Acts of Faith – Sept. 9, 2018

Acts of Faith

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

James 2:1-17

September 9, 2018

Main Idea: Our faith guides our actions

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

On a regular Sunday morning two visitors come in for worship.  One walks in beautifully and tastefully dressed.  She smiles and shakes hands with the greeters who notice her nice bracelet and lovely handbag.  The other person comes in clothes that have obviously been worn for many days and those around him can tell that he has not had the opportunity to shower in quite a while. From their appearances, many assumptions may be made about who they are, what they may want, and whether or not they would be good additions to the community. Folks matching both of these descriptions regularly come through our front doors.  How the church welcomes these two people is the topic of our Scripture text for today.

For the month of September we are pondering the beautiful and challenging Letter of James, most likely written by the brother of Jesus, who was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. To really appreciate this letter we need to know that for James there are two understandings of life which are incompatible with each other; the way of the world and the way of God.  The way of the world can be imagined as a vertical axis where life is about finding our spot on the ladder, looking up with respect, deference and envy at those above us, looking down with judgement, derision, and fear at those below us, and always striving to move up while blocking anyone from passing us. This is the survival of the fittest, which is built on an economy of scarcity and frankly, is still the way of the world for most of our world.

The way of God can be imagined as a horizontal axis where life is about recognizing the good gifts that God gives to all of creation; looking side to side and seeing that all are gifted, all are loved, and all deserve to have what they need. This is the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus and it is built on an economy of abundance.  This is what we say we believe in even as the world teaches us something else.

 Last week James called us to be doers of the Word who understand that “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.” (1:27).  This week he challenges us to recognize that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17)

The text starts off with a smack as James questions whether the church really believes in Christ because of the acts of favoritism shown in their gatherings.  They are behaving according to the ways of the world where favor must be curried among those “better” than they and those below them must be shunted aside. This is not the way of God. James points out that God is always on the side of the poor and by the way, the rich are not their friends.  They deride those below them and the rich deride them as those below!

We see this play out in our own society.  We are told to want the American Dream which equates a nice house and a nice car with a nice life.  We follow the lives of the rich and famous, buying their shoes, emulating their fashions and their views.  Somehow they are better, smarter, more beautiful than we. Somehow they deserve the lap of luxury.  Our politics encourages us to view those who are poor as lazy, or untrustworthy, or dangerous.  They deserve to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  We are told that programs to help them only encourage dependence and fraud.   However, we should know that the median income in Vermont is $56,104 and the federal poverty level for a family of 4 is $30,750 so most of us live much closer to those who are poor than we do to the millionaires and billionaires who make up the 1%.  We like to think that we have something in common with those above us on the ladder when in actuality we have much more in common with those we perceive as below us.

To live according to the way of God is to “love your neighbor as yourself”, to treat all with love and respect, especially those who are vulnerable or challenging or different.  It is not enough to say I welcome most people or I follow most of the law.  Following some parts of the law does not give us credit for the parts that we don’t follow.  We either live by the way of God or we don’t.  James gives a startling example of murderers pointing out that at least they did not commit adultery.  This does not exonerate them.  James urges us to “speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty”, that is the law of love.  Those who show mercy will receive mercy.  Those who live by the way of God recognize the mercy and blessings with which God showers us every day.  Those who live by the way of God share this mercy and blessing with everyone indiscriminately.

James asks us “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?” (2:14-16). Yikes!  We can’t allegorize this away. Who among us has not walked or driven past a person asking for money? I confess that I have.  James challenges us to align our actions with the beliefs we profess.  We are called to serve others; feed them, clothe them, shelter them, and work to change society so that everybody has what they need for a healthy and peaceful life.   This is a very tall order, a very challenging charge.

If all we had was the way of the world, this challenge from James would lead us to cynicism or despair. All of us would be convicted by our shortcomings and our sin and we would be overcome by the sheer impossibility of the task.   But we have the way of God; the blessing and guidance and sustenance that empower us to serve others, not to earn our salvation, but to share the love that we so abundantly receive.  To live in the way of God is to let go of the envy of those above us and the fear of those below us, to step off of the vertical axis.  To live in the way of God is to see every person as a beloved child of God deserving of attention, respect and love. To live in the way of God is to recognize that all of us, working together, working with God, can do amazing things.

All sorts of people walk in through our front doors.  People of all ages, people from all parts of the world, people who appear to have lots of resources, and people who appear to have none.  All of them have been guided here by God and we have the blessing of welcoming them in Jesus’ name.  Some may come back again and again, becoming members of our congregation.  Some may spend one morning with us and then never return.  All of them are gifts to us.  All of them provide opportunities for us to learn and grow and serve.

This morning we welcomed Peg Randall into our fellowship as a new member and today after worship we all can learn about the service and learning opportunities available this fall, while, of course, eating ice cream during our Programmatic Fair.  We are very blessed.  May we always live out our faith in our actions both large and small.

Let us pray,

Generous and Loving God, we thank you for your care and sustenance of us.  All that we are and all that we need comes from you.  Empower us to live out our faith with acts of service, justice, and love.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.