David A. Davis
September 9, 2018
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When you read the Book of James, when you hear it from James, there’s really not that much more to say. “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ…Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that God has promised to those who love God?…You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to scripture, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’……If you show partiality, you commit sin…. Mercy triumphs over judgement…..what good is it if you say you have faith but no not have works…..Faith by itself, if it is has no works, is dead…Show me your faith apart from your works and I by my works will show you my faith….just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” Faith without works is dead. Faith without works is dead. Faith without works is dead. James on the life of faith. James on the work of faith and the triumph of mercy. James…. there it is.
No, you don’t read it and go sit down. You read it, you listen to it, and you go live. Not only is there not much more to say, to use a whole lot of words to interpret James, to pass on James, to proclaim James as the living word of God, to settle for words is, well, it is ironic. The sermon for James is feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and caring for the poor, and welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner. The sermon for James is loving your neighbor, and showing mercy, and showing no partiality. The sermon for James is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. The sermon for James is the work of faith and the triumph of mercy.
We were in New York City last weekend enjoying the last drips of summer. There was a slight break in the heat so together with our friends we walked a ton in Central Park. The next day we walked the Highline, that elevated old railroad bed garden trail. Unfortunately, that part of our city hiking was like inching along in bumper to bumper traffic. But the crowd isn’t what makes a walking tour of New York City so difficult. It’s all the people, all the individuals, all the children of God along the sidewalk and in Penn Station and in the subway who are suffering in ways that go beyond description. Over the years many of you who work in the city have told me your faith-based approach of trying one thing or another to try to make a difference. You have shared stories of particular individuals you would see every day and sort of get to know. Some have come to ask my counsel of how to help, or how to process it all, or how to understand when it comes to the gospel and the endless suffering in the streets.
Down in the neighborhood of Chelsea I saw a little girl with her father on the sidewalk. She had set up a table to sell her old toys and children’s book. I couldn’t figure out if they were selling stuff to get some food, or if they were trying to get some money for something bad, or frankly, if it was just a New York City example of a lemonade stand and she would be able to buy some new age appropriate toys. Who knows? One thing I know, is that when your doing some urban hiking in New York City knowing that you are preaching on the Book of James in about a week, at some point your head explodes and your heart hurts and you find yourself saying, “But James!”
Here at the church, we partner with ArmInArm and their lower level food pantry when folks stop in with needs. Given our location the walk-in traffic is regular and a lot more than most people would think. Over the years we’ve developed ways to get someone a hot meal, or offer them a gas gift card and occasionally work with other clergy to help. One friend, he stops to see me once a month when he takes the bus into town to get his groceries from downstairs. He usually asks for a prayer. Another regular visitor stops in to ask if someone could carry her groceries to a friend’s car or to the bus stop. Every one of the staff and our office volunteers participates in our efforts. And sometimes its hard. This summer, we had to tell someone that we couldn’t help every week and tried to explain that we had to have enough to share with others who come in. She said to me “But I’m Christian! You have to help.” I tried to explain again. “What’s wrong with the church, not this church, but the whole church,” she said with exasperation. “Why won’t the church help me find a place to live and get back on my feet?” At some level, I found myself thinking that she had point. After she left, I plopped down at my desk, and heaved a sigh, and rubbed my temples. What I should have said was , “Seriously, James!”
I have been following the story on social media about the young couple In Philadelphia who set up a “GoFundMe” page for the homeless man who lent them $20 bucks for gas when they ran out of gas along I-95. I guess they instagrammed the story and set up this fund and it went viral and some $400,000 were raised for the guy. Well, then apparently, they were not giving him the money. They said he was still on drugs and not keeping sober. They really wanted to help him get everything together and didn’t just want to give a blank check to make things worse. The next report I read told of some big new purchases and trips the couple took. And the latest, well now a lawyer says all the money is gone. They spent it.
And somewhere James is just shaking his head. And those of us who paddle in the streams of the Reformed theological tradition of our Presbyterian heritage are reminded again of the inevitability of sin and the human condition. What the Reformers called our total depravity. Total depravity and the all-out war on mercy, the triumph of mercy. The story was on the front page of the Trenton Times yesterday. If it had all just stopped where it started, it would have never made the paper. Mercy doesn’t make the front page, James.
But here’s the twist, here’s the rub, here’s the power, here’s the gospel. James never gives up. “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ…Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that God has promised to those who love him?…You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to scripture, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’……If you show partiality, you commit sin…. Mercy triumphs over judgement…..what good is it if you say you have faith but no not have works…..Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead…Show me your faith apart from your works and I by my works will show you my faith….just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” What James wrote was that mercy triumphs over judgment and faith without works is dead. James never gives up on mercy and James never gives up on us.
The sinful temptation for you and for me, in a time when favoritism is the way of life, and the world’s bullies seem to carry the day, and the public square is obsessed with name-calling and dividing lines, and the loudest voices in the Christian church are majoring in judgment and often spewing hate, and when so much of human suffering seems beyond our reach or too complex to tackle or just plain easier to ignore, when we fool ourselves into thinking that the folks we disagree with politically or socially or theologically or intellectually are more prone to judge or more apt to exclude or more likely to serve their own best interest than we ever would, when we live and breathe and have our being in a world so starkly antithetical to the gospel, the sinful temptation for you and for me, is to conclude, of course, that James is writing to them. That James is speaking to someone else. That when it comes to faith and works and the triumph of mercy, that you and I are doing just fine thank you very much. Which, of course, isn’t just a sinful temptation, it’s ridiculous. It’s the only way to read James, to hear James. To realize James is speaking right to me; not to them, not to you, but to me. And James will never give up.
Back in the day when I played football, I had a high school coach who said to me, “Davis, you are slow as molasses. But you have a good first step.” What he meant was that my first move, my first reaction, my first instinct in one play or another, it was a good one, a quick one, a solid one. A first step. In the world of Apple geniuses who help us with all our devices, there is the default setting, where everything sort of resets, or you choose a default browser, regardless of anything else on your phone, it is the setting where it all starts. On college campuses all around these weeks, first year students are getting dropped off and family and friends and new roommates are helping to set up dorm rooms. There comes that all important choice of a family picture, a gift from a special friend now far away, or some other kind of treasure that the student has to select. Yesterday I saw someone carrying a full-sized stuffed giraffe into a dorm. That’s not really what I am trying to describe. I’m thinking of something that gets the place of honor. There in the room, somewhere near the bed or above the desk. Something that will be the first thing the student sees in the morning or the last thing to see at night, that go to image on a lonely day, or a full day, or a fun day, always, on a new day. A first thought. A default setting. A first step.
If you are a person of faith who yearns to live as Jesus would have to you to live, and if you are struck by how hard it is to live as a Christian in this culture defined by judgement and ridicule and self-interest, and if your head spins and your heart churns every now and then when you try to ponder the magnitude of the genuine need of hurting people, if you shake your head wondering how in this day and age of technology, science, and achievement, how there are kids in this community who go to school hungry, and we as nation can’t figure out how to have place to live for everyone, and poverty still stretches from shore to shore, if you ever get weary as you hold the gifts you have to offer in one hand and you try to grasp the suffering of the world in the other, and you wonder if there is anyway way for you, for us, for the church to even make a difference, remember James and what James has to say. Because James never stops. James never gives up. Remember James on the work of faith and triumph of mercy.
And then ask God for the grace, the strength, and the wisdom to allow your first step, your first thought, your default setting, to be mercy, to always be mercy.
Can you imagine a world, imagine along with James, and Jesus, and the Hebrew prophets, imagine a world, a kingdom, where everyone’s first step is mercy?
In that kingdom, in God’s kingdom, faith without works is dead and mercy triumphs judgement every time.