“PUMMELING PREJUDICE”

JAMES 2:1-3

AUGUST 12, 2012

 

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           Did you hear the one about a salesman who was driving down a country road when his car started acting up?  Troubled, he stopped, got out of the car, lifted the hood, and began tinkering with different things to see what the problem might be.  In the middle of his tinkering he heard a voice by the side of the road say, "It's probably the carburetor." 

            Startled, the salesman glanced up only to see a few head of dairy cows grazing nearby ... no one else.

            About this time a farmer in a blue pickup truck pulled alongside the car and asked the salesman if he needed any help.  The salesman answered affirmatively so the farmer told to hop in the truck and he would take him to town.  As they drove into town the salesman told the farmer about his curious experience of the voice saying, "It's probably the carburetor."

            The farmer, however, was not surprised in the least, and the farmer asked, "Were there any cows nearby?  Specifically, was there a brown Guernsey?"

            The salesman replied, "Well, I'm a city boy and don't know much about cows, but I think so.  Why?"

            The farmer said, "Because you probably heard one of my cows, Bessie, talking but don't pay any attention to her.  She doesn't know anything about cars."

            Well, James, the author of this letter didn't know anything about cars either, but he did about practical Christianity.  In fact, his letter is so practical we've subtitled the letter, "The How to Book of the New Testament."  In it James teaches us, step by step, how to put our faith to work and today, in our seventh message from his letter, he'll teach us how to pummel prejudice.

            As we turn to this subject, I want to begin with a question.  Even though we are in Christ, do we sometimes act like the kind of people Huckleberry Finn described when he said, "That's just the way with some people.  They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it."  Is that sometimes true of us?  Do we sometimes get down on a thing when we don't know nothing about it?  Do we ever categorize and lump, seeing groups rather than individuals?  Or maybe it's the opposite.  Do we ever play favorites and treat certain people with more respect based on their outward appearance or their social standing or their occupation?

            That was certainly true of James's church and he was greatly concerned about it.  In fact, given the amount of space he gives to it, it was one of James' three biggest concerns.  His other two major issues were integrating faith with works, good deeds ... which we looked at last week ... and how to tame one's tongue which we will tackle next week.  These three issues - integrating faith and works, pummeling prejudice, and taming the tongue - were front burner issues for him. 

           So let's turn our attention now to the second of the three big ticket items in James letter.  Let's see how prejudice was playing itself out in the church.  James 2:1 ...

 

            My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

            No mincing words here.  No beating around the bush.  James wonders how they can call themselves Christians when they act in such a manner. 

            Prejudice manifests itself in a couple of different ways.  It either takes the high road or the low road.  Webster defines it well.  Webster defines prejudice as "a preconceived idea, either favorable (high road) or unfavorable (low road), formed before the facts are known."  In the case of James' congregation, they took the high road.  Based upon outward appearance they were guilty of treating certain people more favorable than others.  Verse 2.

 

            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 other who is poor say, "Stand there," or "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?"

 

            This was likely a common occurrence in the first century church.  The ancient world was primarily divided between the rich and the poor.  Unlike today, at least in the United States, there was no predominant middle class in the ancient world.  Moreover, the early church, for the most part, was composed of poor people.  We get a hint of that in Paul's writings when he wrote the Corinthians saying to them, "Think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth."  Wealthy people were few and far between in the early church.

            This set of circumstances led to a great temptation: to make a fuss over the wealthy, while ignoring the poor, seeing the wealthy as people who could help them meet the church budget, and James scolds the ushers in First Church Jerusalem for giving wealthy worshippers the best seats!  By the way, this may be hard to believe but back then the best seats were those seats in the front!  Just the opposite today when the best seats seem to be in the back of most Presbyterian churches.  Apparently, sitting in the back enables us to get out of the sanctuary faster in order to beat the Baptists to brunch.  Anyway, in James' church the rich people were being paraded up front while the poor folk were relegated to whatever they could find.

            In light of this James offers three tidbits of timeless counsel as to how to combat prejudicial behavior in the church and in our lives in general.  Let's turn to those three tidbits now.

            The first bit of counsel is fight first impressions.  In verse one James mentions "acts of favoritism," and those words translated here as "acts of favoritism" come from one Greek word which literally means "to receive the face."  In other words, to judge on externals rather than internals, to make a snap judgment about a person, overlooking the depths and subtleties of each individual.

            There's an old story about two crows sitting on the handles of an old plow next to a country road.  An old pick up comes bouncing down the road, the bed of the truck filled with a months worth of groceries.  As it gets alongside the two crows sitting on the handles of the plow, something bounces out of the back of the truck.

            Crows being crows, they both fly down to see what it is.  After some discussion and some tasting they decide that it's edible.  One of the crows even recognizes it. It's one of those long tubes of unsliced bologna.  They both go at it. They eat about half of that tube of bologna when first crow gets full.  He flies back to the plow handle to sun himself and clean up after eating.

            The second crow grabs the remaining half of the bologna and flies back to the plow handle, as well.  Once there, he continues to gorge himself on the bologna.  Well, while the second crow is devouring the bologna, the first crow decides he needs a drink of water to wash the bolognas saltiness out of his mouth and flies off to get a drink.  When he gets back, the second crow is still eating.  The second crow keeps eating until the bologna is all gone.  Now he's stuffed to the gills with bologna.  He's so full his feathers won't even lay flat.  And he's thirsty, so he decides to fly off and get a drink, too. He pushes off and flaps his wings but no sooner does he go about 4 feet when the weight of all he's eaten sends him crashing, helplessly to the ground and dies.

            The moral of this story is simple: "Don't fly off the handle if you're full of bologna," and James says we are full of bologna if we only receive the face, making snap judgments about one another.  Fight first impressions.

            Tidbit number two from James: let scripture be the standard.  Verses 8 & 9,

 

            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. 

 

            I met Ed Steinmetz a number of years ago, when he was really, really young, and he was serving as the Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Omaha.  Ed, can you remember that far back?  And if I remember correctly Ross Robson was the Head of Staff, and one thing I remember about Ross was the time he traveled to India and  Ross told of the time he was traveling through India and would be passing through Calcutta and on a lark he decided to call and see if he might meet Mother Teresa.  He didn't think it was possible, but nothing ventured nothing gained, and to his surprise he was informed by the person answering the phone at the order that he could meet with Mother Teresa on a Sunday afternoon at 2:00.  Ross met with her for an hour, asking her all sorts of questions, one being "How do you do it?  How do you take the stench, the suffering?" 

            Mother Teresa quoted scripture.  "As you have done it to the least of these you have done it to me."

            Let scripture be the standard in relating to others, not our culture, not the color of our skin, not our standard of living, the scripture.

            Tidbit number three: let mercy be our message.  Verses 12 & 13,

 

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

 

            Two Sunday morning moments still haunt me.  One happened in Brookings, Oregon.  I was leading worship, going through the announcements, when a young man, mid-twenties, long hair, shabby clothes with a young boy walked in and sat near the front, on my left your right.  He obviously looked different than the rest of us, and every eye, or at least it seemed like every eye, followed him as walked to take his seat.  People continued glancing nervously over at him during the service.  No one said a word, but the mood of the congregation was anything but gracious.  Finally, the young man became so uncomfortable he left the sanctuary, with his little boy in tow, before the service was over.

            The other incident happened while leading worship at West Hills Presbyterian Church in Omaha.  I was greeting people after worship and I noticed a commotion in  the Geneva lounge where folk chatted over coffee and lemonade, adjacent to the sanctuary.  I wasn't sure what was happening other than noticing people beginning to shift away from the Welcome Center to another part of Geneva Lounge.  Later I discovered the source of the commotion.  A similar looking young man as in Brookings, unkept, a little smelly who did not fit the Presbyterian profile.  So uncomfortable were many of the congregants that they physically fled the area.  Thankfully, the associate pastor, Jim Fiedler, one of the most Christ-like people I have ever met, came to the rescue.  He befriended the man and offered him a cup of coffee.

            Sydney Smith, a 19th century English writer and Anglican cleric, said, "Never try to reason prejudice out of a person.  It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be reasoned out of him."

            I hope Sydney Smith was wrong.  I hope we heed James' reasoned counsel.  God only knows how much his people need it.