September 6, 2009
2My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism 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 dishonored 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?
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor 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.
An Ohio State fan in an elevator leans over to the guy next to him and says, “Wanna hear a good Michigan joke?”
The guy next to him replies, “Well before you tell that joke, you should know something. I’m 6′ tall, 200 lbs., and I am a Michigan grad. The guy standing next to me is 6′ 2″ tall, weighs 225, and he’s a Michigan grad. And the fella next to him is 6′ 5″ tall, weighs 250, and he’s a Michigan grad. Now, you still wanna tell that joke?”
The first guy says, “No, not if I’m gonna have to explain it three times.”
I don’t mess around when it comes to college football. I have two favorite teams: Ohio State and whoever plays Michigan. I love my Buckeyes and I do not apologize for this. There is Ohio State, and then there is everyone else. Nobody can compete for my love when it comes to college football. Some of you (misguided) folks here today would say the same thing about the Virginia Tech Hokies. Or maybe if football isn’t your sport, you might claim such love for the Boston Red Sox or for a NASCAR driver, a musician, or what ever other form of entertainment you might choose.
We as human beings tend to have favorites. We could go through item after item, thing after thing, and you could probably name your favorite for me. What’s your favorite color? Your favorite food? Your favorite song? Yeah, we have favorites. We might even have favorite people. Maybe you have a favorite aunt or a favorite teacher or even a favorite child. We have favorites. That’s just the way we were made.
But when it comes to God we know that God does not have favorites, at least not among his children. Whether you are rich or poor, young or old, handsome or down-right ugly, God loves you. God loves you and God loves people diametrically different from you. So let’s look at the scripture for this morning to see how God loves us all equally and does not have favorites.
James comes right out of the gates with a tough rhetorical question, tough because it cuts right to the core of the issue. He asks, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” He seems to be implying that because his Jewish hearers are providing favoritism for a certain social class that they don’t even believe in Jesus!
Now obviously these people were not saying that Jesus never lived or that he never died. James is talking to Christians, so I can’t imagine that they don’t believe that Jesus is real. He isn’t saying that these Christians don’t believe in Jesus in the same way that I don’t believe in the boogey man, elves, and hobbits. Their not believing in Jesus had more to do with their actions than with their beliefs because as Jesus says in John 14:12, anyone that believes in him will do the works that he has done. The biblical model of belief requires action. Belief leads to following Jesus; living as he lived, doing as he taught. At the end of this chapter James writes that even the demons “believe” in Jesus and that faith without works is dead.
It is hard to say whether James witnessed something or if he is making up a hypothetical situation as an example, but he talks about two people entering into a place of worship, a synagogue in this situation. One is a rich man with fancy clothes and the other is a poor man with tattered clothes, perhaps with scraggily looking hair and beard, maybe he even smells a bit. And the people at the synagogue take notice of the rich man and they give him the best seat in the place of worship. The poor man…well it sounds like they make him sit at the feet of the others.
James has a problem with this! Why would you treat a person better just because he or she has money? Didn’t Jesus come to save both the rich and the poor? And didn’t Jesus seem to spend more time with the poor, often criticizing the rich and the powerful? Why would we flip this upside-down and roll out the red carpet for the rich man? All men and women are equal in the eyes of God. There is no longer male or female, rich or poor, slave or free, but all are one in Christ. Yet the people at this synagogue seem to be flocking to the rich man. And why? Probably because of what he can give them.
Imagine a rich person walking into the church, and we know of this person. In fact, everyone knows of this person. Let’s say that it is LeBron James. So we reach out to LeBron thinking that if we become friends with him, maybe he will buy us lunch sometime. Maybe he will take us to a professional basketball game sometime. Maybe he will lend us his Lexus for awhile; maybe he will take us on exotic vacations with him. And even better, other people will see us spending time with LeBron and they will think we are great as well. Hey look, there’s Kevin! He hangs out with LeBron. We like Kevin.
But now switch LeBron with some homeless guy named Larry. Larry has nothing to offer us. He won’t buy us lunch or lend us the Lexus. In fact, we might have to lend Larry money and give him rides. Larry isn’t going to take us on vacations. Larry hasn’t ever even been out of the state. And when people see us with Larry, will they think less of us? Will they think, “There’s that stinky guy and his friend.”
That’s what they said about Jesus, too. Those in high positions critiqued Jesus on whom he spent his time with. But Jesus knew that each and every person had the same value to God. He did not discriminate based on level of income. He didn’t discriminate at all. Jesus didn’t choose with whom he spent his time based on someone’s socio-economic status. Jesus didn’t choose his friends based on what they could do for him or whether or not they would make good conversation partners. Jesus loved everyone equally.
As many of you know, my pay check comes from these baskets that get passed around each Sunday. My income depends on how much you give. So you might think that I have a lot of interest in the offering each week.
But it has been my policy to not have anything to do with the collecting, counting, and depositing of the offering each week. I don’t know who gives and I don’t know how much you give. I have never gone through the offering and looked at your gifts to the church because I have never wanted to show one person favor over another. If LeBron gives more than Larry, should he get more of my time and more of my prayers? Should I show him favoritism because of his giving? I don’t think so. What you give is between you and God. I hope you are giving to the church and to other charities, but I don’t want to know if you are giving toward our budget or not. If LeBron walks in the front door, I shouldn’t view him as a walking dollar sign. I should view him the same as a poor person, the same as Jesus did. I should see him as a beloved child of God, a person needing to be ministered to, a person in need of grace and love.
For who knows how long, in India they had a social system in place known as the Caste System. This was a hierarchy of people based on what jobs they had. The highest position in the Caste System was known as the Brahmans. The Brahmans were the intellectuals: the priests, the poets, the professors. The lowest position in the Caste System was known as the Dalits, with many positions in between the Brahmans and the Dalits. The Dalits performed the lowest of service jobs in the country. These were the people that cleaned up after animals, dug sewage ditches, and burnt the bodies of the deceased. The Dalits were better known by their common name, the “Untouchables.”
The Caste System kept you in your place. You didn’t move up a division and you didn’t move down. If your father was a Brahmin, you would be a Brahmin. And so would your mother and your spouse, because you didn’t marry outside of your caste.
The Caste System in India, which I am told still exists in some areas, is not an example of racism. It is an example of classism. It was discrimination based on your level of income. And by looking at our scripture for this morning, we can see that classism is not something that the Indians invented. This is something that has been going on since at least Jesus’ day, and I would bet for a long time before that.
Classism was not only a problem in the church when people came together for worship, classism was a problem anytime people got together. In 1st Corinthians 11, Paul writes to the church about a problem that he has heard about in how they get together for meals. It seems like there are some that are coming early and eating and drinking more than their fair share and leaving some to go hungry. What Paul seems to be suggesting is that it is the rich and the powerful that are coming early and eating all of the food, even though they have plenty to eat at home. And then it is the poor that are left to go hungry because they don’t have anything to eat at home; this was their opportunity to eat and the rich folks were gluttonous, consuming all the food and drink.
So while James uses the example of giving the best seat to those who are rich, his point is that we are to treat everyone as equals. Money, power, fame, fortune…all of these things are temporary and without value in the kingdom of God. Each person has the same value in the eyes of God and we saw that in the ministry of Jesus. Young and old, rich and poor, sick or healthy, he loved them all equally and still does today.
I think we do a pretty good job of welcoming people to this church that might be different from ourselves. But, like in most things, we can also probably do better. Myself included. I know that I have a certain kind of person that I have idealized as coming to this church. I would like to see more people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s with families. And when we have someone that fits this mold walk into the church, I feel a little nervous because I want to make a good impression on them. I want them to like me and I want them to like this church. I want them to keep coming back. So when a retired person comes to visit, do I give them the same welcome as I might give a young family? Do I invite them to my home for lunch or to get together sometime just to hang out? Probably not. And that is a problem.
I think it is clear that we tend to spend time with people in our own social-economic class and close to our own age. Most of my friends are middle class, 25-40 year olds. And there is nothing wrong with having friends that are like you. Of course you are going to have friends that are like you, you must have common interests, otherwise conversations sure are difficult. You can only talk about the weather for so long, my friends.
The problem is when my friends are exclusively people just like me; when I don’t reach out and share the love of Christ with people of every race, color, creed, and social-economic class. How many times have I invited a person living in poverty into my home? How many times have I had them over for a cookout?
I know the excuses; I know them because I have used them myself. We don’t invite people of a lower social status than us into our homes because we won’t have anything to talk about. It is difficult to connect with some people when you don’t have anything in common. Or maybe it is scary to have someone into your home and see your valuable possessions. There is a fear that they might steal from you. But these excuses are examples of classism today. Judging people based on their socio-economic position.
But look at Jesus. Jesus had every opportunity to hang out with the richest and most powerful people of his time. And he did, to some extent. He did spend time in the homes of Pharisees and he did spend time with Scribes. But he also spent time with common folk like Mary and Martha, and he spent time with the poorest of the poor, with tax collectors and sinners. I keep coming back to this strange group of men that Jesus spent time with every day. There was a zealot that would have been a part of a group that wanted to fight the Romans and take back Jerusalem and there was a tax collector that worked for the Roman government. There were fisherman who worked hard out on the sea, bringing in their catch, and there was a man that turned Jesus in to the authorities for some silver. Some were richer than others. Some were young, some were old. Each had value to Jesus. Jesus knew an important truth that we would all gain from hearing again: Each and every human life has equal value.
There are people that get this. I’ve mentioned Shane Claiborne a time or two. Shane is cofounder of a Christian Community in one of the poorest sections of Philadelphia. Shane owns very few things, dresses like a neo-hippie, makes his own clothes, and ministers to the poorest of the poor. Every day he hears stories about people being mugged, beaten up, raped, and exploited. And he doesn’t just listen to the stories and then go back to his safe home in a gated community. He lives out that reality with those that are suffering.
Here we have an educated white male, privileged for sure, choosing to live among the poorest of the poor. Sounds kind of like something our God did in Jesus Christ, taking on human flesh and living among us. And what in the world would make a person do such a thing? Love, my friends, love.
In verse 8, James quotes a verse that Jesus also thought had some importance for his followers. Love your neighbors as yourself. Jesus thought that this verse was so important that he put it as second in importance, only to loving God.
And we all know that this is not always easy to do. It is difficult to love the people we like and have things in common with, let alone people vastly different from ourselves. But we have a decision to make. As Shane Claiborne has said, “The most radical thing we do is choose to love each other… again and again.” It is a choice that we must make continually. We make the decision to love others every day.
So I want to leave you with a few challenges for the week ahead. The first challenge is to commit an act of radical love and generosity to someone that you normally wouldn’t spend time with. And it doesn’t have to be a homeless person. If you are a Republican, invite a Democrat over to your home for supper. Give a ride to a person that you have met before and that you dislike. Show that the love of God is not bound by any –ism. Not classism, racism, or nationalism.
My second challenge for you is to make sure that they know why you are tearing down the walls that have been built between you. Make sure that they know that you are acting out of Christian love. Don’t just invite them to go to church with you, offer to give them a ride. Offer to take them out to eat afterward or better yet, invite them to your home.
James begins our scripture for today by asking Christians if by their acts of favoritism they are showing the world that they believe in our glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God shows no signs of favoritism, Jesus shows no signs of favoritism. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must not show any signs of favoritism, either.