My Favorite Things
My Favorite Things
Text: James 2:1-13
In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sings, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens; Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens; Brown paper packages tied up with strings – These are a few of my favorite things.” We all have our favorite things, favorite foods, favorite flowers and favorite pictures. We even have our favorite people. Our lives are enhanced by these sorts of things. And we have reasons for preferring them. The beach is my favorite place – a bad day at the beach is better than a good day anywhere else. I’ve found the beach to be a place of relaxation and meditation. It calms me. The sound of the surf seems to drown my cares and anxious thoughts and gives me time to ponder. I love chocolate, but I prefer a good dark chocolate. To some degree, perhaps, it is our favorite things that define life for us and even define us as individuals.
We don’t all like the same things. I know that my taste for dark chocolate is not matched by everyone – some of you prefer milk chocolate or even white. I know that not everyone likes coffee. Some people prefer Coca-Cola and some prefer Pepsi – while others don’t like soda at all. Some people like Fords, while others, for some inexplicable reason, prefer Chevys. I’m kidding, of course – everyone knows that Buicks are best.
And, while we’re at it, let’s admit that we like some people better than others. We have friends that we enjoy spending time with, and there are people we don’t want to be around at all. Some we enjoy; some just annoy. We share interests, and we share favorite things. We like to go to the beach with people who like to go to the beach. We like to share chocolate with friends who like chocolate. We prefer to worship with people who prefer to worship like we do. We gravitate towards people who share our theology and our history. None of this is wrong, but it can create problems. One of those problems is that it’s hard to get new people into the group – particularly if they don’t share our history or our preferences. Think of it from a gamer’s point of view – how difficult would it be to get someone to join your role play game who didn’t know the game, or didn’t like role play. Or maybe you’re into one kind of game, but they only know a different game. You want to be friends and you want to enlarge your group, so how do you introduce them and include them – and make them feel like they want to join. How do you convince them that role play is fun? How do you teach them the rules so they know how to play? And, how do you include someone who doesn’t want to play, but for other reasons does want to be a part of the group? One more question: how do you get complete strangers to join your game?
This may help us to think about how hard it is to get strangers to join the church, to worship with us, to learn our theology and our history, but there is a difference: Becoming a believer in Christ is a matter of eternal destiny. And we are commanded to reach out to unbelievers, invite them in, and help them to become disciples of Christ just as we are. Your eternal soul does not depend on your role play game, but it does depend on your relationship with Christ. So, in obedience to the Great Commission and the commands of Christ, we have to set aside our “favorites” in order to reach those outside.
James’ words here, though, mean something more than just our favorite things and our favorite people. Favorites are okay; favoritism is not. Favorites, to be honest, often divide the church. We gather in circles with our cliques, our favorites, and leave out the others. And James’ point is that the gospel is not just for our favorites.
In James, the issue is rich versus poor – those whose station in life allowed them leisure and those whose survival depended on begging or manual labor. It was the same problem Paul encountered in Corinth - 1 Corinthians 11:17 and following, where Paul charges that church gatherings do more harm than good. One division, in particular, had to do with rich versus poor – when they gathered for the Lord’s Supper, Paul says, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Church dinners – some filled their plates and ate well, while others went hungry. The wealthy, with time to spare, gathered early and ate. The poor, who had to work till dark, came late and found the food gone, or had to clean up the scraps. And Paul, angrily asks, Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?
That’s not a condemnation of church dinners or kitchens. It’s a condemnation of the discrimination that was occurring and still does in the church. The first in line pile their plates high with no regard for those who come late. The first in line throw away the food they can’t finish, while those who come late are scraping the serving dishes for leftover scraps. That’s not Christian. That’s not a church dinner. That, Paul says, is despising the church by humiliating those who have nothing? In Paul’s day, it was the difference between rich and poor – the rich could afford to come early and be first in line; the poor had to finish their work and ended up last in line.
James writes to the whole church, perhaps because the problem had become more widespread, and there was general discrimination. James’ “suppose” probably happened more than once – suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes (a rich man), and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you pay special attention to the rich and escort him to a seat of honor, and ignore the poor and make him sit in the back or on the floor, James says, you have become judges with evil thoughts.
There is humanity in every one, the same God-created breath and life. All are born and all die. James refers to Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ... Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:3, 5-6). God has chosen them to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom. God lifts the poor. God provides for the poor. The poor often make better use of their meager resources.
It’s the rich, those lovers of money, who drag you into court to extract what you can’t pay.
In his day, a poor man in debt could be sold into slavery, his family sold in to slavery, or be consigned to debtor’s prison to “repay” his debt. Who was he in debt to? Some rich man. The rich were abusing the poor. Society itself was unjust. To bring that into the church, James declares, is blasphemy. It defames the name of our Creator. It denies the dignity God gave to every person. We don’t get to do that in the church.
We have to ask ourselves: who are the “rich”? And who are the “poor”? It isn’t always economic. Who are the ones we prefer to join us in church? Who would we just as soon not have with us? Do we honor or reject based on ethnicity, sexual preference, or age? Do we exclude the homeless, the ethnic, or the physically challenged? We have turned people away because they weren’t “our kind”. I understand affinity, but our affinity is Christ, not race, not economics, not tattoos or hairstyle. Would you understand if I told you that I am deeply troubled by “specialty” churches? Biker churches, cowboy churches, ethnic churches, contemporary churches. I understand the draw those have, but any time we draw those sorts of circles we leave people out. And whenever we imply that someone is not welcome in the Body of Christ, we have committed the sin of blasphemy - of telling someone they are not worthy. We have set ourselves up as their judge.
What is the remedy? James reminds of what he calls the royal law, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. James steps on all our toes when he says that if we violate that law, we are as guilty as if we had committed adultery or murder. It doesn’t matter which law you break, if you break the law you are a law-breaker. If you violate the Second Great Command, Love your neighbor, you are as much a sinner as the other. Outside the fence is outside the fence no matter how you got there. We need a moment to understand Love your neighbor, I think. The problem is that our society at large has a rather weird notion of what love is. We mistake feelings for intention. I mentioned last week that we are often more concerned with feelings than with thought. Here’s where the problem lies for us: we think we have to like someone, to have tender feelings for them, in order to love them. In fact, I’ve heard people question, “How can I love everybody? I don’t even know everybody!” We think that we have to know someone, like them, have tender feelings for them, before we can love. That sort of love, eros, is a feeling. It is a matter of sense, sensation, preference – which is why we can love chocolate, or love Beethoven, or love barbecued ribs, or love the perfume of a lilac.
I love Dr. Tom Oord’s definition of love. And, by the way, we aren’t talking about eros, sensation, preference. The word James used is a form of the Greek agape (ἀγάπη), rarely used outside the Bible, but the word Jesus always used to talk about love, and appropriated to refer to the sort of sacrificial love Christ demonstrated for us on the cross. It is the highest form of love, a sacrificial, altruistic love. Dr. Oord wrote: “To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.” 1
To act intentionally, not based on feelings or knowledge, in response to God, God’s command, and others, the needs of people, to promote overall well-being, for the betterment of others. Not just their happiness. That’s why we discipline our children - to promote their well- being. That’s why we build hospitals - to bring healing. That’s why we send food to people we don’t know in times of famine or disaster. We act, not out of feelings, but based on need. We don’t know them, but we act in love – even though we don’t always recognize it as love. We act intentionally for their well-being. That’s why we are patient with the old lady counting out coins in the check-out line. We recognize her need, and place her need over our feelings. That’s why we offer meals and clothing to the homeless. That’s why we send missionaries to places where Christ is not known, and tell our neighbors about Jesus and invite them to church. That’s why we give the poor the same consideration in the church as we give the rich. That’s why we limit ourselves at potluck so others can also enjoy the desserts. We need to learn and understand what it’s like to be at the end of the line, what it feels like to be last.
We act that way because the Royal Law is interpreted by Jesus in what we know as the Golden Rule - treat others the way you wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12), not the way you are being treated, not the way you have been treated, but the way you want to be treated. By the way, in searching for that verse, I discovered that it is actually a summary of much of what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Love your enemies – seek their well-being, which is not the same as their success. Love those who persecute you – seek their well-being. If you only love those who love you, how are you different from the pagans?
Live as if you were going to be judged by the same law. Be patient with that old lady in the check-out, because someday you may be in her place wishing people would be patient with you. Stop to help a stranded motorist on the freeway, because you may someday be a stranded motorist. Feed the hungry because you may one day be hungry – or perhaps because you already have been and someone fed you. Be gracious because you have already been shown grace. Forgive because you have been forgiven – or because you may someday need forgiveness. Invite someone to church because someone invited you. Welcome a stranger because you were once a stranger.
I know this sounds harsh: James finishes with, judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Too many Christians have set themselves up as judges, critical and condemning. James’ words come as a warning – our own judgmental behavior will result in judgment against us. But our mercy will result in God’s mercy toward us. We will be shown grace because we show grace. We are forgiven because we forgive. And, do you notice the theme? Our faith results in good deeds. And we are blessed for what we do.
Love the poor as much as the rich; love the lost as much as the found. Let Jesus be seen in us. And let all be equally welcome at the table of Christ.
1 Thomas Jay Oord, Relational Holiness (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2005), p.73