[Mark 7:31-37; James 2:1-8]
One of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century described God as “the One who loves in freedom.”
That’s the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, writing sometime around 1939. At that point in his life Barth had been forced to give up his teaching position in Germany and leave the country because he was unwilling to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. This sort of political consciousness wasn’t new for Barth. Earlier in his life, when he was a pastor, he was well-known as an advocate for the rights of factory workers. The vitality of his theology was prompted by a crises of faith he experienced during the First World War when he saw many church leaders and intellectuals support the violence without question. They simply assumed that God backed the nationalistic agenda.
This caused Barth to search the scriptures for a way of talking about God that made a difference. As he read with new eyes, he found that scripture revealed a God that was disruptive. In story after story we see that God does not fit people’s assumptions. So Karl Barth concluded, “God’s being consists in the fact that [God] is the One who loves in freedom.” This was his attempt at summing up all that the scriptures revealed about God: the account of creation, God’s covenant with Abraham, Sarah and their children, the Old Testament law, the prophets, the advent of Jesus. Time and again he saw, and we see too, that God isn’t bound by what we expect, by what we assume is best, by our own experience. God is bound only by God’s own love.
For this reason we should always be willing to be surprised by the ways God might show up.
The book of James gives us insight into what this meant for some early Christians. Today’s reading came from the first paragraph of the second chapter. To give ourselves some background we should look quickly at the second verse. It reads like this, “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 . . . .” Don’t look at the argument just yet, but simply notice the word that describes the community.
In this English translation (NRSV) it’s the word ‘assembly’. The word that stands behind it ‘synagogue,’ which means, yes, a gathering or something pulled together. In the New Testament this word usually refers to a strictly Jewish assembly. Only here, in the letter of James, does it apply to a Jewish-Christian assembly. What does this mean? One of the things it means is that those who read or heard this letter came from a background where they have been steeped in the biblical tradition. Most of them had, from a very young age, been exposed to the Torah, the Ten Commandments, the Psalms, the prophets.
The letter of James was not written to people rooted in the more generally pluralist world of the Mediterranean basin. It is written to insiders, people who already thought they had a sense of who God was and what this meant for their lives. Most of them had a fairly view of what it meant to live well. Such clarity has its benefits. It allows you to get on with the business of living without having to spend time and energy figuring out what it means to be successful. This should feel familiar to us; there is little space in modern education for asking the big questions of life. Our education is mostly geared toward giving us technical skills to get a job.
What happened for the people to whom James wrote was that they simply accepted standard definitions about who was successful and who was worth their attention. When someone entered their assembly who looked wealthy, with lots of bling, they gave that person the good seat. When someone showed up looking poor, with old clothes they had to sit on the floor.
Not long ago one of the CBC radio hosts interviewed the man who illustrated J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. His name is Alan Lee, and he was also involved in the production design for the Lord of the Rings movies. Lee told the story of being nominated for an Oscar in 2002. As he approached the entrance to the theater on the night of the ceremony, he distinctly heard the celebrity spotter yell, “Oh, it’s nobody.” The photographers had clear assumptions about who mattered; didn’t want to waste their time with a ‘nobody’. I imagine it felt extra-good when Lee and his team won an award.
More often than not, we are like those early Christians. We evaluate others based on the standard script of our culture. Someone approaches, we wonder: Is she wealthy? Does she have a corner office? What does he drive? How much has he traveled? Like the early Christians we tend to evaluate ourselves and others according to the standard metrics.
But God is one who loves . . . in freedom.
James wrote to his audience: “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 . . . ?” One of the beautiful things about the biblical portrayal of God is how it constantly challenges the standard script. Those who are not financially successful may well have deep pockets of faith. They may have a moral sense that others lack.
Early Jewish-Christian, even with their knowledge of the scriptures, had to learn that their assumptions were misguided. Who they thought was or was not important, who they thought could or could not reveal God—their assumptions about these things were so far off base that they called into question their faith. James is forced to ask, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” What they needed to do was love the people in their lives like they loved themselves.
What lies behind this is the simple fact that, whether they or we think God should love others, God does. Whether or not we like others, they may have something to teach us. Whether or not we have compassion on ourselves, God does. God loves . . . in freedom.
James was not making this stuff up on his own. Our gospel reading this morning, from Mark 7, is a reminder that Jesus did not live by the dominant social script. Jesus did not climb the professional ladder to get away from the diseased and unwashed. In Jesus God dwelt with them, dwelt with us, with the sick, with the poor, with the migrants, with the students, with the leaders, with the liberals, with the conservatives, with the young, with the elderly. God loves . . . in freedom.
What does this mean for us?
I don’t want my words stand in the way of how God’s Spirit may be enlivening this biblical reading in your own heart, but here are two suggestions. First, let’s not make assumptions about who may or may not have something to contribute. Let’s not assume we are too poor or too wealthy, to healthy or too sick, too young or too old.
A recent news story illustrates this quite well. Perhaps you’ve heard it before: the Hadhad family arrived in Canada in late 2015. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the narrative that says newcomers are a drain on the economy. Perhaps the sponsors thought of the family as recipients of their charity when they arrived in small-town Nova Scotia. It was probably not obvious that the Hadhad family, fleeing terrible violence, had much to offer. However, the father, Assam, had run a chocolate factory in Damascus for several decades. The son, the spokesperson for the family, was confident and sharp.
Before long, the family set up shop. Neighbours helped them build a work space; community members loaned money. By the summer of 2016 a company called Peace by Chocolate was rolling. They opened an online store that December and had 3,000 orders in just three hours. The family needed help, so they hired locals. Last month, August of 2018, they announced they would again need to double their work force, from 25 to 50. Some of the locals they hired were able to quite jobs that had taken them to the other side of the country and return home.
Let’s not assume we know who can contribute.
Here is a second implication of our reading. It connects to the congregational covenant of OMC. This community believes that “God has given gifts to each one of us, and that our gifts are to be used to build up the body of Christ and to equip us for the service of God . . . .” Notice how it connects with our reading from James. We may think we know the value of others. We may think we know whether they have anything to offer or not. Yet James reminds us that God is full of surprises.
Our community is based on the assumption that God has given everyone here a gift. These gifts are diverse. Some may be obvious; others less so. But we each have something to offer. We each have a role to play, both in the community here and, more generally, in God’s work in the world. We need not be bound by our assumptions about ourselves or others. We believe in Jesus the Anointed One, not our ingrained favoritism. God loves . . . in freedom. In this new season of ministry and shared life, I encourage us all to be mindful of these God-given gifts both in others and in ourselves. They are worth celebrating and putting into action.
 Karl Barth, CD II.1 §29.