September 12, 2021      

Selected Verses from James 2 

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 over 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….

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.

But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  So…Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith….  For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works?”

Or… said differently:

What good is it if you are all talk and no action? or

You need to put your money where your mouth is, or

How about you walk your talk?

The writer of the book of James is famous for being practical, for being maybe a little too direct, for requiring us to step up to the plate and, well, telling us to put our money, our time, our selves, our reputations, our behavior where our mouths are. 

He takes out after those of us who will not stand up for what is right and, clearly, he believes that it is right to treat all people equally–rich and poor alike.  He has no time for those who favor only the rich and powerful.

People through the centuries have wanted to contrast James with the apostle Paul by suggesting that James thinks people are saved by their works, that is, we can do something (whatever that something is) to move ourselves into the realm of God’s love. 

Paul, they say, on the other hand, insists that being within God’s care comes only by faith.  No matter what we do, we are God’s beloved if we believe in, because we believe in, and confess Christ. 

But if we think that this Paul vs. James debate is a black and white issue, we are missing the power and meaning of both James and Paul.  It’s not one or the other.  It really is both/and.

So, for today, let’s take a look at what James’ famous words, “Faith by itself, without works, is dead,” might mean for us.

I find this a bit hard to talk about because, in some ways, it seems so terribly obvious.  Of course, it is our job as creatures of our God to do good works, to care for one another, to help those who are in need, not because we have to but because, as faithful Christians, we can’t not care for our brothers and sisters. 

I wonder, then, if this begins to sound like all talk and no action.  (Well, after all, this IS a sermon, and sermons, at least this one, are words).  The question is, will our actions change because of these words?  This is always the issue for preachers.  It gets right to the heart of the task of preaching.  We preachers should always be asking: how can this sermon change lives and change behavior?  How can this sermon challenge you hearers so that you take it to heart, so that you internalize its truth?  So that you are moved to action because of love.

Back to our work as God’s creatures…  This business of doing what we can for a brother or sister is not just so much church talk.  Doing good works is who we are as Christians!  Of course, faith is the foundation and good works are the result of faith. 

And this “doing good” seemed to have become embedded into our culture, I think.  Before COVID we saw companies asking their employees to give volunteer time to certain causes such as Habitat for Humanity or to sign up to contribute to United Way or to take time away from work to tutor children at risk. We have seen some lawyers doing pro bono work.  High School kids give community service as part of their membership in certain organizations, and it has become expected on college applications. 

It is essential that we not only pay attention to James ourselves and do the works that he is calling for, but we must teach our children that, as Christians, we are called to give back, to do good works because–it’s the right thing to do.

But James is not just talking about going on a once-a-year mission trip to help the poor Mexicans or inner-city folk, important as those things are.  He is saying we need to live lives that are centered around giving, around sharing, around generosity and around thinking of ourselves as members of a community, not just individuals.  This means being sensitive to the needs of those around us, it could mean helping someone carry a heavy object or do an errand.  It could mean assisting a friend to move.  It could mean intervening when we hear people using divisive and hurtful language.  It could mean taking time to talk with someone who is hurting.  It could mean providing food to folks going through difficult times.  It could mean contributing money to a worthy cause like UMCOR—right now, especially.  It could mean volunteering regularly at a soup kitchen.  It could mean tutoring a child once a week.  It could mean serving on a church committee.  It could mean pulling weeds in your church yard or at OPEN-M.  It could mean doing the laundry even if it’s not your job.  It could mean thinking of others, not just ourselves when decisions are made about our church’s policies. 

And, here’s the one that really defines being in community right here and now: it could mean viewing a pandemic as something for which we all have to do our part, not just taking care of our own selves and our own families, but knowing that our actions in this time of living in a dangerous epidemic have consequences.  Decisions must be made with the entire global community in mind. 

It means that if we are physically able (and I know there are those who are not), those of us who can must be vaccinated for the good of our community and our world.

Clearly, James isn’t talking about doing a good deed only in order to fulfill a duty or a law or out of guilt.  He is talking about a life’s dedication to works and faith.

Yes, we know folks who work themselves to death for other people, whose spirits die because they have not connected to God while busily doing good works with no thought to self-care.  Folks like this eventually run out of fuel if they insist that all it takes to feed one’s soul and to be close to God is to stay busy doing the good works.  To enlarge upon James’ statement, “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, (that is, works without faith are dead), so faith without works will surely die.”

So, there really are several types of people that we’re talking about here.  There are those who are the constant workers for others, who never say no, who go out searching for new ways to do good deeds, who may be neglecting themselves, their families and their own spirits in the process.

There are those who fully intend to be helpers, who do much good yet often let details get in the way of their being as effective as they could be.

There are those who are so self-righteous that they, like those mentioned in today’s text, treat the cold, hungry person like this: “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,” yet don’t bother doing anything to get food and warmth for them.  Or those who say, “I’ll pray for you,” but don’t do anything to help solve the problem.

And there are those who are so self-centered that they can’t see or hear anyone but themselves.

We have all probably been these people at one time or another in our lives.  We’ve been burned out from giving too much of ourselves and not taking time for prayer and re-creation.  We’ve felt guilty because we have been unable to make the choice to meet a need.  We’ve been so self-concerned (even for good reason) that we couldn’t see anything but ourselves.

The goal here is to find balance because the thing is, faith without works is going to die, and works without faith to provide a foundation WILL kill your spirit.

We like to say that love is an action word.  To declare one’s love without being willing to do whatever it takes is to be a clanging cymbal or a noisy gong (In 1 Cor 13 Paul also says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels and do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”)

…As we have observed the 20th anniversary of the death and destruction that accompanied the attacks on the World Trade Towers, the Pentagon and the crashing of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, there is one overarching factor: we have been in this together. 

…As we continue to march through the nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is this one thing we must keep before us.  We are part of our human family here on this earth.  There is no way to sit on the sidelines and feel self-righteous about anything.  There is so much to be gained by loving God and loving one another in whatever way we can…and there is everything to be lost if we only look at the differences among us and criticize those who aren’t like us. This is the fundamental in all our discussions of works vs. faith (as though they were mutually exclusive).  Love is the foundation on which we Christians must build our response to whatever happens.  Rather than constantly placing blame and putting all our energy into supporting lies; rather than only seeing the world as us and them, let’s witness to our faith by being people whose works speak way louder than our words.  Let’s witness to our faith through what we do and say.  Let’s be people who stand up for what is right and just.  Let’s pray, yes, always and ever, but let’s also act in whatever way we can that is loving for all of God’s people, not just those who look like us or who have influence in the world, not just those who have the means to look good and talk fancy.  Let’s stand up and act on behalf of all God’s people.  Let’s be people about whom they will say, we know they are  Christians because of their love.