October 16, 2011
“The Triumph of Mercy”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
She told us it was going to be all about the relationships and the conversation. The church member told us we would meet some real interesting folks. I met Carol. Her youngest son died in a car accident. Her oldest son lived upstate. Her 92 year old father lived at the beach. She told me about her apartment, shared her roommates names, described the colors and the quilts she used to make it look nice. Augustus, he was in the army for six years. He was a cook in the service. I asked him about which one of the “Godfather” novels it was that he was carrying and reading. He told me he was graduating from a six month program and getting a certificate in HVAC maintenance. Graduation is this week, October 19th. He told me about his classmate who picks him up every morning for class. “23 miles he drives just to pick me up here!” Augustus said shaking his head with this mix of gratitude and disbelief . Calvin, he had on a Redskins hat and we talked football for more than a few minutes. Gregory was a diabetic and he showed me how his wounds were healing after he had some toes removed.
She said it was would be all about the relationship but I didn’t believe her. She was the one who gave us the training in the footcare ministry of the church. Every Tuesday morning, women from the congregation go to the shelter to wash the feet of the clients; wash, lotion, massage, even cut toenails. It all started with a church member who knew that homeless people had all sorts of problems with their feet; all that walking, bad shoes, exposure to so much, no bathing. It wasn’t even that she was trying to be like Jesus in the gospel of John washing the disciples’ feet. She just knew it was a problem, figured out a way to help, and she found a group of folks at the church who were willing to help. So there I sat with three other Presbyterian pastors; one from Columbus, Ohio, one from Dallas, Texas, one from St. Louis, Missouri, and me; washing feet. That night at dinner no one was talking about feet or washing. We were telling each other about the people we met; like Carol and Augustus and Calvin and Gregory. She told us it would be about the relationships and she was right.
James wrote, “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 cloths 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?”
I was flipping through television channels just a few nights ago. As I was passing along the cable news programs on my way to ESPN or the cooking channel or something like that, I stopped at one place because I recognized all the people there on the screen; the host and the guests. My lingering was more than a little like watching a train wreck. It wasn’t going to be pretty these folks trying to have a conversation. And I was right. At one point they were talking about poverty statistics in America. The host was suggesting statistics prove that more than half of the poor population in the United States are poor because of addiction or mental health. “What do you want the government to do?” he shouted, “just continue to fund their addiction.” The guest responded with an equal amount of yelling, “The first thing the government should be doing, is what all of us should be doing, including you, which is to stop demonizing the poor!”
James wrote “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that God has promised to those who love God? But you have dishonored the poor.”
Paul Hoffman is a Lutheran pastor in Seattle. He wrote recently about a woman in his congregation named Kathyrn who was in her forties when she joined the church. She didn’t just join the church. She went through a yearlong time of what the pastor called “intentional faith formation” with a sponsor, weekly bible studies, family style meals, and conversation about all sorts of questions. Each Sunday in Lent, the church prayed for each adult inquirer by name. Kathryn was baptized on Easter Sunday and joined the church.
A few weeks after her baptism, the congregation began to explore hosting an organization called Tent City on the grounds of their church. Tent City had been around Seattle for a long time. It was an organized effort to provide services for homeless folks. The city permitted them to stay in one place for not more than 90 days and only with permission. As it turned out, over time it was pretty much churches and synagogues that hosted Tent City. This particular Lutheran Church had sent some kids from Sunday School along with their families to volunteer at another church in the city that was hosting. On the way home, a 3rd grader spoke to the pastor, “Pastor, when do we get to have Tent City at our church?” Six months later there was a congregational meeting to discuss the possibility. It was there, amid the discussion, the legitimate questions, the hesitations, the objections, the support, amid all of that that Kathryn stood up to speak.
“I can’t believe the objections that I’m hearing to this opportunity. I can’t believe them because as I was preparing for my baptism last year, this is what you told me that being a baptized child of God would mean. You told me that to be a disciple of Christ meant to care for those less fortunate—to reach out to those in need and to share God’s love with all people. That’s what you taught me it means to be a baptized disciple of Jesus.” The pastor goes on to describe how there was nothing easy or smooth about it, but that the decision was made pretty much then and there in the deafening silence in the room after Kathryn spoke.
James wrote, “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The vision of the world, the worldview described by James, created is strikingly clear. Be doers of the word and not merely listeners…not hearers who forget but doers who act. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this, to care for the orphans and widows in their distress....Has not God chosen the poor…to be heirs of the kingdom….you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to scripture “you shall love your neighbor as yourself…faith by itself, if it has no works is dead…show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith….just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead…..mercy triumphs over judgment….mercy triumphs over judgment…..mercy triumphs over judgment. It’s not some kind of alternative universe created by James, it’s the kingdom of God.
Where the poor are honored, and there’s no partiality, and widows and orphans are cared for. (James) It’s the kingdom of God, where the hungry are fed, and the thirsty have something to drink, and the stranger is welcomed, and naked are clothed, and the sick are taken care of, and prisoners are visited. (Matthew 25) It’s the kingdom of God where good news is brought to the poor, and release is proclaimed to those held captive, and the blind are made to see, and the oppressed are set free. (Luke 4) It’s not some pie in the sky, other world, oh so foreign picture being painted by James here. It’s the kingdom of God, where the poor are blessed and hungry are filled and those who are weeping begin to laugh. (Luke 6) It’s like the community described in the first century church in the Book of Acts, where “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2) For James, it’s not just a kingdom to wait for or pray for or hope for, it’s a kingdom to work for now, a kingdom to serve now, a kingdom not just for those who have ears to hear, or eyes to see, but a kingdom for those who have lives to give, and hands to work, and minds to figure out, and feet to march, and money to give, and backs to break, and voices to cry out for the triumph of mercy. The triumph of mercy! Serving the poor. Feeding the hungry. Welcoming the stranger. Caring for the suffering. Because this is the kingdom of God.
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” In his paraphrase of the bible that is entitled, “The Message”, Eugene Peterson offers this rendering of that verse; James 2:1. “My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith.” Peterson’s take here in the second chapter of James, it is a good example of the difference between a translation from the Greek or Hebrew text of the bible and a paraphrase. You will find no trace of the phrase “public opinion” in the Greek text. “As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism.” (NIV) “Do not let class distinction enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord.” (NJB) Favoritism. Class Distinction. Partiality. Rich and poor. Eugene Pederson goes for the term “public opinion’ to try to capture James and his plea to the community to be shaped by the kingdom of the God and not the world. Or as James put it at the end of chapter 1, what we read last week, “keeping oneself unstained by the world.” Do not let treating one person better than another be a part of your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorious Lord.”
It seems that not a week goes by that one doesn’t hear about or read about faith and politics. As the election cycle moves on, it will only heat up, all that talk about faith and politics. It will keep coming from all sides; arguments about faith in politics; too much faith, too little faith, a litmus test here, what is acceptable faith there. Arguments about churches or pastors or preachers being too involved; endorsing, campaigning, threatening non-profit status. The left tells the right when it is convenient to them, keep faith out of politics. The right tells the left when it is convenient to them, keep faith out of politics. Rarely is faith more used and misunderstood and tossed around and marketed and bashed and crafted to one’s advantage than when it comes to politics. Keep faith out of politics! They say.
But when you stop and think about James and his vision of the kingdom of God here and now, James has different take, a different angle, a prior thought. When it comes to James and life in the kingdom of God, with his plea about favoritism, distinctions, partiality, treating one person better than another, what James is really saying is keep your politics out of your faith.
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