A Poor Church or a Church for the Poor?

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (James 2. 14)

            Imagine a middle-aged, tanned, crumpled, and grubby man huddled on the street floor against a shop exterior, a rag tag of personal belongings close by.  He doesn’t look at you, or at anyone else, but gazes emptily at some middle distance spot in the air near the ground, sometimes mumbling to ask if you, or anyone, has any spare change.  Next to him is an unfurled broad scarf with a few loose coins, perhaps even a sign asking for help.  What do you do?  

I am sure some of you may add to the loose change.  Some others, if you have the time and the inclination, may buy a coffee and sandwich and leave them with him, even have a chat to see how you might help him.  Others may think that he will only spend the money on drink or drugs, that he got himself into this state, and walk on.  Others will simply pretend not to see him, or think we are too busy, we would stop, but…

            I must admit that, at various times and in various places, I have done all of the above, even on my way to church.  It is to this set of attitudes that St. James addresses his letter.  James is very critical of the rich members of the emerging church.  This particular group show favouritism to the wealthy and respectable looking members and visitors while shaming the rag-tag poor by ignoring them.  Rather than fulfilling the basic universal royal law of the Old Testament and Christ’s basic teaching to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, they show partiality to the rich and so commit a sin of neglect.  And so James delivers the stinging verdict that ‘faith without works is dead.’  Not failing or falling short, but dead, lifeless, useless, rotten, no longer there.  Indeed, James bluntly says that ‘if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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?’  Walking by our imaginary homeless man – who has many real counterparts on Cambridge and beyond – kills our faith.

            This is, of course, not news to any of us.  We know what the good is that, issuing forth in works of charity and kindness, show the truth and living presence of our faith.  But we all get inured, dulled, sleepy, and every act of neglect or of partiality drives us further into the sleep of dead faith.   James’ words pulled me up short this week.  I hope they might pull us all up.  How then might we gain life back?

            In the chapter before the one we heard, James is quite clear on the both the illness and the remedy.  The illness is to be a ‘hearer of the word and not a doer.’  James describes mere hearers of Christ’s Good News as ‘like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.’  Doers, however, look in the mirror and do not forget what they see and so act with all of the passion of loving their neighbours as themselves.  James describes the religion of such doers not as dead but as ‘pure and undefiled before God’ because it involves not only accepting God’s love but turning it out into the world by caring for orphans, widows, the poor, all those in need of love.  I, for one, would like to be part of that religion.

            What difference can we make, then?  The news this week shows that there is much work to be done.  The Cost of a Child Report published this week paints a stark picture of rising costs for bringing up children at a time when the Government is cutting its contribution to children’s costs and wages are stagnating.   A single parent, for example, working full-time on minimum wage only earns 89% of his or her basic child costs.  This means hungry stomachs, cold hands, inadequate housing, and a lack of basic clothing needs – and it is an all too common story.  Elsewhere, the disabled have shown to have been unfairly targeted for cuts, with Christian campaigners criticising Atos, a company accused of wrongly declaring thousands of disabled people to be fit for work to meet government goals of slashing the welfare bill.  That means anxiety, fear, depression, sudden poverty, isolation, and even hunger.  Finally, the Church Urban Fund describes rising poverty levels in the UK as a ‘crisis’ affecting millions and trapping more in a cycle of debt and despair.

            Do we stop, help, and love?  Do we walk on by, even to get to church?  Do we think it must be the fault of the poor?  James is clear.  Jesus is clear.  God is clear.  At a national level, the Church needs to witness clearly that our government must promote social justice and the godly reality that no-one is expendable.  We must support groups like the Church Urban Fund and the Living Wage Campaign.  On a local level, it means parishes supporting food banks, shelters, social care systems, and seeking out the young families, the elderly, the lonely, in order to extend a loving hand.  Tackling poverty is a key for a healthy and living faith.  As James puts it, ‘look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act’ – and so be blessed in doing what you hear.  Amen.