Most of us have seen the bumper sticker that says: “HANG UP AND DRIVE!” This is a not-so-subtle suggestion to put your cell phone down and keep your eyes on the road. The disciple James would have understood this sentiment. Early in the life of the church he wrote to scattered Christians. They were surrounded by a pagan culture and basically confused about what it meant to be a Christian. Like the church today, they haggled about what it meant to be a people of faith. Somehow their ideas of Jesus and their own actions were poles apart. So James wrote those scattered churches to help them reconcile faith with practice.
Like the early church we too face a crisis of understanding what we are to be and to do. The world has picked up on our confusion. Some say that to be a Christian demands that you follow the negative principles floating around politically these days. Some want to argue theology protesting that they are not fundamentalists. Some say we must subscribe to the agenda of the far right or the far left. Either/Or. Some talk about what they government should do to help society and organize committees to study the needs around them. Others, more practical in nature, talk about a loss of values. And we’re all familiar with those who stand in front of the microphone, clearing their throats and saying: If you are a real Christian you have to be against: and I’ll let you fill in the blanks. It could be anything from abortion to getting rid of the deadbeats that are living off the government to legalizing marijuana.
Ask people inside and outside the church what was Jesus like? You are liable to hear them talk about his compassion, his caring—-how he reached out in love even to the poor and outcasts. Most see the church as a group of talkers. Is it any wonder that atheism has grown by leaps and bound they don’t see much positive action from we Christians.
James wrote his epistle to set the record straight. To be a Christian, he wrote, was to move beyond talk. Christians, like their Lord, put their faith into practice. James’ whole epistle was written to move the church beyond hearing and talking to solid action. In his second chapter he said that real Christians leap across the worldly standards of class and caste and show compassion.
What suggestions did James give us to move from talk to action? James said it has nothing to do with protecting our rights or shoring up the establishment or filling church pews. It has little to do with being against something. To be a Christian is to be not only someone who hears the words at church but leaves the sanctuary to do something about what has been heard. In other words we really are to hang up and drive.
James’ second chapter stated: We cannot escape coming to terms with caste and class if we follow Jesus. James would wonder where in the world the Christian interpretation to be anti-feminist, anti-affirmative action, anti-welfare or anti-homeless came from? He would also be bothered by the liberals who live in nice homes, drive those expensive foreign cars, and are caught up in the keeping up with the Jones’ treadmill.
James asked the church four questions about faith and commitment to Christ.
The first question is: What do acts of favoritism have to do with following the Lord Jesus Christ? James wondered out loud: If a person comes into the church with gold rings, fine jewelry and well-dressed, will they be treated the same as a person who obviously has little of the world’s goods. He asked: would you usher both persons down to the front seats in the church or would you show a difference even in seating. James reminded the church that many liberals and conservatives really have to confess to the sin of partiality. Which church prospects are called the first—the poor or the well heeled? Not only is the church still the most segregated place in our week but it is probably the most class-conscious. James first pleads with us to watch our attitudes—with the rich and the poor.
As James talked about partiality he wrote that Christians are to fulfill the royal law. What is this royal law? James learned this idea from Jesus: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. So James’ second question asks: Is neighbor a big word or a little word? They remembered that Jesus talked a lot about neighbors. Not just those closest to them. But he told them about stopping to help the wounded along the way. In his story the priest and layperson were just too busy with important things. Jesus talked about the outsider, a Samaritan who stopped and helped. Jesus asked who was the neighbor. And his disciples responded: the one that shows mercy.
Is our word, neighbor big enough to take in those in need? Tex Sample states that the reason that hard-living people do not come to church is because of what institutions have done to them. They are very suspicious. Almost every institution has failed them: parents, schools, employees, police, courts, jails, government, community service and the church. And if this is not enough think of voter ID.
Sample says that if we worry more about getting ripped off and hustled by someone once in a while we will never help anybody. He states that there is no way to close off that system and all the loopholes without making church a cold-hearted, bureaucratic structure that has no life. Neighborhood is to be a big word that includes all that need.
James’ third question was: Can you have judgment and mercy? James says that mercy will always triumph over judgment. The neighbor is always the one who shows mercy. We don’t remember Mother Theresa because of her judgment—and she could be harsh with those that stood in her way of helping—-we remember her for her mercy. Jesus told us that we were not to judge—that judgment belongs to God. Why did he say this unless he understood that whenever we look down our noses at another it turns one of our neighbors into an enemy? Reckon this would apply to Democrats and Republicans as they toss hand grenades at each other these days?
Mercy, on the other hand, builds a bridge of connection with other members of the human family. It’s the affection we received as little children. It’s the time we moved to a new place and people took us in. Mercy is like that old yellowing sack of sympathy cards many of us keep moving from attic to attic because it marks a time and a place when someone lifted us up when we had lost someone dearly. Jesus said the merciful are blessed because in granting mercy they would find mercy themselves.
James fourth question was: Can we have genuine faith without works? “If a brother or a sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,’ and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
I hope you are familiar with the wonderful Interfaith Hospitality program. This program forces churches to do something about all those that sleep in old paper boxes or shelters night after night. Several years ago our church was asked to participate in this program, which was beginning in our town. . For one week we would house homeless families. We would provide lodging for them at the church. We would provide supper and breakfast.
When the idea was first proposed to us, I was dubious. Our church was little. We had few rooms that could be used for such a project. Most of our people were overworked and over committed—I loved the idea but I was not sure we could do this. But our lay-people taught their preacher a lesson. “Let’s try this,” they said. I reluctantly agreed. Like most churches we had a history of starting tasks and not finding enough volunteers to finish them. It took about fifty volunteers to run this program for a week. Someone had to turn Christian education rooms into bedrooms. Someone had to set up the cots and other furniture. We had to provide sheets, towels soap and well as two meals each day. At least two volunteers would have to stay at the church every night in case there were needs to be met. Our lay-people made a believer out of me. The church came through. We joined hands with the Unitarian church to do our week together. Those that have stayed and worked and brought food and all the other things that were needed say this program has changed their lives.
A week after we finished our first venture with homeless families we had a luncheon for the volunteers. Around those tables we told sad and funny stories. Stories of how some of the guests had tried to play matchmaker with some of our members. We learned that some of our guests did not like to eat off paper plates. They wanted real plates and real silverware. This request sounded kind of picky until we realized that those with so little desperately need little things like real plates and stainless steel to give them some dignity. I think they may have taught us more than the help we provided them.
Weeks later I left the church late one afternoon to work out at the local gym. It had been a hard day with many demands. The phone did not stop ringing and almost every call said: “Help me.” So I was ready for a workout. As I put money in the parking meter a man dressed shabbily came up and I thought: “Oh no, not again.” Before he could say a word, I said: “I’m sorry but I don’t have any money.” He responded: “Mister, I don’t want no money. I just want you to know that I’m not crazy. People say I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy. I’m just a little strange.” Well it took me off guard. And when I recovered, I said: “No, you’re not crazy. You’re OK. You are a child of God and that’s all right.” He turned around and walked away. And as he walked away there was a smile on his face. He kept saying, as he walked down the street: “I’m a child of God. A child of God. A child of God.”
Let's hang up our cell phones and focus on our real business. It isn't talking, you know--much as we preachers hate to admit this--it is treating all God's children alike. It is seeing the word, neighbor through the eyes of Jesus. It is to show mercywhen judgment could easily be our last word. And it is to always remember that without works there is no real faith at all. And who knows, if we really to James' words maybe, just maybe an atheist or two just might take a second look at this thing we call church.