.
Gail O’Day takes a different path of understanding and says we must look at the bigger picture of the woman’s boldness and Jesus’ openness to change that mimics the story of the Israelites when they would petition God and eventually God would hear and answer their plea. Jesus apparent change of heart reminds us of God’s answering the Jew’s time after time.
I find each interpretation fascinating and helpful and yet I find one important piece that is part of each interpretation.
HUMANS TOUCH EACH OTHER BY THEIR PRESENCE IN A WAY NO WORDS OR PREFERENCE CAN.
When we engage someone and allow them to enter our life with their presence and their concerns, their need and even their smell, we are touched by their humanity and it fosters change.
When someone enters our life with a petition for help or merely the request to sit in a pew nearby, they become our neighbor. And the GREAT LAW OF LIBERTY that turns the worlds demands up-side-down, becomes the catalyst of transformation.
The closeness of touch and communication, renews the human connection that is built into our genes. We are changed when another human looks us in the eye and asks for help. No matter what ‘natural’ response we have to overcome, we cannot remain the same when another person enters our life.
Whenever and however the challenge comes to us to live our faith in the action of our works, - there is only one response to someone who becomes ‘our neighbor.’
“Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”
If only this would publish with my reference notes intact.
Charles Raynal, Feasting on the Word Bartlett and Brown, eds. (Louisville:WJK, 2009) p. 28
Haruko Nawata Ward Feasting on the Word Bartlett and Brown, eds. (Louisville:WJK, 2009) p. 38
Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm Feasting on the Word Bartlett and Brown, eds. (Louisville:WJK, 2009) p. 49and www. workingpreacher.org