September 16, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
You were given a homework assignment last week. It wasn’t a hard one. I asked you to read the book of James. That sounds like a lot, but it would have taken you about 15 minutes. If you didn’t do it, do it for next week. If you did it, I’m sure you noticed how practical this book is. It isn’t filled with theory and theology and complicated ideas. It is down to earth. It deals with real life. It doesn’t read like an ancient manuscript. It reads like something fresh and relevant and helpful. As we said last week, this is a book that resembles the most popular, most useful genre of literature today. The “how to” book. James tells us how to live a Christian life.
To review from last week, we saw that to live a Christian Life we: 1.) Face trials with a positive, hopeful attitude, 2.) Receive Christ by faith, and 3.) Put faith into action.
This week we don’t have three more to add to our list, just one. 4.) All people are loved equally by God, so treat them accordingly. In other words, don’t play favorites. In other words, don’t go along with the common practice of placing people into categories so we’ll know whether to look up to them or down at them. There is no higher. There is no lower. There are no classes. Not as far as God is concerned. “We are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
And so the very first verse today: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” And then an illustration. What if two visitors came to your church one Sunday? The first is dressed in stylish, expensive clothing and asks the usher for a pledge card. Perhaps inquires if the church accepts stock transfers. And then right behind visitor number one, in walks visitor number two. By the looks and by the smell, this person hasn’t changed clothes in several days. Or used a comb or a toothbrush. This visitor asks the usher if the church has an emergency fund. And stuffs cookies into every available pocket. James says, tell me the truth. Which of these visitors will get treated better in your church?
It reminds me of an old and painful memory. I was associate pastor atFirstUnitedMethodistChurchinMedford,Oregon. Our United Methodist Women were holding their monthly meeting while I sat in my office. In walked a couple of women. They needed to talk to me. They looked upset. They told me a strange looking man had wandered into their meeting. He appeared to be a street person. He was making some of the women uncomfortable. Could I please do something?
Always eager to come to the aid of damsels in distress, I followed them out, located the man, and told him politely but firmly that he would have to leave. He didn’t argue. He just left. Missionaccomplished. So I thought.
As it turned out, this man was part of the UMW program. He was dressed to play the part of a street person. The whole point was to see how the women would treat him. Well, the women treated him just fine. It was their associate pastor who kicked him out! It has been 30 years and I still get kidded about that one. One thing I’ve learned over the years: People love to laugh at their pastor! Another thing I’ve learned: Pastors give their people reason to laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scripture they read for the UMW meeting that day was from James chapter 2.
James continues. “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith?” (2:5) It’s a different way to think of being poor. We think of poverty as a negative. You work hard to keep from being poor and if you are poor you work hard so you can stop being poor. But James is saying here there can be a connection between being poor in things and rich in faith.
Remember, James opened this book by talking about the trials that come to us in life. He said much as we’d rather avoid these trials, when they come we should welcome them because God can use them to bring good into our lives. Poverty is a prime example. When you don’t have money, when you don’t have financial security, faith in God becomes really important. Faith in God is not something to squeeze in around your luxury vacations and your cocktail parties. Faith in God is like a lifeline you are clinging to to keep from going under.
There’s nothing wrong with being rich. In several places, James is a little hard on rich people. His brother, Jesus was too. But there’s nothing wrong with being rich. The problem comes when you trust those riches more than you trust God. Because lots of money can create the illusion that all is right in your world. When underneath the veneer of all your nice things, your life is really quite empty. When you don’t have money, you know how much you need God. And you get to know God real well because you spend so much time in prayer. It’s really true: We often don’t know that God is all we need until God is all we’ve got.
One of the ways we place people in categories is according to how much money they have. But this is just one of many ways. We also place people in categories according to their appearance, their ancestry, their age, their achievements. So if we add money to that list, it doesn’t work because money doesn’t start with “a”. So how about affluence? Appearance, ancestry, age, achievements, affluence. We notice these things. Do we ever. And we discriminate accordingly. It just seems to be part of our human nature. This is observed in all cultures and at all ages. Even in those adorable youngsters who started last week at Kid’s Stuff. They are already engaged in that process of looking each other over and making judgments. There are the clowns and the brains and the outcasts. Even at age three and four.
And then they get to high school. The caste system inIndiais no more rigid that what is found in a typical American high school.
It’s been a few years since I’ve been in high school, but how well I remember how it was. There were groups. You didn’t choose them. They chose you. You could just watch where students sat in the cafeteria and figure out who belonged to which group. And it was very clear which of these groups were looked up to and were looked down upon by your peers. If you were privileged enough to be allowed to hang around with one group, you felt powerful. You felt like you had it made. And if you were in one of the various sub-groups where you and your friends were subject to teasing and bullying, well, your life was pretty much over at age 15. That’s the way it felt. You knew the sting of rejection. You know how painful it felt to be left out.
I was a brain. I was one of those strange kids who actually liked school. And this worked out pretty well for me until I got into junior high (which for reasons never explained to me is now called middle school). I became aware that getting good grades was not the ticket to acceptance and popularity, which were now so important to me. I never stopped taking my class work seriously. Many do. But the rest of my secondary school years were spent in a relentless quest to be accepted and liked and looked up to.
Looking back, it was an incredibly shallow way to live. And one of my regrets is that once I was assured of having escaped the ranks of those who were easy and tempting targets for bullies, I gladly accepted my new privileged place among those bullies. Much of my time at high school reunions is now spent apologizing. And of course the ones I apologize to are generally those who drive up in expensive cars and tell me how fabulously successful their lives have been.
I wish I could say human beings outgrow this kind of juvenile behavior when they leave high school. The sad truth is they often don’t. They bring this need to judge people and categorize people out of school and into the workplace, into the circle of their acquaintances, into the organizations they belong to, and yes, into their churches.
In fact, it’s one of the main reasons churches have such a hard time growing. You come to a typical church for the first time and it’s a little like your first day at a new high school. The unspoken message is that we already have our friends and our groups and we dare you to try to find a place here. I’ve been around a lot of churches and this one is better than most at welcoming people, but it still grieves my heart when we have someone new who never quite succeeds in getting past that invisible barrier, and pretty soon we don’t see them anymore.
James is telling us as emphatically as he knows how that Christians don’t play favorites. Listen to that first verse again. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” In other words, if you really believe in Jesus you will quit sizing people up and putting people down. You will stop it with your cliques and your “in-groups”. You will get over saying nice things to someone’s face and mean things behind that someone’s back. (More on this next week.) Because Christians follow Jesus and Jesus pointed the way to a classless society. God loves each of us just the same, so who are we to make distinctions in who we love less or more?
Someone might be hearing this and agreeing with this and saying that this business of accepting people and including people is a good thing to do, but surely God will forgive us if we slip up on this one now and then. Well, God will forgive us. But I want you to notice that James makes a special point of warning us against taking this one lightly. He says if you break one commandment, you’ve broken them all. So if you break the commandment Jesus gave, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you’ve also broken the commandments about adultery and murder. I must admit, I’m not sure I follow his logic, but I hear loud and clear the point he is making. Don’t take this one lightly! If you call yourself a Christian you’d better stop playing favorites. You’d better stop judging others. You’d better start reaching out to others, all others, with love.
In the last verse, James first says it negatively and then he says it positively. “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.” That’s saying it negatively. That’s kind of beating us over the head with it. Sometimes we need that. You show no mercy, you get no mercy. But I prefer the last four words we read this morning. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” That says it positively. And that pretty much says it all. Jesus revealed to us a mercy that cuts through all the classifications we make to keep people in their proper categories. God’s mercy has no room for that. Yes, the human way is to judge. But God’s way is to show mercy. And God’s way beats our way every time. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
I don’t know if this story is true, but if it isn’t it ought to be. His name is John. His hair is long and wild. He wears a T-shirt and jeans, holes in both. He rarely wears shoes. He got through four years of college dressed like this. He’s brilliant. A little strange, a little “off”, but really, really smart. It was while in college that he became a Christian.
Across the street from the campus is a church. This is one of those churches with an unspoken dress code. You wear your Sunday best. Their worship style is traditional. They really haven’t changed much since the 1950’s. They say they want to develop a ministry with college students and they are puzzled that they have been unsuccessful.
One Sunday John decides he’s going to check out this church. He walks in with jeans, T-shirt, wild hair, and no shoes. The service had already started, so John starts down the aisle looking for a place to sit. The church was packed. No one seems inclined to squeeze in a little tighter to open a spot for him. So John keeps walking. All the way to the pulpit. And then he just sits there right on the carpet. Every eye is on him. The tension in the air is thick.
About this time the head usher decides to take charge. He’s a dignified man in his eighties who always wears a three-piece suit to church. He walks slowly. He uses a cane. Some are afraid he might use it on the boy. But most are just resigned to what is about to happen. A tap on the shoulder. A directive, polite but firm, that he needs to move. Some wish he wouldn’t do it, but after all, how can you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid on the floor?
It takes the man a long time to reach the boy. The church is silent except for the clicking of the man’s cane. All eyes are watching. No one is breathing. The elderly usher drops his cane to the floor. Then with great effort, he lowers himself. And he sits there on the carpet right next to John. So John won’t have to sit there alone.
Mercy does triumph over judgment. Every time it’s tried. All people are loved equally by God, so let’s treat them all accordingly.
Dear God, forgive us for those times when we’ve forgotten this. And help us to make amends. Perhaps with an apology that is long overdue. Perhaps by making a fresh start today. Help us to see people, all people, as you see them. Help us to see right past whatever it might be about them that gives us a problem. And help us to accept and to include and to love. In Jesus’ name, Amen