The Scandal of James

Pentecost 15B – The Scandal of James

September 7-8, 2012

James 2:1-17

Today’s sermon text is from our 2nd reading – the letter of James.

We don’t often talk  about the letter of James in a Lutheran church,

because Martin Luther didn’t much like it.

He called it an “epistle (or letter) of straw.”


Because he thought that James was all about law and no gospel.

There isn’t much about grace and the love of God in James.

There isn’t anything about Jesus in the book of James.

And of course for Luther, grace, the love of God, and most especially Jesus were fundamental to faith.

I think Luther was wrong.

I think there is gospel – there is good news in James…

it’s just not for most of us!

It’s for the poor and the marginalized in our world.

In James we hear the good news (for the poor) that God chooses them to be heirs of the kingdom – not the rich.

It’s no wonder that many of those who live in the third world absolutely love the book of James!

Theologian Elsa Tamez writes that the people of Guatemala love James!

In fact in indigenous Guatemalan art, there are more depictions of James

than of any other saint!

More pictures of James than Peter or Paul;

more images of James than St. Francis or St. Theresa.

Tamez asks each of us to ignore Luther for a moment and look at the book of James more critically,

appreciating its message of hope to the poor,

even in the midst of its stinging declaration of God’s judgment against the rich.

It’s not easy to listen to James.

Tamez says, “I know of churches where the letter is skipped over …

because there are many rich members in the congregation,

and it is very uncomfortable to speak against them when they are sitting in the front seats.”

Well, I sit in the front seat every week,

and I need to hear James.

His  example of the two worshippers entering an assembly is a timeless one.

It’s a parable of favoritism.

One worshipper is dressed very well and is invited to sit in the best seat of the house.

The other worshipper is dressed in shabby clothes and is told to stand or sit at the feet.

We might think that we wouldn’t do that here at St. James,

but subconsciously or not, we do make distinctions.

This past summer we had a number of visitors to our church.

One young woman visited with her two daughters.

She said she found that we were such a friendly church!

Lots of people talked with her and showed her how to follow the service; the pastors told her about youth programs, and others invited her to a Sunday School class.

What a welcome she experienced!

On the other hand, there was an older woman who also visited here.

She came by herself.

No one asked her her name.

No one invited her back.

She left quietly.

What a welcome she experienced!

Subconsciously or not, we make distinctions among people;

we play our own games of favoritism.

In our world, the young, the rich, the cool, the ones who seem to fit in are the winners;

they’re the ones we run up to, the ones we want to be with.

But as James reminds us, in God’s kingdom,

the not-so-young, the poor, the different, the ones who never fit in are the winners.

They are the ones whom God wants to be with.

There is the story from one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books

about a young mother who was dying from cancer

who gave her children a beautiful gift.

One by one she called her 3 children to her bedside.

And one by one she whispered into their ear, “Remember, you are my favorite.”

Does God play favorites?

I think so.

At baptism we hear words given to us – “You are my chosen one, my beloved.” –

or put another way, “Remember, you are my favorite.”

Many of us go on with our lives, forgetting this promise.

On the other hand, the poor and forgotten go on with their lives, staking everything on this promise.

There is gospel in James – but it’s primarily for the poor.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard a number of political speeches.

Both parties have tried to show how they do not play favorites –

how they have the candidate who is best for everyone – for women, Latinos, struggling business owners, people out of work, the middle class.

We’ve heard a lot of words,

but the gift of James during this election year is to remind us to

seek out consistency between words and actions.

Much of James deals with Christian living as opposed to theology.

The life James calls for is one of consistency between words, belief, and deeds.

James calls for the action of faith, more than the words of faith.

As we begin a new Sunday School year this Rally Day,

we’re thinking a lot about learning.

Usually when we think about learning, we think of the spoken or written word.

All of our Sunday School classes will read and talk about the Bible.

But what I think is really wonderful this morning,

is that the Christian Education and World Outreach committees are joining forces with you this year,

to recognize that learning is also doing.

Our younger classes will meet together in the dining room,

to put faith in action.

The “bean project” which they will complete today will raise money for World Hunger.

James would say that doing this project together is just as important in learning about faith,

as reading a story from the New Testament together in class.

All of this sounds pretty good about James, doesn’t it?

Wouldn’t you agree that favoritism based on class is wrong?

Wouldn’t you agree that faith in action is important?

So what was Luther’s issue?  Why did he think James didn’t belong in the Bible?

Because Luther didn’t think that doing the bean project will make our children any closer to God.

When James asks the question, “Can faith save you?”

Luther would answer, “Yes!” taking from the words of the apostle Paul,

“We are saved by grace alone,  through faith, apart from our actions.”

For Luther, it is a matter of priority.

Following God is not an action but a reaction.[i]

Doing good works – caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned,

are not the way to earn God’s favor but they are the natural response to having received God’s favor.

They signify a living faith.

Faith without these things is dead.

It’s religiosity without spirituality;

It’s ritual without heart.

We are convicted strongly by this text –

we play favorites;

we don’t look out for the best interests of the poor;

we focus on ourselves more than others.

We are meant to be convicted by this text –

but it does not mean we are crushed.

It means simply that we are sinners in need of a savior,

And so we come before our Lord Jesus,

re-committing ourselves on this Rally Day to the acts of faith,

receiving his forgiveness at this table when we fail,

and trusting in his grace every day.


[i] Peter Haas in  “Pharisectomy,” 2012.


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