Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 6, 2009

2009.09.06 “No Outrageous Nonsense: Lessons in Practical Christianity”

Central United Methodist Church

“No Outrageous Nonsense: 

Lessons in Practical Christianity”

James 2: 1 – 17

Pastor David L. Haley

September 6th, 2009



It was in 2004, that the United Church of Christ, a small Protestant denomination, aired the first of their “God is Still Speaking” media ads.  I know, because at that time I was pastor to a small U.C.C. flock, as part of my pastorate of the United Methodist Church in West Chicago.  Here is the first ad that aired, called “the Bouncer.”


You may not believe this, but NBC and CBS refused to air it, as too controversial, although other stations did. After that ad, the U.C.C. followed it up with this one, called “the Ejector.” 


With this ad, in addition to NBC and CBS, some cable companies refused to air it, because, as it turns out, they were owned by NBC and CBS. Who thinks media conglomerates are good things? 


        To most observant and experienced church people, however, the message of the ads would not be news, even when told in this exaggerated and humorous way.  Because as almost everybody knows – including, quite likely, the corporate executives of NBC and CBS – most churches are socially stratified in some way, attracting some and excluding others, even if not intentionally.  (You might want to check if there’s a large spring under your seat . . .)


        It didn’t take H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, for most people to know that depending upon how much you make or how you dress or what color your skin is or what your sexual orientation is, as well as many other more subtle factors, you might or might not feel welcomed – be made to feel comfortable or uncomfortable – in any given church.  I’ve felt uncomfortable in church because I showed up with kids – children – small human beings!


        It wasn’t that long ago when the wealthy went to the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, the middle class went to the Methodist and Lutheran churches, and the blue collar and no collar classes went to the Catholic or the Baptist or maybe even the Pentecostal church.  And, as the saying went and in most cases still applies, 11 o’clock Sunday morning – church hour – remains the most segregated hour in America.

        Although these distinctions are not as true as they used to be, they are still too true.  My guess is that every one of us, at one time due to one reason or another – has had an experience of churchgoing that made us comfortable, not likely to return to that particular church. To paraphrase George Orwell, “All church visitors are equal, but some are more equal than others.”


        Believe it or not, given human nature, this select welcome – even exclusivity – has been present in the church since the ministry of Jesus.  In the 1st century, as Christian churches began to spread, welcome and hospitality shown to all was something they continually struggled with, beginning first with Gentiles, but then between the social classes, between the wealthy and the poor.  It shows up today in our Epistle reading from the Letter of James. 


It seems that some Christians had taken Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the Law to mean something that Paul himself did not, namely, that it only mattered what a person believed, not how he or she lived. In good Methodist fashion James stakes out the opposing position, that true faith must always be manifest in one’s life, and that furthermore, there are certain behaviors and attitudes with which faith simply cannot be compatible.


The two attitudes and behaviors incompatible with faith which James talks about in today’s text, have nothing to do with sex – as some Christians might assume – but rather – are the incompatibility between faith and favoritism (2:1-13) and, secondly, the incompatibility between faith and indifference (14-26)


In both cases, James graphically illustrates. First, regarding favoritism, he says: 


“My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?”


Can you believe it? Can’t you just see it?  Even in the early Christian church, – Jesus’ Church – ushers were already demonstrating a preferential option for the rich and the well-to-do.


Those ushers! As Garrison Keillor jokes, the problem with ushers is that they never sit in church and thus never hear the sermon, because they stay out there instead in that little room or wherever it is that ushers stay and sit around and smoke instead.  And that’s why they sign up to be ushers!


But of course the message of non-favoritism is not just for ushers, to pick on them, but for us all. It is a gospel necessity, and all of our responsibility, to welcome all who come to worship.  That’s why I like so much the slogan of the United Church of Christ: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”


In addition to the incompatibility of “faith and favoritism,” the second incompatibility James warns about in today’s text is the incompatibility between faith and indifference, especially to the poor and needy.  Again, James describes it graphically:


“Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup — where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?”


        My guess is, for most of us when we hear this we experience a tinge of guilt for that homeless person we walk or drive by, begging for money, feeling guilty that we gave nothing, did nothing.  


        Many years ago, while I was at Berry Memorial in Chicago, on the morning I had to preach the story of the Good Samaritan I actually had to walk past – over – a drunk passed out on the street on the way to church.  Yep, a priest who passed by on the other side.  A cruel, cruel joke by God.


But let’s get past stereotype and acknowledge that the poor and needy nowadays in America are not the lazy, the destitute, the unemployed, or the welfare queens that Ronald Reagan used to go on about, but the working poor: the no-collar and blue-collar (and now, in the current economy, even the white collar) employed, who don’t make enough to live indoors and afford health insurance and still get by.


They are the people we pass every day who make our way of life possible: who clean our office buildings at night, serve us at restaurants, repair our cars, sew our designer garments, handpick our fresh produce, and mow-n-blow suburban yards. Even though these people work long and hard, they barely make ends meet. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in statistics from a few years ago, “in the median state a minimum wage worker would have to work 89 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing.”  In our area, let’s say that if you wanted to buy a $300,000 house (minimal), paying 30% of your income, you need a salary of a least $75,000 a year, conservatively.  Do you know what the estimated median household income in Skokie was in 2007: $66,088.  In the State of Illinois:  $54,124.  I think you see the problem.  I’m convinced that a single parent or person or single income, unless they have an exceptionally well-paying job, can’t make it anymore.


Even if they do, such an existence is tenuous, with poverty and homelessness only a paycheck away.  In his study of these people, Pulitzer Prize winner David Shipler notes how poverty is both a cause of problems and the result of problems:


“A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing” (The Working Poor; Invisible in America, 2004).


        It is easy to feel overwhelmed and therefore indifferent to the needs of people, but according to James, for people of faith, followers of Christ, that is not an option:  It is how we treat such people, in society or when they come to our church, that just may be the best test of how vital our faith actually is. Because, according to James, faith and works cannot be divorced from each other. Concrete acts are needed, rather than pious benedictions.


Fred Craddock is a teacher of preachers and a marvelous storyteller.  More than once he has spoken about a dream he once had. He said that once he dreamt that he was invited to go to God’s house.


At God’s house he was escorted down these beautiful corridors and was taken to a beautiful dining room. He was served the best meal he’d ever tasted. He was taken then by a servant to a beautiful guest room. He lay down on a bed fit for royalty. He’d never slept like that before in his life.


He slept like a baby, except for about 3:00 in morning. At 3:00 he was awakened by noises that were coming from the room across the hall. Whoever was staying in that room was having a most difficult time falling asleep. He heard all sorts of noises: standing and sitting, tossing and turning, pacing and crying. Whoever was in that room was having a very difficult night.


When morning came, this preacher got dressed, opened the door and was greeted immediately by a servant.


“Good morning, preacher. Did you sleep well?”


“Oh, I slept like a baby” he said, “but the fellow across the hall seemed to have a really tough night. You might want to check on him.”


“Oh, that room,” said the servant. “Yes, that happens often. That’s God’s room.”


“God’s room! You mean God sleeps there?” “Yes! That’s God’s bedroom.”


And at that moment, the door opened and God stepped out and said “Good morning, my child.”


“Good morning, God.”


God asked: “Did you sleep well?”


“Oh, I slept like a baby, but you didn’t, did you?”


“No I didn’t,” said God.


“I’m so sorry. I really am … I heard all sorts of noises: tossing, turning, pacing and even crying.”


God said: “Yes. Well, that’s what happens when you hear the prayers of so many who are hurting; of so many who are hungry; of so many who are lonely and ill and in prison and dying. There’s just so many of them.”


And so Fred said to God: “God, I am so sorry. I really am. Is there anything I can do?”


And God said, “Well, now that you mention it, yes, there is. There is something you can do!”


According to James, in the house of the Lord, there is no place for favoritism or indifference.  There is always something you can do.


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