James 2:1-10, 14-17
There has been a ton of talk this past year about the Middle Class. Some are saying that the middle class is dying. Some say that it is the middle class that has put us in this current economic crisis. They wanted to be higher up the socioeconomic ladder so they borrowed their way up a few rungs and then fell off the ladder completely. Others say the middle class is simply taking the most hits because they aren’t rich enough and not poor enough. They are stuck in the middle. After trying to come up with who actually is the middle class MSNBC stated, “being “middle class” in America today appears to be mostly a state of mind.”
It is the middle class that James is talking to in this passage. James starts off his second chapter by addressing a key issue, not with the rich and not with the poor, but those in-between. We call them “the middle class.” It seems the middle class people in the congregation he was writing to were playing favorites with some of the rich that came to worship with them. When they saw their gold and the horse they rode in on, they knew this was a person they wanted dropping money into their offering plate. They made sure the rich person had a good seat in sanctuary, had fresh coffee, and understood the childcare options for the service and where the restrooms were.
I would qualify our congregation, as a whole, a middle class congregation. We may be on the low end but I don’t think we are poor either. The main problem with the middle class is that we have had a taste of success and we always want more. We know what rich looks like and we have a small taste of what it could be like to be that way. We want it. We feel drawn to it and that is where a ton of our attention goes. We also know what poor is like. We are truly only a couple of paychecks away from being poor. We know we don’t want to live like that. The middle class holds the line between wanting more and having some. In reality our attention is turned to the rich and our backs are turned to the poor. That is what James is calling us on today.
Next week we will be starting a new study in both the Solomon’s Porch Sunday school class and the Jackie Boles Bible Study that meets on Tuesday evening. We will be studying Adam Hamilton’s book and video series, Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Within that book he tells a story about a missionary who came to a church one day to give a presentation about his work with the world’s poor. “As the pastor and missionary were pulling into the parking lot of the church, a man driving a brand new, top-of-the-line Lexus drove in beside them. The missionary said, “Now that’s what I’m talking about right there. I’m talking about those people driving cars like that.” The pastor replied, “Let me straighten you out about one thing. I know this guy. He makes a million dollars a year. He gives $700,000 a year away to run the mission for the poor in our city. This guy is humble and caring. He could be driving a Rolls Royce, but he lives five steps below his means. So don’t criticize him. [Wish] to God that you and I gave away as much of what we have as he does. When it comes to material possessions and money, we are not in a position to pass judgment on others.”
This is what the people of the congregation that James is writing to are doing. They are casting judgment on people before they know them. Instead of doing it on the rich though, they are doing it on the poor. They give the poor that walk into their sanctuary the worst seat in the house. They cast off the cast offs and welcome in the ones that can make the congregation’s dreams come true with their pocket books. Yet when they have done this they have cast off Jesus.
On This American Life, a radio show on National Public Radio, they had a story on about Vivian Paley’s book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Her story is about her realization after years of working with kindergarteners and 1st graders that they learn to be really mean in these years and she tried an experiment to correct that. She created an opportunity to regulate cruelty and meanness in her class. What would happen in her class was the same thing that would happen in all classes of this age. As kids would group up and play with one another and they would cast others out and say, “You can’t play with us.” Before long children were thought of as outcasts and would end up spending the play time in their cubbies instead of playing with other kids, only because they were shunned by their fellow students.
To stop this partiality and favoritism she decided to make a rule, “you can’t say you can’t play.” This means that anyone and everyone can participate in an activity. When she brought this rule up many of the kids had great fear about the ramifications of this new reality. They were crushed that the way things were could not be anymore. How could the culture of the kindergarten classroom take this type of new legislation? Would the deep social clichés and stereotypes hold up? Would the cool kids stay the cool kids and the geeks and dorks stay the geeks and dorks? If there is no separation, no limits of who is invited in and who isn’t, than how can these lines be drawn and understood? This is a lot for a 5 year old to take on and many of them were truly and honestly fearful of what it would mean to not say, “no you can’t play.”
As Mrs. Paley did more research she started to ask the older kids if they thought this would be a good idea. Many of them suggested that Kindergarten would be ideal because they looked back at that time with nostalgia. They were for it, as long as it was back there, in Kindergarten, and not something that was expected of them, now. Once the rule was put into place though and they lived into for a while, a strange sense of relief came over the class. They were opened up and not limited to the guidelines of meanness anymore. The Kindergarteners actually started to feel good about themselves and others. One girl that Mrs. Paley ran into about once every year, kept her updated on her progress to hold true to this rule. Her mother verified her claim that she does try to live out, “You can’t say you can’t play.”
If only the church could be like that. If only we would be willing to let all into our sanctuary to worship. The truth is it sounds good but when reality comes it is really scary. For many people they are happy to write checks for others to deal with the real needs of the poor but they do not want get their hands dirty. When a poor, smelly, dirty person walks into their congregation, maybe talks a different language or whose skin is a little darker than theirs, they ask the person, “are you lost?” For them, they are not living out Christ’s call to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and visitation to the imprisoned. It is fine if others are doing it but they don’t want it in their backyard.
James ends this section of scripture with these four verses, “14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if a person claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
I do not want Trinity to be a mausoleum for a people of dead faith. We must be active participates of living out our faith in Christ. Christianity is not something we can do on Sunday morning, check it off our list, and go on with our week. To truly have faith means we are called into action. To have faith means instead of concentrating on the rich we turn and face the poor. To live out our faith means our heart is transformed into the heart of God which welcomes and loves all.
One place where this is lived out and demonstrated in the life of a United Methodist congregation is at the communion table. One of the main reasons I love being United Methodist is because we celebrate an open table. Our table is open for anyone to come forward and to receive God’s elements. Whether you are baptized or not, understand what is happening or not, a child or elder of the church, a sinner or a saint, you don’t even have to believe what is happening, everyone is welcome because this is a place where God’s grace comes in direct contact with God’s people.
James is pushing that middle class congregation to turn its favoritism from the rich to the poor and to live out their faith. As we all come to the table today may we find the same strength to welcome all into our lives. May we remove “you can’t play” from our vocabulary and may we be willing to have our hearts transformed into the likeness of God. Then we will not be people of a dead faith but people of the living God.
And all God’s people said…Amen.