James 2: 1-17
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. 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
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.
James 2: 5-7, 14, 17
5. ἀκούσατε ἀδελφοί μου ἀγαπητοί οὐχ ὁ θεὸς ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ πλουσίους ἐν πίστει καὶ κληρονόμους τῆς βασιλείας ἧς ἐπηγγείλατο τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν
6. ὑμεῖς δὲ ἠτιμάσατε τὸν πτωχόν οὐχ οἱ πλούσιοι καταδυναστεύουσιν ὑμῶν καὶ αὐτοὶ ἕλκουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς κριτήρια
7. οὐκ αὐτοὶ βλασφημοῦσιν τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς
14. τί τὸ ὄφελος ἀδελφοί μου ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν
17. οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ ἔργα νεκρά ἐστιν καθ᾽ ἑαυτήν
Preference is a dangerous word. I have many things in life I prefer over another thing. I prefer my coffee sweetened with cream, or in the case of espresso, cut with just a little milk. I prefer the BBC and NPR to other news sources. I prefer hot mix pepper to sweet. All these simple statements of “This, more than that,” make up the basic inclinations of a person’s life. It is natural to develop predilection, but it is also one of the most dangerous tendencies of a person’s soul. This is often the case, something natural and even good can easily become twisted. Beatitude and curse living shoulder to shoulder.
The preferences with which we mark out our life are meant for these small things. They become dangerous if they go beyond the way or substance of how things are done or made and become the feelings we have toward people or groups. Preference is the word we use for things, but the only English work that can convey the same idea toward people is prejudice. Partiality toward one group over another, if it goes beyond matters of taste or honest disagreement, can only be negative. If nothing else, partiality for one thing is nearly impossible to exist without animosity for another.
This does not mean there will not be natural things that endear some people more quickly to us than others. The nature of friendship is often found in a moment of realization which C.S. Lewis captures in saying, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” Shared interests, similar backgrounds, all manner of life experiences, all of these can start us off on a better foot with those around us. The end result of that initial impression is a jumpstart to relationships, it is the ability to hit it off with people we can relate to. It is, all the same, another dangerous precipice of a gift we are given. The allure of people who are too like us creates insular communities; we become unsure how to reach out because all around us are mirrors reflecting our own views backward.
Next month we will look into some of our more destructive habits associated with the preference we show toward certain groups as we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Today, we look at one of the more subtle ways we contribute to prejudice in life – namely, through our tendency to show preference to those who have something to offer us and our ambivalence or outright distain for those with nothing to give us. This is what James highlights directly in our scripture and what we, 2,000 years later, have not gotten much better at rejecting it now than we were then. Our preferences in much of life are rooted in self interest and none are clearer than our preference for the “right,” sort of people.
The early church was initially a group made up almost exclusively of the poor. The disciples were all poor by birth or by choice, and while it did not take long for some well-to-do individuals to join their ranks, the central identity of the Church was impoverished, marginalized, and powerless. As time went on this make-up fluctuated back and forth. While the poor made up the bulk of membership throughout history, the leadership of the church shifted into higher socio-economic levels. This disparity could be remedied by humble ministers and elders, but it had a definite impression on the culture of the Church.
Lest we let ourselves see this development as a purely systemic problem of the church, I invite us to turn back to James and his words, just a handful of decades after Jesus’s ministry. James looks at his audience and sees them giving preferential treatment to the rich in their community. These are not just wealthy church members, but anyone in the community with wealth and power. James points out, bluntly, that the well connected and well off are the same people who actively persecuted the church. Those who were given the place of honor at a Sunday brunch were the same people to litigate the church at the next civil court date. The people of God were chasing after the powerful, the wealthy, and the influential because they saw something “in it,” for them.
Perhaps, I am not being generous enough to our first century siblings. There were likely those in the early church who saw their neighbors with influence as good people to have on their side. Money can pay for a lot of things, filling bellies and providing for those without. Similarly, a high rolling community member joining the Church could solve some troubles of reputation. A local politician or businessperson would normalize Christianity for more people and in a way distinct from others with fewer connections.
These inclinations, though rooted in good intent, ultimately betray those who get out to act upon them. Firstly, wealth and power corrupt more than they heal. To chase after the rich and see them as a means to an end is to invite them to rule over the Church, to recreate society within sanctuary. Power enables those who have it to pursue what they want, and all but the strongest people can resist that. Beyond any negative impact these good intentions might have, to chase after the approval of the rich in this way, ultimately objectifies them. They cease to be people and become line-items; we fail to expand a community in exchange for refining a program.
This all played out on a grand scale in the fourth century when the newly crowned Emperor Constantine legalized all religions in the empire and especially elevated Christianity. Though never fully converting, the emperor gave fortunes to the church, his Christian mother traveled the empire to collect relics, and he gave bishops room to speak in the public square. He was even the one to call the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council since Jerusalem and the moment that marked an imperial Christianity that was intimately tied to money and power.
We today live in a waning period in the history of the Church. As religiosity largely decreases and the size of churches stagnates, we must go back to basics and ask, “What went wrong?” If we look at some of the most common reasons given for people leaving the church, we will see no small part of our troubles coming from who we have shown partiality toward. Since Constantine, and perhaps even before, we have looked to power and money and seen them as the way out of our troubles. We say, “If we only had a bit more money,” or “If only I was the one in charge.” We take these “what ifs,” and pursue them through worldly means.
The purpose of the Church is not to be in charge. Nor to have a great deal of money. It is to “[preach the] pure word of God… and [to see] the sacraments duly administered,” and to gather all the world together in service to one another. Does this sometimes require interacting with secular authority? Yes. Does it require money? Of course! However, neither of those are to consume our focus. They are only truly important to us as they augment our mission. We cannot bring heaven to earth by inviting the ways of the world into the Kingdom of God.
James lays out the situation we find ourselves in plainly. When we deny a spot at God’s table for the poor and those who can offer us nothing in exchange for those who have money and means, we are sinning through prejudice. When we look into our community and see liabilities, strangers, and expenses rather than our siblings, we sin through our lack of moral vision. When our only hope is to stumble upon a wealthy donor to magic away our troubles, we sin through idolatry as blatant as any Asherah.
The truth is that the Church has been trying to be a political organization on one hand and a business on the other for too long. While we must be efficient, responsible, and transparent in our administration of the local church, we must not see it as anything but a mission center of Christ. Here work is done, and people prepared for the Kingdom, little else matters than that. Likewise, though members of a church must be active in politics so as to promote the common good, we are not a partisan institution. Neither should we strive to dominate through legislation when the Spirit provides more power than Babel ever could.
By posturing itself as the worst parts of society, the Church in America has fallen from grace alongside those other pillars. We don’t trust those in political office, nor the Church that often serves their interests in an attempt to gain favor. We don’t trust businesses, they only want to make money, not even usually to render an honest service. The American Church, not quite a political lobby and not quite a business empire, has suffered as much as either in recent decades.
Yet, hope remains. In the same way we as individuals are never beyond God’s grace, so to is the Church universal never broken beyond repair. We have to push beyond where we currently stand into new territory. What would it look like if we privileged the poor around us over the rich among us? What if we, blessed with abundance as we are, truly gave all we could to those who struggle around us? What if the mission of the Church was centered once more on feeding and doing and moved away from simply thinking and praying? A truly alive faith does the work of God wherever the Spirit calls and the Spirit calls from every empty cupboard and rundown house around us.
James asked a difficult thing of his audience all those centuries ago and the same hard work is still in front of us. Can we ignore what people have for us and instead simply see them as they are? The discomfort this lodges in our gut is rooted in a simple realization. The journey from well off church goer to just another person seems like a much further drop to us than we imagine it would elevate those who are unlike us. We see ourselves standing on mountains and all other people standing in deep valleys. Yet, James offers us a means to get over this perceived inequality.
In the midst of his petition for the people to cease their privileging of the rich, James goes on a quick tangent to discuss how judgment and mercy interact in God’s economy of Grace. James says that partiality is a sin in violation of love of neighbor. To sin in this way equalizes us with any other transgressor. This is said, not to excuse the villain, but to convict the saint. We may see ourselves as greater than the least of these, but as James puts it, God has chosen the poor to be heirs to the Kingdom. We are no better than the needy and in truth, we must step down from the crude throne we have made for ourselves if we wish to draw near to the throne God has made among them.
We prepare now to share in the table of God’s grace. Hopefully, the full weight of its observance sits upon us now. We prepare to take thin wafers and sour juice and see in it the body of Christ. We will leave this place invigorated by the Spirit to be the body of Christ. The real test of our faith will be in how we live out our life in the time from now till we next take part in this meal. Will we have seen the face of Christ in those around us? Will we invite them in to sit beside us at this table, not for want of attendance or tithes, but to fulfill God’s will and turn the kingdom over to those it is promised to? The table is set for all, let us see to them receiving not only their invitation, but their full due. – Amen.
 C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves.
 The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church. Article XIII