“Does It Work?”
September 6, 2015
I have to admit a certain unintended irony in titling a Labor Day sermon “Does It Work?”, but works – having a faith that leads to taking particular actions – are the focus of James’s letter to the early followers of Jesus. You could even argue that Jesus asked his disciples not to tell anyone about him because Jesus wanted people to see his impact on what the disciples did – their works – not what they said about him.
If the author of James (we’ll call him James) were to time travel almost 2000 years to today, observing our culture, he would probably say not much changes. He would see the attention that media give to a soccer star’s new dog or an actress’s new bathing suit – or failure to give attention to so many of our neighbors right here on the corner of 24th and G every weekday – and shake his head again.
Regardless of our personal interest in the lives of the rich and famous, we are all part of a culture preoccupied with wealth and its accouterments. This cultural preoccupation is what we hear and see and eat and breathe. It affects us all differently, of course, depending on what we bring to the table.
I believe this preoccupation accounts for a big part of Donald Trump’s popularity – I don’t believe that it’s the wealthiest folks who are Trump supporters – the Trumpists, as I found out this morning. In a time when many are worried about their own economic future, here’s someone who because of his wealth, can virtually tell everyone else where he wishes they would go.
Somehow in all of my casually taking notes about Trump, hearing about his news events and diatribes, I learned that the Donald is a confirmed Presbyterian. I was shocked. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. (Maybe I’m making an assumption that the kind of person who would be attracted to this church wouldn’t be a Trumpist. Maybe we have a new mission field…) I have begun to think he’s beyond ridiculous… what will he say next?
I’ve always watched Trump with my Jon Stewart glasses on, first laughing at Stewart’s satire, and then thinking up my own. But I’ve run out of humor. Maybe because there’s no Jon Stewart, Trump’s foolishness is no longer funny.
I hear so much more about Syrian immigrants, refugees, fleeing from the violent takeover of their communities, being persecuted as they try to make their way across Hungary to Germany, or creating makeshift communities with no water or sanitary facilities in parks in European cities.
Or I hear about the increase in the murder rate across our cities – Milwaukee, St. Louis – with Baltimore and D.C. ranking three and four! – followed not too further by New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas.
Or I hear about Ms. Agnes, who is still in her tent outside my study window, being assaulted in the middle of the night last week. And I think, for the sake of God’s people, we can’t just sit here and shrug our shoulders and say some things never change.
Sometimes things do change, as James had probably seen happen as a result of someone’s faith or a community’s faith. Perhaps as one who first witnessed Jesus’s particular concern for those in need, perhaps in an early church where members truly tried to move beyond distinctions based on wealth, where people realized their faith meant they had to find new ways to relate to each other that intentionally went against the influence of the rest of the Roman culture, where identity and financial worth were closely related, perhaps in just such a community of Jesus’s followers who realized that it wasn’t about what they said, but what they did, to show Jesus’s love, James experienced the power of the gospel to change lives, not just of those in need, but of those who grew in faith as they helped others, helped each other, meet their bodily needs.
In our Protestant faith James has gotten a bad rap – by none other than Martin Luther who claimed the letter was only good for heating fuel, and he didn’t mean spiritual fires. Luther heard James as preaching a kind of works-righteousness, implying that we are saved by works and not through faith, that we are good only according to what we do.
Here, though, James is not preaching works-righteousness, but trying to show how Christians who favor the rich and ignore poverty miss the reality of God. James knew – he read the prophets, knew of Jesus’s ministry, watched the efforts of the early church to try and be faithful – James knew that God is partial to those in need, not because they are better or worse than anyone else, but because so many cultures tend to see them as less. If Christians were going to live the reality of the gospel, of the good God they knew, their actions needed to correspond to God’s action. [Does that mean God doesn’t love rich people? No, that’s not what James says. Does that mean that poor people are better than rich people? That’s not what he says, either.] Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez put it so well when he said, “The reason we trust in God’s partiality towards the poor is not that the poor are good, but that God is good.”
James knows our human tendency to pay more attention to the Donald Trumps doesn’t stop when we come to church. For James, and for those who hear the truth in what he says, if your life has been changed by the gospel, by the good news of God’s love, if you have come to know for yourself that God’s love is especially for those who have experienced human injustice or poverty or shame or pain, it will make you crazy to see distinctions in church.
James would appreciate this Western’s historic commitment to addressing bodily needs, to making sure faith works, to making sure that when we sing kumbayah, we have signs that God truly does come by here. I think he would also push us – as individuals, as a community – to consider what we are doing now, to keep us from throwing our hands up and shrugging our shoulders and saying some things never change.
This Labor Day, when you have hopefully ceased from your other work, I invite you to consider your faith, and ask yourself, “does it work”? Is my experience of God’s love, is my belief that God loves everyone no matter what, is it being lived out in my life in some tangible way? Consider one way God might be leading you… Miriam’s Kitchen volunteering… a new way to respond to a person you see all the time but never knew how to talk to. Consider how God might be leading Western… in two weeks to think and pray about how we might respond or be involved in the blacklives matter movement.
If you’ve never had that kind of experience of God, this is your chance. You, and anyone and everyone who longs to trust in God, whose partiality towards the poor is not because the poor are good, but because God is good, are invited to this table where all are truly welcome.