“POVERTY AND RICHES”

JAMES 1:9-11

JULY 15, 2012

 

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            One day, Herman and Clara were riding along in their shiny new car. Clara spoke up and said, "You know, Herman, if it weren't for my money, we probably wouldn't have this wonderful new car."  Herman just sat there and didn't say a word.  As they pulled into their driveway, Herman turned off the engine.  They quietly admired their beautiful home and Clara said, "You know, Herman, if it weren't for my money, we probably wouldn't have this house."  Herman just sat there and didn't say a word.

            That afternoon, a delivery truck pulled up in front of the house, and the men got out and proceeded to bring in a brand new piano.  It was placed in the living room where its shiny finish caught the rays of the afternoon sun.  "You know, Herman," said Clara once more, "if it weren't for my money, we probably wouldn't have this piano." Once more, Herman just sat there and didn't say a word.

            Later that night, Herman and Clara prepared to go to bed.  As they pulled up the covers, Clara paused, and then in a reflective mood said, "You know, Herman, if it weren't for my money, we wouldn't have the dresser in this room, or the corner table, and we wouldn't have this warm, comfortable bed."

            With that, poor old Herman turned to Clara and said, "I don't want to hurt your feelings, Honey, but you know, if it weren't for your money I wouldn't be here either!"

            Where would we be if it weren't for money?  It's an important question.  But more important is the question, "Where are we with our money?"  If you were here for the first message in our series on James you know that this letter is a “How to” book.  It is more or less a practical guide to the Christian faith and nothing confirms that more than our passage for today.  What could be more practical, more down to earth than money? 

            Now I admit that I wanted to skip over these verses.  Why?  Because one of the criticisms of the church is that the church talks way too much about money.  And our money, how much we have of it, how we handle it, is a touchy subject.  I heard of a accountability group that formed and they called themselves “The Camel Group.”  They based it upon Jesus statement that’s it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a camel than a rich man to get into heaven.  And here’s what they did as a camel group.  They shared their checkbooks with each other.  They went over incomes and expenditures and asked one another, “How am I doing in honoring God with my money?”  Any one here want to form a “camel group?”  I certainly don’t.  Money is a touchy subject.  We don’t like talking about it all that much unless it has to do with getting a better return on our investment.  We certainly don’t want anyone sticking their nose into how we handle our own money.  That’s none of their business. 

            So, I don’t like to talk about money, and I am letting you know that I’m preaching this message under duress.  It’s tempting to pass over a difficult text, however, if I did that consistently, I would be unfaithful.  I would be flabby in my responsibility, and God would judge me accordingly.  So here we are this morning, considering James’ counsel on poverty and riches.

            Let me paraphrase what he says.  First, he says a Christian understanding of possessions changes the way we look at people.  Here’s how it played out in James’ day.  The standard view in James’ day was that spiritual standing was indicated by material standing.  The wealthy were seen as blessed by God and as a result we should show them favor because God showed them favor by blessing them materially.  The poor, the lowly, on the other hand, were not blessed materially because they ranked low in the spirituality department.  They deserved no special courtesy because God had obviously not blessed them so we shouldn’t either.   So, to sum up, the wealthy were viewed as spiritually blessed and worthy of special treatment while the poor were considered spiritually poor and treated poorly.

            James turns that sort of thinking on its head.  The poor in Christ may be materially challenged but they are spiritually rich, not spiritually poor.  In fact, they should boast in that.  They should claim that. 

            Listen to James in verse 9.

 

            Let the lowly who is a believer boast in their being raised up ...

 

            The word our bible translates as "boast" is rendered as "glory" in the King James Version, and as "brag" by the biblical commentator William Barclay.  So James encourages lowly Christians, the poor, to boast, glory, brag about the fact that if they are in Christ they are spiritually rich.  Just because they are poor materially does not mean they are poor spiritually. 

            The marvelous Negro spirituals sung by slaves had this perspective.  Remember "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?"  Remember the last verse?   “I'm sometimes up, I'm sometimes down, comin' for to carry me home. But still my soul is heavenward-bound, comin' for to carry me home.”

            Or how about that other spiritual:  “I've got shoes -- you've got shoes --all God's children got shoes.  When I get to Heaven, gonna put on my shoes, gonna shout all over God's Heaven.” 

            The lowly in Christ are to remind themselves of the riches they have in Christ, and not just the riches to come in the great by and by, but the spiritual riches they can have now.  Maybe you know Ralph Waldo Emerson’s story.  Emerson’s early life was marked by poverty, frustration and sickness.  Talk about a lowly existence.  His father, a Unitarian minister, died in 1811, leaving Ralph's mother to raise five sons.  One of Emerson's younger brothers was mentally retarded and spent most of his life in institutions.  Another brother, a victim of mental illness, died in 1834.  A third brother died in 1836 of tuberculosis.  Prior to age thirty, Emerson also suffered from poor health, including lung disease and periods of temporary blindness. In addition, his first wife, Ellen, died in 1831, and his first son, Waldo, died in 1842.  In spite of this hardship and tragedy, Emerson penned some of the most beautiful lines to come from the hand of an American poet.  Among my favorites is this familiar piece.  Listen to his words.

           

            To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.

 

            Emerson reminds us of Kingdom values that can be ours now and not just in the world to come.  The lowly are rich because they possess such values in Christ.

            Then James addressed the rich.  Let's read the text again, verses 9 and 10:

 

            Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.

           

            On the surface, this seems contradictory -- the rich are to glory, or to boast, or to brag in their being brought low.  That's a contradiction, isn't it?  To boast in being cut down to size?  Given the thought pattern of the day, James is almost speaking a foreign language.  This is so contrary to what they have been taught and told in the past.  I marvel at the fact that some Star Trek fans spend time learning to speak Klingon.  That seems rather strange.  I hope I haven’t offended any of you here today who might have been trying to learn Klingon, and I apologize for saying it seems strange to want to learn that language, and likewise Kingdom-talk, God-talk often sounds strange.  It may seem as strange as Klingon to us, but here’s what James says.  The rich may be materially blessed, but it does not follow that they are spiritually blessed.  The great hope of the rich is being brought low, to being cut down to size, so that they won’t rely on their money to get them into heaven.  They need to be brought low so they will realize it’s the grace of God that gets them into heaven.

            That leads us to another thing James makes clear in these verses:  A Christian understanding of possessions changes our view of possessions.

            James uses the example of the wild flowers which appear for a time and then are scorched by the arid winds and die.  So it is with possessions and their possessors.  They are here for a very short time and then they are gone.  Material wealth does not last.  We cannot depend on it to secure an eternal blessing.

             I love the story about a man who loved money more than anything.  He worked all his life and hoarded as much as he could. Just before he died, he told his wife, “When I die, put all my money in the casket with me. I want to take my money to the afterlife with me.”  She promised him that she would.

            At his funeral, just before the undertakers closed the casket, his wife put a box in the casket.  The casket was closed and rolled away.  The wife’s friend said, “I know you didn’t put all that money in there with that man. You weren’t foolish enough to do that.”

            The wife said, “I promised him I would put the money in the casket, and I did.”

            “You mean to tell me you put that money in the casket with him?¨ her friend asked.

            “Yes,¨ she said, “I wrote him a check.¨

            A day is coming when all our accumulated wealth is going to be just as good as that check.  When the petals of this fragile flower called life have wilted and died, our possessions are going to be of no value to us.

            One last thing this passage makes clear: The clock is ticking.

           I think of Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally.  She said to Her brother, "I'm doomed!  I need to write a report on rivers and it's due next week, and I know that I'm going to fail!"

            To that, Charlie Brown responded, "Well, why don't you work real hard and turn in the best report you can possibly write?"

             With that, Sally meekly replied, "You know, that never occurred to me!"

            Has it ever occurred to us that the clock is ticking and the older we get the faster it seems to tick?  James draws a very vivid picture which would have been very familiar to the people in Palestine.  In the desert places, if there is a shower of rain, the thin green shoots of grass will sprout.  Yet, one day's burning sunshine will make them vanish as if they had never been.  James is saying that as the grass and flower wilt, and their beauty comes to an end with the scorching sun, so "will the rich ... and the poor .... fade way."

            That day came suddenly for three social workers.  They were carpooling to a social work conference, when they got into a car accident and all died.  They ended up approaching St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.  The first social worker approached St. Peter and said, “ I worked for the county welfare office.  It was really hard work and I had too many clients, but I did help some people in poverty get the services they needed.”

            St. Peter typed on his iPad and said, “OK, you’re admitted to heaven.”

            The second social worker approached St. Peter and said, “I worked for Child Protective Services.  It was really hard work and so many cases were heartbreaking, but I did help some children get out of abusive homes.”

            St. Peter once again typed on his iPad, and then said, “OK, you are admitted to heaven.”

            Then the third social worker approached St. Peter and said, “I worked for a managed care company.  I was paid very well and had a very cushy office, and I really saved the insurance company a lot of money!”

            St. Peter thought for a moment, typed on his iPad and said, “OK, you can be admitted to heaven, but you can only stay for three days.”

            Hopefully, our stay will be longer.  Tick tock.  Tick tock.  Amen.