The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings

This morning our second reading from James will receive most of our attention. But, having just heard the Gospel, let’s start there. Jesus heals a girl possessed by a demon and a man both deaf and mute. Jesus was able to meet them in their need; Jesus is able to meet us in our need. That’s the starting point and foundation for everything else our texts want to tell us today.

It would be simpler if our sickness were confined to the body. Unfortunately, our souls are equally vulnerable, and vulnerable specifically to the temptation to be friends with both God and the world, James’ main concern. Let’s see what James has for us this week.

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” A rich man and a poor man come into the sanctuary: if we treat them differently, we don’t believe in Jesus. For James, as for the rest of the New Testament, believing in Jesus isn’t believing things about Jesus, or even showing up at church every week. Believing in Jesus is following Jesus, doing what he said to do.

Now, my guess is that if James came here he’d like what he saw with respect to the particular issue he raises at the beginning of our reading. The issue underlying that particular issue is an opportunity for growth. That’s the issue of whether when we come together we’re simply mirroring the ways of relating we learned out there—sucking up to the rich and keeping the poor at arm’s length is only an example—or whether we’re learning new ways of relating to each other. Believing in Jesus is letting Jesus make us into the sort of parish whose common life is light and salt to the world around us.

This is why we say that believing in Jesus not something one can do alone, anymore than one can tango alone or play ping-pong alone. If God were out to save isolated souls, that could be done alone. But God’s going for all the marbles, all the human family, and for that God needs parishes that are light and salt.

Let’s return to James, for there are three other items in the text to attend to, the second of which will involve a major detour, and then we’re done.

‘Favoritism’ in the first verse in the Greek text is a direct allusion to Lev 19:15: “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” At multiple points in his letter James works from Moses’ law in general and Leviticus 19 in particular. When he speaks of the “royal law” (v.8) he is probably referring to all the Mosaic law. We tend to assume that after Jesus Moses is of simply historical interest; the New Testament understands that Jesus makes possible a life-giving implementation of Moses –but with some important shifts.

James, emphasizing the folly of favoritism, has some hard things to say about the rich. Since James here too is simply reading his reality through the lenses of the Old Testament, this is where we detour through our first reading from Proverbs, which ended with “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.”

What does the Book of Proverbs want to tell us about wealth? This is worth asking, because within the Old Testament Proverbs presents the most detailed analysis, and because the New Testament simply assumes Proverbs. Why reinvent the wheel?

  • Wealth means power: “7 The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” (See also 17:8; 18:23; 19:7). We could start anywhere; we start here to remind ourselves that Proverbs knows our world.
  • Wealth is the result of diligence. This is often what comes to mind when we think of Proverbs and wealth. (See 10:4; 20:4.) The portraits of the lazy are quite merciless, e.g., “13 The lazy person says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’”
  • Wealth is God’s reward. “4 The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.” (See 10:22; 13:21,22; 22:9). Recall Genesis, which makes the more basic point that all the sources of wealth come from God’s hand, whether the gold underground or the fertility which comes with God’s blessing.

The problem is, when folk think about Proverbs and wealth, this is often about as far as they get. It’s very neat, very tidy, but only half true. Here’s the other half:

  • Wealth tends to dull the senses, so that we easily overestimate the status and security it brings. Proverbs includes “2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all” because we tend to forget it. (See also 29:13).
  • Wealth can be seized: “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (13:23). So discernment is necessary. If someone is wealthy we don’t know immediately if it’s the result of honest labor or crime; if someone is poor we don’t know immediately if it’s the result of being robbed or sloth. (Other books in the Bible remind us that other factors come into play.) A careful reading of Proverbs undercuts both the conservative assumption that the rich are probably virtuous and the liberal/populist assumption that the rich are probably vicious.
  • Some things are more valuable than wealth: “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it” (15:16; see also 15:17; 16:8,19; 17:1). Why does Proverbs want to tell us that? Not because it romanticizes poverty. But because, I think, Proverbs knows that sometimes these are the sorts of choices which need to be made, and wants us prepared also in these situations to choose rightly.
  • Because wealth is from a generous God, it is properly used generously. “26 All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back” (21:26; see also 11.4,24,26; 14.31; 21.13,21; 28.27). Pragmatically, the best defense against the temptations of wealth is generosity. Theologically, here again ethics are simply a matter of the proper imitation of God. To the avaricious God simply says “What part of ‘I am generous’ don’t you understand?”

James has harsh words for the rich because they’ve forgotten this second half of Proverbs’teaching. The point of including this summary of Proverbs’ teaching on wealth here is to give us all an opportunity to measure our attitudes against Proverbs’.

Faith & Works. Toward the end of our text (v.14) James explicitly contrasts faith and works. He is not changing the subject; he is simply saying in more general terms what he has been saying in specific terms: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

“Faith without works is dead.” Two thousand years later, we can also observe that faith without works splinters easily. The works of faith are precisely the works needed to keep sinful men and women around one Table: patience, forgiveness, humility. Where these are lacking, Jesus’ followers splinter. World-wide there are now some 38,000 separate Christian denominations.

We can’t do much about that figure. We can do more about it closer to home. Patience, forgiveness, humility are hard work, particularly with regard to Episcopalians with whom we disagree. These works of faith are even harder with regard to members of the parish with whom we disagree. But James has laid it on the line for us: the test of our faith is the works that enable us to continue to live together and learn from each other.

The danger of this homily is that it sound like a lot of stick and not much carrot. So I’ll end, as I began, with the carrot: we work to stay together because Jesus has assured us that together we’ll continue to encounter him, the one who cast the demon out of the Syrophoenician’s daughter, the one who restored ears and vocal chords to the man from the Decapolis, the one who can name, bear, and finally cure our illnesses. Come, Lord Jesus.

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