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A Close Look At Faith, Wealth, Poverty, and Community

September 9, 2018


New Millennium Lakeshore Church

September 9, 2018 (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)


Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

22A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
   and favour is better than silver or gold. 
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
   the Lord is the maker of them all. 
8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
   and the rod of anger will fail. 
9 Those who are generous are blessed,
   for they share their bread with the poor. 
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
   or crush the afflicted at the gate; 
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
   and despoils of life those who despoil them.


James 2:1-17

2My brothers and sisters,* do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?* 2For 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, 3and 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’,* 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?5Listen, 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? 6But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?7Is 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 neighbour as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,* if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.



Holy Lord, maker of us all,
you call us to love our neighbors as ourselves
and teach us that faith without works is dead.
Open us to the opportunities for ministry that lie before us,
where faith and words and the need of our neighbor
come together in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.


As I reflected on the scripture lessons for this sermon I thought of Games People Play, a popular song recorded and performed by the rhythm and blues group known as the Spinners.  The chorus to that song contains these words:  Games people play night or day they’re just not matching what they should do, keeps me feeling blue.  Been down too long, right, wrong, I just can’t stop it.  Spending all day, thinking just of you.  


Games people play is a musical commentary about how actions don’t match what we should do. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about that chorus.  Eventually I realized that the lessons for today deal with one of the “games” religious people have played in every age:  preference toward people who are wealthy (favoritism) and prejudice against others who are poor (neglect).  


The passage from Proverbs begins with the wise saying my siblings and I often heard our mother quote:  A good name is better to be sought than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold (Proverbs 22:1).  The rest of the reading from Proverbs cautions against neglecting the poor and can be summed up with this message:  Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor (Proverbs 22: ends with a clear warning.  Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them (Proverbs 22:22-23).  


The passage from James 2 presses that point.  The author of James mentions the “royal rule of love” in these words:  You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:8-9).  

Eugene Peterson has paraphrased the lesson from James about the sin of showing favoritism toward the wealthy and neglecting those who are poor from James in words that are crystal clear.  


Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything?  Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it?  For instance, if you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ!  Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup – where does that get you?  Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?


I can already hear one of you…saying, “Sounds good.  You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”  Not so fast.  You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works.  Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.  


Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful?  That’s just great.  Demons do that, but what good does it do them?  Use your heads!  Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands? 


…Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?...The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse.  Separate faith and works and you get the same thing:  a corpse.  (James 2:14-20, 24, 26, The Message)


These lessons warn us that God’s notion of community is very different from the way we carry on.  


  • God’s notion of love and justice is not like the usher who assigns the best seats to well-dressed people and directs homeless people with tattered clothes where they can’t be seen, heard, and won’t interact with people who are comfortable.  
  • God’s notion of love and justice does not glorify or sacralize wealth and the privilege that comes with it.
  • God’s notion of love and justice does not penalize people who are poor.
  • God’s notion of love and justice does not grant special favor to people who are wealthy.  


In other words, the idea that wealth entitles people to special favor is not only wrong.  It is wicked!  It is wicked because it violates the royal law to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  Love your neighbor as yourself isn’t a call to favoritism.  It’s a call to community!      


Across the centuries, religious people have “played” the same “game” with God.  Folks have engaged in furious fights about doctrine while they financed adventures to steal land and water from other people, force other people work as slaves, refused to allow women and girls to be educated and vote, and poisoned air, soil, and water in order to make money.   


Now, as at every other age, the “game” of wealth privilege and neglect/prejudice towards the poor exposing what The Message excerpt I shared from James 2 calls “outrageous nonsense.”  


How can people who sing and preach about being one with God ignore the truth that “oneness” with God involves “oneness” with God’s concern about economic injustice?  


How can people who sing and preach about loving their neighbors ignore the food deserts in towns and cities across the nation?  


Why do religious people support giving tax dollars to millionaires and billionaires to build sports arenas, industrial and technology parks, and other business ventures, but complain about using taxes to provide safe and affordable housing for people who are homeless, people with physical and emotional impairments, and people who are re-entering society after being incarcerated?  


Why do churches today “market” their ministries to attract wealthy families?  Why did churches spend billions of dollars over the past fifty years to build “family life centers” where affluent parents and children can engage in recreational and fitness activities?  Did that multi-billion dollar exercise in religious-based real estate development and construction contribute to the demise of the YMCA and YWCA programs across the nation?  


Why do religious people uphold governmental efforts by the State of Israel to steal land and water from Palestinians and from non-white followers of Jesus?  Why do religious people in Arkansas and other states allow laws to be enacted that permit employment and other discrimination against people and companies that boycott or otherwise criticize the State of Israel about such wickedness?


Mind you, Proverbs and James do not condemn wealth nor sacralize poverty.  These lessons condemn favoritism toward wealthy neighbors and neglect of poor neighbors.  


They condemn it because God calls us to be people of inclusive community.  We are not called to a gated community faith that segregates wealthy people from poor people.  We are not called to a gated community faith where wealthy people shun poor people.  We are called to be people of community, not segregation. We are not called to be people behind walls that separate us from immigrants, but people who tear down walls that hinder immigrants from being seen and treated as our neighbors.   


Respect for God’s love and justice revealed by the life and teachings of Jesus demands that we stop playing these games.  Respect for God’s love and justice demands that we, like the authors of Proverbs and James, agree with God that these games are not merely wrong, but say they are wicked.  


Favoritism for wealthy people and neglect of poor people while talking, singing, preaching, and praying about the inclusive love of God is one of the oldest “games people play.”  Remember how James put it:  The very moment you separate body and spirit you end up with a corpse.  Separate faith and works and you get the same thing:  a corpse.  


Let’s not play that game.  If we choose to play it, please don’t say we are following the teachings and example of Jesus.  




©Wendell Griffen, 2018