PRACTICAL WISDOM FOR (EXTRA) ORDINARY TIME
James 2:1-10, 14-17, 26
July 26, 2020
James 2:1-10, 14-17, 26
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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, 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’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 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? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit 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…
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead…For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Right out of college, when I went to work for Ernst and Whinney,
one of the “Big 8” accounting firms, as they were called, we were required to wear a suit and tie every day,
and we had to wear either a white or blue dress shirt.
If you were feeling a bit radical, you could get away with wearing an off-white shirt.
I remember feeling bold one day when I wore a light-colored plaid suit
with an ecru colored shirt and a bright paisley tie.
Even though my colleagues and I were just out of college and had little experience,
the partners in the firm wanted to ensure that when we entered a company,
we would look very much the part of professional auditors.
Because if we looked the part, we would receive the respect we needed to do our jobs.
People will treat you differently based upon your appearance.
This is no secret; this is nothing new. As long as anyone can remember in human history,
this has been the case.
Real estate agents joke with one another about the cars that they drive,
because they want to appear successful when they take clients to show houses.
Lawyers, though they may dress casually all week long in the office,
will still dress up for the courtroom, maintaining a sense of decorum and professionalism.
Has anyone among us not dressed up for a job interview? How about that first date?
There is no question that the world quickly judges someone and determines how to treat them
based simply upon their appearance, upon the clothing that they wear or the automobile that they drive.
The question is: does this behavior belong in the Church of Jesus Christ?
Is this behavior fitting for those who call themselves Christian, who seek to follow the ways of Jesus?
In the second chapter of the Letter of James, the message is quite clear:
any favoritism based upon appearance, any partiality based upon a person’s social class or wealth,
has no place in the Church. Favoritism and a living faith in Jesus Christ are incompatible.
But, you will say, of course there will be distinctions between people!
We cannot help but make distinctions. We cannot help but notice the differences between people,
and those differences can be important!
How people appear gives us information about how we should act around them.
And should we not be concerned about our own appearance, how we come across to others?
When I was working with United Way as a loaned executive from the accounting firm,
this wonderful woman, who happened to be blind, assisted every year with the United Way campaigns.
She would regularly give talks at various companies in order to raise funds for the agencies.
I remember her saying that there was a particular blessing and a curse in her blindness.
The curse was that she never knew what she looked like.
She was an attractive woman, but before she left the house, she could never just look in a mirror
to ensure that there wasn’t some food on her face, or that her hair was out of place.
She could never tell if the clothes she thought she had matched with the special tags she used really did match.
It could be a curse to not know what you looked like, to not know how you appeared to others.
The blessing, she said, was that she also did not know what others looked like.
When she first met someone, she told us, she did not, she could not, judge based upon their appearance.
Her impressions of others were based entirely on their voices, and on how they treated her,
on how that other person made her feel.
This, she said, though certainly challenging in many respects, was ultimately a blessing,
an unexpected blessing of blindness. And her close friendships covered an array of different persons.
As the Scripture says, the Lord judges a person not by what is on the outside, but by what is on the inside.
The Lord looks first at the heart and its motivations.
In I Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel was sent to Jesse’s farm to anoint one of his sons as the future king.
Samuel took one look at Eliab, the eldest, and said, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before (me).”
“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…
for the Lord does not see as mortals see;
men and women look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
So Samuel proceeded to listen to the Lord as he passed by seven strong, strapping older sons
and then he said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?”
Jesse replied, “There remains yet the youngest (the eighth son), but he is keeping the sheep.”
When young shepherd boy was brought before Samuel, the Lord then said to Samuel,
“Rise and anoint (this boy David); for this is the one.” (I Samuel 16:1-13)
The Lord looks on the heart. To treat people differently based on worldly standards,
like appearance or birth order or gender or wealth, is to be at odds with the ways of the Lord.
Perhaps you can remember a time when you found yourself in some situation
where you were less dressed up than everyone else,
or for whatever reason appeared “different or felt “less than” everyone else in the room?
How did you feel in that moment? How did others treat you?
Did the treatment from anyone in that space either help you or hinder you in that situation?
To put the shoe on the other foot, have you ever found yourself noticing someone
who seemed improperly dressed for some situation,
or who may have seemed to be from a very different background than everyone else in the room?
Did you wonder how they felt in that moment?
Did the treatment from you or from others in that situation help them or hinder them in any way?
Whether it is the board room or the school lunch room or the tennis court or even the sanctuary of a church,
most of us are well aware of expectations of how we and others are “supposed” to dress,
or what kind of person we are “supposed” to look like.
There is no doubt that men may have it easier in this regard, but men have their own rules as well.
Try showing up to the golf course wearing work boots,
or try showing up to a Harley motorcycle event wearing khakis and a button down.
At a downtown restaurant, a man wearing shabby clothes will not be treated the same
as the man wearing a coat and tie.
At the high end stores at Lenox Mall, the woman wearing the thrift store dress
will not be treated the same as the woman who is dressed in the latest fashions.
This behavior was true in the first century, and it remains true today.
These judgments related to what we are wearing have to do with our perception of our social class,
where we place people on the social ladder,
how we understand the subtle, yet pervasive “caste system” that we carry around in our brains.
The Letter of James recognized that any catering to the rich and any treating the poor with less regard
would result in a significant breaking of God’s law, the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
I read not long ago that “if the poor cannot find a place and feel comfortable in our churches,
then perhaps our churches have lost their connection to Jesus Christ.”
We could alter that quote to say: “if (anyone who looks different from the majority)
cannot find a place and feel comfortable in our churches,
then perhaps our churches have lost their connection to Jesus Christ.”
James, the brother of Jesus, claimed that favoritism based upon appearance is sin,
and has no place in the church or among the people of the church.
When I got dressed this morning, I decided to wear a black shirt today instead of a white shirt.
I decided that I would wear a robe for this worship service instead of shorts and a t-shirt.
I decided that, for at least another week or so, I would sport this scraggly beard,
though Melanie is ready for it to go!
But friends, I could not decide this morning what color of skin I would wear today.
This skin that I “wear” is not a choice; this is what I was born with.
This is not something I can change, though a few days on the beach or a dangerous tanning bed
might may make a temporary difference.
This white skin is part of who I am.
This gray hair and black robe and short stature is part of who I am.
And people will make all kinds of assumptions about me based upon these characteristics.
But I ask you not to prejudge me or my character or my motivations or my potential based upon these things.
I appeal to you – to look upon me as the Lord looked upon young David out in the fields.
Look upon my heart; seek to understand my motivations; pay attention to my values.
And seek to do the same for one another, and for every person you meet.
Vernon Gramling and the other pastors and I have had some good conversations lately
about the danger of “dark assumptions”.
When we encounter other human beings, we tend to make assumptions about that person
based upon our prior experiences or our prejudices.
Some of those assumptions will be generous, and some will be negative or “dark” assumptions.
This is a very natural thing to do, these assumptions can be extremely difficult to avoid,
even impossible to avoid, especially if one has been harmed in any way,
but allowing these assumptions to rule our thoughts is not a fair or an equitable or even a Christian thing to do.
We often look first to what makes other people different from us, or frightening to us, or intimidating to us –
the color of their skin, their gender, their age, their education level, their place on the social scale, and so on –
instead of looking first upon their heart,
instead of gazing first upon another human being as a beloved child of God.
A young preacher, a few years before I was born, shared a dream that he had,
“a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” he said.
He had a dream “that one day this nation (would) rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
(He had) a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia,
the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners
(would) be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…
(He had) a dream that (his) four little children (would) one day live in a nation
where they (would) not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a powerful dream, a dream that is still being hotly tested and resisted to this day.
The Letter of James has been said to be “strong medicine, hard to swallow.”
But I like to think of the Letter of James as hopeful medicine,
as a strong and helpful corrective to the Church,
as a powerful reminder to a faith that can so easily be led astray
in a world that lives by such different rules and values.
Friends, we will do well if we simply remember and live by what James calls
the “royal law according to scripture – You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (James 2:8)
To God be the glory in the church, and among all of God’s people, wherever they may be. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Gench, Francis Taylor. James and the Integrity of Faith. Horizons Bible Study, PCUSA, 1992-93.
Gutzke, Manford George. Plain Talk on James. Lamplighter Books, 1969.
Johnson, Luke T. The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. by Leander Keck et. al.,Volume XII, Abingdon, 1998.
Tamez, Elsa. The Scandalous Message of Faith. Crossroad, 1992.