James 5:7-20

Reading: James 5:7-20

As hard as it is to imagine what it was like to wait for Christ’s first coming — we are, in many ways in the same boat as we wait for Christ’s second coming. Christians are, at the same time, a community of Christ’s continuing presence, and a community waiting because Christ has left and will come again. Like so many things, this isn’t something where we choose which one is true, because both pictures are true in our lives and our beliefs.

You know that I love James — I love James because it is so simply written, and the advice that it gives needs little if any commentary. When I read James next to the sermon on the Mount, I see that James and Jesus sound very much alike; of course, nobody should be surprised that the earliest Christian writing was filled with saying that sound a lot like the recorded things that Jesus says — the community flows from the One that began it.

What does James tell us? James tells us that we need to be patient until Christ returns — just as the farmer is patient. He tells us that we must be careful not to grumble against each other, not to swear, but instead to always be honest, and to respond to illness and suffering with prayer, to respond to joy with song, to respond to sinfulness with confession, and to bring back those who fall away. James tells us a list of things that are clear, and the application seems obvious. I like James very much — but, I am always left asking myself if there is anything left to say after reading him. Every sentence of this passage is something that we can act on, and something that would make the world better if we acted on it.

As we wait for Jesus to come back — let us reflect on the advice that we are given. I know we pray for the sick; I know we are a community that loves music and singing together, and I don’t think I’ve heard any lies told here. I really think this is the best Christian community I’ve been part of; you all really do care for each other and pray for each other.

Now, I don’t know about you — but my greatest difficulty is combining not grumbling against one another with the need to bring back those who have wandered away from the truth. Most of my friends are Christian, and a good number of them can be found in Church on Sunday morning. Those who wander away from the truth are, by definition Church people — people who have been in the Truth so that they can wander away from it.

When I think about the advice to bring people back into Truth, I have to reflect a little bit on what it might mean to wander out of Truth. I could make it pretty simple for myself, and work very hard on what church growth consultants call ‘closing the back door’ — that is, recognize that if I can prevent people from leaving my congregation, it would be larger. The advice to bring back those who wanders from the Truth then could be a strategy for maintaining the institution.

I have to admit, I don’t think that this is what James was talking about. Our souls are not saved through building and preserving institutions. I’m also perfectly aware that institutions are perfectly able to wander away from Truth. The history of the church shows us how entire communities can wander away from Truth, and how after splits happen, both sides argue that the other side was the one that walked away.

And, therein lies the problem — how do I bring people back to the Truth? When I know somebody who has wandered away from the Truth, they are convinced that they know the Truth and are solidly there; if I try to bring somebody back into the Truth, they are convinced that I am the one who had wandered away from it. Leading people back to the Truth is hard when they don’t realize that I’m right and they are not.

I’m of course being silly — but, having been in this position I’ve learned that it is rather challenging not to grumble against other people in the wider church. There are times that, being convinced that somebody is outside of the Truth, and leading others into error, that I do grumble — not only my heart grumbles, but my mouth grumbles as well. There are even times when I say of another preacher: “He knows — he has to know this isn’t what Jesus taught,” and when I say that I can assure you that my thoughts are far from kind. The thing is, if I try to bring people back to the Truth — especially preachers, they have no idea they left it, and make the same attempt to me.

When I see all of these advices together, I realize that I really do need to accept the challenge of trying to accomplish both of these at the same time. I grumble against others because I know that I’m right and they are stubborn — doubtless, if they give me a second thought at all, they grumble against me for exactly the same reason. One thing that I can say with some confidence; people think they are right about those things that they believe in. When something or somebody challenges our beliefs, we are quite slow to examine what we believe. I need a lot of humility to ask if I might be the one who is mistaken. Those times when I grumble are times when it might be good for me to ask if I might be a little off base; I think I’m right — but, God is far bigger and greater than I can know or understand. Perhaps if I admit I don’t know it all, I can be taken a little closer to the Truth myself.

I guess that the thing that stands true for all these bits of advice is the very first one — that we need to be patient. Bringing somebody back to the Truth isn’t about who wins an argument, the metaphor that is used here is of cultivating a crop. We grow in the Truth. As long as I’m and the other person are grumbling against each other, and our study is intended to win an argument, neither one of us will accomplish much of anything. Bringing somebody who wanders back isn’t easy, because when we wander away from Truth, we rarely know we are lost — so, lets be patient, keep praying, and try to avoid grumbling.

 

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James 5

Reading: James 5

I cannot hear the words of James 5 without remembering when I visited China. My parents and grandparents had moments in their lives where they knew what poverty was; my grandparents could remember the great depression, and my parents had a stretch of desperation caused by a shortage of work at the factory where my father was employed. I have worried about money, I’ve gone without doing things that I’ve wanted, but I’ve not personally faced desperate poverty.

I remember one morning, about dawn, I got up to take a walk, and I saw something that opened my eyes to a kind of desperate poverty. I saw a sidewalk covered with people who were waking up. I saw these people who spent the night outside walking to the place where they worked. I watched, and I realized that these homeless people had jobs, and that they put in long days of work, and yet they still slept outside at night.

This was in 2003, at that time China had a rapidly growing economy. Cities were building as fast as they could, and people from rural areas were flocking to cities to find opportunities. At this time there was a bit of a robber baron mindset in China. There were opportunities to get rich, and the government was not able to regulate nor enforce what people did. I was in China when some of the companies started getting in trouble for lying about what they were selling.

Some examples of what was done are: Fertilizer was added to milk and to flour, so that when it was tested for the nitrogen content, to estimate the amount of protein, it would test high in protein and sell for a higher price. The flour was sold as high protein gluten, and it was made into dog-food. Some pets in the United States died, and several brands of dog food were recalled. The milk was turned into baby formula, and many babies died.

I learned that one other scandal that was happening at the time is that when migrant workers would come to the city for jobs, they would go to the work site, and work week after week and not receive the pay they were promised. Somewhere, somebody would embezzle from the payroll, and the people at the bottom would go without. Those who were poor and desperate would have nothing they could do to get the money they were owed — they would just have to find another job and hope that this one would pay them. Part of the cause of the desperate poverty that I saw was that there were those who were quite happy to make themselves happy by committing fraud and robbing the poor.

I know that China is a special case, fraud is still rampant there; and that part of doing business is China is losing assets to fraud as suppliers cut corners and employees embezzle. I know there are many good and honest people there, but they have a problem policing those who steal.

I also know that we have no shortage of people in the United States who pine for the days of the robber barons when the rule of the day was: “buyer beware.” From time to time, I hear of the courts sorting out claims that a company has cheated its customers, or that they found ways around paying their employees. Now, I know that this happens here — and I know when it happens, there are a number of people who jump to the defense of the people who stole wages or cheated customers. There are a number of people who believe that acquiring wealth is virtuous, no matter how it is acquired, and that customers do not deserve protection, and those who do the labor are not worthy of their wages.

James really does speak to our culture — because many of us see wealthy people as somehow more virtuous than others. We somehow believe that they deserve what they have, and that they benefit society by being wealthy. It is common to call the wealthy: “job creators,” and even to see them as patrons to all those people who do the work that fills their pockets.

The truth is, there is nothing moral, or noble, or lasting about wealth. James is alluding, as he often does to the sermon on the mount. Matthew 6:19-21 tells us not to store up treasures on Earth where moths and rust consumes and thieves steal, but instead to store up treasure in heaven. Material wealth is just things; it is neither virtuous nor lasting; like everybody, I would choose wealth over poverty, but we must not choose it over integrity.

The Old Testament is full of condemnation against those who don’t pay their workers. The Torah commands that a laborer is to be paid right away, and his wages are not even to be held overnight. The prophets Jeremiah and Malachi both condemn the leading people of Judah for hiring workers, and not paying their wages. There is a sense that the poor were taken advantage of because they were poor and unable to take care of themselves.

Now that my eyes are open to how the poor are abused, I see that there are ways it is done, even here. It is expensive to be poor; because if don’t have money, you find yourself forced into more expensive options for various services. I am amazed at how predatory the financial services for the poor are. I wince at the thought that some people bring their paychecks to check-cashing places that charges a fee per check, and then charges similar fees to pay their bills. I wince even more that these places do not hide that they offer loans at an APR of several hundred percent — one of them advertises on their website that their rates are as high as 782.14%, and that they have fees that add 10% or more to the original amount of the loan. It is easy to blame people for making bad decisions, but this is an example of robbing the desperate; and one would need to be extremely desperate to accept such terms.

There is nothing virtuous about being the kind of employer who becomes wealthy while the employees go on food stamps to pay their bills. No matter how much people talk about the employer being a `job creator’, and the workers being `takers’, it should be clear who the taker is. There is also nothing virtuous about seeing somebody who is desperate, and figuring out how to take his spare change. There is nothing virtuous about seeing employees or customers as “revenue generators” — I know it is just business, and that business is about money, but we can never forget that people are people, and that God created humanity in God’s image.