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September 6, 2021

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Rev. Sue Taylor

James | Mark

Having concluded our study of the great prayers in the Old Testament last week, we now turn back to the New Testament; to the gospels and the writings of the early church.  As I was preparing for this morning’s sermon, I found myself led to take a closer look at our epistle reading; which we find in the book of James.  I like James; while the Apostle Paul’s writings often appear as a theological treatise in heady, eloquent terms that stretch my brain, I so appreciate the straight forward nature of James’s writings.  In his introduction to the book of James, Eugene Peterson begins with the statement, “When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong, sooner or later, does”.  He goes on to characterize the letter of James as showing how one of the church’s early pastors skillfully goes about the work of confronting, diagnosing and dealing with areas of misbelief and misbehavior that has cropped up in a congregation committed to his care”.  Peterson continues, “Deep and living wisdom is on display here, wisdom both rare and essential.  Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that – it is a skill in living. For what good is truth if we don’t know how to live with it?  What good is intention if we can’t sustain it?” 

Thus, James begins his letter and lecture to the church in his care; possibly a group of Christians who had been driven out of Jerusalem and into Palestine. Things have not been going exactly to plan, or at least in the way that James had hoped they would go, in regards to how they were treating each other.  The issue at hand seems to be the obvious expression of partiality to certain members of the fledgling church.

It is apparent that the overarching theme of this passage is that faith and partiality do not mix, especially when partiality is a reflection of the world’s way of playing favorites. Keep in mind in his writing, James has set up a dualism for his community—either you are a friend of the world or a friend of God. Friends of the world show a preference for the powerful and wealthy, while neglecting those who struggle to make a living. Friends of God, implies James, suffer with those who suffer and actively seek an end to the causes of their suffering.

Like those in the early church, including the congregation to which James was speaking, we also may know in our minds that God loves everyone, especially the marginalized. But actions speak louder than words. The overall emphasis of the letter of James is theological ethics rather than doctrine about Jesus. That is, he isn’t teaching so much about Jesus, but the implications of his teachings.  Jesus’ life, miracles, death and resurrection are not mentioned in James. But the impact of Jesus’ words and actions are reflected in James as standards given to the faith community for right living. He affirms that it is God who is the source of every “good and perfect gift.” And wisdom, like every good and perfect gift, comes from above.

Hence, in our verses this morning, James is again calling out the critical gap between the head and the heart, between knowledge and wisdom, speech and action. James is calling out particular behaviors which betray his community’s devotion to God. He sees how the members show favor to the privileged, wealthy folk with high standing in society and they were aligning themselves with the wealthy; those self-important folks who flaunted their golden jewelry and nice clothes; meanwhile, all but ignoring those who were obviously poor, who came in to church in ugly and ragged clothes.  In his thinking, and rightly so, showing partiality to the rich is no less than idol worship and a tear in the fabric of the Christian community. If there were ushers in that early church, as we find in larger congregations, they would be seating the wealthy in the front – in view of the whole assembly, while pushing the poor, ragged and likely smelly visitors into a back corner. Out of sight, out of mind. 

It reminds me of an urban legend about a man known as Pastor Jeremiah. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the story, but it makes an important point. 

On the day in which he was to be introduced as the head pastor, Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000-member church in the morning. As he walked around his soon-to-be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food – NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.

As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. “We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.” The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him. He walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment then he recited,

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

‘The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all that he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame. He then said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?”

He then dismissed service until next week.

Being a Christian is more than something you claim. It’s something you live by and share with others.

But it seems that people of faith over many centuries have demonstrated partiality in other ways. Jesus was constantly harassed by the Pharisees for his association with those who were considered the outcasts in society: tax collectors and prostitutes, foreigners, the poor and needy; those who were considered unclean and unacceptable by Jewish society’s standards. Even in today’s gospel lesson, we see how Jesus accepted everyone indiscriminately. A desperate mother brought her sick daughter to Jesus, but there was a problem: she was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia, and thus to a Jew who was careful about ritual purity, she was an unclean Gentile. Indeed, Jesus tests her by saying that his primary mission is to the Jews. But this religious and ethnic outsider persisted so much that Jesus praises her as a paradigm of faith. He similarly touches the untouchable in the healing of the deaf and dumb man, also a Gentile and unclean.

Now, as compared to the Pharisees in Biblical times, I suppose many of us here might protest that we don’t show partiality.  And observing the openness of this congregation, I would agree.  I have yet to see anyone dismissed from our services or ignored, based on their appearance or language or any other stereotypic factor.  But what about our attitudes toward those who differ from us, on the other the six and a half days we are not in this building.  We publicly confess that we are followers of Christ outside of these doors, but… do our actions show it?  For if we choose to live and treat others as Jesus would have us do, we might find ourselves at issue with our culture at large. 

Historically, people, Christians included, judge, discriminate, and play favorites for many reasons — race, religion, gender, intelligence, politics, and nationality all come to mind. James uses the example of Christians who favored the rich over the poor. The irony is not lost on him: “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?” Author Garry Wills states it perfectly in his book What Jesus Meant,  that “God in his lavish and indiscriminate love never excludes people because they are unclean, unworthy, or disrespectable. Nor should we. No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’s world to make him shun them.”

           Playing favorites is easy; loving indiscriminately is hard. Author Will Campbell found this out the hard way. He was born and raised in the rural and very poor, deep south of Mississippi. He was “ordained” by family members at a local Baptist church when he was seventeen, and, in a delightfully improbable life, played a central role as an activist and agitator on behalf of African Americans. But to leave it at that would badly misrepresent his story.

           After serving in World War II, Campbell studied at Tulane, Wake Forest, and Yale. After a short stint as a pastor in Louisiana, he served as Director of Religious life at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), but left after two years because his controversial views on race attracted death threats. He then did a stint for the National Council of Churches, working with most of the civil rights luminaries. In 1957, for example, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The hate mail from the white right poured in.

           As he matured, Campbell had the uneasy feeling that he hated those redneck bigots who hated. He discovered how easy it was to play favorites and to oppress the oppressors. Strange, he thought, how he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people that he hated. He realized that he had created God in his own image, and after his own personal and political likeness. Through a series of encounters with unlikely “teachers,” Campbell came to admit that after twenty years in ministry he had become little more than a “doctrinaire social activist,” which was different than being a follower of Jesus.

           The key? “I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” Campbell saw how he had played favorites and taken sides; he had subverted the indiscriminate love of God for all people without conditions, limits, or exceptions into a ministry of “liberal sophistication.”

           Acting upon these convictions, he started sipping whiskey with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. “Bob” Jones. When they were sick. he emptied their bed pans. And then the hate mail came from the liberal left. In a 1976 interview for an oral history that he gave to the University of Southern Mississippi, he joked, “It’s been a long time since I got a hate letter from the right. Now they come from the left.”  Since God doesn’t play favorites, Campbell concluded, neither should he.

          Now, I don’t know if I could make nice with the KKK or other extremists like Will Campbell. But he surely points us in the right direction of indiscriminate love that doesn’t play favorites. It’s a way of life commended long ago by Saint Maximos the Confessor: “Blessed is the one who can love all people equally… always thinking good of everyone.”

Finally, James reminds us that God views our world far differently than does our culture. Faith is more than the words we utter; it is a true reorientation of one’s life. Faith makes a difference in us. More importantly (in these verses), faith makes a difference in our relations with our sisters and brothers. Just as God has chosen needy, broken, bereft brothers and sisters as the visible embodiment of Jesus’ good news among us, so faith reorders our own desires away from securing our well-being by our own efforts, from enhancing our image by associating with glittering celebrities, and summons us to make our friends among the shabby poor, and to trust the provision of God who gives freely to all.

I challenge you this week to reread the words of James and look thoughtfully inside yourselves.  I certainly intend to do so.  What we might see is not so pretty; but thanks be to God that we have the gift of resurrection; new life in Christ, not just in the life to come, but today and every day.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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