Sunday, September 10, 2006

No Favorites!

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on September 9 and 10, 2006.]

James 2:1-10
It happened on the streets of Cleveland this past Monday afternoon. But it could have happened in any city anywhere. [As the picture from England to the right attests.] We had just visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and were walking on East Ninth away from the lakefront toward the garage where we were parked. Ninth was packed with traffic heading for an Air Show at the lake. We crossed Ninth at Superior, where Saint John the Evangelist Roman Catholic cathedral sets.

At the corner, we went to the other side of Superior, just across from the cathedral. In the middle of the sidewalk there, at 2 in the afternoon, lay a homeless person covered in a heap of blankets, asleep. Only a small gray head poked out at the top. Next to the heap was a pair of shoes. We passed by him or her as far away as we could without actually stepping into the street. We had no idea what sort of person we might encounter had they been awake. And I must confess that I didn’t want to find out.

There are poor among us. Maybe not homeless, but poor. And it’s hard for we well-intentioned white middle class Christians to know how to respond to them. They evoke a maelstrom of conflicting emotions within us. Many times, we’re downright afraid of the poor, of being used by them or worse.

And yet we know that the Lord Who died and rose for us, Who accepts us we are in order to mold us into who we are to become, has commanded us--not suggested, commanded us--to love God with all our whole beings and to love others--even the poor--as though they were our very selves.

A few years ago, a Lutheran pastor on vacation was asked by his fellow Lutheran clergy to conduct a little experiment. They wanted to see how their congregations would react if someone like the person we saw sleeping on Superior Avenue in Cleveland showed up for worship at their churches.

So, their colleague went a few days without a shower or a shave, let himself get a good case of bed head, then put on his worst clothes, and headed to several different churches for Sunday services. In none of the churches did anyone say, “Hello.” No one shared the peace of God with him. No one offered him a program when he arrived or a coffee during fellowship time. It was as though he didn’t exist.

What a contrast those reactions were to one encountered by former President Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter in Brooklyn a few years back. The Carters, deeply committed Christians, were in Brooklyn to help build some Habitat for Humanity homes. Rosalyn Carter remembered that a Lutheran pastor who had once lived close to their home in Plains, Georgia was now serving a congregation in Brooklyn. So, she and Jimmy and about forty Habitat volunteers went to that congregation’s building on Sunday morning only to find that worship was finished and the worshipers were milling around, coffees in hand, for fellowship time.

Undaunted, former President Carter walked up to a man, flashed his trademark grin, extended his hand, and said, “Hi, my name is Jimmy Carter.” This small Lutheran congregation in Brooklyn, New York went a little crazy, as you can imagine. When they learned that the Carters had wanted to worship with them, the whole congregation offered to go back to the sanctuary to do the entire service over again. And that’s what they did.

Now, I personally can’t throw stones at the churches that ignored that pastor-turned-impoverished man. After all, this past Monday afternoon, in the shadow of the spires of a great Christian church, I saw a homeless person and didn’t wonder how I might help him or her and I didn’t even pray for them. I walked around them and silently wished that our paths hadn’t crossed.

And I can’t throw stones at the congregation that went through worship a second time for former President Carter and the other Habitat volunteers, either. They were being hospitable. But do you think that would have happened if Jimmy Carter had just been a peanut farmer from Georgia? I sort of doubt it. We do tend to go a little more out of our ways for some people than for others, don’t we?

The words of our Bible lesson for today couldn’t be clearer in their intent. James, the earthly brother of Jesus, is calling his fellow Christians--and all of us who confess Jesus as Lord and King today--to live out the love for neighbor that the “royal law” of God commands of us. He condemns Christians who show preferential treatment for the wealthy...or for any other group of people.

James also asks us to take note that it’s often the poor who are able to see our need of God far more quickly than those of us with regular incomes, homes we own (even if we’re co-owners with the local bank), and full bellies.

Back during my seminary days, I worked part-time as a janitor. One of our crew was a refugee from an African country where there had been years of civil war. Then a drought and accompanying famine came. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the greatest organizations in the world, helped him and his family come to America.

One night as we got ready for our shift, he told me, in broken English, what he had learned from his experiences: “There were many years of war in my country, years we could have grown food. But the crops were destroyed by different armies. Then no rain came and no food could be grown. We need God to live in peace. If we had lived in peace when the rains God sent were still falling, we would have been ready for the years with no rain.”

I had just gotten a Master’s Degree in theology when I met that man, but I learned alot about trusting dependence on Jesus Christ than I have ever been able to teach anybody else. That's the sort of lesson that the poor can teach all of us who rely on things like money, stuff, and status.

The Bible shows us that God wants all of us to have equal access to Him, His grace, His mercy, and His blessings. To that end, God has always worked hard to help everyone, rich and poor, get a clear view of Him and of themselves and their need for Him. That has sometimes entailed knocking down the high and mighty and sometimes, lifting up the low and powerless. In the Gospel of Luke, the language of highway engineering is used to describe John’s ministry of preparing people for the Savior Jesus. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, it says:
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
God has no favorites! God wants all to see and experience His goodness.

Maybe that’s why the early Christians pooled their resources for the benefit of the poorer members. Luke’s other book, Acts, says that:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts... [Acts 2:44-47]
Now, I’m not suggesting that we form a commune and by a van. But I do think that James and these other passages of Scripture I’ve cited remind us that the call to love our neighbor--be it the neighbors in our homes, or this church, or our community, or the world--includes a call to care about the physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, and financial needs of others.

That’s why I loved seeing all the people lining up last week to offer their help with the duffel bags for Clermont County foster children. There will be other opportunities for you to share with the poor and the needy of various kinds in the weeks and months to come.

But let me mention another opportunity, one I hope to kick off at the Thanksgiving Eve worship that we’ll be having here with the folks from All Saints and Lutheran Church of the Resurrection this year. I’m going to be asking all of you to make an offering to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Hunger Appeal this Thanksgiving. But more than that, I hope that we’ll designate a percentage of all our 2007 offerings to this vital and efficient ministry.

Pastor Ed Markquart, whose preaching and writing have been influencing me for over twenty years, notes that from the 5-million members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) come annual contributions of $15-million. Fifteen million is nothing to sneeze at, of course, and that amount does a lot of good. But, Markquart points out, that amounts to $3.00 per person, about the cost of a Big Mac. He then says that what ELCA congregations need are pastors like James, the author of our Bible lesson.

If James were our pastor, I’m certain that he would tell all we white, middle class followers of Jesus not to be partial to the powerful or full-walleted. Nor indifferent to those whose lives are wracked by the ugliness of poverty, homelessness, discrimination, and hunger.

He would tell us not to depend on governments to uplift the poor.

He would tell us that people saved from sin and death by Jesus put their faith in action. They seek to live the royal law of love for neighbor. They not only welcome the poor in their midst; they find ways to help the poor they may never meet, except in heaven.

Please, prayerfully consider setting aside some fast food money, making a generous offering to Lutheran Hunger Appeal this Thanksgiving Eve, and for 2007, making a mental note to add the cost of a Big Mac to your offering twice a month in order to help the hungry of our world. That's a total of $72 per household next year. It could make a huge difference in the lives of hungry, poor people.

I’ll be praying about that too and asking God to help me to remember that God has no favorites!

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