Don’t Play Favorites – lessons from James and Jesus

Scripture and reflections

This whole month of September we will be talking about walking the talk – spending time especially with the letter of James.  James was writing both specifically to the church in Jerusalem, but also to church all over the region, encouraging, teaching, even a little urging and chastising.  These folks are in the minority in cultures where people are not followers of Jesus (sound familiar?) and he talks to them about what it means to have a living faith.  For James, that means actions that testify to the Word – both teachings from scripture and the Word embodied in Jesus.  Don’t just believe it, do it.

This is something we’re trying every day to figure out both personally and as a congregation.  At this time we have the challenge of trying to do that in the context of a new structure.  Change is tough but the Spirit is moving!  In that vein, I’m going to begin with the Gospel.  It is one place (maybe even the only place) where it  Jesus let’s himself be moved and changed by the Spirit – working through the voice of a woman who challenges him.

Mark 7:24-30
Jesus set out and went away to an area called Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice.  There was a woman whose little daughterhad an unclean spirit (maybe the girl was Naomi’s age, or Kai’s age; maybe as old as Saige).  She heard where he was and she came and knelt down at his feet, begging for help.  She pleaded with him to cure her daughter.  Now the woman was a Greek, Syrophoenician by birth.

That is a very important detail.  Jesus is Judean.  He is Jewish.  He is a man.  He is a teacher.  He is very different from the woman who comes asking for help.  In his culture, she would have been very low in status, would not have been treated well by people like Jesus.  In fact, that’s what happens.

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.  It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

She answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

Then he said to her, impressed, “You’re right.  For saying that, you may go.  You’ll find the demon has left your daughter.”

So she went home.  And she found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Jesus, basically called this woman a name!  He called her a ‘dog.’  I don’t know about you, but I have always been taught that it is not kind to call people names.  Certainly that is a rule in our family.  We might even say in our family that we don’t call names because Jesus tells us to treat others the way we would like to be treated.  That’s not what seems to happen here. But the woman doesn’t run away at the unkindness.  Instead she sticks up for herself and for her daughter.  Because she doesn’t just go away, because she ‘talks back,’, Jesus needs to take a second look.

What she says is interesting.  When he called her a dog, she didn’t disagree!  Instead she turns it upside down.  Joe and Naomi and I have a dog.  He is a small, brown chihuahua and he will chew on anything.  And we never never never feed him people food.  Just like Jesus said – when it comes to food, people get the people food at the table and the dog gets the dog food. But little Dirk loves it when things fall on the floor – he especially hangs out by Naomi’s seat.  And he loves to lick our plates.

The woman is only asking to be treated by Jesus as well as we treat our dog – ‘just give me the leftovers,’ she says.  ‘I don’t have to be first, and you don’t have to like me, but I still believe you can heal my daughter.’ And her faith in him, in spite of the way he treats her, makes Jesus pay attention to her.

What he realizes when he pays attention, is that she is also God’s child.  He realized that where she was born did not determine the nature of her faith.  He is challenged to put into action the things that he has been teaching about loving the neighbor. She is living out her faith by her determination to get Jesus to heal her daughter, and by challenging Jesus not to play favorites, embodying the reality that God’s love is for everybody.

Well a lot of James is about how do we, followers of Jesus live out our faith – faith in a God who loves everyone and in Jesus, who was willing to look past his biases about the woman’s background to see her God-createdness.  And these verses from James are also about playing favorites. This is where I’d like some volunteers.

James 2:1-10

My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out your faith.  Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

Say a person (or people) with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your church. (Two people are invited forward to enact the role, putting on fine clothes and jewelry)

And then a poor person (or people) in dirty clothes or rags also comes in.  (Two people are invited forward to put on dirty shirts and ball caps, a backback indicating homelessness.)

And say you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please, let me get you everything you need.” (The two are given a fine seat, the hymnals, introduced to the pastor and those around them.)

And to the one – the one who isn’t dressed so nice, you ignore, or sit them off in the corner.  (The ratty ones are shuffled off to the side.  Then attention turns again to the nicely dressed folks, checking in again with them to see they have everything they need.)

Haven’t you made distinctions among God’s children and proved you are judges who can’t be trusted?  Listen, friends. God works differently.

God has chosen the poor in the world to be the kingdom’s first citizens.  This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God.  And here you are abusing these same citizens.  Is it not the rich who oppress and exploit you? Is it not they who drag you into court to rob you blind? Aren’t they the ones who scorn the new and excellent name ‘Christian’?

You do well if you really fulfill the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as law breakers. For whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles in one point has become accountable for all of it.

For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of that gives freedom.  For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. 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.

It is hard to love your neighbor – especially when you don’t know your neighbor very well, or if your neighbor is different from you, or doesn’t speak the same language as you or smells a little funny.  This story that James tells reminds me a little of someone who used to come here very often – someone many people probably remember.  His name was Ron, but often people called him ‘Pops.’  If you go outside the church after worship you’ll see his name on a leaf on the sidewalk commemorating his life and his presence in Lake City.

Often, one of the first things that you noticed about Ron when you’d meet him was his smell.  He often didn’t smell very good, because he didn’t have a way to take care of himself, he slept outside – sometimes even right outside our doors.  Now, not everyone who sleeps on the street smells bad or even looks rough or messy, but Ron did.  And one way this congregation tries to follow Jesus the way James tells us to, is to love all of God’s children, even Pops.

James talks about the poor, but loving our neighbor applies to anyone who is different, I think about that a lot when it’s elections time.  We start feeling very strongly about ‘our side’ and forget that the people on ‘that side’ ‘them’ are people too – God’s children.  Different beliefs often separate us to the point even of violence.  My little dog Dirk is named after a man called Dirk Willems, who is kind of a hero to Anabaptists.  He was a man who has been imprisoned because of his faith in Jesus and his teachings of non-violence and love.  But he had escaped and was running through a winter forest away from officers who chased him.  He crossed a frozen lake and he got away!  His captor had fallen through the ice of the lake as he crossed.  But Dirk’s belief that the man was also a child of God led him to return to the man and rescue him from the freezing water.

James says that if we have faith in God, that means we will follow God’s rules, and one of the most important of God’s rules is ‘love your neighbor’ – even when your neighbor is the enemy.  Jesus was willing to love and accept the woman who came begging for help, the woman who was hated and scorned in Jesus’ culture.

That reading that we read at the beginning – it’s still there in your communicator if you want to look at it.  That’s something that Menno Simons wrote.  If you notice a similarity between his name and the name of our church – the ‘Mennonite’ church – it is not a coincidence, we are named for him.

He was a priest and leader in the Catholic church, when he began to read the Bible closely and he noticed like James, that there were people in the church who were not being very loving toward their neighbor.  He noticed that people were talking about God and telling people about Jesus, but not doing what Jesus did or following Jesus’ instructions.

That’s why he said that there needs to be a connection between talking and doing – talk and talk and walk the walk.

When we discerned our leadership team, we chose people who we think are thoughtful about how God wants them to live, and about We want this to be a congregation that continues to be doers of God’s word – both in loving our neighbors and in the way we make decision about who we are and how we live in the congregation.  And as we continue our worship and celebration today, and as we worship through the rest of September with the book of James, we’ll keep thinking about what it means not just to read God’s word but to do God’s word, thoughtfully and intentionally.  I pray that we may all be able to be doers of the word, faithful in what we say and in what we do.  Amen.

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