Skip to content

Faith and Favoritism

September 8, 2015

“Faith and Favoritism” James 2:1-17 © 9.6.15 Ordinary 23B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

These days Jane Curtin is back in her old “Saturday Night Live” “Coneheads” make-up for a funny State Farm commercial, teaming again with Dan Aykroyd. But from 1996-2001, she starred in a wacky sci-fi comedy called “3rd Rock from the Sun.” Curtin was a college professor named Dr. Mary Albright, sharing an office with colleague Dr. Dick Solomon, played by John Lithgow, who was really an alien masquerading as a human. One episode has Dr. Albright trying to get into an exclusive club in her town. She hosts a party in her home for the current members of the group, hoping to ingratiate herself with them and be invited to join their network. Of course, her nutty friend Dr. Solomon invites himself to the gathering and is an instant hit. But not because he or Dr. Albright is truly accepted by these people. Rather, the snobs who belong to the club are looking for amusement, and Drs. Solomon and Albright have provided it. Dr. Solomon, because of his outrageous behavior. Dr. Albright, because she has tried so hard to impress and curry favor with the chic and rich.

The believers addressed by James were tempted in the same direction as Dr. Albright. The presence of rich politicians and nobles in their congregation, even if just visiting, made them feel important. “What an honor, Senator!” they would gush. “So glad you’re here, Mr. Councilman.” “May I get you something?” “Do you a favor? Oh, I’d be glad to.” There was prestige in being able to say that so-and-so had come to the church, Senator X or Triumvir Y had sat in this very pew. I guess as long as there was a perceived benefit like bragging rights to be had, the members didn’t mind being a bunch of obsequious suck-ups, usually known by a more earthy term.

But there was more to it than looking for status. Like any congregation then or now, the church needed money for operating expenses and caring for the needy. And, again like most then and now, they never had enough. But what if one or two or three benefactors could be found, persuaded to join the church? Then their troubles would be over! Also, since these men—and it was men in those days—since these men were typically in positions of power, they could introduce members to other important figures who knew still others, who could grease the wheels of government when some zoning problem came up or who might sing the praises of the congregation in the community.

The problem was that by currying favor with these particular rich men, the church was skating on some very thin political ice. The Emperor at the time of the epistle was the infamous Domitian, the same man the book of Revelation (contemporary with James) calls the Antichrist. The senators, like the ones who visited James’ church, were opposed to Domitian. You see the potential difficulty. The Roman senators used the church to build their powerbase against Domitian, who was rightly opposed as a monster, but it meant that the congregation could be the target of persecution by the Emperor and his minions, who were definitely not cute little yellow critters wearing goggles. Believers and senators, in using each other, both ran great risks. And James begs the flock to come to their senses. No. More than that: to come back to Jesus, who is their true Benefactor.

Perhaps the author’s exhortations would have had a different tone if rich and poor were treated the same. But in currying favor with the rich, the congregation ignored, even mistreated the poor who came into the church. The reasons are obvious. The poor have no resources to build the budget. They have no influence in the community. They can’t get anyone privileges or the desired membership in the right club. And their very presence is an embarrassment. “Look at how he’s dressed,” someone will say. “Doesn’t he know you wear your best on Sunday?” “Why doesn’t she fix her hair?” chimes in another. “We can’t have people looking like that in worship.” The favoritism wasn’t even subtle. It was blatant, overt, cruel.

It was also sinful.

Somehow the people had missed that point. To them sin was robbery or murder, things other folk did, that you heard about through the neighborhood grapevine or saw on the evening news. They didn’t seem to grasp that ignoring other people or paying attention to class distinctions instead of faith was also breaking God’s law. Indeed, character assassination and demeaning others by making them stand in the corner because they were poor were tantamount to murder. How? Like murder such attitudes and actions devalued human life. They made it a commodity governed by the laws of economics rather than the liberating law of love. At least that’s the way you would look at it if you actually believed what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.

Here’s one adventure in missing the point. During my pastorate in Kentucky, a lady ran to me one Sunday morning before worship. A man dressed in work coveralls and looking a little rough around the edges had entered the sanctuary and sat down in a pew. As I’ve told you before, this was an affluent, stylish church in a pricey neighborhood, so we didn’t get many folks dressed in blue-collar work clothes. “That man needs help!” she cried hysterically, pointing to the newcomer. So, I dutifully went and greeted the guy. Turns out he was in town from another state on some contract work and didn’t bring any dress clothes. But he was well-educated, articulate, had a family back home, and was even a Sunday school teacher. But purely from his appearance, the woman thought the man was homeless and probably out to steal the chalice on the communion table to pawn for liquor cash.

My church member was a mean-spirited, narrow-minded conservative, the sort of person who gives all conservatives a bad name, especially among ill-tempered, closed-off progressives. At the same time they’re criticizing people like Lee for being intolerant and cruel, they will tell you that they themselves are uniformly sweet, broad-minded, and guided only by reason and love. Well, “it ain’t necessarily so.” as the old Gershwin song told us.

For evidence, how about this? In the summer of 2006, in my capacity as Associate Exec for Campus Ministry, I represented Mississippi at a small conference of student leaders and their advisors from across the church. No one from any of our schools attended. If they had, they would have felt left out, even the most liberal of them. I certainly did. None of us could have passed the litmus test for openness. What really got my goat, stuck in my craw, whatever you might say, was an incident in the middle of worship the last morning as we are about to celebrate Holy Communion. We were singing a song I had written using the traditional text of the Sanctus, from the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, which says in part “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Many of you have heard a later version of the tune. Suddenly, the worship leader just stopped everything because two girls on the front row weren’t singing. This was out of a congregation of 80 or so. Apparently, they were offended by the gender-specific language, the “he,” which they were too uneducated in worship to know referred to Jesus, not to them. The leader then implied to the group that I had written an exclusionary song, which would have been a cardinal sin in those circles. Rather than give me a chance to explain the source and meaning of the words, she invited people to change the lyrics, which I had only adapted from ancient liturgy. I felt publicly dismissed and hurt. I was offering a gift that I had no obligation to offer. I didn’t have to lug my guitar and amp around, didn’t have to share a song that I was very proud of. My art, and by extension, I myself were rejected out of stupidity. The worship leader basically said to me: “Stand over there or sit at my feet. You’re not worthy.”

Exclusion is a sin of the right and the left, no matter what the rhetoric. I suspect we’d like James just to go away. We’d be happier if his diatribe had never finally made it into the Bible. He’s simply too close to the mark. Favoritism is still with us big-time. And quite often it still has to do with money. Or if it’s not based on money and class, then it’s gender or age or lifestyle or ethnicity or race or any of a dozen other ways we figure out to distinguish ourselves from each other. But James insists that everybody in the church is or ought to be on a level playing field. The richest member who practically funds the personnel budget single-handedly has no more claim on God or the ministry of the church than the youngest child who puts in a quarter in Sunday school. No more claim. And also no less. The disgruntled and hurt person who rarely participates, who complains about the hypocrisy and insensitivity of this or that member, is entitled to pastoral care and is loved by God along with the ruling elder who serves with distinction on the session and in the community. The college guy who dyes his hair green or the college girl with multiple piercings is listened to as well as the most conventional of kids or adults. There are standards, yes, but the standard is the love of God in Jesus Christ, whose grace is generous and just.

Learning not to show favoritism and living that creed is one of the most difficult parts of our journey of faith together. It seems in our nature to be tribal, to be suspicious of others not like ourselves. It’s as if our DNA predisposes us to curry favor with those we think will do us and our organizations good. But the church is supposed to be a demonstration of new possibilities given by God beyond those tendencies and those behaviors. None of us is there yet, and probably won’t be this side of heaven. But we can pray toward our goal, and we can sing toward it, and work for it, with God’s help. We can share the vision of the hymn writer Thomas Troeger and accept this challenge and call: “O praise the gracious power that tumbles walls of fear and gathers in one house of faith all strangers far and near. O praise persistent truth that opens fisted minds and eases from their anxious clutch the prejudice that blinds. O praise inclusive love encircling every race, oblivious to gender, wealth, to social rank or place. O praise the living the Christ with faith’s bright songful voice! Announce the gospel to the world and with these words rejoice: We praise you, Christ, your cross has made us one.”


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: