Christian Snobs?

Third in a series on the book of James,
Delivered July 29, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: Impartiality

Sermon Text:
James 2:1-13
1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.
2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes,
and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in.
3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say,
“Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or
“Sit on the floor by my feet,”
4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the
eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
6 But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?
Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?
7 Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your
neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point
is guilty of breaking all of it.
11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.”
If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,
13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been
merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

A family had gone to the movies and the younger son stopped for popcorn and a drink and said, “I will see you in the theater.” By the time he got into the theater, the lights were dim and he could not find his family and so as perhaps some of you and I have experienced, he went walking up and down the aisle looking, trying to bring it his eyes adjusted to the. As the feature started to play the lights grew even dimmer. He became more hopeless about finding his family in a crowded theater. And finally, he just stood right in the middle, popcorn in one hand and cola in the other and said, “Does anyone recognize me?” You know that’s the way some folks come into churches and I think many guests and many visitors and dare I say some members walk in and maybe they don’t say it out loud, but in their hearts they say, “Does anyone recognize me?”

Actually the same problem occurred in James’ day. And it was even worse, because some folks came in and they were recognized and they were told to sit behind the door. Robert Bella, an Episcopal lay-person and professor at UC Berkeley in Sociology and coauthor of Habits of the Heart, paints a gloomy picture of American socioeconomic life. He describes three classes–an over class living, in his words, in “the safety of the elite suburbs.” The underclass, quarantined in surroundings that are unspeakably bleak, and a new anxious class trapped in the frenzy of effort it takes just to preserve standing. Now whether or not we agree with these categories, I think we will all agree that wealth or lack of it is a great dividing wall. That social status, or lack of it, in every culture is a great dividing wall. And James in essence is trying to help us knock holes in that wall. He is saying in effect that authentic Christianity is marked by a spirit of impartiality regarding social status. When this text uses the word favoritism, it literally means “one who lifts up a face, one who regards an appearance.” He is basically trying to bring it us not to do that by his teaching.

In verse 1 James says, “My brethren, don’t show favoritism. Don’t show partiality. Don’t be a respecter of persons.” In verse 9, he says it point blank. “If you do this, you are sinning.” And in verse 4 he says, “Those who make these kinds of distinctions have allowed evil to take over in their lives.” Let me share with you the dictionary definition of a snob. One who snubs people whom he or she considers social or intellectual inferiors. One who possesses a smug or superior attitude. One who imitates persons of social status. So I think we would all like to say that the term Christian snob should be an oxymoron. You know oxymoron-those words that are put in contrast, but because of that contrast negate their meaning. Like the term “cruel kindness.” Or often people try to pin me down or ask me about a certain thing and I will say, “that’s a definite maybe.” And you have all heard the one about “jumbo shrimp,” of course. And “cowardly lion,” and “corporate conscience” and a “paid volunteer.” These are oxymorons. Well “Christian snob” ought to be an oxymoron, but in James’ day, unfortunately, it was not. I think we would all agree that there is a part of us that finds it difficult to cultivate what is called the grace of openness. I mean we try, but still there are corners of our lives where we obviously gravitate to that which is powerful and rich and we shy away from the poor and the powerless. And every congregation has a story. Every congregation that I have been associated with has a story of struggling to break down dividing walls, whether they are racial, economic, whatever. In the church I used to serve we had a soup kitchen every Saturday and as I think I might have shared with you before, it seemed like there was 100 miles between the soup kitchen in the basement and the sanctuary on the second floor. And at one point it got to where folks became comfortable enough that they actually started coming to worship, but you could almost feel the tension, because they just were not like us. And nobody ever said, “Sit behind the door or sit in the worse place,” but maybe a few moved a couple of pews over. So all of us have to ask God’s help to cultivate the grace of openness. To those who accept that it is a struggle, James makes a least three positive arguments or gives three imperatives, as it were for the cultivation for this kind of grace; so that we might guard against partiality on the basis of social status or lack of it. And so let’s look at those arguments:.

The first one again, is found in verse 1. “My brothers as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” The first point he makes by emphasizing a title to Jesus, probably one of the most exalted titles in the New Testament. “Our glorious Lord Jesus.” There is some textual variance here and some want to translate it, “Lord Jesus, the Glory.” But its probably adjectival the way the NIV translates it. Our glorious Lord Jesus. When a Jewish person, (these are the folks that James was mainly writing to,) thought about the word “glory” what immediately came to mind? The kind of glory where God appeared in the temple. When God appeared in the temple in all of his glory no one could do anything other than bow in humble adoration. Everybody and everything else that was around just faded into the background. Nobody even cared who was there. It’s the same way that earthly things diminish when we start to think about the glorious Lord Jesus in whom we have our faith. Maybe you have heard the well worn joke that bring its the point across the point of how foolish it is to be impressed by the falseness of earthly glory. A man with two suitcases came to Peter at the pearly gates and having been a salesman he talked Peter into doing something that Peter never did. He would never let stuff bring it in; he only let people bring it in. And the salesman talked to Peter and said, ” Aw, come on let me bring it in.” Peter said, “Okay.” Well it got around among the angel band and they said, “Peter let somebody in with stuff.” And they all started talking about it and finally one of them asked the guy to open up his suitcase and there were gold bars. He closed it up and walked his way and one angel said to his fellow angel, “What is the big deal about paving stones?” Now that’s not that funny, it just says that it is ridiculous to be focused on the false glory of earth, when we have faith in a glorious Lord Jesus of heaven. And that is exactly what was happening in the book of James, with the people of James. They came in, they saw a man with a gold ring and fancy outward appearance, and they were drawn to him immediately and started to make distinctions. Rabbinical teaching said that as soon as those kinds of distinctions among people began to be made, that the shekina glory of the Lord would leave the temple. Think of it. The Lord Jesus is richer, more powerful, more glorious than any other. He forsook the riches of heaven to become poor. He came among his own people. But his own people didn’t receive him. They didn’t know who he was. James is basically saying, “You know, that’s what we do to the poor that God sends into our midst. We can be like those who are rejecting Jesus.”

This past week the Templeton Foundation sent me a book called, The Hand of God. I suppose they sent tens of thousands of other pastors this book, too. It’s a wonderful book and one that I will keep and cherish for a long time, because it’s so beautifully illustrated. It contains pictures taken from the Hubbell telescope. And there is one picture in here that really got my attention. It was described as one of the best shots of the farthest reaches of the universe and it said that even the Hubbell telescope could only take a portion of the universe, that was about a dime in size, and if you could imagine looking at a dime from 75 feet away, that’s about all that the telescope could take a picture of. But in that picture were 1,500 galaxies, millions of light years away. That’s just one little dime size picture. And I thought to myself the Lord who created all of this, is more glorious and more awe inspiring than the very thing that he created and yet he condescended to us. When a person of limited means or status comes in and we make discriminations, we fail to see the Lord of glory.

The second imperative that James speaks to us about is found in verse 5. He says, “Listen my brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom?” God’s view of the rich and poor is very different from ours. And those who distinguish among people, are on a different wave length than God. We’re not translating the way that God translates. And this is hard to understand. It reminds me of a story about a United States Army general who was telling a story in Japanese through a translator, and the punch line of his story was, “Show me, I’m from Missouri.” Now, the translator knew that there was no way his audience would understand what he was translating. And so he simply said in Japanese, “The general has just told a joke, and I will be in trouble if you don’t laugh.” And so the people obligingly laughed. In the same kind of way, when we read the verse that says, “Has not God chosen the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom?” It’s, exactly like what is being spoken here. What are we supposed to understand? All through the biblical record, God shows himself to be the protector of the poor, of the oppressed, of those in need of deliverance, and he sends prophets to proclaim social justice to those who had forgotten it. We can make the mistake, James is saying, that Peter made when he had a dream about clean and unclean things. Remember when the sheet came down from heaven and the Lord said, “Bring it up Peter and eat.” And he said, “No lord, I will never eat anything unclean.” Do you remember what God said? He said, “Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.” And that was a hard thing for Peter to adjust to. But in a similar way, God is saying through James, don’t reject those whom God deeply accepts. God is no respecter of persons, how on earth can we be? God doesn’t love the poor, because they are poor. Let me be clear about that. But because God is compassionate, then God knows that the poor usually tend to be poor in spirit and seek God’s help unlike self-sufficient folks. It’s not that we are to treat wealthy people in a negative way. It’s just that he is saying, treat all people with equal respect and kindness.

The third point, the third imperative that James is trying to bring it across in terms of helping us to experience the grace of openness is this–It’s found in the rest of the chapter and specifically in chapter 12. He says, “If you really keep the royal law found in the scripture, love your neighbor as yourself, you’re doing right.” The point is this–that we are debtors to Gods love. We are debtors to Gods mercy, and as such we are to demonstrate the same. Jesus taught us in the parable of the Good Samaritan that anybody who is in need is our neighbor. And to love our neighbor regardless of social status. And there was a social status issue in the parable between a Jewish person and the Samaritan. He is fulfilling the royal law. Now why is it called the royal law? Love your neighbor as yourself. I think for two reasons. One because it was given by the king of kings. And two because it is the king of all the Old Testament laws. Obviously it’s in context with, “love the lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” But in terms of social law keeping, this is the king of all the laws. And in fact, Jesus made it even stronger when he said, “You shall love one another as I have loved you, sacrificially, indiscriminately, inclusively.” It reminds me of a story I heard, actually I swiped it from a book, a Max Lucado book. He tells a story (and he even says in the book that it’s probably gone through 15 different revisions, and so it’s probably not the real story anyway.) But it’s a good one. He talks about a guy who was shopping at a commissary. He only had to buy a little bread and coffee. This was on a military base and behind him in the aisle was a woman who had a cart full of groceries, clothing, and even a VCR. As he got to the checkout counter there was a plastic fishbowl on the counter and the checkout person said, “Reach in and grab a piece of paper. There is one piece of paper among all of these that says that if you pick it out, everything you buy is free.” Well he tried, he figured he wasn’t going to bring it it, he reached in and pulled it out and surely enough, it read, “You get free groceries and goods today.” He couldn’t believe it, and then he looked in his hands and all he saw was a loaf of bread and a can of coffee. He looked at the women behind him and said, “What do you know honey, we just won everything. We don’t have to pay a cent.” She is staring at him, and he winks at her and finally she catches on and she slips her arm through his and stands there very proud, “wedded at the counter”. And yes, they shouldn’t have done that, they were a little deceptive, but the point is this. Do you think that the next time that woman is in the checkout counter and somebody comes up a little short with a few dollars, that she might cover it? I think so. But here’s another thought. If she didn’t cover it, what would you think? God has put out lavish grace, love and mercy upon us. When we extend the grace of openness to others, we are basically showing gratitude to Him, passing along an obligation of love.

And James goes on to say that are not only we debtors to love, but we’re debtors to mercy. He says when we show favoritism we are convicted lawbreakers. And he goes on to say that if we just break one point of the law, that we have broken everything. Dwight L. Moody use to illustrate this text by saying if you were hanging from a chain with ten links in it over the side of a cliff and all ten links broke, would you fall to your doom? And of course the answer is yes. Well how about if just one link broke? Would you still fall to your doom? Yes. And that is what James is saying. If you break one little law, you have broken everything. Now imagine that. We are people who are constantly are breaking the laws of God. I mean we all know that we commit sins, and we don’t do things that we should do. And the scripture text says that we are going to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Now, if we’re standing before the judgment seat of Christ, what’s that about? We are in. Right? “We are not going to be condemned,” the scripture says, “if we trust in Christ.” So what is the judgment seat about? I think it’s about, love your neighbor as yourself, love one another as I have loved you, how did you do with that? And so, James is trying to bring it across the point, your in constant need of mercy in this life, your going to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and thank God we know that Jesus is going to merciful. How on earth could we not extend and demonstrate mercy and grace and openness to all who are in need of it?

Has a doctor ever allowed you, in the course of your lifetime, when you go for a checkup to listen with the stethoscope? Well one woman who was a pediatric nurse and later became an author, Sue Kidd her name is, talks about a young patient whose heart she was listening to and then she let him put the stethoscope in his ears, he was only 4 years old and his name was David. She said, “Listen, what do you suppose that is?” And he tightened his eyebrows and he was deep in thought and he smiled and he said, “Is that Jesus knocking?” I wonder when we hear about this area that is so challenging for each of us, if Jesus isn’t knocking. If he is not saying, “You’re closing yourself off.” You know that is written to Christians. “Behold I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” We close off parts of ourselves to others and to the Lord in doing so. And he is knocking today and he is saying, “let me into this area.” This area where racial prejudice still exists. Where it’s easy to make class distinctions. He’s knocking. And don’t just let me in, let the people in. Through whom I come to you. Whom you find difficult right now to accept and to love. “Let me in,” he is asking. If you do of course, you will be fulfilling the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus in a blessed way, to your benefit, as well as to the benefit of those around us.

Let us pray. Gracious Lord, we thank You so very much for Your love and mercy towards us. Who can thank You half enough? And yet Lord we again confess that we have not accepted those whom we find different. Help us. Help us to be hospitable in our spirits, in our congregational decisions, in everything we do so that the world might know that You have been sent. For we ask it in Your Holy name. Amen.