“I Wonder, I Notice”

This morning, I want to try something a little different. I want to draw on our community wisdom – through a time of dialogue with our text from the book of James. A few comments first to ground our hearing of the text. It seems helpful to say up front that James is a challenging book; these words are confrontational and uncompromising. If your gut reaction to this text is like mine, hearing these words, you might feel guilty, shamed, convicted, annoyed, sad . . . a whole range of not-so-positive emotions. I’m hoping we can set some of that negativity aside as we listen. Let me explain.

Martin Luther famously called the book of James “an epistle of straw.” Luther thought James’ emphasis on putting faith into action encouraged what he called “works righteousness,” or the idea that we must earn God’s love and approval. Instead, Luther argued, we are saved through faith alone. The fact is that for centuries, the church has been obsessed with the question of how to fix God’s rejection of humanity. We’ve made fear of God’s condemnation our baseline assumption. and focused our energy on arguments about the right way to overcome this problem of alienation. I think it’s time for us to move in a different direction, start with a different assumption.

What if, instead, we understand that God’s love for us is constant and unchangeable? That there’s nothing we can do to make God abandon us? That though sin and evil are real, and incredibly damaging, and yet, God fully accepts us, even when we fail to live up to our best selves? From God’s point of view we do not need saving. However, for us, accepting and internalizing our identity as God’s beloved is a salve, a healing balm. Letting go of our anxiety about our status before God creates space to face difficult truths about ourselves and the world, to grow in courage and integrity, and to join God in the work of birthing a new way of being. Let’s try to hear James in this sort of a way.

James doesn’t overtly mention Jesus much (just twice in the whole book). He doesn’t seem to care much what we believe about Jesus. He is primarily concerned with the ethics of community. He wants the church to be like Jesus: radically and relentlessly inclusive, in contradiction to the norms of society. For this reason, James is blunt about issues that make community challenging and sometimes impossible—wealth, poverty, and the systemic oppression of classism.

James understands that classism creates a chasm of thought and experience. Those who inhabit different social classes effectively live in different worlds. I am so struck (and convicted) by the succinct and powerful way the poet describes this disconnect:

I lived on coffee and bread,

Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday

Like a woman journeying for water

From a village without a well, then living

One or two nights like everyone else

On roast chicken and red wine.

James calls Christians, and the church, to faith that is expressed in how we live together, how we notice and bridge this chasm. He wants our belonging within the church to be a transformative experience, one that serves as a catalyst for the transformation of the whole world.

With all this mind, let’s get started. Those in the sanctuary have the text in front of you on an insert. I’d like our tech folks to put the text on the screen for those online. I’m going to read the scripture very slowly, inviting you to interrupt me with your reflections. Try to begin your statement with “I wonder” or “I notice.” I will repeat the comments from those in the sanctuary so that all can hear. I will ask those on Zoom to participate using the chat, and ask Hikaru to read those comments.

My siblings, 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 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 God has promised to those who love God? 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 fulfil 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.

Thank you. The Spirit is moving among us as we speak the truths that arise for us when we hear scripture, and when we hear each other. The Spirit is moving especially in the creativity and insight that arises as we wrestle with tension and contradiction. And the Spirit is moving as we act, as we become doers of the word, people of a living faith. Amen.