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June 21, 2020 Sermon – Living the Christian Faith: Live Impartially

June 21 2020 Sermon
“Living the Christian Faith: Live Impartially”

Scripture Readings

James 2:1-7

2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For 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, 3 and 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,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

James 2:8-13

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

“Living the Christian Life: Live Impartially”

Last year, I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institution as a chaplain at the Disciples House.  If you’re not familiar with the Chautauqua Institution:

  •  it was established in 1874 – so even older than our congregation;
  •  it’s located in Chautauqua, New York;
  • It was founded by two people – an inventor and a Methodist bishop – as a teaching camp for Sunday school teachers;
  • It has become a nonprofit education center and resort for adults, typically with nine themed weeks of education each year;
  • It emphasizes the arts, education, religion, and music, with daily morning lectures emphasizing a social, political or academic issue and afternoon lectures emphasizing a religious or political topic.
  • There are opportunities for worship each and every day.
  • Many denominations, including ours, have what are called “denominational houses” on the grounds.  These houses afford members of the denominations an opportunity to spend the week with others from their denomination across the country, usually at  a significantly lower price than at the other lodging facilities on the grounds.  And these denominational houses offer their own worship, Christian education opportunities, and fellowship gatherings throughout the week. 

So, last year, I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institution, and I lodged at the Disciples House, where Susan and I acted as co-chaplains for that week. And during that week, the chaplain for the whole institution, the person who preached at the daily worship and offered a lecture on religion, was Dr. David Anderson, founder and senior pastor of Bridgeway Community Church, a multicultural, multicampus megachurch in Maryland

In one of his talks, Dr. Anderson suggested the best way – maybe the only way – to move past racism in this country, this world even, is grace…people of color allowing grace to replace anger and frustration and hate with white people and white people allowing grace to replace anger and frustration and hate with people of color.  Dr. Anderson preached grace – and what he calls gracism – as the solution to racism.

Later in the week, Dr. Anderson provided an afternoon lecture in which he talked about his experiences in life that led him to his conviction that grace is the only way to effectively end racism.   After the talk, there was a time for Q & A, during which one of the listeners asked a fascinating question: did Dr. Anderson have a recommendation for how the Chautauqua Institution could become more multicultural?  It was a great question.  One of the things I haven’t told you yet about the Chautauqua Institution is a strange juxtaposition between what the Chautauqua community expresses itself as being and believes itself to be and at least one manifestation of what it actually is.  You see, one of the ideals of the Institution is to be a place of affordable education for people who cannot afford the high price of college tuition.  At the same time, entrance to the grounds for a single week costs $565 per person, and hotel accomodations outside the denominational houses cost hundreds of dollars per night.  In fact, there’s no way Susan and I could have afforded to attend had we not worked as chaplains for the week…and we’re not exactly a low income couple.  And another ideal of the Institution is to champion the many causes of social justice, including diversity and inclusion.  Yet, when you walk the grounds, even if you walk the grounds looking for diversity as Susan and I did, outside of people like Dr. Anderson who are invited to lead lectures and workshops, you will be hard-pressed to find many – or ANY – people who are not white, upper-middle to upper class folks.  Back to the question asked of Dr. Anderson:  did Dr. Anderson have a recommendation for how the Chautauqua Institution could become more multicultural?  To which Dr. Anderson replied: if everyone who comes to Chautauqua invites a person of color to attend with them next year, Chautauqua would look and become much more multicultural in the short span of one year.

I’ll talk more about the reverberations of Dr. Anderson’s response a little later.  For now, I’ll remind you of where we are in our sermon series for the first two months of the season after Pentecost.

Starting two weeks ago, we’ve entered into a two-month long sermon series about the New Testament book called James.  It’s a letter written by someone named James, a leader of the early church, very likely Jesus’ half-brother who seems to have led the Christian Council at Jerusalem.  And this book – this letter – written to Jewish Christians in difficult times, it focuses on HOW to live the Christian faith – individually and collectively – any time but especially amidst troubling times.  And, as I mentioned at length last week, we, First Christian Church, Grand Junction, find ourselves amidst troubling times.

Today, we discuss the first 13 verses of James chapter 2…which is sandwiched in between our two readings from last week, two readings about how our Christian faith MUST be manifest in action in order to be real.  As James wrote, we are to be “doers of the word”, and “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Since today’s reading is placed between these two readings about faith requiring action, we can expect today’s passage to be closely related, very likely providing some indication about how this action should manifest itself.  And, it does.

Onto the text.

I’ll start with the general shape and movement of the James’ words here.  James begins chapter 2 by describing a situation in which the Church is NOT acting out of what it believes but is rather doing the opposite.  James describes a scene in which two people enter the assembly.  They enter, and the gathered assembly treats them with partiality, according the richly attired person with every worldly honor (to sit close and in a comfortable place) while treating the shabbily attired person with scorn and degradation (made to sit “there” – far away – or in a position of submission.)

Why would such a thing be bad?  In the 1st century, it’s what people did.  It’s what the Church did.  What could possibly be WRONG with that?

Well, James invokes what he calls “the royal law of scripture”.  He quotes Leviticus 19 (remember, the scriptures in the first century were what we call the Old Testament): “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  So…we might be tempted to think James is referring to the Old Testament EXCLUSIVELY – he mentions “law” and quotes Leviticus.  We might be tempted to write James’ words here off as a nod to the legalism of the Old Testament that Jesus changed.  But that’s NOT what James was doing.  Notice, when he referenced the law, he used a strange phrase: “the royal law”.  In other words, he was invoking the law not of the book but of the king.  Which king?  He had already mentioned “Lord Jesus Christ” and “heirs to the kingdom”.  Y’all, with the words “the royal law”, James wasn’t talking about the law of Moses that cannot save but rather the law in the kingdom of God Jesus came to usher in that CAN save; he’s talking about Jesus’ new commandments, of which “love your neighbor as yourself” is clearly one.  He’s talking about the law of love, or, as he indicates at the end of this passage, the law of mercy.  

Which brings us around to the point of the passage: the law of love, the law of Jesus, the new covenant, REQUIRES that we do NOT act out of what gets translated as either “favoritism” or “partiality”.  Anyone who acts out of favoritism or partiality “you commit sin” and is “convicted by the law [of love] as transgressors”…words that function as James’ way of turning his initial question into a statement:  anyone who acts out of favoritism demonstrates that they do not REALLY believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ 

And what does “favoritism” or “partiality” mean?  In our English translation, this is two different words; in the Greek, it’s only one word – or rather, one root word that gets used as different parts of speech.  The word’s meaning is bound up with the notion of evaluating a person on the basis of that person’s outward circumstances instead of upon that person’s inward merits.  In modern parlance, it’s what we tend to call “discrimination” – treating a person differently than you treat others on the bases of race, sex, socioeconomic status or ANY outward trait.  (By the way, it would be easy to think James was ONLY talking about socioeconomic status due to the example he gave, but he was NOT.  The scripture and royal law James presents TRANSCEND the example and apply to any form of partiality, any form of evaluating based on outward circumstance.)

And James’ point about this partiality couldn’t be clearer: in the kingdom of the WORLD people treat others with partiality; in the kingdom of GOD, people do NOT.  And, problematically for the Church in James’ time, the Church was living in the kingdom of the world with respect to this criterion, at least as far as socioeconomic status was concerned…which calls us to ask the question: what about US?

By the way, there’s one more thing in the text I’d like to mention: the way James presents the situation, the people who act out of partiality are doing so FOR THEIR OWN BENEFIT.  They treat the outwardly wealthy better with the expectation they will get something beneficial in return.  In one of the most remarkable aspects of the example James cites, he reminds the Church that the wealthy end up oppressing the Church.  James wasn’t making this claim as a general statement that the wealthy will always oppress the Church; please don’t hear it that way.  James’ point was that the people to whom you show partiality typically end up turning on you so that acting out of partiality is really LESS beneficial than acting out of impartiality.  THAT is the kernel of truth James offers about the consequences of discriminating – it does YOU more harm than good…which is a great reason to avoid it!

That was then…this is now.  

So, I’ll spend the rest of the sermon speaking about actions in the modern world and how our actions CAN and SHOULD reflect the impartiality of the Kingdom of God rather than the partiality of the kingdom of the world (the kingdom of people).  

Let’s start with partiality on the basis of race, ethnicity, or skin color.  We’ve come all the way back around to Dr. Anderson’s response at that lecture in Chautauqua a year ago.  Clearly, Chautauquans were inviting people who looked like themselves to attend….because most people looked pretty much alike.  So Dr. Anderson’s suggestion was radical – invite people who DON’T look like you if you want to change the composition of Chautauqua attendance.  As you can imagine, this became a topic of discussion around the table in the Disciples House.   In the Disciples House that week, I discovered something about the most outspoken social justice warriors in our midst; they lived in a gated community, surrounded by wealthy white people.  In fact, they told me they NEVER came into contact with people of color in their daily lives, so, while they applauded Dr. Anderson’s suggestion, they felt exempted from it because they didn’t have any relationships with people of color.  In other words, in JAMES’ words, these self-proclaimed social justice warriors were living in a way that was OPPOSITE their stated belief.  What can be done?  For starters, they could move. Any of us could move to a place that’s more diverse.  But, it’s really bigger than that; it’s more whole-life encompassing than that.  

Y’all, if we want to live consistently with the Christian ideal, the law of love that commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself”, we’ve got to remember Jesus defined even the reviled Samaritan – from a tribe/race that had what I’d call a “blood feud” with the Jews – as the neighbor, we’ve got to remember Jesus said to actively go and seek out and actively love people who are not at all like ourselves; THAT is the kind of love Jesus was talking about.  So, to end partiality on the basis of race, ethnicity, or skin color, in order to actively show NO partiality you’ve got to go out and pursue relationship with people of all races and colors equally.  For Jesus, that meant inviting himself to dine with tax collectors, spending time with lepers, even getting OUT of Judea and helping gentiles.  Today, for YOU, it means you’ve got to mix up your daily routine…because for most of us, our daily routine keeps us close to people who look like us and prevents us from encountering people who don’t look like us.  Back in Jesus’ time, it would have been easy for Jews to proclaim they didn’t discriminate against Samaritans by simply never entering Samaria…that’s not good enough for Jesus’ law of love!

By the way, before I move on to the next kind of partiality that’s prevalent today, let me suggest that actively building relationship with – YOU going out and working to build relationship with – people who are different from you in ANY way is one of the best ways to live impartially.  Treat EVERYONE like you treat your best friend, and you WILL live impartially.  

Partiality on the basis of socioeconomic status.  James addressed this with his example, so we should consider it for today.  Just like those Chautaquans who lived in gated communities with others who were very much similar to themselves socioeconomically, we all likely find ourselves surrounded more by people who are like us in social status than those who are NOT like us.  We live in neighborhoods where the houses – or trailers – are similarly priced to ours and so require the residents to have incomes similar to our own.  Even the hobbies that lead us to find new friends tend to draw people from similar socioeconomic places.  For example, you don’t find many poor people playing polo…or dabbling in the pastime of sipping expensive whiskey – they are priced out of these hobbies.  What can we do; what should we do?  Jesus’ law of love CALLS you to actively treat everyone the same, regardless of social status.  Most of us probably think we do…but, let me ask you: how many close friends do you have from a wildly different socioeconomic status than yourself?  The way to change this is to start actively engaging in conversation – trying to build relationships with – people from ALL classes alike.  If most of your friends are from one class, seek and find friends from some others.  Go to places where people who have less than you have gather; these places aren’t difficult to find or spot. (By the way, I get that this sounds like partiality – actively approaching people on the BASIS of their class.  I get it.  I don’t recommend it as a permanent solution but just as a way to get yourself moving.  Ultimately, what you want is to be comfortable approaching people of all classes equally.)

Partiality on the basis of political party affiliation.  I know, I’m getting into prickly territory here, but, please, hear me out.  I’m not suggesting Jesus demands you to become besties with people whose views about politics are vastly different from your own.  Doing so has nothing to do with the kind of partiality James wrote about – people’s political views are inward merits.  What DOES have to do with this kind of partiality is ANYTHING that prevents you from real conversation with people from another party, anything that prevents you from discovering their inward merits.  You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about: giving labels like “white supremecist” or “elitist” or even “bad/evil” to people just because they claim a particular political party, proclaiming you cannot even have a conversation with someone from a particular political party, telling people they MUST be getting their news from a source you deem “fake” because they disagree with you as a way to stop discussion before it starts.  Y’all, living by Jesus’ law of LOVE calls us to treat people who affiliate with an opposing political party equally to those who claim our own party, our own team, at least long enough to be in relationship with them, to listen to them, to learn enough from and about them to make a proper evaluation.  So, instead of living in an echo chamber of people who outwardly proclaim by their political TEAM of choice agreement with you, seek out conversation with people from ALL political parties prior to making your evaluation of the PERSON.

I’d really like to be able to discuss other sources of partiality – being partial to people based on existing friendships, familial status, denominational affiliation, sex and gender, and so many more – but there’s just not time.  I hope you can see that James’ prescription, Jesus’ prescription, for all of these will be very similar: build relationships with all kinds of people representing all different kinds of outward differences, get out of the bubble society has created around you to keep you closer to people who are like you (and be aware that such bubbles exist), and work diligently to build relationship with people who are different from you.  

When we start recognizing how much we allow outward circumstance to direct with whom we build relationships, and when we begin enough relationships with all different kinds of people to allow something ELSE – inward merits – direct the relationships we build, then, THEN we will be living out Jesus’ law of love that commands us to love ALL our neighbors, love all our neighbors as we love ourselves.