James, Clothes Talk! Money Talks!
Pentecost 14 James 2:1-14
Money talks. Clothes talk. Style talks. Threads talk. I know.
It is the nature of my personal life that I go shopping for clothes once every five years or so. At the end of a five year period, I begin looking somewhat tacky. There is a sheen to the rump of the pants. The collars on my shirts have become frayed. My suits have a worn look to them. The soles of my shoes begin to leak and it is not good to have leaky souls in rainy Seattle. So, it is time for me to go to the store and buy some new outfits.
So I put on what I think are my best clothes. My bell bottom pants. My shirts with old fashioned stripes. My ties that are too wide. (My kids, when they were in high school, didn’t want me to give away my ties because they wanted to save them for “nerd day.”) So I go down to a fancy store in South Center, dressed in my “worn out” best.
As I walk into the men’s department, I notice that the sales person is dead faced and dead eyed. There is no brightness in his eyes, no brightness in his face, no brightness in his smile as he greets me. No one seemed to want to wait on me, and so I go and look at some suits. A clerk came up and I asked him, “Do you have anything for a $100?” And he said, “No. Our least expensive suit is about $300.” I asked, “Do you have any suits on sale?” The clerk? He has no shining eyes, no shining smile, no shining face.
So I go to a second store, and another clerk, a woman, sees me come into the men’s section. She quickly sizes me up and thinks that I am a husband who is in need of a womanly touch. She is determined to be that woman. She sees me as a project in the making, a man whose dress needs to be rehabilitated. Her face is bright. Her eyes are bright. Her smile is bright. She persuades me to try on a suit that is on sale and I try on that suit and I look great. I look super. I look good. I buy the suit. I buy a new shirt and tie that match the suit and also new shoes to go with the wardrobe and do I look good. As I walk out of the store, I pass the perfume department and get sprayed with some sweet smelling fragrance, and so I not only look great but I smell great.
So, in my flashy new outfit, I go to still another store in order to look at jewelry for my wife. Me, in my new suit, my new shirt, my new tie, my new shoes, my new smell. I walk into this jewelry store and the twelve clerks are all smiles. These sales clerks think that Mr. Money has just walked through in the door in the person of me. They can tell I am rich by just looking at me. I look good. I smell good. I move good. All I know is that money talks. Threads talk. Clothes talk. And they treat me right.
A second illustration. Two people from our church went down to the welfare office. One person was dressed very middle class; with a middle class hair style, a middle class dress on; and with middle class shoes on. The shoes and the hairstyle are the dead give away, so I am told. She gave off that aura of being middle class. The second person from our parish did not have very much money and her dress, hair style and shoes revealed that she was financially poorer. The face of the clerk at the counter was bland and expressionless as she looked at the poorer woman. Her eyes didn’t smile; her face didn’t’ smile; her cheeks didn’t smile. Then, the clerk from behind the counter addressed the middle class woman from our church, and the clerk’s face lit up, her smile lit up, her voice lit up and she spoke softly and politely, “It is so nice to see you today,” as if she knew the middle class woman from our church. The clerk behind the counter obviously had a preference for the woman who was middle class and also had an obvious disinterest towards the person with a look of poverty.
Money talks. Threads talk. Clothes talk. People treat you differently when you are dressed in a certain way. You experience that every day and so do I.
It is with that kind of mood that we approach the epistle lesson for today from James 2:1-10. In the story for today, James, the brother of Jesus and the pastor of the local congregation in Jerusalem, was worried about what he has observed going on in the life of his congregation. James had observed that people in his church were unconsciously catering to the rich and unconsciously looking down their noses at the poor. Today, in the epistle lesson from the book of James, we are confronted with three moral exhortations to live as Christ would have us live. I am going to create three imaginary scenes around these three teachings of James. These three imaginary situations will reflect the moral teachings from the book of James. The scenes are imaginary. The teachings are not. Let us proceed with what happened on three Friday nights in the church of Jerusalem.
It so happened, that on the last Friday of October, the synagogue was full and everyone was jammed and crowded into that small synagogue space. Friday night was worship night for the Jews in Jerusalem and this Friday night looked to be another good attendance night. The air was warm and balmy and the breezes were very pleasant that night. Several good-looking donkeys were tied to a tree outside the synagogue, and the men were swapping notes about their particular donkey. Some donkeys were faster than others. A man came riding up to the synagogue on a very nice, strong, and healthy-looking white donkey. That donkey really looked good, better than the other donkeys tied to the tree. There was also a fine, fine saddle on that white donkey. The man got off of his royal looking donkey and came strolling into the church. This man was wearing GOLD rings, like you hadn’t seen before. Biblical scholars tell us that in those days, the rich people of Jewish society wore many gold rings. In those days, their fingers were filled with gold rings except for the middle finger. There were so many rings on a hand that the rings covered the fingers except for the knuckles. Biblical scholars tell us that these first century Jews actually had “ring rental shops” and so you could rent a ring and appear to be really rich. (Why Biblical scholars keep track of such things, I do not know.) So this particular man came into the church and his fingers were covered with gold rings. He was wearing fine purple linens, wearing an elegant purple cloak and a light purple gown. The air was warm and it was desirable to wear light, airy clothing on a balmy evening. His sandals were very classy, the best leather in town, and had been especially crafted for him. Everyone’s faces in the synagogue lit up with liveliness when the rich man came in.
It is interesting that the Greek word for favoritism, a key word in the text for today, is a wonderful Greek word that means to literally “lift up your face.” You show favoritism for a person by lifting up your face. You would lift up your eyes, lift up your cheeks, lift up your smile, and your expressive face would come alive; as you showed favoritism to the man who came walking into the synagogue. The man with all of his rings walked right down here to the front of the synagogue and found a good seat, right in the front row.
A short time later, another man walked into the synagogue. He didn’t have a donkey. He was wearing a very old coat. It was a plain, simple cloak, nothing fancy. This man did not appear to know the code of conduct, the code of cleanliness because he was wearing clothing that kind of clothes that smelled. He had no rings on his fingers. His sandals were merely thongs that seemed to be very worn and not at all stylish. So this man with his unfashionable clothing went over and sat on the floor in the far corner of the room.
James, the brother of Jesus and the pastor of the local church and the author of today’s story, observed all of this. After church that night, he went straight home and wrote down in his diary, “If you are a true believer and if you want to follow the royal law of Christ’s love, to love your neighbor as yourself, it is not right that you show favoritism towards the rich, for your eyes sparkled when the rich man came into the room. That is not right for you Christians to do this, to act that way.” James pondered to himself, “At the foot of the cross, the ground is totally level. God creates all people the same. God does not show favoritism for the rich. God treats all people the same. We, who are filled with the love of God, are also to treat all people the same.”
James also thought to himself, “God does show favoritism. God’s face does light up and smile when God sees the poor. Why does God’s face light up when he sees the poor? Because so often the poor are people who are rich in faith and trust in God. They don’t put their trust in their money.”
James continued writing in his diary. “Why do you cater to the rich? The rich drag you into court, they oppress you, they exploit you, they use the courts to get every advantage. Why do you Christians cater to the rich when the rich use their money against you?” It was late and James stopped writing in his diary for the night.
Well, a week passed, and it was the next Friday night, and the synagogue was getting ready to meet again, and the synagogue was cold. It was a cold, wintery, blustery, chilly November night, with a deep freeze that would chill your bones. A woman showed up at the synagogue and she had two children. She was poor and divorced. A footnote about divorce. Divorces in those days were even more common than today. Divorces were common among her friends. Women were merely property in those ancient days. If a man did not like the way his wife looked, cooked or talked, he simply said, “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you.” The woman was history. The woman was gone. The woman was divorced. And she lived in poverty. When Jesus taught against divorce, this was totally shocking for a Jewish man who assumed he easily could get rid of a woman with three simple statements, “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you.” The law of Christ was so radical when compared the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day that his disciples questioned whether or not they should even marry. … But back to the story. So this divorced woman came walking into the synagogue that Friday night with her two children, and people could tell that she was poor by the way she wore her hair, the kind of cloak that she had on (the fabric so thin and thread bare), and her sandals were barely slippers of leather. A man, seeing her come into the synagogue and knowing that she was poor, said, “God bless you tonight. My prayers are with you. May God bless your soul.” The man only gave her words of kindness.
James, the brother of Jesus and pastor of the church in Jerusalem, and the author of the book of James, seeing this incident was very upset. James went home that night and wrote into his diary, “If you see your sister or your brother coming to the church and they are naked or ill clothed.” Now, the word, “naked,” does not mean that this divorced lady was literally naked and was running around in her birthday suit with no clothing on. No. The word, naked, means that they had thin clothing on. This thin clothing would not give a person warmth from the cold. That is what the word, naked, means in the New Testament. The story continues: When you see your brother or sister coming into the church at night and they only have thin clothing on that will not keep them warm, you greet them. You see them and greet them but your eyes do not sparkle up, do not light up, do not twinkle up with favoritism towards them. You simply say to that person, “God be with you. God bless you. God’s favor be upon you.” James, in his diary, asks, “What good is that pious blather? Your pious blather gives her no warm clothing or food.” And then he gives that famous line from James, “Faith, without works of charity, is dead.”
The third Friday night. People were again crammed together in the synagogue and they were chatting with each other after church. The Scripture had been read from the Torah and the Prophets. A teaching rabbi had then given a homily. The prayers had been said. The songs had been sung. The structure and flow of their synagogue service is very similar to our worship service on Sunday morning, at either the traditional or contemporary service. Well, after the service was over, people were gathered into small groups and they were chatting with each other. A man said, “Each one of us has been given different gifts and abilities. I have been given the gift of faith. Others of you have been given the gift of singing or canting. Others of you are good teachers. And some of you are really good at giving alms to the poor. I am not really good at helping poor people. As you know, I have faith, but you there, have the gift of giving alms for the poor. I have faith and you have works of charity.
When James, the brother of Jesus, the pastor of the local church in Jerusalem, and the author of the book of James, heard this discussion after the Friday night worship service at the synagogue, he was upset again. He went back home again and once again wrote in his diary. “When at church, if somebody stands up and says, I have works of faith, but you have the gift of helping the poor. That is absolute nonsense.” James goes on to say, “When there is no breath in the body, the body is dead. So when there are no charitable works in a Christian’s faith, their faith is dead.” The word dead is spelled D E A D.
So James, seeing that the church was demonstrating a unholy favoritism towards the rich, and looking down their noses at the poor, went home and wrote several paragraphs in his diary which we call the book of James.
This past week I read a quotation that I like very much. I would like you to pull out a white registration card from the pew rack and write down the following quotation and put it on your refrigeration door. The quotation is this: “The worst is a corruption of the best.” Please write that down. And then write down a second quotation: “A rotting lily smells worse than a decaying weed.” Please humor me a bit and write down these two quotations for the door of your refrigerator.
When the church of Jesus Christ, which is intended to treat all people equally; when the church of Jesus Christ starts to treat wealthier people with favoritism and sparkling eyes and uplifted smiling faces; when the church of Jesus Christ which is intended to take care of the widows and the orphans and the poorest of the poor of the world fails to do that; when the church that belongs to Jesus Christ starts to think that each person has unique spiritual gifts and use that logic is used to justify not caring for the poor; … that church smells. That church stinks. That church smells like rotting and decaying lilies. Why? Because we expect so much more from the church, from the people of God, from the followers of Christ. Because we expect so much more from Christians. We expect such unrighteous attitudes and unholy behaviors from the world, from people who do not belong to Jesus Christ. But when we find such attitudes and behaviors within the church of Christ, it truly smells rotten.
These passages from the book of James are very similar to other moral exhortations in the Bible. Similar moral exhortations are expressed elsewhere in the Bible. For example. In Romans 12-15, we hear these moral exhortations from the book of Romans. The first eleven chapters of the book of Romans talks about the gospel; and in the last four chapters of Romans, Paul talks about the moral exhortations of that gospel. The first half of the book of Romans has the gospel: Christ, his death on the cross, atonement, grace; and the second portion of the book gives us the moral implications of the gospel. The book of James is similar to the moral implications of the gospel found in Romans 12-15.
As I mentioned to you during the last sermon, the book of James does not have the gospel. The book of James does not talk about Jesus Christ. The book of James does not talk about the atonement and Jesus’ death on the cross. The book of James does not talk about grace. But the book of James does talk about the moral implications of being a Christian. In other words, the book of James is very similar to other moral exhortations in the Bible such as in Romans 12-15.
Why is this teaching from James so utterly important? I will ask you some questions?
How much does the average Lutheran in the country contribute per year to starving people around the globe? Any guesses? How much does the average Lutheran give per year to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal? $3. Less than the price of a Big Mac burger at McDonalds. Now, I ask you another question: how many members are in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? 5,000,000. Please write those figures on your card: $3. times 5,000,000 equals $15,000,000 A YEAR that Lutherans give to the poorest people of the world. Meanwhile, we Lutherans are one of the wealthiest churches on the globe. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about the fact that the average Lutheran gives $3 a year to combat world hunger and its causes? Does that upset you?
Meanwhile, I sit with the leaders of the ELCA Hunger Appeal and hear their pride in increasing the annual giving from $12,000,000 per year to $15,000,000 per year. They rightfully feel good about that progress. But I have to admit that I want to vomit in a toilet when I hear such numbers. $3 per year from an average Lutheran for world hunger? How disgraceful!!! How sickening!!! It seems to me that James, the brother of Jesus and author of the book of James, needs to be the pastor of many Lutheran congregations in America. And it is not only Lutherans. All the denominations have a similar track record.
When God sees that, God gets upset. God expects so much more from us. As was said earlier in this sermon, “the worst is a corruption of the best.” … Rotting lilies smell worse than decaying weeds.” We expect more of Christians. We expect more of people who are followers of Jesus Christ.
Then we hear, “O, let’s let the government do those kinds of things. We in the church are not in to that anymore. We’ll have the government take care of the poor people. We, the church, are now in the religious business. We will teach faith in Christ and the government take care of the poor.” How sad. How sick. These are the same evasive arguments used by clever church members in order to get out of caring for the poor.
It happened one Friday night. The synagogue was full, and the man came riding up to the synagogue on his white donkey. It was a strong, healthy looking donkey with nice leather on it. It had an expensive saddle. The man came into that church, waving to his friends, and you noticed immediately that his fingers were filled with gold rings. As he strolled in looking magnificent, everybody in the church, their eyes popped, and their faces grinned with delight. Then…a poor person quietly walked into that church, wearing an old coat and simple thongs and didn’t smell so good. No one even blinked an eye. When James, the author of the book of James saw that, he was very upset. He went home and wrote in his diary. He wrote: “If you truly believe in Jesus Christ, if you follow the royal law of Jesus Christ to love your neighbor as yourself, you would treat all human beings equally, the way God would care for them.” This is the gospel of the Lord. Amen.
I picked up the large, thick, red “altar Bible” and asked what the royal law of God ( via the book of James) was? I had them say the five words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is what the book of James says was the royal law of Jesus. … Now, where is that Bible verse found in the Old Testament? Leviticus 19:18. Here is a big, fat book, and inside this big, fat book called the Bible, we find one little, teensy-weensy phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There it is in Leviticus 19:18. … Now another question: did Jesus have any brothers and sisters? (guessing). Let us say the names of the boys in Jesus’ family: Jesus, James, Joses, Judas and Simon. Say that again. … Now, what was the second name? James. James was the brother of Jesus, the second oldest boy in his family, and many people say that he was the author of the book of James. Thanks.
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