Sermon for August 13th, 2017
1 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
12 Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
James 5: Wisdom From Above
James begins the final chapter of his letter with some pretty harsh words for rich people who take advantage of their working class brothers and sisters. I'm reminded of the story of the wealthy business man who was out riding in his limousine one evening when he saw two men along the side of the road eating grass. Disturbed, he yelled at his driver to stop, and he got out to investigate. He asked one man "Why are you eating the grass?"
"We don't have any money for food" the poor man replied. "So we have to eat grass."
"Well then, come with me to my house and I'll feed you" the businessman said.
"But sir, I also have a wife and two children with me. They are over there, under that tree."
"Ok, bring them along too" the businessman replied. Turning to the other poor man he stated, "You come with us, also." The second man, in a pitiful voice, then said, "But sir, I also have a wife and SEVEN children with me!"
"Very well then, bring them all" the businessman answered. They all piled into the limousine, which was no easy task. Once under way, one of the poor fellows turned to the businessman and said, "Sir, you are truly too kind. Thank you for taking all of us with you.
The businessman replied, "No problem, I'm glad I could help. Besides, you'll really love my place...the grass is almost a foot high!"
The final chapter of James is divided into roughly three sections. The first section (verses 1-6) consists of a strong warning, directed at those who put their faith in their accumulated wealth--specifically wealth gained at the expense of the poor. He uses an interesting image of gold and silver that has rusted, and will therefore be used as evidence against the rich person.
I say this is interesting because any good jeweler knows that pure gold and pure silver are non-reactive metals--they don't rust, they can't rust! If your gold or silver is rusted, that means it is impure--mixed with high content of other alloys. So likewise, if your wealth is impure--gained through exploitation of others, or through the hard work of others, not your own hard work--that will be obvious in the days to come.
Then, in the second section (verses 7-12), James turns his attention to the poor, whom he calls "my beloved." To these, the ones exploited by the rich, the ones who tend to be the most vulnerable and powerless, he urges the only thing possible: patience. He uses the example of a farmer who depends on the rain, not just the rain that comes early in the season, but also the late rains. The parallel message here is that Jesus, the Lord, who came earlier, will come again to make things right. While you're waiting for him, be patient, don't grumble, don't lose heart, don't turn on each other.
Either of these things--to accumulate wealth fairly, honestly, through the sweat of your own labor; or to be patient and strong-hearted in the midst of poverty and exploitation--are easier said than done. And remember that James is the one who pretty much coined the phrase "actions speak louder than words."
Incidentally, in case you were wondering which group you fit into...James would probably have put you in the "rich" category. Most of us with fixed incomes, mortgages, bills, and medical insurance premiums, don't feel particularly wealthy...but that's just because in our culture the rich are super-rich, and even our poor are rich compared to the average in most times and places throughout history. If you don't believe me, or if you want to meet the ones James is calling "beloved" take a short trip five minutes across the border to our sister city of Juarez. Basically, if you live in America and have a job...you're rich. And that means you should always be asking yourself the questions, "Whose sweat and toil has furnished my air conditioning, my cell phone, and my three meals each day? And what have I done (beyond the mere purchasing of these things) to ensure they have the same luxuries, the same opportunities, the same quality of life as I enjoy?
The final section, the grand finale of James (verses 13-18), is a call to prayer. This is James' answer to every question, to every dilemma and problem he has raised in the entire letter.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. I think these are euphemisms for the rich and poor he has been talking about all along. Obviously, the poor suffer, and prayer is at times their only recourse. But if we take "cheerful" to mean the rich (who ought to have enough reason to be cheerful) the answer is the same: Sing songs of praise. Praise is a type of prayer, but one which gives glory and credit and thanks to God, not to the individual. In other words, recognize that your wealth didn't come from you and doesn't really belong to you--that will make it easier for you to be generous with it!
Prayer is for those who are sick (and remember that illness tends to disproportionately affect the poor) but prayer is also for those who need forgiveness--for example, the rich...who are far more likely to be exploiting the poor (intentionally or unintentionally) than they are to be sick. Whether you are rich or poor, you really need to pray.
James has warned his readers many times in the previous chapters about the dangers of hasty and judgmental words. If your words have a tendency to get you in trouble, what's the solution? Instead of using your words to judge others, use them to pray instead.
James also has warned us about the dangers of arrogance, individualism, and trying to do it all on your own. What's the solution? Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another. In other words, pray with a community, and pray for the community.
If we feel powerless in our present situation, James reminds us that the prayers of righteous people coming together are powerful and effective. As examples, he cites both the prophet Elijah, and my favorite Bible character...Job.
James is actually the only place in the New Testament where Job is mentioned, and while you might think that I of all people would appreciate this, it's been a source of frustration. Verse 11 is usually translated as praising the "patience of Job" which is where we get the mistaken idea that Job was patient in his suffering (he wasn't). I like the NRSV translation better, the "endurance" of Job, because Job did endure his suffering...not with patience...but with prayer. Most of Job's words in the 42 chapters of that book are addressed to God, which is what we call prayer. Even when Job was angry with God, impatiently cursing God, he was still speaking to God, and in this way, he did endure.
Five months ago, during the season of Lent, I began a sermon series on precisely those prayers, the prayers of Job. Around that same time, as part of our worship service, we handed out "Prayer commitment cards" to members of our congregation, as a reminder that when you joined the church, you made a commitment to pray for the church, and in the church, and with the church. I am thankful to those of you who filled out those commitment cards, and even more for those of you who (card or not) have been honoring that commitment, that call to prayer. It is one of four commitments that members of First Presbyterian Church make when joining our congregation--the other three are commitments to serve, to give, and to study.
Whether you realized it or not (and I hope you have), we as a congregation have been in a season of focusing on that commitment to pray. It began with Job, and fittingly it ends with James (although our prayers, individually and collectively, will certainly continue).
Next week begins a new season, a new focus, and a renewed commitment: This time, the commitment to study. This is also fitting, since many of us are preparing for the beginning of a new school year. But whether you are in or out of school, members of our church have made the commitment to be life-long students, to study the scriptures, to study the questions of faith and to study the context of this world we engage with as people of faith.
While our season of emphasis on prayer comes to an end, and while James ends his letter with an emphasis on prayer, I think James of all people would appreciate the commitment to study. After all, James is known and regarded for his wisdom, and that wisdom came from studying (longer than anyone else could have!) at the feet of his brother, Jesus. It came from studying his people and their context in the city of Jerusalem. It was clearly study infused with prayer, study paired with the guidance and wisdom that comes from above.
There's one more tiny section right at the end of James' letter--two more verses that almost seem unrelated to the rest. He says in his closing lines, "My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."
What I hear James saying in these two verses is that community is important--when someone wanders off on their own, isolated and alone, we do everything we can to bring that person back into the fold, into the love and mercy of Christian community. I also hear him saying that truth is important. It is truth that people wander from, and truth that we are called to bring them back into. But what is truth? How can we seek it, how can we know it? How can we recognize when someone has left it behind, and how can we lead people to it, unless we ourselves know where to find it?
The solution? We study together, just as we pray together. And just as James, the brother of Jesus, has been our guide through the final chapters of our season of prayer, so now let him point the way forward to our season of study. Thanks be to God.