May 15, 2011

Playing Favorites

Did you ever play make-believe when you were growing up?  Who was your favorite person to pretend to be?  Did anyone every pretend you were a bum on the street?  How about a single mom struggling to make ends meet?  Anyone pretend to be a landfill dweller in a Third World country?  Or maybe a couple at risk of losing their home because the last three mortgage payments went to medical bills?  No one?  Me neither.  I think the closest I ever got to a sad situation in my pretending was when I was in first or second grade.  In the summer program I went to while my mom was working a bunch of us were playing house one day.  I got assigned to take on the role of the family dog.  (I was really popular with that group.)  This was actually just fine with me because I didn’t have to talk and I got to listen to my Sony Walkman rocking the latest M. C. Hammer tape.  Yeah.  I was that cool.  (And I’m sorry to those of you who are wincing because M. C. Hammer was popular when I was in first grade.)  Getting a bit Freudian for a minute, Hammer went on to become a Baptist preacher after his music career ended so maybe that explains something.  Anyway, when I played make-believe with friends (which of course we never called “make-believe” as that’s a game for girlie-girls and we were rough and tough boys) we usually went for superheroes of some sort.  Marvel Comics were having a heyday then so I was usually Cyclopes.  Seriously though (if you can manage that given how far I’ve let you into my strange little world this morning), how many of you tended to pretend that you were rich or famous or powerful or otherwise someone altogether better than you really ever expected to be?  I think that all of us have been there at one time or another and most of us probably went there a lot.  Why is that?

I think the biggest reason is that we have a natural preference for the wealthy and powerful.  We have a natural inclination to lean into those social models that most closely approximate what we want for ourselves and no one wants to be poor and struggling.  We don’t want to be it.  We don’t want to think it.  We don’t even want to imagine it.  Some of you have lived it, but were—or are—looking forward to the time when you weren’t.  We look forward to the time when we have enough.  Actually, that’s not quite right.  Most of us don’t simply stop with “enough.”  Most of us sail right on past this to wishing for the level of income that would allow us to have everything we want  and still have plenty left over for a rainy day (never mind that it isn’t ever going to rain that much again in this life).  When Lisa and I drive past a Mega Millions or Powerball Jackpot billboard and the prize has recently been claimed such that the current prize is only a few million dollars, I will often tell her that I’m not going to waste my money on a lottery ticket until the prize is actually worth winning.  About $300 million should do it.  I’m kidding, of course.  Mostly.  Okay, I’m not going to waste my money on a lottery ticket at all, but you catch my drift I hope.  What more, many of us take this natural preference for being a part of the “haves” of this world and let it trickle out to our treatment of the people around us.  In other words, we tend towards showing greater deference and honor to people who look the part of successful in hopes of either living vicariously through them or else trying to hitch a ride on their coattails to share in some of their success.  When we form groups, be they clubs, cults, or churches, we usually give some kind of preference to the wealthier members.  After all, they’re the ones on whose financial backs the group is sitting.  Sure we’ll serve the poor, but we don’t want them cluttering up our gatherings.  I mean, what would people think if they came in and there were a bunch of poor looking people taking up all the good seats?

This week, after a delightful interlude by Sue Henshaw last week, we return to our journey through the tough wisdom of the book of James.  When we last left off, we talked about James’ thoughts on real religion and the fact that the religion that stays wisely obeys.  Religion that’s going to do anything for us must have three primary components.  It helps us deal with the trials of this life, it encourages us to seek God’s way of life before anything else, and it looks to promote others before self.  Essentially, these three ingredients form the foundation of the three major themes James addresses in the book—trials and temptations, wisdom and speech, and wealth and poverty.  After the first chapter, then, he spends the remainder of the letter dealing with these in one fashion or another.  And the first theme he addresses is wealth and poverty.  The channel he uses to do this is this tendency we’ve been talking about of showing greater honor and deference to people who look the part than those who don’t.  The more concise way of putting this is that in this next section James is talking about favoritism.

Let’s take a look at these verses and then we’ll talk about them.  If you have a Bible with you and it’s not already, open it to James 2:1-13.  Follow along with me starting in v. 1: “My brothers [and sisters], show no [favoritism] as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.  For if a man wearing a gold ring and find clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good places,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers [and sisters], has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor man.  Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?  Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?  If you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show [favoritism], you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.  For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.”  If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.  For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Well, as he often does, James opens this section with a command: don’t show favoritism.  Let’s speak the truth in love for just a minute here.  Because of the culture in which we live, very few of us really consider ourselves as showing favoritism ever.  We live in the United State of America.  This is the land of the free.  Our founding documents contain such noble sentiments as “All [people] are created equal.”  And yet our history is littered with examples of times when human nature won out over such lofty ideals.  This has been as true within the walls of the church as without.  It is not without due justification that 11:00 Sunday morning is sometimes called the most segregated hour in American life.  We take our ideals, formed over the course of hours of make-believe as children and let them guide us in choosing the kind of people with whom we wish to surround ourselves.  The fact is that we do show favoritism to certain groups of people based on a number of factors, most of them related to external things.  What I mean is that we treat some people as if they had more or less value than we deem ourselves as having because of how we perceive them.  This perception is formed by the kind of clothes they are wearing, the color of their skin, the quality of car they are driving, the kind of job they are working, and a variety of other things.  Let me be confessional with you for a minute to make my point.  When Lisa and I were in Denver, we drove past a mall called the Cherry Hills Mall a few times.  The average housing value in the area was upwards of a million dollars and the security guards for the mall drove around in Mercedes SUVs.  As I have described that, most of you have come to the conclusion that you could not afford to shop there, but if you did, you’d be very safe walking around.  We did too.  When I was growing up, there was a mall not too far from my Dad’s office called Bannister Mall.  Before it closed and was subsequently torn down, Bannister Mall was mostly filled with young, black teenage boys walking around in loud groups.  As I have described this mall, most of you have formed a picture of a mall with stores you wouldn’t want to shop and you wouldn’t feel very safe doing it.  I didn’t either.  I was showing favoritism in each of those situations.   Many of you were going right along with me.

Though we may try and deny it in the face of the higher ideals of our culture, favoritism in a variety of forms is a part of our culture.  We want to live in our make-believe worlds all the time.  Why resist this natural impulse?  Why not simply give in and create a separated society?  Why keep denying what we do anyway?  We know the “right” answers, but let’s look at the reasons behind these James offers because knowledge disconnected from reason never gets very far in effecting behavior.  James actually lays out four reasons why favoritism is out-of-place for folks following Christ.  I want to spend the rest of our time this morning quickly taking a look at each of these.  As we do, we are going to uncover a clear answer to why showing favoritism is so out of place in our lives.

The first reason James gives comes right out of the gate.  Depending on your translation the reason may not be all that clear, but a closer look reveals what’s going on here.  The translation I’m using makes v. 1 a command.  Most translators do this same thing.  A few, however, make it a question: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  Now, v. 1 is probably not actually asking a question, but at least the sense is there.  In other words, showing favoritism for one group of people over another—in this particular case the rich over the poor—brings into question our confession of Christ.  Here’s why: If Jesus is really God in all His glory but in a human form, then to confess belief in Him is to confess belief in God.  We’ve talked before about the importance of having the character of God right lest we find ourselves worshiping the wrong god.  One of the aspects of God’s character is His truthfulness.  He always speaks the truth.  Stay with me here.  When He created humans Genesis 1:27 tells us that He created them (all of them) in His image.  We have value in this life because of this image.  His image is equally present in every single human being.  What this means is that before God we all have the same ontological value.  A person is a person is a person.  Well, when we show favoritism for one group of people over another, we are expressing our belief that they have more value in our eyes than another group.  Jim Crow Laws in the early part of this century reflected the culture’s belief that black people had less value than white people.  When we hold such a belief and assign someone less value because of any number of external realities, we are coming into conflict with reality as it is defined by God.  God says that all persons are possessed of equal value.  We say that they aren’t.  Somebody’s not right.  If we persist in this belief and still hold onto our confession, then the god to whom we are giving our devotion is not the God revealed in Scripture.  Showing favoritism, then, dims the veracity of our confession and brings dishonor to the name of the God we profess to serve.

The second reason James offers us for getting rid of our playing favorites, is wrapped up in his illustration in vv. 2-4.  He paints this picture of a gathering in which enters an obviously rich person and an obviously poor one.  The point he’s trying to make is this: There are situations in our lives in which the opportunity to show favoritism presents itself and we bite.  And again, the tendency on our part is to show deference to people who look the part.  I’ve recently been watching the Kennedys miniseries now running on Reelz Channel 238 if you have DirectTV.  So far I would say that it’s very much worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet.  In the first episode there is a scene in which the elder Kennedy puts his arms around his boys Joe and Jack and says to them, “Boys, it’s not what you are, it’s what people think you are.  And with enough money you can make them think whatever you want.”  We hear that and react in shock, but for how any of us is that sentiment a reasonably accurate reflection of what we actually believe.  When I was in high school I would on occasion dress really slummy when I was going to the mall with some friends just to have a laugh at the retail folks try and keep a doubly sharp eye on me so that I wouldn’t steal anything.  Another friend would go in a suit and tie with a clipboard and have a laugh at all the special attention he got to make sure he didn’t give them any demerits on his review.  Simply put: we show favoritism to people who seem to fit our mold of who’s most important.  When we do this, though, James says that we become judges with evil thoughts.  When you are standing before a judge, you don’t want a judge that’s willing to accept a bribe to let you off or who will give a nod and a wink to a wealthy and influential member of town.  We would say that is an unjust, evil judge.  Yet in the court of personal opinion, we become just this kind of judge when we show favoritism.  Such behavior brings dishonor to ourselves.

Third: Favoritism is inappropriate for believers because God has a special preference for the poor, James says in vv. 5-7.  This is hard for us to get our minds around, but it shows up all over the Bible.  Through the prophets in the Old Testament God clearly has a concern for the least, last, and lost that He does not share for the wealthy and powerful who were rejecting Him in their apparent ability to meet their own needs.  When Jesus spoke the beatitudes as recorded in Matthew 5 He said that one of the groups who is blessed and will receive the kingdom of heaven as their reward is the poor in spirit.  Luke calls them simply, “the poor.”  Contextually, this is not because they have greater value than the rich, but rather, they have the unique ability to depend on God which is honoring of Him.  Showing favoritism to the wealthy—and we’ve talked about before who’s wealthy and who’s not—dishonors both the poor and God’s preference for them.  But this isn’t all.  James closes this little section with three rhetorical questions designed to make a point.  He asks: “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?  Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?”  When oppressions come in this life, they mostly come from folks with means.  That’s just a matter of fact.  Poor people don’t have the resources to oppress anyone.  Why, then, would we want to favor or otherwise honor someone who’s oppressing other people?  It doesn’t make sense.  It dishonors the poor, God’s preference for them, and the ethos of God’s kingdom by valuing the natural—i.e. sinful—order of things.

By the way, one of the tough applications that comes out of this text is the fact that as Christians, we have a moral duty to make sure we are not oppressing anyone with our resources.  This includes any obvious way you can imagine, but it also includes things like making sure we aren’t spending money on products or with companies which are involved in oppressing the poor.  This means we should think twice before spending money with companies like Nike who have poor records as far as operating sweat shops in foreign countries to keep their prices down.  Sometimes being a good steward of what God has given us means looking for the best bargain, but sometimes being a good steward means spending a little more with a company whose business practices are honoring of God and less with one whose aren’t.

The fourth reason James offers for avoiding favoritism is Scriptural.  The simple but hard truth here is that showing favoritism is a sin.  It may seem like a small sin, but it’s still a sin.  Last summer we heard from the apostle John as he reminded us that all sin is lawlessness.  This is the point James is making here.  I recently got a chance to see the movie Courageous which will come out September 30th.  It was made by the same folks who made the movie Fireproof.  It is a phenomenal movie and everyone in here should go see it when it opens.  There is a scene in the movie, though, when a cop who has been a good character throughout the movie gets caught stealing evidence from some narcotics cases to sell on the side.  He had been doing just about everything right except this one thing.  His logic was that this one little thing didn’t matter.  No one missed it.  No one had to know.  No one had to care.  His record was clean and he was doing his job well.  You know, we often think along these same lines.  I’m doing all these other things right in my life, why can’t God overlook this one little thing?  I’m going to church, I’m giving faithfully, I’m participating in the ministries, so what if I ________.  Yet Jesus’ standard was as clear as could be: You shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.  The person dedicated to following Christ cannot tolerate even a single area in her life in which Christ is not Lord.  The person determined to live out his faith so others can see cannot stomach even a single point of lawlessness in his walk.  To miss one thing is to miss the whole thing.  We must speak and act, James says, as people who are governed by the law that allows the freedom to live life as we desire: freely doing the things God wants for us rather than secretly pursuing those He doesn’t.  Showing mercy to the poor in this world by honoring them equally alongside the wealthy will demonstrate God’s mercy’s coming triumph over judgment every time.  But persisting in showing favoritism is dishonoring of Him.

Let’s put all of this together and then we’ll get out of here.  Stay with me.  Why is favoritism inappropriate for a follower of Christ?  Well, we’ve seen that it is dishonoring of our confession because we are confessing faith in a different god than the one revealed in Scripture.  It’s dishonoring of ourselves because it makes us evil-intentioned judges.  It’s dishonoring of the poor because God has chosen them for special favor.  It’s dishonoring of the ethos of the kingdom because it shows fidelity to the ways of this world.  It’s dishonoring of God Himself because it is sinful.  In other words, showing favoritism dishonors everyone.  So how can we avoid this?  How can we keep ourselves from bringing dishonor to everyone?  Let me offer you one way.  This is a method that has worked in countless situations over the centuries, bringing people together who would normally have nothing to do with each other at all.  It is a method that puts something in front of people which when bought nearly instantly removes the false worldviews that result in favoritism.  It is a method that can be summed up in a single word: vision.  A compelling vision ennobles and unites all who follow it while showing favoritism dishonors everyone.

Let me explain this and then I’m finished.  Consider some times when a vision has brought people together who would not normally work together.  In the first and second World Wars the armed forces were segregated.  And yet, brigades of minority soldiers not only fought bravely as individual units, but also fought alongside white soldiers who didn’t care nearly as much about the color of their brother’s skin as they did how good a shot he was.  The more compelling vision was defeating the enemy.  That vision was big enough and powerful enough to draw together people from all different backgrounds and unite them under a common banner and purpose.  There were undoubtedly soldiers who were too stuck on their ideological preferences to stop caring about who was fighting next to them, but they were an embarrassment to the cause.  Showing favoritism dishonors everyone.  Or how about this one: Lisa and I had the great fortune of being at Coors Field in 2007 to watch the Colorado Rockies win Game Four of the NLCA against the Arizona Diamondbacks to send themselves to the World Series.  For the entire month of “Rocktober” it didn’t matter who you were or where you went, if you had on Rockies gear in Denver, you were a part of the team.  We were surrounded at that game by all kinds of people with whom we had absolutely nothing in common and yet we were all best friends when Todd Helton was standing in victory over Eric Byrne who was appropriately face down in the dirt having just made the last out of the series.  Indeed any sports team has the ability to unite fans from a variety of backgrounds around the single vision of winning the championship…unless you’re a Royals fan in which case it’s just misery that loves company.  A solid vision can bring all kinds of people together.  Showing favoritism dishonors everyone.

One more example and then we’re done.  Before Lisa and I arrived here, the parsonage was not ready for a family to live in it.  The entire church caught a vision of the new pastor and his family arriving and people who had not worked together for some time found themselves caught up in the excitement and energy of working towards something bigger than their past squabbles.  And if someone wasn’t on board, everybody knew it.  Showing favoritism dishonors everyone.  Vision can transform a body.  It can give fresh legs to a fledgling church.  It can empower even a body bubbling with life such that it is radiating excitement and energy at full strength.  It gives people something bigger than themselves to hang onto and into which to pour themselves.  It helps to call people out of the world of make-believe and into the glorious reality of the kingdom of God.  This is why our vision here at Central of becoming a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ is so important.  It has been showing flashes of life and movement in the last few months—some of you have noticed this and brought as much to my attention—but there is still much to be done.  This vision is all about becoming fully who God has designed us to be.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  It is about seeing each person in this room realize their God-given design and then helping them make all of this potential kinetic.  My invitation to you this morning is to get on board.  Step up and experience the life and joy available in living according to your God-given shape.  Showing favoritism dishonors everyone, but equality and life are found in vision.  Let us be a place that throws off the make-believe worlds of our childhood and continues honoring God in all that we do.