My sermon from today – no doubt more provocative than usual…
We turn back to the letter of James this morning for the second sermon in this series. And based on our reading from James this morning you will realize that today we are talking about money. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise since Jesus, for his part, talks about money more than almost anything else. And as we acknowledged in the first sermon in this series, James the brother of Jesus is a preacher in the mould of Jesus.
As soon as I say that we are talking about money matters this morning, most of us probably have a good idea how the script will unfold. Perhaps we expect it to go something like this:
The preacher might point out we have too much money.
The preacher will say we shouldn’t let money preoccupy us.
The preacher might insist we should give more of our money away.
After the sermon, we might feel a bit guilty about our wealth.
By Monday or Tuesday we’ll mostly have forgotten about it.
But let me be a little provocative this morning. It seems to me that the reason we know this script so well is because God is largely left out of the equation in our daily lives. In the day to day we largely lose touch with the God of Jesus Christ.
Let me ask a question this morning as we try to get our heads and hearts around the words we have read from James.
Is there any difference between being a good Canadian citizen on the one hand, and being a Christian on the other hand?
Another way to put the question is like this:
Should the life of a Christian look any different than the life of your average Canadian?
I would venture that one of reasons that we follow that script so closely when it comes to money – passing through mild guilt to genuine forgetfulness – is that we are defined by the culture around us. In many respects, we are the average Canadian. We may not have thought about it very carefully before, but for most of us there is no great difference between being a Canadian and being a Christian. Our approach to money, our relation to wealth, is largely defined by the commitments of the wider culture – rather than by the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ.
Reading through James’ letter, you can’t help but be struck by the very strong contrasts he sets up. And one of the strong contrasts he sets up is the contrast between friendship with God on the one hand, and friendship with the world on the other hand. James thinks that there is a profound difference between being a friend of God and being a citizen of a particular society. It is perhaps not going to far at all to say that James thinks there is, and should be, a very real difference between being a Canadian, and being a Christian. The two simply cannot be collapsed into each other.
But let’s try to get deeper into these questions and do so by saying just a few things about the society in which James lived. This much we can say: that in that historical context there is a very small group of those who are very wealthy and another group that is desperately poor. Does it sound familiar? Generally speaking, the poor James writes about are the very poor – those whose poverty is so profound that their very lives are at risk. We can also say that, generally speaking, the very poor in that ancient culture are the despised, the rejected, the outcasts – while at the same time the rich are the honoured, the praised, the exalted.
But what about the first recipients of this letter – where do they find themselves on that social and economic ladder? More than likely the first recipients of this letter are in fact your average citizen. They are not desperately poor – they are not destitute; they are not those whose lives are at risk because of their poverty. But neither are the first readers of James’ letter the very rich – they are not the wealthy, the powerful. Rather, the first readers of James’ letter are somewhere in the middle – they are poor, no doubt, but not desperately so.
What also becomes clear is that these average, ancient citizens to whom James writes have bought into the socio-economic values of their culture. Thus we find James reminding his readers how they have related differently to those of different social rank. James reminds his readers how it happened that when a person with gold rings and fine clothes came into their circle, they gave him a place of prominence and honour. James reminds his readers how it happened that when one who was destitute came into their circle, they shuffled him aside, insisting that he wasn’t worth their attention.
Within this broad context, James wants his sisters and brothers to understand that a great reversal has taken place in Jesus Christ – a great reversal that entails a refusal of the socio-economic values of their culture. The way they identify themselves, and the way they locate themselves within their society must change. The long and the short of it is that almost every human standard of valuation is undone – for we find our identity and worth only as those created by God, beloved of God, redeemed by God, in Christ Jesus. Every other basis of self-identification, of boasting, of personal significance is destined for the scrap heap of history. As Jeremiah puts it: Let those who boast, boast in the Lord.
For James and for Jesus, to hold wealth in high esteem – and to hold in high esteem the power and honour that attend wealth is a failure to live in God’s coming kingdom. Most significantly, James reminds us that wealth in fact blinds us to our need of God. Wealth and affluence blind us to the fact that God is the only source of meaning for our lives. Indeed, according to James, it is only when the wealthy are humbled – it is only when they are laid low in some dramatic fashion that they might discover that only God’s estimation of them makes a difference. Only God’s love, shown in the humble Jesus, gives significance to human life.
The flip side of this coin, of course, is that the destitute – the desperately poor – are often those who find it easier to grasp the truth that their significance comes from God alone. The destitute are not vulnerable to illusions of self-reliance and stability. It is for this reason, perhaps, that God’s kingdom comes to the poor. Mary says it in the Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” Jesus says it in his programmatic comments in Luke’s gospel: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
A simply story to help illustrate the point:
While he worked as a journalist at the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel was assigned to report on the struggles of an impoverished family in the weeks leading to Christmas. Strobel was not a Christian at the time and he was mildly surprised by the family’s attitude given their circumstance. He writes in his book The Case for Faith:
“The Delgados – 60-year-old Perfecta and her granddaughters, Lydia and Jenny – had been burned out of their roach-infested building and were living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. I couldn’t believe how empty it was – no furniture, no rugs, nothing on the walls, only a small table and a handful of rice. That’s it. They were virtually devoid of possessions. In fact, 11-year-old Lydia and 13-year-old Jenny owned only one short-sleeved dress each, plus one thin, grey sweater between them. But despite their poverty and the painful arthritis that kept Perfecta from working, she still talked confidently about her faith in Jesus. She was convinced he had not abandoned them. I never sense despair or self-pity in her home; instead, there was a gentle feeling of hope and peace.”
Lee Strobel wrote the article, and then moved on to other assignments, but couldn’t get the family out of his mind. In the middle of a slow news day he decided to pay the Delgados a visit. When he arrived, he was amazed at what he saw. Readers of his article in the Tribune had responded filling the apartment with donations. Food, furniture, clothes, and even appliances. But it was their response that surprised Strobel. He writes, again:
“I was astonished by what my visit was interrupting. Perfecta and her granddaughtesr were getting ready to give away much of their newfound wealth. If I was in their situation, I would be doing everything I could to hoard what I had received. When I asked Perfecta why she was doing this, she replied in halting English: ‘Our neighbours are still in need. We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do.”
Strobel continues: “This blew me away. I asked Perfecta what she thought about the generosity of the people who had sent all of these things. She said: “This is wonderful; this is very good. We did nothing to deserve this – it’s a gift from God. But,” she added, “It is not his greatest gift. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. That is Jesus.”
Let’s come back now to contemporary Canadian society. Of course there are marked differences between the ancient culture of James and our own. We may not look at the wealthiest in our society stars in our eyes, but is there any question that our affluence has blinded us to our need of God? Is there any doubt that our remarkable wealth has blinded us to the fact that we are nothing without God’s forgiveness, God’s provision, God’s love shown in Jesus? Is there any question that in our affluence we cut ourselves off from the poverty, the pain and the suffering of those who are destitute – both those in our own society and those who live in across the wide, grief-stricken earth? We live in our comfortable, affluent bubble.
Of course we are good Canadian citizens. When there is some crisis in the world, we open our wallets and make a financial contribution. We are your average Canadian citizen, so we probably volunteer for a community organization. But all the while we live in our comfortable affluent bubble cut off from the radical implications of the gospel. Once in a while we catch a hint that the gospel of Jesus Christ is more radical than we can possibly conceive.
But just moments after we hear the message, we walk out those doors, and we enter the mainstream of Canadian society – we walk out those doors and enter a society in which we’re simply expected to live a highly individualistic, nuclear family-focused, consumeristic existence – a society in which we’re supposed to spend our days living alongside people who are pretty much like us – comfortable and affluent. We walk out those doors and simply forget Jesus declaration: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” We are not different from the average Canadian. We end up living alongside others of comfort and affluence – and like them we end up cut off from the God who gives life and significance – cut off from the God who gives the gift of new life in Jesus.
While I’m at it, let me say something else you may find provocative – let me say that our Presbyterian tradition has fundamentally failed us in terms of what both James and Jesus envision. You see, each of them envisions the creation of an alternative community – each envisages a community of those who display by their words and actions an alternative way of life, a way of life rooted in way of the risen Jesus. Yet when it comes to the possibility of forming such an alternative community, our Presbyterian tradition has fundamentally failed us. It has left us with almost no resources for the formation of such a community, of such an intentional living together under the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a profound problem because the only way Jesus’ followers can persist in the worship and service of him is in the context of community, in the Body of Christ:
a community in which we pray regularly for one another,
a community in which we hold one another accountable to Jesus’ word and way,
a community in which we support one another on the difficult, costly path of discipleship,
a community in which we together resist the atheism of comfort and affluence,
a community in which the values of the world are turned on their head.
Certainly, our Presbyterian tradition has bequeathed to us a kind of community – relationships are formed, friendships abound. The name of Jesus is spoken from time to time. And yet the form of community life bequeathed to us is not really much different from that of any other community organizations. We do our thing on Sunday morning, and sometimes even during the week, and then we go out to live as your average Canadian citizen.
This is deadly serious business – and let me tell you I preach this sermon as much to myself as I preach it to you. In many ways this is a sermon I’d rather not preach – it should very much shake us up.
The question it invites is this: Can we imagine ourselves as a community in which we hold every thought captive to the counter-cultural word and way of the risen Jesus – the one who said the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The one who declared at the beginning of his ministry: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.’
Can we imagine ourselves as a community in which we honour James’ difficult declaration that the poor one who has faith in Christ is truly exalted, and that the rich often need to be decisively humbled before they can discover as loved and called by God.
This Christian faith thing is a deadly serious business – to live it requires tremendous courage, tremendous strength – courage and strength God promises to give. But let’s be clear that the point is not that we go away from here feeling guilty – that would be useless. The point is also not that we go away burdened by our own captivity to a culture of affluence and essential atheism. Rather, this morning we are given an opportunity to catch a vision for a different shared life following Jesus. The point is that we might open ourselves to the fire God’s Spirit might light within us as we seek to become deeply, personally invested in the good news of Jesus. It’s not about wallowing in negativity or guilt – it’s about reaching out together toward the radical new way that Jesus has revealed – the truly human way – the way of God’s coming kingdom.
Forget guilt. Forget lethargy. Forget apathy. Forget affluence. Pray – pray that God’s Spirit might come over us anew.