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Faith and Works, or: A Burrito, A Park Bench, and the Royal Law

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 5th of Ninth Month, 2021

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: James 2:1–9, 14–17, NRSV

1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

It’s good to be back with you all here, in person and on Zoom, after two weeks and two Sundays away. As most of you know, I was in Chicago for much of my vacation, and Stephanie was there for a week as well. It was both enjoyable and productive.

One of the enjoyments was the chance to see friends that I hadn’t been with in some time. Some of you may remember Chuck Jackson, who occasionally worshiped with us here at West Richmond while earning his Masters in Divinity at Bethany Seminary. Since the pandemic began, Chuck has spent much of his time in Chicago, and so while we had kept in touch by e-mail and Zoom, I don’t think we’d seen each other in person for close to six months.

We arranged to meet for lunch on the Near North Side of the city. We got Mexican takeout and went to a nearby park to eat and talk. It was a beautiful day, and a wonderful, unhurried conversation. I caught him up on how West Richmond has been weathering the storms of COVID; and Chuck told me about his vocational search since graduation, and the volunteer work he’s been doing with a social service agency on the West Side of Chicago.

Once we were done with our lunch and conversation, we said our farewells and got up from the bench where we had been sitting. I had a rather messy bag from the takeout place, with crumpled up napkins and half-empty salsa containers. The burrito I ordered had been delicious, but rather juicy, and I hadn’t quite finished it because of how messy it had become; there was a mouthful or two—bits of tortilla and maybe a little filling—at the bottom of the bag.

At that point, a woman who had been sitting on a nearby bench asked me if I had anything left over. She pointed to the bag and said she was hungry. I was taken aback. Did she really want this mess I was carrying? In this time of COVID, did she really want something my mouth and hands had been all over? Of course she did—she was hungry—probably really hungry—and that was all that mattered to her.

But what I had didn’t really seem worth giving to another person. It wasn’t much food, and it was a mess—I was anxious to find the nearest trash can, just so I could be shut of it. So I stammered, “I don’t have anything I’d want to give you, I’m sorry,” and then we walked away.

As I moved off, I thought about other ways I might have responded... I could have offered to walk back with her to the Mexican place and buy her whatever she would like... I wasn’t in a hurry, I had time... but that was back the other direction from where I was intending to go. Or I could have handed her some cash and encouraged her to go buy a meal... I had plenty of money, and that would have taken no time at all... but all of those prejudices flooded my mind—prejudices that only seem to preoccupy those who have money: “Is she really hungry? How do I know what she would she do with that money if I gave it to her? Would she really buy food?”... as if any of that was my business.

Ideally, in the best of all possible worlds, that hungry woman would have a table set for her, with all kinds of good things, an abundant supply of food and drink, like the banquet that God will set for all those who hunger, at the end of time. But that banquet isn’t coming any time soon, as long as people like me, who profess to have faith, have no works to show for it.

Faith and works, of course, are a major emphasis of the passage from the book of James that we just heard a little bit ago. You might know that the book of James is one of the more controversial books in the New Testament. Unlike the Gospels, or Paul’s letters, it was not immediately accepted into the canon when the early churc