A sermon on James 1.1-27 preached at Wine Before Beer on May 27, 2014
Here’s the question.
If you are not amongst the ‘twelve tribes of the dispersion’
can the letter of James really speak to you?
If you do not experience your life as somehow in exile,
but are firmly at home in this world, in this culture,
if there is no sense of being part of a diaspora people,
if you feel somehow close to the centre of our culture,
the centre of where power resides,
if you have no sense of being marginalized, despised and out of place,
then can you really understand James?
I don’t know, but my hunch is that James has been marginalized
in the history of the church precisely because it is a text written
at the margins and to the margins,
and a church that took up residence at the centre of an imperial culture
simply couldn’t begin to understand what the heck this guy was on about.
Or perhaps worse, the church at the centre
understood clearly what he was on about,
saw that the ‘rich’ who James so strongly criticized
were in fact now the church hierarchy in bed with the emperor,
and decided that this just wasn’t appropriate reading material for church,
for catechism or for serious theological reflection.
Whether we read ‘the twelve tribes of the dispersion’ as Jewish Christians
dispersed throughout the Roman empire,
subject to a double persecution from the empire and their fellow Jews alike,
or whether James is depicting the whole Christian community
– Jew and Gentile together –
as the New Israel, now in exile,
a marginal and oppressed diaspora community,
… either way, once the church is no longer oppressed and marginal,
it will have little use for James and his offensively prophetic word.
And the church has been the poorer for such a dismissal of James.
Indeed, I might even say that the church profoundly loses its identity,
forgets who it is called to be,
when it no longer stops to listen and listen closely to this epistle.
I don’t know, but maybe the only folks who could really hear James today
would be our First Nations sisters and brothers,
dispersed across this land,
or folks with no legal status in this country,
the hundreds of immigration detainees languishing in our prisons,
refugee claimants living in limbo,
folks living at the very edges of society.
The letter is addressed to those of the diaspora,
the out of place,
And I think that if we can’t somehow see ourselves,
and experience our lives,
in terms of exile and marginalization,
then maybe James just isn’t for us.
But we are going to take a gamble this summer at Wine Before Beer.
We are going to bet that if we listen closely both to James
and the realities of our own lives,
then just maybe God will have something to say to us
through this radical and uncompromising letter.
This is an incredibly rich letter and I invite you to dwell with James
over the next number of months.
Read his letter over and over again.
Notice how themes, motifs and ideas from the Old Testament resonate throughout his letter.
And allow the words of this Amos of the New Testament to resonate through your life.
From this very first chapter it is clear that this is a community in trial.
“When you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.”
And given the context of dispersion in the Roman empire, we can safely surmise that those trials had to do with their marginal state in the empire.
These are trials rooted in oppression.
And James will mince no words in identifying the economic source of much of what oppresses these communities.
Next to Jesus himself, no one in the New Testament is more uncompromising and radical in his critique of the rich than James.
The rich will be brought low and should rejoice in that demotion, says James.
The rich are pretentious with their fine clothes and best seats in the house.
The rich oppress the poor and drag them to the courts.
The rich have an insatiable desire to accumulate ever more wealth.
The rich live luxuriously, devoted to their own pleasures.
The rich are rich because of an unequal distribution of wealth.
And in the end, it is the rich, says James, who condemn and murder those who are just.
Riches and murder. They will always go together.
And it is clear that the rich are now in the church,
and James wants to make it very clear the conditions under which such folks might be part of the community of Jesus.
They must rejoice in being brought low.
“Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.”
In the midst of a busy life,
busy with transactions,
busy finding loopholes,
busy managing a labour force,
busy acquiring more wealth,
busy with money making money,
busy, busy, busy,
… they will wither away.
That’s what all of this busyness produces.
We are only a couple of sentences into the letter and James has already put the rich on notice that their days are numbered.
And we wonder why popes and bishops, living in palaces, weren’t too keen on James.
And we wonder why a theology preoccupied with getting your doctrine right,
while also maybe finding a way to be economically secure playing the capitalist game, might also shy away from James.
As we will see, for James, right theology devoid of lives of generous discipleship is bullshit, no matter how orthodox it may be.
Now there is too much here to talk about with a bunch of beer thirsty folks on a Tuesday evening, but let me briefly note a few other things about this first chapter.
Notice what James says about temptation.
Right after his radical word of prophetic reversals for the poor and the rich, James reflects on the nature of temptation.
Call it his ‘phenomenology of temptation.’
Where does temptation come from?
Well, not from God, says James.
The sentiment that God is putting these temptations before us in order to test us is a pious lie.
No, says James, if you are tempted – presumably by riches – then take a look at where that temptation comes from.
Such temptation is rooted in desire.
And then James unpacks this desire with sexual metaphors:
“But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it;
then when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin,
and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”
It is almost as if he is saying that we become slaves of our own desires,
And from our unholy copulation with our own desires,
after those desires have conceived,
after we have become pregnant
through this perverse form of self-rape,
sin is born.
And when sin grows up,
when sin comes to maturity,
when sin becomes full-grown,
sin itself gives birth
… to death.
I think that he just described the internal dynamics of consumer capitalism.
He just described the deathly dynamics of desire taken captive by idolatry.
But there is a radically liberating alternative.
Instead of being raped by our own desires,
instead of giving birth to sin and death,
James shifts his sexual metaphor in a more regenerative way
and says that God “gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
The sexual metaphor continues a few verses later:
“Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with humility the implanted word that has the power to save your life.”
An implanted word.
The church as the bride of Christ,
in whom the word has been implanted,
a word that will give birth to new life,
a word that births the first fruits of the new creation.
So what will it be?
Idolatrous desire conceiving in us and giving birth to sin,
which then grows up into death?
Or the word of truth, implanted in us, conceiving and giving birth
to the first fruits of the new creation?
Well, what would those first fruits look like?
And how do we nourish this implanted word,
this word of pregnant possibility?
By doing it.
Be doers of the word, not mere hearers who engage in a self-deception of Christian piety.
And notice that James says, a person who listens and enacts the word will be blessed in what he or she does.
Whatever such a person does,
if it is born of the word,
if it comes as a first fruit of the word,
if it is in fact a “doing” of the word
is the way that life flourishes.
The word is implanted in you,
so bear the fruit of the word.
The seed has been sown,
make your life fertile for its growth.
The word is your life,
so be quick to listen,
slow to speak,
and slow to anger.
Listen to the word of truth
and live in truth.
Listen, but don’t just listen.
True listening is in the doing.
The word becomes flesh.
The word must be enacted.
So, do the word, James says,
do the word.
And do you want to have a paradigm for doing the word?
Do you want a guide for what such an enacted word looks like?
Well, says, James, here it is:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their distress,
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Kind of full circle, isn’t it?
The letter is written to those who are marginalized,
therefore if the word that this letter bears witness to is to be enacted,
it will be enacted precisely through ministry amongst the most marginalized.
God give us the faith,
the perseverance, the maturity,
the wisdom and the joy,
to be doers of such a word.