Stop playing favorites

by susan on September 6, 2015

refugees welcomeStop Playing Favorites
James 2:1-10, 14-17

My 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. 14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

I do not watch much TV, but every now and then I find a Netflix series that I enjoy binge-watching. Law & Order is one of them. Another most recent fixation (thanks to a friend) has been Freaks and Geeks. It first aired in 1999 and it’s all about the harsh and often hilarious realities of high school. Lindsay is the older sister who starts hanging out with freaks and Sam is the younger brother who hangs with geeks.

In a recent episode, the geeks were tired of being humiliated by getting picked last during PE. In an effort to get revenge on their coach for perpetuating this unjust system, they begin prank calling him. It does not take long before Coach Fredricks figures out who’s pranking him. When Bill, the main pranker, gets caught he and his coach have a heart to heart conversation. Bill explains in detail to his coach how hurtful it really is to always get picked last.

Instead of punishing Bill, Coach Fredricks does a crazy thing.
He lets the underdogs (the geeks) be the team captains. They get to pick first. They hardly know what to do they are so excited.

A jock himself, I don’t think the coach had ever considered what it must be like to stand there waiting to be chosen. For those who know it all too well, it’s an early experience that letts us know how almost everything we do involves some form of partiality.

We are surrounded by examples of preference and partiality. Entire communities are designed in way that leads to some being more preferred than others. Some have access to the best education, the best medical care, the cleanest air and the cleanest grocery stores. Others do not. This is no accident. Places and spaces are intentionally designed so those who have more get more. Partiality is woven into our society.

Thank goodness it’s not like that among Christ followers though. When we come together, we set aside our preferences and practice non-partial love and acceptance.

Ok, not always. Not according to James.
Like in our communities of faith, James had been observing that churches were ignoring the central command of Jesus. Instead of loving their neighbors as themselves, they were treating people differently based on their wealth or their poverty. They were changing their behavior depending on who walked into the door of their meeting house.

If a person wore fine clothes and gold rings, they received a warm welcome and superb seating; if their clothes were dirty, they were ignored.

And, James finds this rather ironic. After all, history tells us that Christians (at least during this time) were mostly poor and marginalized themselves. In fact, the nickname for believers living in Jerusalem was “the poor.” And, it was the rich who often took them to court, taking what little bit of wealth they did have so the rich could get richer. Maybe these Christians James is addressing are just tired of being the underdogs and they are hoping that by getting in good with the wealthy in town, they will have better lives. Perhaps they even unintentionally started paying them special attention.

This is human nature, isn’t it?
We are always on the lookout for who or what will benefit us.
It’s no wonder we ignore those who have less.
We believe there is little to be gained by being in relationship with them.

Maybe it would do us some good to think about who the poor are among us this morning. Who would we say they are? (we named some of the poor in our community)

There are other forms of poverty that keep us distant from people.
What about the poor in personality? A positive word never comes out of their mouths. You can’t get a word in even when you try.
What about the poor in body? Their physical appearance shows signs of neglect or limitation.
What about the poor in mind? They make the same mistakes over and over, they are not educated like you are or read the same books you like to read.
What about the poor in relationship? They aren’t connected to any important networks, they aren’t on social media, they can’t get you what you need to get somewhere.

According to James, whenever we focus on being in relationship with one group of people over another, we are showing partiality.

I find it interesting that these Christians are not being criticized for mistreating the poor, they are being criticized for ignoring them.

Jesus followers who play favorites are not following Jesus.
Jesus, after all, was the marginalized son of God who died because the religious elite would not tolerate his impartial love.
So James asks these Christians, do you really believe in Jesus?
Then, you must love your neighbor as yourself.

Like it has for many, this week has finally woken me up to the unbearable realities of the Syrian Crisis. The reality is this: While we stress about where we will go out for dinner, 4 million Syrian refugees have been forced to leave their homes, livelihoods and all they have because their land is being destroyed. Many are dying on the journey. As I saw images of bodies washing up on beaches, the words of the apostle Paul came to mind: The wages of our sin is death (paraphrase of Rom. 6:23). The consequences of our ignoring our impoverished neighbors is death – their deaths & our death – after all, as different as we seem, we are ALL connected. Their struggle IS our struggle.

There is a cost to our ignoring any of our neighbors, of pretending they do not exist because their lives seem to be of little consequence to ours.

While there are many stories of neglect of our neighbors in Syria, there are also emerging stories of radical welcome. One of those involves masses of people in Iceland (& other places) who are opening their homes to refugees.  Their welfare manager shared this last week: “We don’t plan to build new refugee camps. We want people to get into Icelandic society. They get jobs, they get housing, their children are in our schools and get invited to birthday parties.” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/trending/facebook-syria-refugees-group-iceland-1.3213296).

If this is what loving our neighbor as ourselves look like, then where do we begin? Where do we begin with the poor amongst us?
Those who are overlooked, ignored or easily overlooked for a variety of reasons? What if we had the power like Coach Fredricks, to begin reversing this tendency?

Questions for discussion & reflection this week:
Who are the neighbors most difficult for us to love?
What would loving them look like?

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