(James 2:1-13)

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Read James 2:1-13.

William Booth – The Salvation Army began with William Booth’s ministry to the poor in East London. As a minister in the Methodist Church, Booth once entered the Blind Beggar Tavern to preach. He proclaimed, 'There is a heaven in East London for everyone,' he cried, 'for everyone who will stop and think and look to Christ as a personal Saviour.' From the pub came a volley of jeers and cursing, followed by a rotten egg. The preacher paused, egg running down his cheek, prayed, and turned home.

Booth made his way through savage fighting men, ragged match-sellers, flower sellers, and children with gobbling up decaying food left by the street market, or swaying blind drunk in tap-room doorways. He strode past crowded tenements and stinking alleys where life was a just a struggle; and the dark alleys near the docks where the sick and dying lay side by side on bare boards of fireless rooms under tattered scraps of blanket. From this moment on, Booth concentrated his ministry to those that London had forgotten. Thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, and drunkards were among his first converts to Christianity. His congregations were desperately poor. He preached hope and salvation. His aim was to lead them to Christ and link them to a church for continued spiritual guidance.

Even though Booth's followers were converted, churches did not accept them because of what they had been. In those churches were they were allowed, they were forced to enter through the back and sit in the back. Seeing that there was no welcome of these converts or spiritual guidance, Booth left the Methodist Church and formed the Salvation Army as a sort of church on the streets.

The time and place where we ought to feel most loved and welcomed is too often the time and placed where too many feel judged and excluded.

Scenes – I want to paint some images for you.

These scenes are real and they have unfortunately been repeated in some form or another far too many times ...
The time and place where we ought to feel most loved and welcomed is too often the time and placed where too many feel judged and excluded.

A Word from James
After hearing James 2, which is probably one of the earliest Christian writings, how could anyone who claims to be Christian show favoritism or discriminate – especially in worship?
After hearing James 2, how could anyone who claims to be Christian dishonor, exploit, or judge those who are “poor in the eyes of the world?”

In the ancient world, society was structured by classes. People had a station in society. The ancient philosophers believed that society functioned properly when everyone held to their station. No one intended to shame or abuse those of a lower station, but when such philosophy meets the reality of human existence abuses follow. We play favorites. We know that those of a higher rank can help us if they show us favoritism, so naturally they receive special honor. In time, society structures they way that honor and station is to be demonstrated – perhaps in the clothes one wears or the bowing, the language, even something as simple as seating arrangements.

America resisted that sort of structuring of society. Everyone is the same legally in America – well, not at first as women had to be given the right to vote and servants had to be regarded as whole persons and set free. But we’re there now and the fundamental principles of this nation got us there. So we do not treat individual persons according to status or rank in society. The partiality that remains among us is much more subtle. But it is there. We cannot cop out and say, well that’s just the way things are. James won’t allow that. It is a part of the world system and James warns us not to be friendly with it. Rather, as friends of God James is urging us to look at reality differently. God is turning reality upside down so that the poor are favored and rich in faith. God is defining community not as a place where everyone is stratified according to income or lineage, but we are all the same in Christ. God is calling those who would be his friends to practice a morality that comes from the heart of the law that gives freedom. James’ text for his sermon is Leviticus 19:18 - Love your neighbor as yourself. [James’ brother said that this was the second greatest commandment]. James must have had verse 19:15 in mind too: Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

I have appreciated the feedback from those who like James’ straightforward message. It doesn’t get plainer than this: Don’t discriminate! Don’t judge! Show mercy!

That’s plain – and yet, if we are honest we tend to squirm when confronted by this teaching. What if we’re “rich”? On a world scale, most of us are wealthy. Right here in America, many of us would be considered wealthy. Do we have to feel guilty about that? – can’t we just enjoy what we have without feeling guilty? James has no interest in making us feel guilty. Rather, he wants us not to judge. Don’t discriminate. Don’t play favorites. And by all means practice some mercy!

Rhetorical Question: Okay, someone says, I haven’t done that. I wouldn’t do that. Alright, but we know too many stories that turn out to be true don’t we. The time and place where we ought to feel most loved and welcomed is too often the time and placed where too many feel judged and excluded.

Rhetorical Question: I wonder, is there a risk if we don’t have some sort of judgment? How will we ever maintain holiness and decency if we aren’t aggressive in our expectations?

This is how the pick-n-choose approach to religion begins. Our worry and anxiety, rather than mercy and faith, lead us to be double minded and unstable. James shows us that if we are going to honor God’s morality as God’s friends, then we need to honor everything in God’s word. For instance, we are concerned about sexuality purity and rightly so. God said – Don’t commit adultery. Jesus taught us that that includes lust. We should respect this word of God if we are going to be his friends. But we must also respect the word “Do not murder.” And Jesus taught us that this means hatred and contempt and not just killing. We have to be just as discontent with expressions of such immorality.
James shows us how to maintain holiness and decency as God’s friends: 1) Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s how you do right. That’s how you keep the law – strictly! 2) Show some mercy. We are going to be judged – by God. And judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who doesn’t show mercy.

Bottom line: Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Our time together in worship and assembly is special. It is a sacred time. We ought to be reverent. Reverence means honoring God, but we do not honor God when we are unmerciful, discriminatory, rude, and ungracious in our attitudes toward one another. We follow the “rule” that brings freedom, not oppression. If we want to honor God then we will be rich in faith and honor others, especially those that God notices ...

We all have our favorite songs to sing when we come together. I imagine that James was thinking about a church song when he was addressing the church. It was a song that tells us a lot about God. It is a song that his mother taught him ... his mother, who also happens to be the mother of Jesus Christ. It’s a song that James mother, a woman who was in her time judged harshly, sang out when she experienced God’s mercy and kindness ... [Luke 1:46-55]

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 27 July 2008

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