Mercy overrules judgment

Goose Pond UMC
September 9, 2012

Today’s Bible reading comes from the Lectionary, and I’m going to read from the Common English Bible, which you may have noticed is now being used in some of the United Methodist Sunday School literature. I’m still getting to know the Common English Bible, but I like it so far – it’s an accurate translation, based on the work of scholars from a number of denominations, but it’s written in a very readable, easy-to-understand manner.
James 2:1-17 (CEB)

1My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? 8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 11 The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker.
12 In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13 There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

The Common English Bible gives that last verse as “faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.” Most of the translations with which we’re familiar say something like “faith without works is dead.”
That’s a strong statement – so strong that Martin Luther, who dared to challenge the Catholic church and helped start the Protestant Reformation, said that if he had his way, the book of James wouldn’t be included in the Bible. Martin Luther believed that salvation came from grace alone, and if you attached it to works, you were making the story about what people did, not about what God has done.
But, four hundred years after Martin Luther came another famous German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I just got through reading a really great biography, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” by Eric Metaxas.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in agreement with James – he felt that if your life didn’t show signs of grateful response, you weren’t in a real relationship with God. Although grace is a gift from God, Bonhoeffer opposed what he called “cheap grace” – a life where we accept what God has done for us but it makes no difference in our everyday lives.
Bonhoeffer felt that our love of, and obedience to, God should be a part of everything we do and everything we are.
Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark N.J., is a somewhat controversial political figure. But there’s one quote of his I came across recently that I really love. Booker wrote “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”
In spite of Martin Luther’s skepticism, James’ words aren’t that different from those of Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-44 (CEB):

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

James criticizes those who pay lip service to others – “Go in peace; I hope it all works out” – but who don’t take action when it’s in their power to help out someone else.
But what about grace? As Luther believed, It’s important for us to understand, and be reminded from time to time, that we do not earn our salvation. There’s nothing we can do that will make God love us any more or any less. God loved us while we were sinners, and God offers us a relationship with him. There is also no cause for one of us to look down his or her nose at someone else. All of us are sinners.
Remember what James wrote: “Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. The one who said, ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Don’t commit murder.’ So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker.”
It doesn’t matter whether I’ve committed big sins or small ones; in either case, I’m a sinner. The only hope for me is God’s forgiveness.
But that forgiveness isn’t the end of the story. It’s the beginning of a relationship – and if it’s a real relationship, I’m going to act like it’s a real relationship, and live my life as if I love God and want to please God. Grace means that I’m not judged on my mistakes or my failures, or my relapses. But if there’s no difference at all between my new life and my old one, there’s reason to question whether I really repented of my sins or wanted God’s forgiveness in the first place.
James tells his readers this: “In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.”
Mercy overrules judgment. When James says that “faith without works is dead,” he’s not so much concerned with your attendance record at church, or with how many Christian CDs you listened to, or how many Christian books you read. He’s talking about how you treat other people, just as Jesus did in the parable of the sheep and the goats. If you show mercy to others, it’s because you’ve truly received God’s mercy. If you show love to others, it’s because you’ve truly received God’s love. Mercy overrules judgment.
How do we treat other people? James starts out this morning’s passage by warning his readers against favoritism. Christianity was still a young movement, struggling to survive, and grow, and withstand persecution. It must have been an exciting thing when someone of wealth or power chose to accept Christ. It must have given people hope, hope that maybe someday Christianity would be commonplace and that Christians would be able to worship in peace and freedom. But people responded by treating wealthy believers in the church differently that they treated poor believers.
It is one of the most human things in the world – and one of the least Christian things in the world – to treat someone well or poorly based on what they can do for you.
I once spoke at a church in Moore County that had just finished with a revival. There was a different speaker at each night of the revival.
When people showed up one night for the revival, there was a shabbily-dressed man, sitting in this old, beaten up car in the parking lot. Now, I didn’t see this first-hand; I just heard about it. Anyway, this fellow was kind of loud, which made some people think he was probably drunk, and he spoke to some of the people as they were going into the church, but most of them didn’t speak back to him. Nobody invited him inside, and I think some of them maybe even said that he should go away and quit causing trouble.
Some of you may be ahead of me on this. The man sitting in the car was the visiting preacher. He disappeared for a few minutes, and then changed into a suit and tie and showed up when it was time for him to preach. He read those folks the riot act for how they had treated a stranger in their parking lot.
The people in the church were pretty mad about having been tricked and were still talking about it when I showed up to preach that next weekend. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a visiting preacher to come in, play a little trick and then and claim to know what a church is or isn’t doing wrong. I know I’d never have the nerve to pull a stunt like that. But it got me to thinking how I’d react if someone like that were in the parking lot of my church.
The church, more than any place else, should be a place where we’re all equal. We are all equal in being sinners, we are all equal in God’s love, we are all equal in our ability to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.
It’s shameful to think of periods in church history when people were excluded from the house of God because of their race, or nationality, or the way they were dressed. I hope that we’ve moved past that now, but it’s good to heed James’ warning and make sure we treat anyone who enters the doors of God’s house the same. This is God’s house; it doesn’t belong to you or me or anyone else but God, and we need to make sure that all of God’s people are welcome here.
I love your welcome gift for first-time visitors at this church; a loaf of bread. When I came here with Dad, I was so tickled at that. I thought it was a wonderful idea, and such a wonderful tie-in with church history; after all, one of the things that originally defined the church was breaking bread together. I was telling someone just this week about how you give a little loaf of bread as your welcome gift.
James writes to his readers about the difference between rich and poor. “My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?”
That sounds like Jesus, in the beatitudes, saying “blessed are the poor.” In Matthew, it says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but in Luke it’s just “blessed are the poor.”
James is harsh in his criticism of the church for favoring the rich over the poor. “But you have dishonored the poor,” he writes. “Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?”
In some ways, wealth and poverty were different in Jesus’ time. Today, we understand that there are some people who are well off because of hard work and because they’ve done a good job of serving customers. There are other people who are well off because they’ve cheated people, or because they inherited money from a previous generation, or for some other reason.
In the days of the early church, there was a much more limited number of ways to become wealthy, especially if you weren’t a Roman. If you were wealthy, it might mean that you were a tax collector, and you got your wealth by overcharging your countrymen to line your own pockets.
There were also some people, such as widows, who had almost no way to improve their own situations, and were almost totally dependent on the kindness of others. It was harder to improve the situation into which you were born than it is in the world with which we’re familiar.
We do have to look at James’ words in light of history. I know people whom I would consider quite well-to-do whom I also think of as good Christians. They are generous, and they try to put the resources they’ve been given to good use.
I think of a family from Nashville that I’ve been with on some of my foreign mission trips. They have a huge house in a fancy neighborhood in Nashville.
There was one time when I had a very early morning airline flight to Costa Rica and I and one of my teammates spent the night in their guest house so that we could be at the airport first thing. Their guest house was nicer than a lot of homes I’ve been in. But I know this family gives regularly to help support ministries in places like Kenya, and their daughter, spent some time working at an orphanage in the Kibera slums outside Nairobi.
At the same time, there are different kinds of poverty. We know that people can be plunged into poverty by job changes, medical emergencies, family situations. We know there are places where poverty has been a vicious cycle going back for generations.
We also know people who bear at least some responsibility for their own poverty, and people who for whom assistance becomes an incentive not to work.
But at the same time, even though we live in a different world, we can’t just ignore everything the Bible says about wealth and poverty. Wealth is a difficult thing. It’s not for nothing that Paul, in his letter to Timothy, says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. The more you have, the more tempting it is to indulge yourself rather than seeing yourself as a steward of resources that ultimately belong to God.
We also know what Jesus said about the poor, and we as Christians are commanded to show compassion for the poor. Obviously, anything we can do to encourage anyone to be more self-sufficient, any tool we can give someone for improving their own situation, that’s the best answer to poverty.
LEAMIS International Ministries, the group with which I’ve taken foreign mission trips, teaches cottage industry skills that people can use to help themselves.
But sometimes we don’t need to be so quick to judge others, or presume the causes or solutions for their poverty. Whatever we do as Christians needs to fall more in line with compassion than self-righteousness. Sometimes, we need to offer help first, and ask questions later. Mercy overrules judgment, as James wrote.
James makes it clear that the way we treat other people is a good barometer of whether or not our faith in genuine. We can’t earn our salvation, but if we don’t live as if we’re saved, if we don’t show mercy and compassion to others, there’s room to question whether or not we’ve truly received the incredible gift of God’s grace.