Loving ‘Neighbours’

Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 6, 2015
Taken from James 2:1-10

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Have you ever attended a church service, where you found yourself silently arguing with the preacher? When the preacher made a point, you muttered under your breath, “Yeah sure, but . . .” When the preacher made an application, you jotted a mental note, “That’s easy for you to say, but it’s a whole lot harder to do . . .” All this week, I was having those thoughts and feelings as I was studying this passage. It’s bad enough when you have an ongoing argument with your preacher during a sermon; but it’s even worse when you have an ongoing argument with the preacher during the sermon and you ARE the preacher! But perhaps, the real preacher this morning is James. For as I said last Sunday, James is so straightforward and practical, that this morning’s epistle passage from James almost preaches itself. So let us place ourselves under tutelage of James as we hear these words through the power of the Holy Spirit.

James begins this message with a warning against favoritism using an opening illustration where members of a Christian community are fawning over a wealthy man dressed to the nines, all the while neglecting a poor man dressed in rags. Apparently, that was a problem that James had to address in his community. Here, I found myself inwardly arguing with James: “Surely, that isn’t a problem for us today. Of course I would be welcoming to both.” But then, I hear a whisper in the back of my mind: “That’s easy for you to say, but it’s a whole lot harder to do.”

Pretty regularly, a church member will drop by the church office unannounced. I often hear him or her speaking with Sue or Stephanie, and while sometimes I’m busy at my desk working, often times, I gladly put down what I’m doing to step out of my office to greet the member. Occasionally the church member will apologize for the interruption. I then say something like, “You’re never a bother; come by anytime.”

But things are different when someone buzzes in to ask for help paying an overdue bill. In these occasions, I’m usually a little wary and I can’t help but wonder about that person’s situation, judging whether that person is doing all he or she can to take responsibility for the problem at hand. I don’t want to naively hand out money to people who are trying to scam the church. On the other hand, when I think about how I treat church members compared to how I treat the folks who come looking for help, I feel convicted by the words of James: “If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you’, but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet’, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Reading this passage, I realize that I show favoritism and James has harsh words to say about this: “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

I don’t like to think of myself as a law breaker. I find myself arguing with James, “Hey, I do the best I can. I try to keep the law.” To which James replies: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James pulls no punches and his is a seemingly harsh judgment.

To be fair, the apostle Paul issued the same judgment to the church in Corinth. In the early days of the church, when Christians gathered together to worship, and they would have actual meal together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. At the church in Corinth, the rich Christians apparently got together for a private meal without inviting the poor to join them. In 1 Corinthians 11:20-28, Paul warned the church, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!  For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.” Many of you will probably recognize some of these words. The words we use every month to celebrate the Lord’s Supper come within the context of Paul’s warning not to show favoritism within the church.

So far, I’ve given nothing but bad news. Is there any good news in this passage from James? Well, James continues, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  There is judgment to be sure, but the good news according to James is this: it is a judgment by the law that gives freedom, and a judgment that is trumped by God’s mercy,

The law that gives freedom. What does that mean? When we show favoritism based on a person’s wealth, we are enslaved by the way society conditions us to value people according to what they earn and produce. What does our society value more, the work of the CEO, or the work of a minimum wage worker or a stay-at-home parent? To whom do our media pay attention, the rich and the famous, or the average Joe? When young people think about what to study in school, are they (or their parents) looking toward meaningful work or lucrative careers? In a society that tempts us to favor the rich and the powerful and to look down on the poor and the weak, God’s law strives to free us from such judgments and to free us to see all people as our neighbors, whose lives and well-being are intertwined with ours. When we are freed from such judgments, we are also freed to be merciful to our neighbors. Jesus reminds us: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”

The apostle Paul once said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the Kingdom of God, there are no second-class citizens; we are neighbors to one another. Not showing favoritism in loving our neighbors is a spiritual practice that frees us to show the mercy and love of our Lord. As we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are called to attend to our neighbor’s physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. This morning, we have an opportunity to show our love to our Hispanic neighbors here in Virginia by filling these orange Neighbor bags. Instructions for filling these bags are printed in the bulletin insert. This Wednesday night, we have an opportunity to learn how the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia is learning to love our ‘neighbours’ north of the border through our partnership this year with Canadian Baptists. That night, we’ll also have more of these orange bags to fill, no need to buy anything since all the items will be supplied. The bags will then be delivered to our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly meeting in a couple of weeks.

As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s invitation does not favor one group over another – the rich over the poor, the saints over the sinners. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that while God’s love is impartial, God has such a special mercy for us law breakers, sinners poor and needy, that God in Christ moved into our neighborhood as a human being to be a living sacrifice to meet our ultimate need. Faith in this Christ means that my salvation is not just about how God can get me into heaven as an individual. No, faith in this Christ means that salvation is about how we can love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, so that we can love our neighbor – regardless how rich or poor – as ourselves, in community here and now, so that we may be prepared for eternity. Without such love in action, our faith is impoverished and anemic, or to use James’ words, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” In this morning’s passage, James is training us to live a robust faith, and in so doing, preparing us for heaven.

Long ago there lived an old woman who had a wish. She wished more than anything to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. An angel heard her and agreed to grant her request. He put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, “First you shall see hell.”

When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The hall was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — meats, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.

The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people of all socio-economic backgrounds, seated around those round tables. Some were dressed in fine clothes, others in plain clothes. But all their bodies were thin, and their faces were gaunt, and creased with frustration. Each person held a spoon. The spoons must have been three feet long! They were so long that the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get the food back to their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their hungry desperate cries. “I’ve seen enough,” she cried. “Please let me see heaven.”

And so again the blindfold was put around her eyes, and the old woman heard, “Now you shall see heaven.” When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, filled with round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that there were people – rich, poor, black, white, male, female – sitting just out of arm’s reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.

But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were plump and had rosy, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.

And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell for herself. The people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed each other.

As we are fed by Christ at his Table this morning, let us also get a glimpse of heaven, where we feed each other as we pass the plates of bread and the trays of juice. In so doing, may God also strengthen us to put our faith into action, to love our neighbors without favoritism as a channel of God’s impartial grace, mercy and love.

Amen.