Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on September 6 2009.
I’ve just finished reading Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Andrew Jackson entitled, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. I confess to knowing little or nothing about our seventh president, including the fact that he was reportedly born in Waxhaw, NC (although South Carolinians will tell you Jackson was born on their side of the state line!).
Like many of us, Andrew Jackson was a bundle of contradictions. While he was growing up his mother took him to the Presbyterian meetinghouse in Waxhaw, where he spent several hours every Sunday hearing prayers, psalms, scripture, sermons, and hymns. But from Monday through Saturday, Jackson was usually living life on the wild side, wrestling with the boys and carousing with the girls.
The contradictions carried over into his two terms as our President. He was a champion of extending freedom and democracy to even the poorest of whites, but thought nothing of owning slaves and protecting the rights of slaveholders. He once rescued an Indian orphan on the battlefield and raised him in his own home, but thought nothing of forcibly and mercilessly removing American Indians from their native lands. He fought hard against the power of a centralized American bank, but fought even harder to preserve a powerful central government.
After he left the presidency, Andrew Jackson experienced a second Christian conversion. And this time his experience with God really shaped his soul. As he lay dying on Sunday evening, June 8, 1845, his bedroom was filled with family members and slaves. Hearing their sobs, Jackson said, “Do not cry; I hope to meet you all in Heaven—yes, all in Heaven, white and black.”
“My conversation is with you all,” he said. “Christ has no respect to color.” A couple of minutes later, the seventh president of the United States was gone.
I admit I was stunned as I read this account of Jackson’s death! I’ve been with people when they die, and what they say last is usually very significant. And it’s fascinating to me that about the last thing this man with a history of terrible prejudice said on his deathbed was, “Christ has no respect to color.”
How would American history have been different if Jackson had realized this earlier in his life?
Of course, few of us are without sins in this regard. I grew up in a Baptist church where frankly no person of color would have been welcome to join. And I grew up in a denomination formed the same year Jackson died – 1845 – when southern slaveholding Baptists decided they didn’t want to work anymore with northern Baptists who were becomingly increasingly critical of slavery. And my hunch is even the most open-minded of us have been uncomfortable when certain folks we weren’t sure about—especially in this era of violence and sexual abuse in church—suddenly showed up at church and wanted to sit in our row or visit our Sunday School class.
Of course, discrimination is not a modern problem, a Baptist problem, or even an American problem. It’s a human problem, and it’s been around since the beginning of time.
In our scripture reading for today, James, the half-brother of Jesus, is addressing new Jewish Christians scattered around the Mediterranean world 2000 years ago. James is hearing through the grapevine that many of these new Christian churches are carrying over some old practices from Jewish synagogues. For example, in many synagogues it was customary for honored people to sit in the best seats in the house, near the sacred scrolls. Over time, this practice was expanded so the wealthiest members or visitors of the synagogue were given seats of honor.
Now, apparently, this practice has taken root in Christian churches. And James wastes no time confronting this common custom. My brothers and sisters, he says, (we) must not show favoritism. Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring…By the way, gold rings functioned in that day like luxury cars do today. They communicated that you were a person of means…and wearing fine clothes, and a poor person in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the one who is poor, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
This situation reminds me of the story of a man who asked a minister to conduct a memorial service for his pet dog. The minister was deeply offended. “We do not hold memorial services for dead dogs in this church! You might try another church down the street.”
“That’s too bad,” the man said as he turned to go. “I really loved that dog, and I was planning to offer a million dollar memorial gift to the church that performs the service.” The minister, without batting an eye said, “Wait a minute, you never told me your dog was a Christian!”
The business of cow towing to the rich rankles James, and not just because it’s flat-out wrong. He’s hopping mad because disadvantaged church members are slobbering all over the very people who are exploiting them economically. Monday through Saturday these wealthy landowners haul their poor tenants into court when they fall behind even a week in their rent. Then on Sunday, these same wealthy folks sashay into church and are escorted by underprivileged ushers to the best seats in the house. Worst of all, the poor folks willingly oblige. In fact, they race to see who can get to the rich folks first!
James blasts away at this blatant prejudice. Along the way, he reveals a dark truth about our nature that affected Adam and Eve, Andrew Jackson, and all of us here—poor people, or for that matter, people who are different from us make us uncomfortable. On the other hand, we cozy up to rich people, or to people more like us.
What is it about us that makes us flinch around the poor and flutter around the rich? Because we, like others in our culture, judge people on the basis of their appearance. And because we’d rather identify with the successful than with those who’ve “failed.” Even if we don’t make it to the top of the social and financial ladder, we feel better about ourselves if we hang out with people who do.
Besides, when we are with the poor, we are reminded of our responsibilities to the poor. So as much as we can, we keep the poor out of sight and out of mind.
And let’s be honest. We get excited when rich folks come to church because we sure could use their money. Frankly, poor people represent a drain on our resources. But rich folks can really help us out, particularly when the economy is down. So when the wealthy come to worship, we’re tempted to slobber all over them today just like they did 2,000 years ago.
By the way, when we play favorites in church that may not mean just preferring the rich. It could mean preferring the people we tend to agree with, or those who like our style of worship or vote in political elections the same way we do. Playing favorites plays out in a million different ways.
James challenges this discrimination, and I want you to notice why. It’s not because discrimination is politically incorrect or socially unacceptable. It’s because discrimination is contrary to the Christian faith.
Listen again to James 2:1—My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. What is James saying? He’s saying faith in Jesus Christ is incompatible with favoritism of any kind. What faith in Jesus calls for is valuing all people equally, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Where does James get such a notion? From God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that’s where.
In Deuteronomy 10:17, the Old Testament prophet and leader Moses says, The Lord your God is…the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. In Proverbs 22:2, Solomon, the wisest of men says, Rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is maker of them all. After wrestling mightily with his own prejudice against the Gentiles, the Apostle Peter sees the error of his ways and concludes in Acts 10:34-35: I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
When we show favoritism to the rich, we are not only insulting the poor. We are insulting the God who created rich and poor alike in his image.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus agrees with his Heavenly Father where favoritism is concerned. Even Jesus’ enemies admit he does not play favorites. In Matthew 22, the Pharisees say to Jesus, Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity…You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are Matthew 22:16). In fact, if you judged Jesus by his teachings and actions, you’d have to say he gives the edge to poor people. Blessed are you who are poor, Jesus says, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). That’s why James, the half-brother of Jesus, claims the poor rather than the rich have inherited the kingdom of God.
In recent weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about Christian spiritual formation. And it may seem now that we’ve left that topic far behind. But maybe you remember my definition of spiritual formation—it’s the process by which we are formed into the image of Christ for the glory of God, the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others. If our spiritual formation doesn’t ultimately impact the way we treat others, it’s not Christian.
Henri Nouwen writes, “If you ask only for faith, hope, love, freedom, happiness, modesty, humility, etc., without making them concrete in the nitty-gritty of your life, you probably haven’t really involved God in your real life.” What James is talking about is involving God not only in our souls, but in our relationships and faith communities—in the nitty-gritty of our lives.
So does the Christian faith require us to be best friends with everybody? No. But according to that royal law James refers to—Love your neighbor as yourself—we are called to love everybody. And here’s the nitty-gritty truth: you cannot love people and discriminate against them at the same time. You cannot be a disciple of the Son of God and discriminate against other children of God.
What this means is that regardless of what is happening anywhere else, the church should be a place where everybody meets on level ground. It doesn’t matter what life is like for the poor at the civic club or the country club or the cocktail party or the local corporation. Here, if we are being formed into the image of Christ, everybody will be valued equally.
They say the ground is level at the foot of the cross. It doesn’t matter if you are Andrew Jackson or Andrew Jackson’s slave…God loves you the same. With God’s help, our seventh President came to see this, and we need to see it, too.
Next week I will begin a series of sermons about reaching others for Christ, premised in part on the Great Commission that commands us to make disciples of all nationalities and ethnic groups and—I would add—all income groups. If we are not making disciples of everybody—rich and poor, red and yellow, black and white, we are insulting God and Jesus, and ignoring the royal law and the Great Commission.
This is no small matter, says James, and we will be held accountable for our actions. The whole weight of the law will come down on our heads if we don’t see the error of our ways and treat all people equally. If we are gracious to the poor, James says, God will be gracious to us. If not, we’ll get what we deserve, and it won’t be pretty.
Now, I want to congratulate you on being a role model for other churches in this department. Is FBC perfect when it comes to making this church level ground for everybody? Of course not.
But I’m proud of the fact that 40+ years ago we decided to start a Children’s Center that was open to children of every stripe and color. I’m proud that four years ago we started using Today’s New International Version of scripture in our worship services, the most inclusive translation I know. I’m proud that two years ago we opened our church to the homeless for temporary shelter. And I’m proud that this past week we moved a step closer in a church conference to hosting educational and artistic ministries in our 6th Street property that will be open to any and all.
But we still have miles to go before we sleep. Legendary African-American pastor John Perkins sets a high standard for this church and all churches when he says churches at their best will be like bouquets of assorted flowers full of different colors and textures, representing the full breadth of diversity of their communities. Imagine the joy of God if he observed that kind of dazzling, fragrant flower arrangement in our church!