Let’s just jump right into the story of God with us: James, Faith, Action!
Listen for the Word of the Lord, as I read to you from the New Testament book of James. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be holy, acceptable, and pleasing to the Lord God Almighty.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
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. (James 1:27-2:17)
A creative seminarian once conducted a cutting-edge experiment – literally.
He took hold of a scissors and cut from the Bible every text about the poor. As author Jim Wallis tells the story, excising the poor from the pages of Scripture took the seminarian a very, very long time.
When the snippy seminarian was done slashing and burning, that sacred collection of ancient-but-true words barely could hold itself together. So sliced up was Scripture that it actually was falling apart. The seminarian had fashioned a Bible full of holes – big holes; really, really big holes. Which surely evokes some visual thinking of a holy Bible without references to the poor as a book so “holey” that it collapses under its own weight.
Yet even the most faithful of Christians, as they have for generations, find it tempting to gut our Bibles with razor-sharp scalpels. And in so surgically overlooking and disregarding God’s crystal-clear concern for the poor, we essentially censor Scripture’s many loud calls to care for people who are needy – poor in body, mind, or spirit. In the words of another, by ignoring God’s special fondness toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life and the table of blessing, we basically annihilate God’s Word and blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
Before I go any further, let’s lay out the varieties of poverty from which all manner of people suffer.
Obviously, poverty is financial, struggling to stretch a dollar or two until payday, barely two nickels to rub together. With that, poverty is material – no clothes on your back or roof over your head. Poverty is nutritional – possibly blessed with clothing and shelter but lacking any food in the cupboard or a chicken in every pot. And also poverty is relational, having no one with whom to eat that meal or fondly identify as “friend” or “neighbor.”
Some suffer with poverty of community, the absence of a place of safe welcome and assurance of belonging, even as others wrestle with poverty of security, the inability to sit on one’s front porch without stray bullets whizzing every which way like lethal mosquitoes on an otherwise-balmy summer’s night. Up the block is poverty of physical health, and around every corner is poverty of mental health. In both central cities and rural America, poverty of educational and vocational opportunities limit human potential.
Clouding such scarcity and deficiency like a large, black umbrella is spiritual poverty, the stubborn disinclination to receive the gifts of the Spirit and the chronic inability to produce spiritual fruit – as the apostle Paul described it for us a few Sundays ago: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The supply chain of those commodities most assuredly has been disrupted.
Heck, why not just rip off the Band Aid: In one or more ways, means, or fashions, nary a one of us enjoys full liberty from poverty.
And into such rampant fear and utter brokenness steps God, in Jesus, to pitch his tent among us, to experience our full poverty of our humanity, and to die as the Christ and rise as the Savior. So, ya, the poor and impoverished enjoy a sweet spot in the generous heart of the Lord. Sadly, though, James – the elder brother of Jesus – first writes to Christians with the exactly opposite preference.
As James calls it and sees it, one day, when their worship service is just getting started, two people walk in as the pastor is sharing the community news and making the church announcements. One of the two people strolling into the sanctuary clearly is rolling in the dough, and he’s wrapped himself in trendy clothes and topped it off with a $100 haircut. He even smells a bit like money! The other visitor obviously is financially and materially poor, with little money to spend on haberdashery, haircut, or hygiene. Truth be told, he smelled more like moldy cheese than beaucoup bucks.
Since it’s not a very big church, the spectacle of polar opposites is on full display. Everyone sees the head usher fawn all over rich man: Enthusiastically greeting him, handing him a bulletin, and showing him a good seat. Maybe you didn’t see it right, but did the usher even elbow a few people out of the way to make space on the aisle for the rich man?
Then, those with eyes to see watch aghast as the same usher flashes the “Sorry, we’re full-up” sign to the poor vagabond, promptly escorting him to standing room way in the back, near the door, the “back of the bus,” as it were.
You can almost picture the church: All the wealthy people with Ph.D.s, and nice homes, and fancy cars, all spread out across the front of the church, where everyone can see them. But their employees and students, their staff and servants, their distant neighbors living on the other side of the tracks, are all packed like sardines in the way-way back, dark, dank corners of church with the rest of “the help.”
Like everyone else on hand that day, James also notices the inhospitable shenanigans. So apparently, he rushes home, grabs his pen, and scratches out a letter of protest to the church’s leadership and membership: “My brothers in our glorious Lord Jesus,” he grieves. “Don’t play favorites – ever!”
When you welcome the rich and shun the poor, you are discriminating among yourselves and judging with impure thoughts.
When God, through James, forbids discrimination against the poor and prods us to inclusion over exclusion, God graciously disrupts our natural ways of treating the friends, neighbors, and strangers who are most vulnerable. When the Lord calls us to welcome the poor as warmly as heaven welcomes us, God invites us into the gracious joy of imitating God. When the Lord calls us to shelter the poor as warmly as mercy shelters us, God summons us into the privilege of being the hands and feet of Christ Jesus. When the Lord calls us to clothe the poor as warmly as grace clothes us, God sends to us the Holy Spirit to stoke the fires of action and light the way forward.
And what lies ahead on the journey of faith is this: God’s mustering of our concern for the poor goes even deeper and far beyond just calling God’s children to welcome their siblings into the church. Some of James’s contemporaries apparently believe that faith is more a matter of what we believe than of what we do. In fact, he suggests that some of his fellow Christians are contradicting what they say they believe by what they actually do and say.
In an old Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and Linus trudge through the snow wearing fur-lined boots and bundled in wooly hats, scarves, and mittens.
As they battle the elements, the gang meets Snoopy, standing forlornly in front of his doghouse, looking just plain miserable and every bit the orphaned waif.
But Charlie Brown does nothing for a shivering Snoopy but tell him, “Be of good cheer.” And Linus chimes in affirmatively, “Yes, Snoopy, be of good cheer.” Then they continue on their merry way, leaving Snoopy with what someone described as “a wonderful, quizzical look on his face.”
God won’t let James’s readers simply walk past people who are poor in whatever form, leaving them only our flowery words and “thoughts and prayers.” God reminds James’s readers that true religion is not just a matter of what we believe or even the rituals we practice. It’s certainly not just a matter of the nice words we sometimes say to people who are needy. God insists that true religion is also about how we treat each other, especially those whom society so easily and callously marginalizes.
In fact, God goes so far as to say through James that faith without Christlike activity is, in fact, dead.
Religious practice on Sunday, or partaking in communion, or being baptized, or checking off the box of confirmation – without faithful living the other six days of the week – is basically worthless and meaningless. Instead of faithfully receiving God’s grace that grants eternal life, too many of us perversely prefer to perpetuate spiritual death.
Thankfully, then, the faith that God graciously gives God’s adopted sons and daughters is a living faith – a faith that doesn’t just say and know all the right things about God, God’s world, and God’s creatures. James insists that the faith God graciously gives us is a faith that, among other things, actively cares for the poor.
James implicitly asks how the ways that the church treats people differ from the ways that society often treats people. Christians must view the poor the way Jesus did: As unique and precious reflections of the God who created them, never measured by society’s standards for prestige and success. Neglect the poor at your own peril, for in so doing, you effectively render a holy Bible “holey.”
In the end, “thoughts and prayers” really aren’t enough, really little more than incredibly inadequate responses to really basic-but-dire human needs. Certainly, we need to be in prayer for those who are hurting. Certainly, we need to be mindful of those who are suffering. But to believe that prayer alone relieves us of a responsibility to act renders mute the Word of the Lord and pours cold water on the fires of the Gospel – the Gospel we claim to believe, the hook onto which we hang our hope of salvation. If faith doesn’t act, if faith doesn’t live out its core belief, that, James says, isn’t really faith at all. It is spiritual death.
For “thoughts and prayers” to bear any lifesaving, game-changing spiritual power, we must listen carefully for God’s answers to our prayers, rely solely on the mind of Christ in our hearing, and trust wholeheartedly in the Holy Spirit to equip us for service to our Lord and enactment of his living Word – walking the road the saints have trod, and giving thanks in one accord, to the One who calls us all to be Disciples of the Lord.
For Christ’s sake, amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, October 23, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Luke Timothy Johnson, Graham Jones, Stan Mast, and Jim Wallis inform the message.