My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For 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, and 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,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, 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? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
The Epistle of James 2:1-17
I have been haunted this week by the image of a father being awakened by his children in the morning.
It is such a simple thing…. When you are a parent, the odds are good that, if you aren’t a morning person, you have been awakened by little hands on your eyelids, a sloppy kiss on the cheek, or that undeniable feeling that SOMEONE IS WATCHING YOU.
Little kids are like that—they wake up and they want to be with the people that they love. More precisely, they want YOU to be with them. Doing whatever it is that they want to do in that moment. It is one of those classic experiences of parenting that is so mundane, so simple, that you almost forget about it, until you are reminded.
And I have been haunted by this image, because this week, all I can think about is Abdullah Kurdi, and of the awful truth that he will never be awakened in the morning by his little boys again, because both of them drowned off the coast of Turkey this week in a desperate bid to escape the kind of life that no parent would ever imagine for their children.
“They were so wonderful,” Abdullah said of his two boys, Aylan and Galip. “They would wake me up in the morning to play with them.”
And all I can think as I hear his words, as I watch this devastated father in that space where there truly are no more words that can speak into the horror of this moment, is this: that could have been me.
I look at Abdullah, this Muslim father from Kobani, Syria, and I hear myself in his pain. I hear my own experience of loving my children, of living every day, of cherishing the little things. And when my children wake me up each morning, this week I cannot help but think of the thousands of Syrian, Afghanian, Somalian, Guatemalan and Burmese refugees who have lost the average and the everday, the promise and the hope of life with loved ones, to the crushing brutality of violence.
As I read our scripture today, I am reminded that the life of the Christian isn’t so much about defending God—we weren’t put on this earth to prove that God is powerful, or almighty, or worthy of praise. God can do that on God’s own.
But according to James, the brother of Jesus himself, we were put on this earth to love our neighbors. And as God’s people, perhaps we more than anyone else have a special calling, a commission, if you will, to protect and care for all of God’s children, because they absolutely do need protection.
- For it is God’s children who are drowning in distant waters
- God’s children who are wasting away, forgotten, in refugee camps and holding pens in countries that don’t want them.
- God’s children who are suffocating in refrigerated trucks
- God’s children who are trapped in monasteries, in small villages, in slavery, in violent societies and desperate to escape but too poor to run.
- God’s children who are crying out not only for a chance at a fair wage, but for a chance at any life at all.
I was reading a popular blog this week, and in it the author observed that perhaps it is time for us to remember that, for all of the problems our country faces, every single person in this room was born lucky enough to grow up in a country that protects our fundamental rights to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness. Let’s stop acting like this is something we deserve, and remember that it was a gift. Because maybe, just maybe, if we remember that this is a gift, we might be more inclined to compassion for those who have been born into countries and situations where there is no peace, no safety, no promise of freedom. Perhaps we might be inclined to act with compassion, and grace, to extend a warm hand to our neighbors, to live out the best inclinations of a country that was first people by outsiders, refugees, and minorities from their own mother lands.
Perhaps what is required of us is the courage to respond faithfully to Jesus’ own brother, who reminds us that Jesus called us to set aside the temptation to group our neighbors into categories of those who deserve our attention and those do not, of those who are worthy and those who are unworthy, those who are rich and those who are poor, those who are in and those who are out. And instead, perhaps we are called to use our god-given energies and talents to fulfill the Scripture, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. To see our neighbors as ourselves, and respond as we would hope that others would respond if we were in a similar predicament.
“For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Mercy will cost us, friends. Mercy may require that we choose to put another’s hurt above our own comfort. That we choose to alleviate the suffering of others instead of keeping ourselves comfortable. Lord knows mercy isn’t easy—mercy got Jesus crucified, and the apostles martyred. Mercy will cost us, and it won’t make us popular.
If we cannot be merciful on our own, we may find that God shames us into action. For as I watched Germany and Austria throw open their borders to thousands of refugees this yesterday, I was put in mind of Jesus, who, in speaking of perseverance, tells this story:
Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
Or of Paul, who writes in 1 Corinthians:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
Is it not the poor, the weak of this world, who are throwing their bodies against our doors this very moment, begging for little more than bread to eat and the opportunity for their children to live and play in peace? And will we be those who shut ourselves into our homes, and thrust our fingers into our ears, or will we recognize that no-one picks up and leaves everything behind, no one treks through mountains or sneaks through train tunnels, no one boards an inflatable raft to cross an unknown sea, no person would do this if things were just fine back home. When will we see that nothing will change until our hearts are changed? And our hearts will not change until we open our eyes and our minds and our ears so that we may be informed about the suffering of our neighbor.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and 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?”
“Do you love Jesus?” Asks James. Then prove it. Prove it by choosing to do the hard thing. Prove it by loving your neighbor until it hurts. Until it hurts like mercy overflowing, and justice without limits. Prove it, and remember: faith without works is dead.
In Presbyterian theology, we call this sanctification. The daily work of acting on the principles and teachings of our Lord and Savior, of living out what we have been taught. It’s the difference between reading a book about hiking and walking the Appalachian trail. And I promise you, it isn’t easy, but it is worth it in the end.
Fear not, brothers and sisters, for God walks beside you, just as God walks beside the thousands of Syrian refugees risking life and limb to find a place in this world where they might experience mercy and justice. Just like God stands watch beside grieving families on distant battle fields and beside unstill waters and refuses to let us stand silently by as God’s people suffer.
In that Momastery post I mentioned earlier, author Glennon Doyle closed with the following words:
The two most repeated phrases in the Bible are “Fear not.” And “Remember.” If someone is fear mongering, telling you to build walls instead of tearing them down, instead of scaling them to feed hungry people, encouraging any sort of us vs. them mentality….THINK HARD. The Gospel says, “do not be afraid. Remember.” Remember is the opposite of dismember. When we shut our doors to our own family: when we are afraid of each other—we are dismembered. The kingdom of God comes when we treat each other like Kin. Like family. When we remember.
The balls in our court.