I’ll begin by using the end of this text to remind us of last week’s major point. James talks a lot about works, but grace precedes works. We are saved by our faith in the work of the cross, not by any work we do. Works are a sign of our faith.
Earlier in our text, James is discouraging partiality, the showing of favoritism based on who is wealthy and who is not. More positively, we might say he is encouraging equality.
We don’t know exactly why James felt the need to offer this warning, but it seems obvious his audience or audiences were struggling with the idea that poor people were as worthy of a place in the congregation as rich people. It is not surprising early Christians would have struggled with notions of equality. Rigid class distinctions were the norm; the idea that God or any god could care equally for rich and poor was radical.
And James went even further, speaking of the poor as if God actually has a preference for them. “Has not God chosen the 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,” he asked rhetorically.
In other words, the poor have something special to offer us, a closer connection to God, one rooted, we can presume, in their deep day-to-day dependence on God. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about the tremendous value of people the world treats as worthless.
When I think of the value of the poor, the gems hidden among them, I think of one encounter I had as a young journalist in Atlanta. Sadly, it was not a Christian encounter, an opportunity for witness; I simply was too immature spiritually for the events to have gone there.
It happened while I volunteered with a program for student journalists who produced an independent paper for distribution among high schoolers. I was assigned to mentor 16-year-old Lamesha, who lived with her two-year-old daughter and mother in public housing.
I was paired with Lamesha primarily because I had a child about the same age, and could use the car seat already installed in my Plymouth Acclaim to transport the two to the program’s newsroom or training events.
Lamesha, despite all her difficult circumstances, proved to be an incredibly gifted writer. I still remember vividly one first-person piece she wrote about a drive-by shooting that happened in front of her apartment when she was younger, a shooting that left a boy dead on the sidewalk. She captured the facts, emotions and impact on her world with skills far beyond her age and training. I had high hopes for her, imagining her in college and on into the world of great writers.
And then I went to pick her up one day, and she was gone. I knocked on the door, and there was no answer; I peered through the window, and the apartment looked vacant. I finally found a neighbor who was home.
“They just packed up and moved last night,” she said. She didn’t know why. She didn’t know where. I still don’t know what happened. I pray the skills God had put in Lamesha continued to develop somewhere. I fear the instability of her life squashed them.
That is just a story about what poverty costs society in general. In Christian community, James is telling us, we also lose much when we fail to recognize the value of the faithful poor among us. They are God’s new chosen people. And while we want to help them lift themselves out of poverty, there is much to learn from the faithful Christian poor.
For example, the faithful poor know what it means to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” in a sincere way. It is hard to pray it and mean it when your primary concern is to replace the slightly molded bread with a new loaf on the way home from work.
As they talk about their daily dependence on God, the Christian poor also serve as a corrective for those of us who begin to think our wealth, power or perceived security is a result of our own doing. The only other true corrective I know for that problem is when illness suddenly enters our lives.
Every person has value in a community of faith. Every person. I would like to think the church will learn this lesson so well one day that the Lameshas of the world will no longer be at risk of falling through the cracks.