An Orientation to Transformation

James 2:1-10, 14-17

(Watch sermon here.)

James writes,
“My siblings, your faith in our glorious Savior Jesus Christ
must not allow favoritism.”

Do you play favorites?

How do you know when you are playing favorites?

Hm.


At the core of our faith,
Jesus provides an orientation
to a life of transformation.

Jesus begins this orientation by urging us,
leave your routine and follow me.

We journey so often down certain pathways
of thought and behavior that they become
like ruts that limit our mobility.
We get stuck in them
like a wheelbarrow in a deep track,
unable to turn easily in a new direction.
In order to leave the ruts of our conditioning,
we must make conscious our unconscious routine.
We must flex different muscles in our lives
in order to push out of this hole.


Come and follow, Jesus exclaims.
Come and change your life with actions, echoes James.

How do we get out of the rut of our everyday routine?

The call to alter our route, to repent,
calls us to be self-aware.

Jesus’ call to come and follow requires of us
to learn first of own inner landscape and uneven ground.

To change our path,
we must be awake.


Your faith must not allow favoritism,
James admonishes.

Favoritism:
That’s one of the unconscious grooves
that all humans fall into.

What are your biases?


It turns out we all have them.

We form in-groups and out-groups innately.

In a 1971 scientific study, social scientists
discovered how differently people treated each other
as soon as they thought they were part of a group. (i)

The scientists randomly assigned youths to one of two group.
One group was supposed to like artist Paul Klee.
The other group was supposed to like Wassily Kandinsky.
The young people didn’t know these artists.
They were randomly assigned to each group with a flip of a coin.

Still, when they had to divvy up money among the people,
they would always give the most money to people in their own group.
They maximized loyalty to people they have never met,
and would never meet.

This study has been repeated many times over.
The moment people are randomly assigned to a group,
even if it’s by the flip of a coin, they start to like those people more.

Ah, favoritism!


Why are we so loyal to groups, even when they are arbitrary?

Psychology professor Jay Van Bavel thinks it’s because
humans evolved in small tribal communities. We are flimsy creatures
who cannot fly away or bite something with venom.
We survived by cooperating.
We have those tendencies now. (ii)


Awaken to your biases that you might overcome them,
James is saying.
Name human dynamics that are already happening.

Where do you play favorites?


May God receive our confessions.


One of the things that I love about James
is that the writer clearly has an affinity for the teachings of Jesus.

In the sermon on the plain, Jesus proclaims,
Woe to you who are rich!

Likewise, James boldly asserts,
Aren’t rich people exploiting you? Aren’t they the ones who haul you into the courts, and who blaspheme the noble Name by which you’ve been called?

Pressing the point, James gives an example.
Suppose further that you were to take notice of the well-dressed one.

Another translation reads,
If you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing.

Let’s stop there.
James is addressing who the people notice.

Who do you notice in your environment?

Do you notice the one with the Porsche or nice dress?

If so,
why do you identify with them?
Why do you aspire to be like them?

Shift the focus of your attention,
James counsels.

Why?

Because you neglect others.

You have treated the poor shamefully,
James declares.

Note the partiality you have within your inner landscape
that separates and deprives others,
because it cannot be blessed.

James asks, didn’t God choose those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kindom promised to those who love God?

God elects those who have been victimized by the partiality that excludes.
God restores each to their rightful dignity.

God raises up those who are bowed down.
This is what pleases God.

Amplifying the voices of the voiceless.
Hearing their truth. Responding with mercy.

These actions signify a living faith.


James continues,
You’re acting rightly, however,
if you fulfill the venerable law of the Scriptures:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love neighbor as much as you love yourself.

There’s a warning here against the boobytrap of prejudice.

You break the law if you have preferred persons, James teaches us,
because you are loving some less than you love others,
lifting up a few at the expense of many other people.


James’ teaching fascinates me because
his letter falls into the genre of wisdom.

The purpose of the wisdom genre is
to instruct the public about how to create a well-lived life.

In fact, in Hebrew, the root of word for wisdom, hokma,
suggests that we use our God-given intellect to seek insight.
Specifically, we seek insight that empowers us
to navigate life in the public square. (iii)

The letter of James asks:
How do we live together in public?


How do we love each other in public?


As an act of loving our neighbors,
I consider now how the U.S. has made large and public efforts
to fly home the refugees in Afghanistan,
because we felt a responsibility for their plight.
We thought, We have better show some love to these our neighbors,
who at great personal cost helped us and protected us from harm.
They were our interpreters and our guides.

Officials used a special immigration classification
to provide Afghans refuge in the US,
that of humanitarian parolee.

Now, I look at what our government is doing to the Haitian refugees in Texas,
who are desperate for security after their president was assassinated,
and an earthquake devastated their country.
In the aftermath, armed gangs have risen to power in the streets of Haiti,
and people’s lives are threatened.

Haitians look now to establish a claim to safety.
As humans fleeing danger,
they have an international right to seek asylum.

However, our government has been flying
many of them back to their country
before they can make their claim for asylum.

How did we get to this path?
That we could airlift thousands of people whose lives are in mortal danger into our country,
while flying thousands of others who lives are equally in danger out of our country?

James’ words are an understatement:
You treated poor people shamefully!

James’ concluding words speak to us,
“If a [sibling] should be naked and lacking daily food,
and someone from you all should say to them,
‘Go in peace, you all. Be warm and nourished,’
but should not give them the things that are necessary for the body, what’s the use?
Thus also faithfulness, if it does not have actions, is dead in itself.” (iv)


The words of Dorothy Day come to my mind now:
“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”


To whom do you give the least neighbor-love by your actions?

Your answer measures your love of God.

That person is an heir of the kindom.


Change your life!

The words jostle us out of our wheelbarrow track.

Or do they?


What rut are you in?
What in-groups are you attuned to?

Your faith must not allow favoritism,
James writes.

Change your prejudice.

God elects those who have been victimized by the partiality that excludes.
God restores each to their rightful dignity.

To whom do we devote our love? To whom do we devote our service?
To what do we give our attention?

A life well-lived changes our focus from well-off neighbors
to neighbors that are not well off.

This leads us to public action.

To a period different than Pax Romana, or peace in the Roman empire,
or Pax Americana, or peace in the American empire.

God is calling us to holy peace,
to a transformation where
we cease to hoard privilege,
and beginning to spread privilege around.

We cease to concentrate resources
on those who are well off.

A well-lived life is not about honoring the rich and those who are secure.
It is honoring the dishonored.

There’s the transformation.
That’s the living word.

For it brings us to a world where all have dignity
and dwell close to the heart of God.

Amen.


[i] Vedantam, S. (Host). (2021, September 20). Group Think [Audio podcast episode]. In Hidden Brain. Hidden Brain Media. https://hiddenbrain.org/

[ii] Vedantam, S. (Host). (2021, September 20). Group Think [Audio podcast episode]. In Hidden Brain. Hidden Brain Media. https://hiddenbrain.org/

[iii] Wall, R.W.  “The Wisdom of James.” Baylor University Christian Ethics, 2009. Section on this text, “The Wise Community Walks the Talk,” begins on p. 31.

[iv] This paraphrase was written by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer.  It can be found on the website Day1.org in the article, ON Scripture: Margaret Aymer on James 2: Poverty, Wealth, and Equality? (2012, September 5).

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