August 16, 2015
Exodus 23:1-9, James 2:1-13
Really James?! Really, you actually expected people to follow your advice and treat the poor like they treat the wealthy? Really? This is not the way the Roman world works. The Roman world is divided into two categories, those who have and those who have not. And the Roman world only works when those two groups follow the socially acceptable protocol. That protocol is that the wealthy act as beneficiaries of the not wealthy…ok, the poor. The wealthy, whose numbers were, by the way, even smaller than our own one percenters, had the obligation to share their wealth with the community. They built roads, endowed temples, provided for the festivals and when times were tough, extra bread for the masses. This is where the phrase “bread and circuses” came from. In exchange for their largess, the masses would bow, scrape and otherwise give the wealthy their appropriate admiration. It was a system that had worked well for hundreds of years. So why in the world James, would you expect it to change in the church? After all, chances are the church only exists, again, because of the largess of the wealthy. Surely you really didn’t expect anyone to listen, did you?
Really James?! Really, you actually expected people to follow your advice in the 21st century? Really? This is not the way things work in the American world. After all, churches have bills to pay, staff to support, buildings to maintain and mission to do. The way the church has operated to make this happen is….well, like Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. It is a church with about ten-thousand members and a five-thousand seat auditorium. The rules are clear. If you want to meet the pastor…not have dinner with him…but meet him, you have to join the $10,000 club. Only those who give more than that amount have any access at all to the pastor. Cornerstone works like another mega-church in San Antonio where my former internist went. It was new and fast growing . When the pastor found out that my internist tithed off of his income, making him one of the largest givers, he was always being asked for his advice, taken to lunch and otherwise held up as the paragon of faith…something by the way which actually bugged him. But, James this is the world. So did you really expect people to listen?
The short answer is, yes. Yes James did expect people to listen and he did so because he was a good Jewish Christian. And just a reminder here, all of the first members of the church were Jews who believed in Jesus as messiah. They did not see themselves as a founder of a new religion.
James expected people to listen because he was a good Jew and as a good Jew he knew his Torah. And part of that Torah was the passage we read out of Exodus this morning. What we need to note out of that section is that every human being was to be given equal respect, dignity and justice. People were not supposed to favor any one person or any other person over another regardless of standing. As the passage states, people are not supposed to be favored because they have money, they are wealthy, nor are they to be favored because they are poor, because the judge feels compassion for them. This is the heart of the Torah that all persons stand equal before God and are therefore to be treated equally in the community. There is a great piece of Jewish Midrash, or legal interpretations where Rabbi Ishmael says, “If before a judge two men appear, one rich and another poor, the judge should say to the rich man, either come back dressed like this man, or dress him like yourself.” This is the way James expected the church to operate, as if every person had equal goods and equal standing. He expected it because it was what the Torah called for.
James also expected it because he was a good Christian. He did so because this was the model that Jesus laid out for his followers. Jesus understood the way the Roman world worked. There were patrons and there were those who were to bow and scrape. Jesus however never allowed those expectations to define his manner of life. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He fed the poor as well as had dinner with the wealthy. He showed no prejudice toward one or the other. When people say that God has shown prejudice and that God and Jesus have a special place in their heart for the poor, what is meant is not that God and Jesus loved the poor more than the wealthy, it means that God and Jesus cared for the poor because they were the invisible ones, they were the ones who were forgotten, abused and oppressed. God and Jesus worked to even out the scales. Their desire was that the captives go free and the poor be lifted up and the powerful be brought down…so that they stood in the same place. This was the world which Jesus gave his life for, one in which every human being is shown the same respect, and especially shown the same respect inside the Jesus community.
If we are willing to admit it, this is not always an easy thing to do. But it is possible. And I know that it is possible because of you; because of you the members of First Presbyterian Church. Each week I see you welcoming people almost to the point I can’t get you to be quiet for the music before the service. Each week I hear from visitors who remark as to how friendly you are. And this is especially necessary for us because we have cast ourselves as Everybody’s Church. And we have done so not because we think everyone will want to, or ought to, go here but because everyone who walks into our doors is welcomed with open arms regardless of any worldly condition. I ask as well because part of our vision statement is that we are an inclusive church, again meaning inclusive of all who come here. Let me read you our inclusion statement again. It reads…As Everybody’s Church, we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the participation of all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance. In other words we have committed ourselves to being a James’-like church.
The challenge before us then is to continue working on being the kind of church James describes. It is not to rest on our laurels and assume that we have arrived…because the instant we do that we have lost our way. My challenge to you this morning then is to ask yourselves, “How am I helping Everybody’s Church, be just that, a welcoming church where we offer everyone who enters here the respect that they deserve as children of God?”