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Showing No Partiality

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
September 9, 2012

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

James 2:1-10, 14-17


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.  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 (NRSV).

Back in the spring of 2000 something happened to me that I’m still trying to figure out:  I was called to serve as the seventeenth pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC.  I was 41 years old at the time, living and working in Wingate, North Carolina, a college town of about 3,000 people.  To make the move from Wingate to Washington seemed like a pretty big deal, and not only to me.  A reporter from the local paper called the next day, wanting to know more.  We talked about the church for a while and I told her that it was the church Harry Truman had attended when he was president, the church where Jimmy Carter had been a member, and where he had taught a Sunday school class from time to time.   “Gosh!” she said.  “What do you think it will be like if the president comes while you’re there?”  I took a deep breath and said, “Well, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t treat the president any differently than I’d treat anybody else, that if I were talking to a four-year-old girl after the service and he was next in line he would just have to wait his turn.” 

I would like to think that, but I don’t know.  The president never came to First Baptist while I was there.  We did have a U. S. Senator one day and the church was all abuzz.  I tried to treat him just like everybody else, but it wasn’t easy.  He was the Senate Majority Leader.  I’d seen him on television a hundred times and suddenly there he was, standing right in front of me, sticking out his hand, thanking me for the sermon.  I was a little star struck.  If James the brother of Jesus had been standing there beside me he might have said, “Jim, do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  Can’t you see that if you make a fuss over the U. S. Senator, but not over the homeless woman who’s next in line, you’ve made distinctions, and become a judge with evil thoughts?”  But it was hard not to that in Washington.  Somebody would take you out to Sunday brunch at the Cosmos Club and there, at the next table, would be Condoleeza Rice.  You’d go to an open forum on DC statehood and find yourself standing next to Senator Joe Lieberman.  You’d walk into Starbucks on 18th Street and bump into George Stephanopoulos on his way out.  Is James saying that I’m supposed to pretend that I don’t know who it is?

No, James is not saying that.  James is simply saying that you are not supposed to treat George Stephanopoulos any differently or any better than you treat George the janitor, and that is hard.  I think it’s hard for churches, even though we’ve been hearing these words from James for as long as any of us can remember.  When people with money and power show up at church we tend to be impressed.  We show them to the best seats in the house.  We make sure the pastor greets them after the service and whisper in his ear, “Good prospects!”  And, frankly, when people show up who don’t have money or power, people who haven’t bathed in a while and whose clothes are wrinkled and dirty, we tend to be suspicious, watching out of the corner of our eyes to make sure they sit quietly, somewhere in the back of the room.  It’s hard not to “make distinctions,” as James says, and “become judges with evil thoughts.”

It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.

When my daughter Ellie was born I was sure that there had never been a more beautiful baby.  I compared her to the others in the newborn nursery and pointed her out to complete strangers.  “Look at that one,” I would say.  “She’s gorgeous, isn’t she?” And they would nod politely and smile and then I would add, “Of course I am a little bit biased.  I’m her dad.”  And they would nod again, and smile as if they didn’t already know that.  As the months went by I became even more convinced that she was the prettiest, smartest, funniest little girl in all the world.  I would tell stories about her in my sermons and quote the latest thing she had said.  But then her sister Catherine was born, and I faced a dilemma.  For three years I had thought Ellie was the most beautiful baby who had ever been born, but now I was looking on the face of this little stranger named Catherine and thinking, “She’s every bit as beautiful as her sister!”  And as the months went by I discovered that she was every bit as smart and every bit as funny.  I came to a point where I realized that even though my daughters were far superior to all other children they were not superior to each other.  And when it came to my love for them I found that I loved each of them exactly the same.

That’s still true. Although Ellie and Catherine are very different from each other my love for them is exactly the same.  You could heave it up onto a scale, if you had one big enough—you could weigh my love in tons and pounds and ounces, and each time, for each girl, you would get the same number.  That’s just how it is with parents and their children, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.  That’s certainly how it is for God.  We are all his children and he loves all of us the same.  How do you think he feels when we make distinctions among ourselves, when we choose to show favoritism toward people with money and power and dismiss those who have neither of those things?  Do you really think those outward circumstances make any difference to the father’s heart?  If one of my daughters ended up living in a penthouse on Park Avenue in New York and the other ended up living in a homeless shelter in Hell’s Kitchen would my heart not go out all the more to the one who needed my love the most?  And that’s what James says about the poor.  He says, “God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith, and to be heirs of the Kingdom he has promised to those who love him.” 

And that’s true; the poor are rich in faith.  And do you want to know why?  Because they have to be.  Because when one of their children gets sick they can’t just take them to the doctor and write a check.  They have to pray that God will heal them.  Poor people have to depend on God a whole lot more than rich people.  They have to depend on him for food and clothing and shelter, and as they do, time after time, they find God dependable.  Every time they trust him with their needs they lay up treasure in heaven.  Some of them have piles and piles of treasure in heaven.  They are poor by the world’s standards but rich in the eyes of God!  He has chosen them.  And when one of those heirs of the Kingdom comes to church, one of those princes disguised as a pauper, and we shun him, ignore him, push him aside—how do you think it makes the Father feel?

That’s why James says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  For me that would mean standing outside the newborn nursery, looking in at my child, and realizing that she is not the only gorgeous one.  They are all gorgeous.  They are all God’s children.  Which means that when they grow up and move in next door they are not only my neighbors, they are my brothers and sisters since I, too, am a child of God.  “Now,” James says, “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?”  And that convicts me, because I can think of too many times when I as a pastor, or we as a church, have said something almost exactly like that.  And that’s when James says, “Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  It’s one of the most shocking statements in the New Testament, but I want us to hear it, and I want us to think about what it does to the Father’s heart if we gather for worship in this big, beautiful building on the corner of Monument and the Boulevard to say prayers, and sing hymns, and hear sermons, and then drive home again without doing one thing for our needy neighbors.  James would ask: “Can that kind of faith save you?” 

You might say that it can.  You might quote Paul who said that we are saved “by grace through faith and not by works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  I believe that that’s true, but at the same time I don’t want to stand before the Father someday and say that I did nothing for his children in need.  In this same chapter James quotes from the Ten Commandments, saying, “The one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’  If you don’t commit adultery but you do commit murder, haven’t you broken the law?” (vs.11). In the same way, if you don’t actively do anything to harm your neighbor but don’t actively do anything to help him, haven’t you broken the law?  Do you want to stand before the Father someday and say you did nothing?   That’s just one of the reasons that on this day we are launching a year-long, every-member mission trip to Richmond, Virginia.  Some of our neighbors, right here in this city, are in need.  Some of God’s children, whom he loves just as dearly as he loves your children, don’t have enough. 

I keep quoting this statistic, but I learned recently that nearly 39 percent of the children in Richmond are living in poverty.  39 percent!  That’s nearly two-fifths of the population.  If you had five children, but only had enough food for three of them, would you be able to send the other two to bed hungry at night?  Again, how do you think God feels when some of his children are going to bed well-fed, well-loved, tucked in between clean sheets, while others are tossing and turning and trying to ignore their hunger pains?  Which children do you think are going to be ready for school the next day?  Which ones do you think will perform well on their end-of-the-year tests?  There’s a fundamental injustice there, and I’d like to think it’s one we could do something about.  I’d like to think the members and friends of First Baptist Church could use their considerable influence to make a difference.  If, by this time next year, we had brought that percentage down by even a single point, if it were 38 percent of the children living in poverty rather than 39, we would have made some progress.  The Kingdom of Heaven would have come one inch closer to Richmond, Virginia. 

And, of course, that’s just the beginning.

As you’ve heard me say over and over again, “There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth.”  Caring for our needy neighbors, and trying to reduce the numbers of children living in poverty, is one way, but only one way.  I want you to find your way, and in this year, especially, I want you to do it.  There is a project list in the hallway and on our web site, but I want you to feel free to come up with your own project.  I want to be able to stop any of you in the hallway and ask, “What’s your way of bringing heaven to earth?” and listen with a smile as you tell me.  This year especially we want to focus our efforts on this place we call home, this place we love, this place God loves, and the people he calls his children.  I’d like to believe that by the end of this year the Kingdom of Heaven will have come noticeably closer to Richmond, Virginia, and that it will be because of you.

I’ve asked you to imagine that this building is an enormous bus, and that we’re all on it, and that we’re getting ready to go on a mission trip.  Well, we’re on that mission trip now.  And in just a few minutes this bus is going to come to a stop at the corner of Monument Avenue and the Boulevard, and the doors are going to swing open, and we’re going to step off the bus and onto the mission field.  This is the beginning of Week One, and at the end of this week we will have pictures to show and stories to tell.  And then we’re going to begin Week Two.  And so it will go, week after week, month after month, until this time next year, when we will look back and ask, “Did the Kingdom of Heaven come any closer to Richmond, Virginia?  Is there one less hungry child in our city, one less homeless person?  Is there any old lady whose life has been touched by the love of Christ, any young man who has found his way home?  Are the streets any cleaner, is the sky any brighter, are there any more songs being sung?”  I have a feeling there will be, and that we will look back on this moment as the beginning, as the time when we not only heard but also did the word of the Lord.

“Thanks be to God!”

—Jim Somerville 2012

 
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