My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For 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, 3and 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,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?5Listen, 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 he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
From the Outside Looking In James 2:1-17 16 Sunday after Pentecost, Sept 9, 2018
I remember years ago coming home on a cold snowing evening. I had a guest with me in the car that was to have supper that night with us that night, and as I turned off the motor and opened the door to go in, he asked if he could remain in the car for a minute. He wanted to imagine for that moment, that this was his house, and that this was his family, and that he was on the inside looking out.
Not all grow up in stable families such as I have, and for them, they often view such families as one from the outside looking in. Even those who grow up in stable families, some who remain single often tell of a similar feeling and experience. I know from previous discussions that our disabled son Mike has felt this way when considering the lives of his brothers and peers- as one from the “outside looking in”. Those with mental illness, or serious addictions, often encounter similar feelings as others seem to go about their “normal”, day-to-day lives. I have read that somewhere in India there is a derelict old plane in which people board and imagine that they are flying off to some far-off destination. Those who live in poverty often have the sense that they are on the “outside looking in” at life.
Today’s reading from the book of James cautions those on the “inside of the church” not to create such distinctions when the poor are in their midst. One can well imagine why they might. Who of us even today does not like to be connected with others who are at least as equally “connected”, if not even more so than us? Who of us on church councils trying to balance church budgets doesn’t take note when a “person of means” walks in our building on a Sunday morning (especially if they do so two or three Sundays in a row). Without even thinking, it appears that these early Christians were offering these wealthier Christians some of the best seats in the house, and perhaps giving them priority status in the potluck line, while the poorer ones sat (or even stood) in the assembly of the Lord, from a perspective of one on the outside looking in.
James, writing by the influence and power of the Holy Spirit rightly condemns such a practice in the church. Such favoritism doesn’t belong there. It would be nice if such a practice didn’t belong anywhere, but it certainly doesn’t belong in the church. It would be nice if upon our conversion to Christ that all former ways of being and treating others were instantly transformed, right “there on the spot”, or if at our baptism, our behavior as babies who would one day turn into two-year-old’s, was so changed that we wouldn’t assert ourselves, and say “no” or “mine” quite as often as our non-baptized counterparts. But sadly such is often not the case, and the preaching and teaching of the law seems to be necessary, even in the life of the baptized, the converted, and the regular Sunday churchgoer.
The criteria for coming into the Christian Church are not arduous or complex. More often than not the Bible boils it down to simply “repent, believe and be baptized” (and not necessarily in that order, see Mk 16:16, Acts 2:37-41 et al). Similarly, the criteria for remaining in that same church are much the same, continuing in one’s baptism in a life of faith, obedience, and repentance. That “life of faith” however calls us to a new way of being with God and with others. One such example we encounter today is how the poor are treated in our congregations. Inasmuch as we don’t do this (or anything else for that matter) perfectly, we turn in repentance to God, receive His forgiveness, and begin again. Hopefully (and prayerfully) one day we will begin to “get it”, and we won’t care about our neighbours’ net worth, or they ours. Prayerfully one day.
Until that day however, we hear this word of “law”, and by God’s grace implement it, and let it work in us and in others the gospel, or good news of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many in our world who are
on the outside looking in. There are many in our churches that feel exactly this. We need to repent of the time we walk past, or walk over these “invisible ones”, and forgive those who walk past or over us. To some extent, I see this happening here at Golden Valley Lutheran. Perhaps it happens to an even greater extent at the men’s group who meet here weekly. On any given Tuesday a person of limited means will be sitting having a meal next to a millionaire and think little of it. I’ve not really noticed the millionaires being ushered to the best seats in the house, as the table is set in the round (or more precisely, the square), and as such there really are not good or bad seats. This is not a “natural” process however, for its very natural to seek out our “own kind” and find fellowship with them. There was a practical reason why the Norwegians settled together in their ethnic communities, as did the Ukrainians, the Chezks, etc. There was a reason they each started their own churches, in their own languages, with their own customs. There is also a reason why they should not remain that way. Until 1944, the “official” language of Golden Valley was Norwegian. Such is no longer the case, for if it were, those who did not speak that language would continue to be on the outside looking in.
The beginning toward any solution is to articulate and know the actual problem. When James wrote this letter, the problem was that the rich people were given preferential treatment over and against the poor. Other epistles (letters) in the Bible address other problems (the letter(s) to the Church in Corinth tell of several of them). These epistles spoke to a people then, and they continue to speak to a people now. There may well be more “outsiders” in our community today than ever before in the history of Viking and/or Golden Valley. Can we, as baptized, repentant, believing people of God recognize who these “outsiders” are, and open our doors and our tables and our lives to them? In its essential form, Christianity boils down to these two very essential elements- love God, and love neighbour. Inasmuch as we invite the outsider in and sit next to them in the pew and at the table…might we be doing both. Amen.
Things to Think About
1. When and where have I felt like an outsider?
2. Did that change, and if so, how?
3. Who might I see or treat as an “outsider”?
4. Might that change, and if so, how?
5. Some people remain on the outside because they seem to wish it that way- one foot (or even toe) in, and the other out. Free to come and go as they please, and free to critique without much or any commitment or responsibility. Where are you on the outside by choice? What’s preventing that other foot from stepping inside?
6. Legend has it that GK Chesterton once responded to the question, “what is wrong with our world”, with the simple words, “I am”. By God’s grace, might something similar be said about at least some of the cures to this world’s ills?