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Worship and Sermons
September 9, 2018

“Jesus:  Savior . . . and Lord?” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, September 9, 2018, 16th Sunday after Pentecost – Leviticus 18:9:1-2, 9-18*, Psalm 146, James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17, Mark 7:24-37

THEME:  Be open to the presence of the poor and marginalized who bless us as much as we bless them.

Few books of the Bible have been as misunderstood and maligned as the letter of James.  No less than Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, said he failed to see anything of the gospel in this letter.  He famously called it “a book of straw”. 

Over the years, other theologians have taken an even dimmer view.  They focus their criticism on theology.  They accuse James of espousing “works-righteousness”.  That’s the heresy that salvation can be achieved by our own good works, rather than solely by God’s grace through faith.

When a book generates this kind of controversy, especially one that made the cut to be included in the Bible as we know it, we have to ask ourselves what exactly is it saying?

Part of the problem is we don’t know who wrote it, when they wrote it, or to whom they wrote it.  So, we don’t have many of the clues that we usually rely on to help us decipher scriptural meaning.

What we do know is this: James was written by a leader of one of the early communities of Jewish Christians.  They’re familiar with Jesus and his teaching.  They know his sayings and his parables. They know his Beatitudes and his behavior. 

They also take the Jewish law seriously, just as Jesus did.  That includes all God’s ethical commands that dictate how we should treat the marginalized.

Maybe the most striking thing of all about this letter is that it is directed to the church.  This is in-house literature.  It’s meant for Christian congregations whose members already know the gospel of Jesus Christ and believe it.  The purpose is not evangelism; it’s discipleship.

The question James asks is not “Are you willing to confess your faith in Jesus Christ?”.  The question he’s asking of his fellow Christians is ‘How is your faith in Jesus expressed in your daily living?”  And for James, exhibit A in this inquiry is how they treat the poor.

Evidently, in the 1st century, showing deference to the well-dressed and well-off was as common as it is today.

James minces no words.  He looks around at the Christian congregations he knows, presumably his own and others.  With characteristic directness, he points his finger at the way they show partiality to the wealthy and disrespect to the poor.  This kind of double-mindedness leads him to write a 5-chapter diatribe.

James reminds his Christian brothers and sisters what Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for they will inherit the Kingdom of God.”  And then he drops the boom: “You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The sin he warns them against is what he calls partiality.  You and I know it by a different name:  discrimination. 

Now, that’s a topic we’ve heard a lot about.  It’s been raised most often with regard to racial discrimination – and with good reason.  50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, African Americans are still discriminated against more than any other racial group in the United States.

Blacks are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites, even for the same crimes.  African Americans, together with Hispanics, make up 32% of the general population, but 56% of the inmate population. 

The effect of discrimination is clear in the racial disparity in economic conditions.  Rates of both unemployment and poverty for African Americans are more than double those of whites.  African Americans have the dubious distinction of being the only racial group who were earning less in 2016 than they did in 2000. 

And, according to the FBI, Blacks remain the number one target for hate crimes by a substantial margin.  Within the bounds of our own Presbytery, the KKK remains active, spewing out their message of racial hatred and bigotry.

But James doesn’t want us to stop at addressing racial discrimination.  What he has in his sights is an even broader kind of discrimination. It’s called classism and it affects people across all races.  It’s rooted in differences in education and heritage, but what classism really boils down to is money, discriminating on the basis of differences in wealth. 

What makes this kind of partiality so pernicious is the sad reality that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is not only substantial, but it’s growing ever wider. 

Since the mid-1980s, the share of total wealth owned by the richest 1% of Americans has almost doubled to 45%.  At the same time, the share of wealth controlled by the poorest 50% has continued a slow steady decline from 2% to an even more pitifully puny sum.  

As much as we’d like to attribute that disparity to ability and hard work, the truth is the economic playing field is not level.  We’ve all heard the saying that nothing succeeds like success, and it takes money to make money. 

That’s true.  And the corollary is also true:  those without much wealth have a very hard time earning it.

All too often, what stands in the way of their efforts is the desire we all share to associate ourselves with the well-to-do, while we distance ourselves from the poor and needy.  That practice is what James has his finger on.

He’s asking those of us who proclaim our trust in Jesus Christ as savior to make him Lord as well.  We do that by doing what Jesus did, and what he teaches us to do:  avoid judging others as less worthy than ourselves, and begin to love them the way we love ourselves.

That means you and I can’t just condemn discrimination against others. We have to look inward and examine our own reactions to both the poor and the wealthy. 

The question James demands we ask ourselves is this:  “In our eagerness to gain favor with the rich, are we in fact marginalizing the poor, the very ones God has chosen to honor with the gift of great faith and a special place in his kingdom?”

Friends, when we allow that to happen, it’s not only the poor and marginalized who lose out.  We lose, too. I discovered that first-hand on a mission trip to Malawi in 2004.

This was back when the HIV/AIDS crisis had become full-blown in the southern region of Africa.  We visited an orphanage overflowing with children, one or both of whose parents had died of AIDS. 

Estimates were that half of these children were HIV positive, but no one knew for sure because testing had not become widespread.  Even if it were, there wasn’t a sufficient supply of HIV drugs to offer meaningful treatment.  For those little children who were infected, death was an ever-present reality.

I’ll never forget seeing the room where they kept the stacks of child-size, wooden coffins.

All of these children were dependent on the care provided by extended families and local churches, with food and support from outside non-profit groups like the one I traveled there with.  We had a chance to meet many of their family members who were active in these churches. 

We worshiped and ate with them. We studied scripture with them and conducted seminars in how to destigmatize the discussion of HIV/AIDS, beginning with the pastors’ wives who were very influential.

What shocked me most was this. In the midst of such deep poverty and tragic disease, both the orphans and their care-givers exuded the most joyous and lively faith I have ever seen.  It was like what we experience when our South African partners are here with us, only more so.  Their faith was powerful and contagious. It confirmed for me the call to ministry.

If we had kept our distance – and there were a lot of people, church people, back home here who recommended we do just that - we would have missed the blessing they gave to us.

Friends, the same is true for you and me.  When we are not open to the presence of the poor and the marginalized, not only do we fail to live out the faith we profess in Jesus Christ, but we miss the blessing they offer us.

That’s the cost we pay when we profess Jesus as our savior, but fail to make him Lord. 

Where in your life can you draw closer to those who are so often discriminated against?   Where can we reach out to them not only with prayer, but also with the concrete things they need? 

Maybe that’s Downtown Daily Bread or ROAR.  Maybe it’s the Camp Curtin clean-up day that Jane has arranged for us on Saturday the 29th of this month.  I’m hard-pressed to think of a community around here that has more needs than that neighborhood. 

Or maybe, for you, it’s simply taking the time to talk with someone you know who‘s in need and providing whatever help you can, even if it’s just a listening ear.

However we do it, let’s remind ourselves that in making Jesus both Lord AND Savior, we are blessed as much as we are a blessing.

May it be so.

 

Last Published: September 11, 2018 12:45 PM
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