Tuesday, July 14, 2015

James: The Royal Law

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 2:1-13:\

On January 11, 2007, Joshua Bell, who is world renowned and Grammy award winning violinist, performed to a sold out crowd in Boston’s Symphony Hall.  The lowest priced tickets started at $100 apiece.  But just two days later Bell performed a concert for free, but in an unexpected place.  In a situation arranged by the Washington Post as a social experiment, Bell stationed himself in the L’Enfant Metro Station in Washington, DC during the morning rush hour, and began playing one of Bach’s most difficult and stirring violin concertos.  Bell played for 45 minutes using the same violin he always plays, a Stradivarius, constructed in 1713 during the master’s golden period and valued at more than 3.5 million dollars.  Of the 1,097 people who passed by during his concert, 27 games him some money, but only 7 stopped to listen.  He ended his concert without any applause, collecting a grand total of $32.17 in tips, which included $20 from the one person who seemed to recognize who he actually was. 

So more than 1000 people witnessed one of the world’s greatest musicians playing one of the world’s greatest masterpieces on one of the world’s greatest instruments and had no idea what they were actually seeing, and so because of that they didn’t stop.  They made a quick decision about the type of musicians who play in subway stations and so just completely ignored it; he wasn’t worth their time, they had more important things to do.  How often do we make the same sorts of decisions, the same sorts of judgements that in the end turn out to be so very, very wrong, if we ever even know at all?

Today we continue in our sermon series on the book of James, who is concerned not with deep theologically statements about who Jesus and God are, but instead about how it is that we live our lives out, that’s why this series is entitled “where the rubber hits the road.”  This is about where we stop talking about our faith, or claiming what we believe and instead start living it out, how it applies to our lives.  Which led my wife say to me after last week’s introduction, “so James is the reason why we can eat bacon?”  Yes, James is the reason we can eat bacon, because he is the one who ruled that gentile converts, that is non-Jews, did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws or become circumcised to become a Christian.  So James is the one who made the Baconnator possible.

There are lots of things which make the book of James interesting, but one of them is that James quotes directly or nearly directly the words of Jesus.  This is unique among most of the New Testament letters.  Paul, who wrote the earliest documents that we have available to us, rarely quotes anything that Jesus said or did, but there are several different quotes, or references to things that we know Jesus said, found throughout James letter.  While there are some who speculate that this letter was not actually written by James, but was instead written in his name much later, speculation goes all the way back to the second century.  But, I believe that this is probably written by James or at least based on his teachings, and therefore these statements then predate the gospels and so are then amongst the oldest written statements we have of Jesus.  And today’s passage contains one with which most of us are familiar, and that is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

But all of it begins with this idea of favoritism and judgements being made against others.  It’s not known whether James’ story here is more metaphorical, or if it’s something he has actually witnessed.  Perhaps in the end it doesn’t really matter which it is, but I’d be willing to guess that it’s a true story simply because the more things change the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to human nature.  We have this idea in our minds that if we returned back to the earliest days of the church, or did things the way they did it, that everything would be better.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wanted to do exactly that with his movement, to return to the primitive church, and now there are people who want to return to the way the earliest Methodist movement was.  But what we see time and time again, especially in the letters, and what we should know from our own experience, is that there is no ideal time, that they didn’t treat people better in the early church then we do know, because if that was the case then James wouldn’t have to be writing this letter.

We as humans make judgments about other people, rightly or wrongly, we do, and one of the ways that we do that is to give preference to certain people or groups of people.  We judge by race, age, education, clothing, sports affiliation, income, job, just to name a few.  It’s not just a coincidence that the vast majority of people running for President are white men who also happen to be rich.  Would anyone listen to anything that Donald Trump had to say if he was middle-class?  And those who stick out as being different, say like Senator Bernie Sanders, get made fun of because they don’t have that polished look we expect in our candidates.  We judge and give preference.

Now one of the characteristics that James highlights is that people come in wearing gold rings and fine clothes, and because of that they receive preferential treatment.  Now I can’t say anything about the fine clothes, although wearing the collar does get me preferential treatment in some places, like hospitals where I am allowed to do things that others can’t do, but it’s this gold ring that also gets me, and others like me, preferential treatment.  And this is my class ring from Harvard.  When people find out that I went to Harvard I am immediately put into a different category of people.

When I had surgery two years ago, the doctor saw that I was from Harvard, he was an MIT and Stanford alum, and I was elevated as a peer.  In later conversations we had he actually said to me that he treated me differently, said things he would never say to his other patients, basically, as these are my words not his, because we were equals.  I have heard many similar stories from other Harvard, or Ivy League, alums who have said that they were being treated dismissively, but as soon as their background came out they began being treated much better.  We make distinctions.  Sometimes that can work in our favor, and sometimes it can work against us.  But, what James is saying is that we need to be concerned not just with ourselves and how we are treated or how we treat others, but how everyone is treating others.  And to do that, he says, we must follow the Royal rule.

Now currently the Royal rule seems to be that the fans of the Royals try and vote every one of their players onto the starting roster of Tuesday night’s baseball all-star game.  I was happier when the Royal rule was that the Royals would sell or trade their best players to the New York Yankees.  But that is not the rule that James is talking about.  The royal rule, and the same one he refers to later as the law of liberty, is the one handed down first by God in scripture and then also handed down by Jesus, who was quoting scripture.  When someone comes to Jesus and asks him what is the greatest commandment, he says that the first is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength, which comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of the Shema, one of the most important pieces of scripture for Judaism, which begins “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”  This is the prayer that every Jew is supposed to pray every morning, it is the prayer contained in teffilin, which are the prayer boxes worn on their arms and forehead, and also in the mezuzah which is the scroll found at the door of Jewish homes.  And then Jesus says, and the second is just like it, to love your neighbor as yourself, which we are then told, at least in Luke, that neighbor is interpreted as widely as possible, including even those people who are considered enemies, which for Jews in first century Palestine included Samaritans, and thus the telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But James then does something a little different with this then Jesus does, because what James says is that if we show partiality then we have sinned, that is not treating everyone as our neighbor is not just a good idea, but it’s the royal law to which we will be held accountable and to fail is a sin.  I don’t know about you but that makes me a little uneasy, and then comes the crux of his argument for this.  Because James says that if we violate one law then we have violated all the law. His example is that you cannot commit murder but say you’re okay because you have not committed adultery, that your non-adultery overcomes the murder.  Instead, James says, if you violate in one, you have become a transgressor of all the law.   Paul says something similar in his letter to the Galatians, when he says that if you obey one portion of the law, in this particular case circumcision, then we are “obliged to obey the entire law.”

Now here is where I get myself in trouble, but also why I think this is important for us to understand, because the statement that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves comes from Leviticus 19.  James actually quotes from Leviticus 19 several different times in his letter.  Most people are aware that Leviticus is largely about a series of laws, and one of those laws regards homosexuality, and we’re not going to talk about whether those rules actually say what we so often hear that they supposedly say, but what we have been hearing so much is that it’s God’s law and so we have to pay attention.  But, again, what James says is that we can’t pick and choose, so just a couple of laws that also come from Leviticus 19 that we totally ignore:

·         You are not to gather everything that you grow, but instead are to leave some for the poor and immigrants to collect.
·         You cannot plant more than one different seed in your field
·         If you plant trees, you cannot gather any of its fruit until the fourth year
·         You are not to wear clothing made of two different types of fibers.  My clergy shirt violates Biblical code.

And then here is where it gets harder:
·         You cannot eat anything with the blood still in it, which we could then broaden to include not eating pork, which means no bacon.
·         You cannot lie to anyone
·         You cannot hold a grudge or seek revenge
·         You cannot spread gossip or rumors.
·         Employee wages must be paid every single day, they cannot be held overnight.
·         Don’t cut your hair on trim your beards
·         No tattoos
·         Keep the Sabbath (and I have bad news, Sunday is not the Sabbath.)
·         And finally, if there are any aliens, that is immigrants, regardless of how they got there, they are to be treated the same as citizens are treated and we are to love them as if they were native citizens.

How did you do?  The problem is that we like to pick and choose which laws we want to follow, and we all do it, and we say “we’re good because we didn’t do this” even though we are doing something else.  If we want to keep the law, we have to keep the whole law, and if we fail in only one point then we have failed in all of it.  But, and here is what we have to remember, James says the catch is we can avoid sinning before God in this manner if we “speak and act as those who are judged by the law of liberty”, and that is to follow the royal law, to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is the law of liberty because when we simply start treating everyone the same, treating everyone as we want to be treated, loving everyone as we want to be loved, seeing everyone as God sees them, living as God wants us to live, then we are freed from the law because when we start doing that then we will begin to follow the rest of the law.  And more importantly when we begin to live and to act with God’s love, we are freed to love everyone.

We heard in the passage from Amos today about the plumb line that God has presented for us.  How do we build that straight wall, what is our plumb line, it is love.  It is the love of God and it is the love of our neighbor.  For all too many people, especially for those outside the church, we as Christians are known more for whom and what we oppose or hate.  What if instead of that we were known for what we do and how we love?  Not loving those who are like us and think like us and do what we want them to do, because as Jesus says, everyone loves those who love them.  Doing that earns us no credit, either with them, with society or with God.

Instead, Jesus says, we are to “Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us.”  Or as James says, show mercy, because when we show mercy then mercy will be shown to us, that’s called grace.  Because let’s face it, all of us fall short, all of us sin, which is to break relationship with God and with each other, and the only way we stand a chance is through God’s grace and God’s mercy which is offered to us.  But it’s offered to us we are told based on our showing mercy.  If we show no mercy, then no mercy will be shown to us, just as we are told that those who don’t forgive will not be forgiven.  And James ends this passage reminding us that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

If we claim to be following the law, James says, but violate it in one point then we become accountable for all of it.  If we claim to follow the law of love, but show any partiality then we have sinned and will be “convicted by the law as transgressors.”  But if, instead, we show mercy and we love our neighbor as ourselves, then we are freed from the law, because the royal law is also the law of liberty.  We are called to love, to love all, and not just to say it, but more importantly to live it out.  What would the world look like, how would the church be received, how many more people would like to hear about Jesus, if instead of being known for what we are against, what we hate and who we hate, we were instead known for what we are for?  And that is to love all, to love our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be known for grace and mercy, to be known for the fruits of the spirit which are: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, gentleness and love.  What if that is how Christians were known in the world?  I pray that it will be so.  Amen.

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