Sunday, September 9, 2012

But none too much - Sunday Sermon, September 9, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
September 9, 2012
James 2:1-10, 14-17
“But none too much..”

We all know how this works, particularly in the military. Special people get special treatment. In our community, it’s not gold rings and fine clothes, but it’s a bird or a star or two which garners the special treatment. When a person of that kind of stature appears on the scene, we do the scramble dance. We are at their beck and call with our “Yes Sirs” and “Yes Ma’ams.” No request is too much. The question is not if we will jump, but just how high. This is how we train, starting from our first experiences in basic training. The rank structure exists for good reasons. I want to be clear, I am not proposing an all out rebellion against it.   

It is actually the second part of James’ point which applies to us. He says, “but if a poor person in dirty clothes walks in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes saying, ‘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.” Respect is not just for the ones who have the stars on their chests. They may be the ones who get the seat at the head of the table. We stand at attention when they enter the room. This is our protocol, and it is important. Yet, that does not preclude us from extending respect to all the rest, even the ones with hardly any rank at all.

Respect of the office is paramount to doing our business, but it’s not what James is referring to here. Instead, he is talking about how we treat one another. The idea that no matter who comes to us for help, we respond generously because he or she is first and foremost our neighbor. We see them for their humanity and not for their wealth, or in our case, their rank. As much as we know this, too often we forget. When we amass, even a modicum of power or influence, it’s easy for it to go to our heads. We task someone “under” us to do the dirty work, just this once because we are too busy with more important work. But then one time turns into two or three, and the snowball continues. We walk into a room, looking past all the lower enlisted, figuring out with whom we can rub our elbows. Just this once, we say to ourselves. We have to think of our careers and our next promotion board. One thing leads to the next, little compromises and moments of neglect, and sooner or later, we have lost sight of respect and love altogether.

Just a glance at James and it’s obvious that he isn’t in the business of sugar coating. He asks his audience a simple, albeit, excruciatingly uncomfortable question. “Do you people really believe in Jesus?” After assessing the landscape and observing their behavior patterns, particularly their treatment of the poor and powerless, James has come to a pretty dismal conclusion. Though they say they believe, they don’t act like it. They don’t live as if their belief in Jesus makes any real difference in their lives.

James’ question is as pertinent to us as it was to them. Assessing the way that we behave, examining our actions, would James ask us the same question? Do we really believe in Jesus? Do we live our lives as if our belief in Jesus makes a difference? I guess a better question might be this: How should a believer live? James answers this question by reminding his audience that we are accountable for all of our actions and, in some cases, our inaction. We may follow some laws really well, never murdering or committing adultery, but if we forget to love to our neighbors, if we judge others mercilessly, then we have, in effect, broken all of the laws. It’s not a game of picking and choosing. We are accountable for what we have done and left undone, and because we are human beings, it’s a safe bet that we have fallen short somewhere.

James spends quite a few verses of this chapter talking about the poor, which is rather appropriate for us as we are living in one of the poorest countries in the world where about 42% of the population in Afghanistan live on less than $1 a day.[1] It is hard to know where to begin in a place with these kinds of statistics, but all of us have more opportunities than we may realize to respect our neighbors, even here within the walls of our camp. Whether it’s at the dining facility, when we are served our food or find ourselves standing in line next to a local contractor, or just walking by the latrines and acknowledging those individuals whose job it is to clean up after us, it all begins with our willingness to see. Once we see the humanity of another person, once we realize that this is our neighbor, too, we may find more strength to act, and subsequently, to live like the believers of Jesus that we claim to be.
James makes some pretty controversial conclusions in his letter about faith and works, or more pointedly that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Some of the reformers, in particular Martin Luther, didn’t think James was an authentic apostle. Some would have liked for him to be thrown out of the Bible completely because this chapter has continued to fuel a debate over whether faith or works grants a person salvation, a debate still unsettled throughout the church to this day. As a good Presbyterian, I must say first and foremost, it is God who saves us, and not ourselves. But, James asks an important question, What good is it if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?”  “Can such a faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

What good is that kind of faith? James reminds us that faith is about more than what we say. It is not about our lip service, but it is about our discipleship. Faith is about how we live and love and serve God and God’s many diverse children. True faith moves us both to our knees in prayer and thanks and then out into the world to become witnesses of God’s good news. When we live our lives as if our belief in Jesus actually makes a difference, then we endeavor to follow that great commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. We attempt to see all people as neighbors, no matter what rings or rank that they wear. And though we fail to do this completely, we also don’t ever give up.
In 1895, British Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called If. Though originally published over a hundred years ago, it is a favorite among many, including myself and my late grandfather who first taught it to me when I was in the sixth grade. It has influenced many notable personalities, including our own General Petraeus who publicly cited this poem as one of his sources of strength, particularly during hearings on Iraq.[2] In one of its stanzas Kipling says this:
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much.”
Perhaps he took a page straight out of James when he said—“If all men count with you, but none too much.” Though this is not an easy thing to do, we are still called to try, to do our best to love and serve our neighbors, remembering that God is present with us, giving us the strength we need to reach out again and again and again, even when it hurts. The poverty in our world is surely vast. And, it’s not just material, but also it is an emptiness of the heart. We all suffer from this kind of hunger. We are all desperate for ways to be fulfilled.

God has promised to give us what we need, to make us whole again, and to wipe all the tears from our eyes. So, write this promise down. Remember it well, for it is trustworthy and true.[3] Go out into the world in peace and with courage. Honor all people as you go. Live your life as if Jesus has made all the difference-- because, in the end, he has. Amen

[1] "Afghanistan: Food still unaffordable for millions". IRIN. 12 March 2009. Archived from the original on 27 August 2010. Retrieved 11 October 2010.
[3] Paraphrase Revelations 21:4-5

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