Saturday, September 5, 2015

Is it not the rich who oppress you?

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? James 2

Nearly every time I read Scripture things jump out at me.  Reading the texts for tomorrow, I am caught by this phrase from the Epistle. I am not preaching so I haven't prepared the texts all week like I would if I were going to be in the pulpit.

 I have read this passage for years and probably preached on the whole passage numerous times, but for some reason I am caught by these words, this part of the whole part of the Epistle of James for so many different reasons that it feels like it swirls around in my heart.

This Epistle isn't used much in the lectionary.  Martin Luther was really opposed to this epistle because it spoke of spiritual works, works that showed forth the change of heart, the transformation of spirit that occurs when faith is operative in the Christian.  Luther was trying to
emphasize the place of faith over works which at the time was the face of Roman Catholicism.  The Catholic theology of works had devolved into a cash hound for the Vatican so that it became a mere matter of buying one's salvation.  Luther was rightly scandalized by the Church's practice of selling indulgences. However, Luther's corrective was to deny the place of works in the salvific action of faith.  Actually it wasn't Luther who was opposed to 'works'. It was those who parsed the theologians later in history. And it is the exaggeration of this idea of faith OVER works that has eroded the Christian message in the past 25 years. 

The balance of faith and works has always been a difficult barometer of faith.  It is so easy to look at what one person does to measure their faith, we think.  And yet it is so difficult for us to know the struggle of faith that goes on in the heart of
individuals in relationship to the Holy Center of their lives.  I am sure there are those who are scandalized by my outward actions when I am advocating for those who are not as strong.  How we can judge the character of others solely by their actions is a mystery to me. And yet I find that I do that just like others. It is a constant struggle for me.

But this part of the whole passage caught me.  It throws a monkey wrench into all the Protestant Work Ethic, or the Prosperity Gospel
that is being bantered about these days.  It is easy to think that the 'ME' generations have led us to the type of 'get ahead' thinking that amounts for education these days.  But it isn't a recent phenomenon.  Obviously James and his followers were dealing with the same problem. The author of the epistle is dealing with a time of dislocation and violence and yet he is exhorting his followers to peacemaking as a sign of their faith.  I have always found this epistle one that calls me to action standing firmly on the Christian principles that I have learned in the life of Jesus.

But this one little verse has stopped me. God [has] chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  Of course, this mirrors the
Sermon on the Mount.  Of course, the Magnificat speaks of  'lifting up the poor', but do we really trust that?  If Christianity is really lived, if we are really going to embrace a kind of spirituality that proclaims the simplicity that was taught by Jesus of Nazareth, how do we treat the poor?  How do we see the poor?  Do we see them as people who have more faith than we ourselves? Or do we not even see them?

Over 45 years ago I went to Mexico to do 'missionary work'.  I thought that I had something to 'give to the poor people' in small
ranchitos.  I must admit I had a rather romantic idea of what being a missionary was.  I was going to 'take faith' to a poor people.  When I got there, I found a people who had greater faith than I  because their faith was so necessary for their basic existence.  I was 'rich' by their standards although I had been raised working class in my own
country.  But I was educated and I had a car...signs of material wealth in their eyes.  They appreciated what I brought them, teaching English, but I came to realize that they had so much more to teach me about trusting my life to God.  And I learned something
about being poor.  I learned that the work ethic I had growing up enough.  I didn't have to 'get ahead' of others just to be successful.  What I chose was not success, or perhaps my definition of success changed.  I chose to try to live as best I could living Christ's life and provide for myself minimally.  I chose to live a life of poverty--not the kind of abnegation that denies the beauty of God's life.  But I chose to step off the rat race of self-aggrandizement to know that my values were more important to live than trying to meet society's.  Somehow I was able to allow myself to be different enough not to worry about what the neighbors thought. In 1970 I made private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience--an obedience that was made to Christ, not those who felt they had the right to demand it. 

My friends have been with others who have chosen to live simply in faith assured that God was in charge.  Yes, there have been times when I have gotten into financial problems because I choose not worry about what I am saving for a rainy day.  I try to be responsible, but constantly worrying about my portfolio is not something that I do.  

Recently we had a bit of a problem with cash flow and our account
was charged with items that were supposed to be paid by others.  The person responsible for the mistake said "You should have a credit card.  This wouldn't be happening if you just had a credit card."  I told him that I do not choose to have a credit card and participate in the credit system of privilege that continues to deprive the poor and
participates in debasing people everyday.  He didn't 'get' it. (I think he's a banker.) He is a good person but cannot see that the kind of identification with the poor that this passage calls us to.  He can't see that the whole system is what abases millions around the world and conversely debases him. To choose to opt out of the system is unheard of, in his mind. He does not see it as oppression. And he doesn't realize just how he is chained to the fundamental of richness that leaves him impoverished.

All too often those who are in positions of privilege cannot see
what they are doing is oppressive.  I have often railed against 'white, straight, male privilege' and I am finding that it isn't any one race, sexual orientation, gender that oppresses. It is those who seem to have the comfort of being able to dictate how life is to be lived by others.  We are seeing it a clerk in Kentucky, in heads of universities that ignore quotas, police who live in fear so that they inflict fear on others, even people in our own churches or synagogues.  We may do it to people in the grocery line or to a waiter at the restaurant. James' words haunt: Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 

I often forget the blessed name that was invoked over me at my baptism.  I often forget the faith of the poor that is in me and find
myself trying to 'get ahead' instead of 'paying it forward' in the name of Jesus.  

When I find myself worrying I try to unravel it, to pick it apart to see what is at the heart of it.  I often find that it is my own sense of privilege that is at the center of it.  It is then that I must call myself to repentance and return to the poverty of my choosing, the poverty that says I can depend upon God for all that I need.  It is in that poverty that I can find the richness of God's presence.


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