Doers of the Word

Psalm 146
 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
   I will sing praises to my God all my life long. 
 Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish. 
 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God,
 who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry. 
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.
 The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. 
 The Lord will reign forever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord! 

James 2:1-9, 14-17

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear?

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.


The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

***

Favoritism.

It’s not something we like to admit to as Christians, but the reality is that it happens all the time – and if we’re human, which from up here, it looks like we all are, then we are bound to show bias, even though we may not know it. I catch myself doing this driving all the time. I am not proud of it, but if there are heavy traffic lanes merging, and somebody in an Audi or Mercedes flies past me and then tries to sneak in at the last minute, my assumption is that they’re a selfish jerk. Even though I drive an Audi…. and sometimes I forget to change lanes … especially in Pittsburgh, where I don’t know my way around the winding streets. I presume selfishness by virtue of the car somebody drives. 

It’s sad, but true. And in many ways, our gut-reactions are predictable. As we grow up, we’re hardwired for primal responses to differences and perceived dangers. We are tribal: feeling a kinship spirit with those who look or act or talk like us. Among ethnic Armenians like Karen and me, there’s a greeting – “Inch bessess” to which one responds “Shad Laveem.”  Karen and I don’t even know what it means – it’s just the secret handshake.  These days, there’s political tribalism more intense than I’ve seen in my lifetime. Depending on how we lean, many of us will have a gut reaction – positive or negative – if someone walks into the coffee shop with a Make America Great Again hat, or sporting a tee-shirt with a Nike logo or Colin Kaepernick’s picture.  And don’t even get me started about OSU football, or Cubs fans in Chicago. We are wired to be tribal. 

We’re also wired to be hierarchical, where your value depends on where you are in pecking order. We react differently to people with various levels of corporate power, political standing, or educational prowess. Now that I’m working in higher education, I’m keenly aware of the ranking of tenured faculty all the way down to adjuncts, and below that, those of us who are staff. It’s just the way it works. And then there’s wealth and poverty.  Isn’t it strange that we talk about “net worth” without even mentioning the word “financial net worth” – as if our value is literally measured in dollars? 

Favoritism is normal. It was true in the 1st c. when the letter of James was written, and it’s true now. It was true in Israel and across the Gentile Roman Empire, and still it’s true here in America today.

Since I’m married to a psychologist, I happen to know the official name for that behavior: it’s called “implicit bias.”  In a paper presented at the American Psychological Association, one researcher presented her discovery that biases showed up “on tasks in which people rapidly match negative and positive words with black and white faces.” 80-90% of white people were quick to match the positive words to the white faces and the negative words to the black faces. Worse yet, “most of the time people don't realize they have these biases, instead believing that they are open-minded and blind to race.” 

It’s not pretty – it’s not planned – it’s visceral. We don’t think about our implicit biases – we just react, with the unspoken rules of our tribe. But today’s Scripture urges us to remember that our tribe’s rules are not the only option – that Jesus points us to a “still more excellent way” – the way of the kingdom of God.

What does this look like, this “royal law,” as James calls it in his letter? There many different forms this takes, but there are three “rules of play” that I want to focus on today. They’re not the only ones, by any means, but they are a place to start.

Rule #1: Welcome people as they are … not as you want them to be. James gives the example of someone coming to church “dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another [coming] in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention … to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘Stand over there, or sit on the floor’ - isn’t this discrimination?” I honestly didn’t think I cared that much about how people dressed for church, until I moved from Chicago to Portland, Oregon many years ago. At Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, the ushers still wore morning coats and white gloves. I was shocked when in the church I served in Portland, some of the ushers routinely wore khaki shorts, tee-shirts, and Birkenstocks. It didn’t take long to see that those ushers’ clothes weren’t the measure of their faith. Their generosity, humility and welcome mattered more. 

And, of course, that commitment to Christ-like welcome extends far beyond the doors of the church.  In her sermon last week, Karen mentioned the theology of Mister Rogers – an alumnus of Pittsburgh Seminary who was ordained to the work of children’s television. Mister Rogers learned from his mentor, Professor Bill Orr, that faith is never theoretical – it’s always embodied. And one way Fred Rogers embodied the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ was when he looked into the TV camera and said to every child watching him, “I like you just the way you are.” 

How many of you have seen the recent documentary on Mister Rogers? I choked up when he had a visit from ten-year-old Jeff Erlanger, a 10-year-old boy who became a quadriplegic after spinal surgery to remove a tumor. His one wish was to meet Mr. Rogers. And so it was he appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Jeff in his wheelchair, and the two of them spontaneously singing together:  

That’s the first rule: welcome people as they are. 

Rule #2: care for people in their needs. This may seem obvious to us, but how we reach out in mission matters. Right now, Americans are focused on the devastating wrath of Hurricane Florence, which has already cost the lives of fourteen people, with many more at risk in the days of flooding ahead. How we respond matters. The same is true for those still struggling from the wrath of last year’s hurricane in Puerto Rico, and it’s also true for those in the Philippines facing a massive typhoon. 

It’s good to offer our “thoughts and prayers,” – that’s no small thing; it’s where compassion begins - but thoughts and prayers alone don’t embody Christ’s faith. The letter of James to the early Christian makes it clear: “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? … Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” 

Obviously, no one of us can save the world. But all of us must do what we can if we are going to call ourselves Christian. Loving our neighbor means loving not just their soul but their body as well –and that means caring about their food and clothing, physical safety, educational opportunity, legal protection, access to health care and so much more – for Americans and outsiders alike. I don’t have a political solution. There’s no one magic answer. But there is a mandate, a mandate from Christ: to love our neighbor as ourselves … to love one another as Christ has loved us. Faith is always embodied.  

Finally, Rule #3: value people – all people – for whatever gifts they bring. Now that I serve as Vice President of Advancement for Pittsburgh Seminary, I’ve learned quickly that in the world of philanthropy, more attention is paid to the big givers than the smaller donors. I understand – our staff has to be accountable for good stewardship of our time, and return-on-investment of our resources. And it’s important to thank our donors for their generosity; God forbid we take their gifts for granted. But in the end, all good gifts are the abundant blessing of God – and the widow’s mite matters easily as much as the pounds of gold in the offering plate.

I learned this poignantly when I served at my last church. In Lake Forest, we were blessed with many generous members with access to great wealth. But timing is everything, right? Ten years ago, when the market crashed, we were just embarking on a major Capital Campaign in honor of our 150th anniversary. We had big plans: the renovation of the building, increasing the endowment, and much, much more. As soon as the market crashed, we had to pull back. We scrapped the things that weren’t urgent, and opened our hearts to what God would have us do – which ended up including emergency financial support for some of our members who’d been crushed in the downturn. But still we pressed on, and many very generous people gave what they could. 

But it was two gifts in particular that I’ll never, ever forget. One beloved, faithful family, with considerable means, made a pledge of $5 million to endow the pastors’ salaries in perpetuity. Five. Million. Dollars. I had never, ever seen such a tremendous gift in my life, and I was ecstatic. Then, not long after that, we received another gift: $20 in a cash donation for the Capital Campaign. That donor? Another beloved, faithful family –the wife was caring for multiple generations back in Chicago. And the husband? He was stationed in Iraq. Tell me: whose gift was more valuable? 

James is right to warn us. Favoritism comes in many forms. It’s normal, it’s visceral, it’s cultural. It is the playbook that we know. But it’s not the only set of rules at our disposal. The “royal law,” as James calls it? The playbook of the kingdom of God? That comes straight from Jesus: Love our neighbors as ourselves … love one another as Christ has loved us. The royal law of the kingdom of God? In the end, it boils down to this: the law of God is the law of love. Amen.