James 2:1-10, 14-17, Psalm 125

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” This is a line that really makes me want to know what James had seen. It feels like James saw something specific happen that made him angry, that he has a picture in his head. Do you with your favoritism, picking of favorites, privileging some people over others, as William Barclay writes:  “Respect of persons[/favoritism] is the New Testament phrase for undue and unfair partiality; it means pandering to someone, because he [or she] is rich or influential or popular.”[1]  Barclay continues:

[James] draws a picture of two men entering the Christian assembly. The one is well-dressed and his fingers are covered with gold rings. The more ostentatious of the ancients wore rings on every finger except the middle one, and wore far more than one on each finger. They even hired rings to wear when they wished to given an impression of special wealth. “We adorn our fingers with rings,” said Seneca, “and we distribute gems over every joint.”

…into the Christian assembly comes an elegantly dressed and much beringed man. The other is a poor man, dressed in poor clothes because he has no others to wear and unadorned by any jewels. The rich man is ushered to a special seat with all ceremony and respect while the poor man is bidden to stand, or to squat on the floor, beside the footstool of the well-to-do.[2]

While this feels exaggerated, I wonder how far it is from the truth, just in slightly subtler ways. Maybe it’s not about a bunch of rings, but it does make me think about how folks might feel welcomed here, or not. About, maybe, the difference between someone who moves into Hope Valley on a street with a handful of church members, who works with a number of you or runs in the same social circles or plays soccer with your kids. About the way they might be greeted, and about the ways someone else might be, who just moved here, who doesn’t know anyone, who is quiet and maybe even trying to slip out unnoticed. Maybe they aren’t wearing the nicest clothes – which isn’t a huge deal, we’re not a terribly formal place. Maybe they haven’t been in church awhile and it shows, standing up at the wrong time, maybe…maybe they bring one of the many kinds of diversity we lack. Or maybe its best asked as a question which is important to think about this busy time of year when we’re back in the saddle and settling into routines, working out calendars:  Who are we most likely to welcome well? And, more importantly, I think, who are we less likely to welcome well, and what might that say about us?

James hones in on the rich and the poor. He writes to a privileged community that works hard to look the part, tries to make everyone think that not only is everything “fine” as we say in the hall, but that things are great, our children are overachievers, the bank account is set, none of us are exhausted or overwhelmed or drinks too much or fights with depression or anxiety. James turns and looks in the eye a bunch of privileged and talented folks who, maybe everyone once in awhile, don’t love ALL of their neighbors as themselves. He writes to a church who occasionally, to use his language, shows partiality, picks winners and losers, those who are on the inside and those we won’t include for whatever reason.

James makes sure the congregations reading his letter understand that ALL of those things are expressions of faith, or lack of it. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters,” James writes, “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.” Putting your faith to work for others is how we know that faith is real or not.

James isn’t arguing that faith is irrelevant, or what you believe isn’t important. My guess is that James has seen enough of religion that is shallow and devoid of heart. Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Has not God, and there are many echoes of the gospels here, especially pointing us to the reversals in the Sermon on the Mount – is there not something about the poor in this life that Jesus calls blessed, that they may inherit the kingdom of God?  James leans in, and its painful. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not DO ANYTHING? What good is your bible study, your small group, what good is – and this is hard for a preacher to say – what good is your worship, your sermon with expertly crafted rhetorical flourish, if all of those things don’t move us towards following Jesus in the world with our LIVES.

What good are all the gifts God has given us if we are too caught up in all of our own busyness to even notice the people around us?

What good is the money God entrusts to us, that’s not ours, doesn’t fundamentally belong to us, if we keep it for ourselves over and over again? Presbyterians and Episcopalians tend to be the wealthiest Christians, and among the wealthiest of all religious groups, but across the Christian spectrum the average individual or family gives about 2.5% of its income away to all places, even less, around 1.5%, to the church.

What good is the wisdom we are given?  We tend to be a pretty talented and well-educated lot. What problems could we address if we did so together?

What good is any of this if you do not take time, serve, get to WORK, James says, particularly to help the poor around you. What good is your faith then?

I was home at lunch a few weeks ago and flipped on the television. ESPN does this thing in the daytime of televising radio shows, so if you aren’t in your car you can watch people talking about sports, which isn’t thrilling but is better than the news most days. I have no recollection of the context, but one of the hosts started talking about a former colleague he refused to name who, when they lived out in LA, came to a couple of parties they had in their home, and each time, when you met him at the door, he’d do the same thing, he’d look over the host’s shoulder, sizing up the room to see who else was there. He was already looking past the people who invited him into their home to size up the crowd, see who was there he wanted to talk to or be seen with, making all sorts of little judgments about who is what and where, who matters, who has whatever made-up status, and by implication who DOESN’T matter as much. The co-host likened this to when you invite someone to something and they respond with something like, ‘who else is going?’ It was a silly conversation, but as I got in my car I was convicted, thinking about the ways I make all sorts of judgments like this every day. I suspect you might as well. Half the time it’s not even something we do consciously, and I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. But we make distinctions, who we think matters more, and who we think matters less, looking past others or people or groups because we have already decided we know who they are, what they believe, how they act, all assumptions we have created. We size people up and categorize to maximize our own benefit.

But, James says, the faith of Jesus Christ does the opposite of that. If it categorizes at all it privileges the poor over the rich, James says. What good is your faith, James challenges us, if we don’t pay really careful attention to all people?  Step it up, James says. I will have no more of your religious platitudes. Don’t tell me what you believe or who you are for. Show me. Show me what matters with your work, show me with your time, show me with your bank account, with the way you treat people – knowing they have something to offer you or as a brother or sister that you are walking alongside. Show me what your faith is, James says. Then you won’t have to say a thing about who your favorites are, because your life, your actions, what you do and how you treat others, will have already revealed your preferences. You won’t have to tell anyone anything, because they will already know.

May God hold us, and guide us, and grant us courage, as we seek to be who Christ would have us be. All praise be to God. Amen.

[1] The Letters of James and Peter: Revised Edition, by William Barclay (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), 63.

[2] Barclay, 64.