A Sermon preached on September 25, 2016
Based on James 2:14-18, The Belhar Confession and The Letter from a Birmingham Jail
This week I was part of two separate conversations with two different groups of pastors on one theme – what does it men to be people of faith. We shared our concerns about this time of increasing racial injustice and the kind of attitudes which are more and more coming to the surface, represented by the chair for Mr. Trump’s campaign in Ohio who said this about racism, saying: “I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected,” We talked about two killings by police – Terence Crutcher in Tulsa on Monday and Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday in Charlotte. And we talked about the challenges congregations face when it comes to putting faith into action.
Together wondered together about the role the church in such a time as this. What does it mean to be part of a congregation, what does it mean to be a member of a the Body of Christ in this time where the middle class is disappearing and the gulf between those who can afford to pay a mortgage or even pay rent in the Bay Area and those who cannot is becoming deeper and wider? What does it mean to be Christ’s hands and feet in a country where two black men are killed by police within minutes of the first encounter and an armed white man who threatens to shoot officers is negotiated with for 6 hours and peacefully surrenders? What does it mean to see that people who sleep outside are even forced from the tent and cardboard box homes they have made for themselves?
In these two conversations, we reflected on what it means to be a pastor – what it means to care for our flocks – our congregations – in these challenging times. We talked about being a prophet – of what it means to be responsible for bringing God’s prophetic challenges to the communities we serve. We shared with each other the many times we’ve stood at the church doors greeting congregants who have said: “Pastor, why does the church have to be political?” “Pastor, why do preach about bad things all the time.” “Pastor, why are your sermons always so negative?” “Pastor, when I come to church, I want to be uplifted. Why can’t we have some more joyful sermons?”
These conversations reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail which begins:
Dear Fellow Clergymen,
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.”
In that lengthy missive, King goes on to share his feelings about the white moderates, the religious leaders, and the congregations who objected to the movement and its methods. Like the ancient prophetic voices of scripture, like Christ himself, he asked the people of God to look deeply at their motivations and remember God’s call when he said:
“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
While he didn’t use these words, he was clearly pointing out the credibility gap – that space between rubber on an unused tire and the road it’s meant to travel on – that space between words and deeds or as James puts it – “faith without works is dead”. But James offers us more than just a simplistic wise saying. Behind those five words is a deeply rooted understanding of what God means for God’s people to be about if we’re to eliminate the credibility gap between having the name: Christian and actually living like Christ.
There are a few things we should know about James. Most scholars believe James was Jesus’ brother. He was writing to a Jewish community of followers of Christ within Palestine. And like his brother, James has to help his community face the challenges of how they will live in the midst of an Empire that places a high value on the ability of individuals to succeed within the cultural norms that emphasizes proper social manners, male dominance, wealth and physical power. The credibility gap was present even then.
Like Jesus, James doesn’t hide the fact that that he is significantly more concerned with living righteously- living on God’s terms than he is with living socially appropriate lives. He’s not at all interested in helping people identify their place in society and then figure out how to keep it or rise higher. In fact, James is actually picking up where Jesus left off – trying to break down the inherited traditions of his own community, which always seemed to reinforce a stratified view of the world where older people had more authority than younger, free people more than slaves, men more than women, rich more than poor.
Like Jesus, James is all about community life. Though the wisdom of the day tended to address individual social improvement, James stood in strong opposition to any form of self-advancement at the expense of others. He believed that individuals are called to a life of mutuality – one where the focus was on self-giving for the sake of the other, collaboration to enhance the strength of the work. This was the exact opposite of the culture around him which valued competition and rivalry and a desire to focus on improving one’s socioeconomic status no matter what the cost.
James broke with the philosophical and social norms of the day to reinforce the notion that the wealthy, those with resources, teachers, leaders, even everyday believers in Christ are better than others. And he believed everyone in those categories should be held to a more severe judgment. So rather than laying out moral codes for polite, acceptable behavior, James wrote to help identify what community life should be like for those who have faith in Christ, trying as best he can to describe what it means to live in community with God and with each other.
Though tradition tells us that Martin Luther was opposed to this little epistle because it emphasized works righteousness – salvation through works – there have been some, through the ages, who believed James became an outlier because he confronted the very beliefs and behaviors which helped maintain the structures of Empire within the Body of Christ. And nobody wants to be challenged like that – not then and not now – and especially not a church that was just beginning to create hierarchies and structures that excluded the uneducated, the poor and women. Here again, we see James following in his brother’s footsteps.
Like James, and like his brother Jesus, the authors of the Belhar Confession found that in its capitulation to the cultural, political and societal norms in the South African system of apartheid, that the Body of Christ had failed to fulfill its calling. In truth, it was becoming clear that the very credibility of the church was at stake as the Body of Christ itself stood in the way of justice when it proclaimed peace in a nation which called itself Christian, but in which “the enforced separation of people on a racial basis” fostered ongoing “alienation, hatred, and enmity”.
James and the Christians in South Africa call to us through the ages, reminding us that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has already conquered the powers of sin and death, we don’t have to worry about any of that. They call us to remember that God’s realm is not seen where hatred, bitterness, and enmity are prevalent, where powers oppress and divide.
Right here at the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, we have heard the call of James as he wrote to his community, we have heard the call of Dr. King as he wrote from that jail, we have heard the same call that the Belhar Confession gave to the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa. This powerful call challenges all of us to live the truth that God believes in us enough to entrust to us the message of reconciliation; that God loves us enough to give us the blessing of bringing forth God’s peace; that God has high hopes for us and offers us the opportunity to be the ones to bear witness in word and action to what it means to be part of the reality of God’s new heaven and new earth here and now. But most important of all, the Spirit is every day prompting us to remember our call as the Body of Christ – and out of obedience to that call and out of our gratitude for God’s grace, we need to find ourselves freely taking up the responsibility for bringing forth the reality of life-giving possibilities for everyone. May it be so for us today and always.
(Resource: Johnson, Luke Timothy. “An introduction to the Letter of James.” Review and Expositor, 97:2000.)