23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
In my life so far, I’ve been to a lot of churches. Granted, my day job keeps me from visiting as many churches as I’d like; but let’s just say, I’ve seen a few. In all of the churches I’ve visited or worked with, I would guess that every single one of them considers themselves “friendly.” I would guess we would consider ourselves friendly too, right?
In truth, I think we’re probably friendlier than most, but here’s the thing: when I’ve visited other churches, I have also spent more than a few awkward fellowship hours drinking coffee all by myself. I have a pastor-friend who says that’s her vision of hell: to sit alone in an eternal fellowship time, drinking bad coffee. We prove how much we care for one another by at least getting good coffee. But that’s not my point. My point is, we would be the last to know whether we’re a friendly church or not.
Which is why, what James has to say to us today, is important. What James would call “impartiality” I call “friendly”; when he talks about how we treat nicely-dressed people, I call “a bit more complicated than just that.” But his point should be well-taken: how we treat others is important. James takes this seriously enough to question our faith based on our friendliness. He goes so far as to call our lack of friendliness, or impartiality, or not being welcoming a “sin.” Whatever we call it, what James says to us today is important. It seems that God cares, not only how we treat other people, but that we treat others as God would treat them; and that is not as easy as decent coffee and, “Hey, where are you from,” but that’s a good start.
A young minister, new to the congregation, learned that one of the wealthiest members of the church never gave any money to the church. So the young pastor made a phone call.
The pastor said, “From all appearances your business is doing quite well, and yet I understand you haven’t given a penny to support the work of your church.” And in his most guilt-inducing tone, the pastor continued, “Don’t you think it’s time to help support the work of your church?”
“Well,” said the rich man, “did you know that my mother is ill, and she has extremely expensive medical bills?”
“Um, no,” mumbled the pastor.
“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed?”
“Oh, why no.”
“Or that my sister’s husband left her broke with four kids?”
“I… I… I didn’t know any of that,” stammered the pastor.
“Well,” said the rich man, “if I don’t even give them any money, what makes you think I’d give any to the church?”
Just to be clear: there are a lot of things that James is not saying to us today. Like being rich, for example. James certainly seems to have some thoughts on what the wealthy are like, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. The problem here isn’t about being rich.
As you’ll recall, we’re spending a few weeks to study the Book of James. I think it’s important for us to take a look at James from time to time because, like it or not, we are religious people; and the Book of James is about being religious, but doing it in the right way. James doesn’t take the time to tell you what you ought to believe about Jesus like Paul does; which is why some have seen James as being legalistic. But I see it as more about religion. There’s a fine line between legalism and religion, but when we do it right, religion can be a powerful force for good in the world. Legalism is what religion looks like when it goes bad, but when we do it right, religion helps us to live out our faith together in the world. Legalism is when we try to earn God’s favor, but true religion comes from the understanding that God likes us already; that God loves us forever; and that that our Savior’s work for us means that we don’t have to earn anything. And that is what the Book of James draws us to remember: to practice true religion in response to the gift in Christ that we have already received.
So today, we consider again how to be the “good kind” of religious people. Today James tells us that true religion does not have favorites. True religion, apparently, does not favor people based on what they’re wearing. Really? To be honest, when he says this, there’s a part of me that wonders, “What was going on at that church?” I know that churches like that exist, but I guess I’ve been a Coloradan long enough because it blows my mind. I don’t think anyone here cares what I’m wearing today; Sherry, maybe, but probably not. I try to clean up for worship—wear my Bronco tie for obvious reasons—because I know people will be looking at me; but I wouldn’t think people would treat me differently if I didn’t dress up. It’s a strange thing for James to focus on. So strange that it makes me think that he isn’t talking about clothes.
Once again, there’s a lot of things that James is not saying today. So if James isn’t talking about being rich and he’s not talking about fancy clothes, what is he getting at: he’s talking about showing favoritism; kind of a surprising sin, isn’t it? Well, unfortunately, it’s probably a sin we commit all the time. Here in the church and out in the world, we pick favorites all the time. Part of it, I am sure, stems from the fact that we are a culture of choices: we choose our favorite political parties and candidates; we choose our favorite restaurants and churches; we even choose our favorite TV shows where we can choose our favorite singers. We live in a world where we can choose our favorite everything; why not people?
But what James is getting at is far more sinister. You can hear the seriousness in his voice when he says, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” He’s questioning our faith in Jesus when we show favoritism. That is surprisingly harsh, until we find out the Commandment we are breaking. It’s a big one. Jesus only left us with two: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. Showing favoritism is a big deal. And by the way, he isn’t just saying be nice. That isn’t true religion either.
There’s a TV show I like called “Fargo,” loosely based on the movie. Like a lot of entertainment I like, it isn’t for everyone, but it’s really well-written. In fact, a couple seasons ago there was a scene that had such a great line in it that I kept running my DVR back to hear it over and over again. It’s a conversation between the good guy and the bad guy, who has come in from out of town. So they’re having this tense conversation about “the way things work around here” and the good guy offhandedly says, “Well, we are a friendly people.”
And the bad guy says, “No, no you’re not. Quite the opposite, you’re actually pretty rude. But it’s the way you’re rude: you’re so nice about it.”
I love that line. I don’t know if it accurately describes the good people of Fargo, but I know it describes a lot of church people. We exclude, we judge, we look down on people, but we’re so nice about it. Jesus calls us to do better than be nice; it turns out, Jesus calls us to love.
James rails against favoritism as strongly as he does because it undermines the very gospel we proclaim. He is right to call it “sin” and we are right to repent of it. Here in this place and out in this world we are commanded, by the love we have been shown, to love those around us. Not just be nice. Not just to those who look like us and think like us and agree with us. We are commanded to see everyone around us as beloved children of God, redeemed by our Savior’s work, and then love them accordingly.
As we seek to live out a true religion, let us first remind one another of the love and grace that we have received; and then let us seek to extend that same love and grace to those around us in this world. Let us seek, in all we do and say, to fulfill God’s “royal law” as we seek love all our neighbors as ourselves.