Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Intentionally Blind Church

James 2:1-10, 14-17
September 16, 2012
William G. Carter

As we continue the countdown toward our hundredth anniversary, we think again about the church. What kind of church are we called to be? The letter of James begins with an observation, and moves to a challenge.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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 one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

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. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it…

. . . 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.

A few years ago, the United Church of Christ spent some money on an advertising campaign. The television spots were simple. It’s Sunday morning and people are going to church. As they arrive, there are two bouncers at the door. They turn aside the two men who arrive together, and allow in the blond family with well behaved children. The African-Americans, the man in the wheelchair are denied entrance, while the well dressed elderly couple is welcomed with their big checkbook. The bouncers look grim, and then the tagline fades up: Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.

The advertising campaign struck a nerve. Other churches grumbled. So the United Church of Christ dug in, and just in time for Easter, they created a follow-up campaign. It’s Sunday morning again, and people are sitting in church. The worship service is underway, and the ushers pay attention to who is present. A baby is crying in the fifth row. Not a problem; the usher hits a red button, the baby and his mother are ejected out of the room. The undesirable couple, the homeless woman, the old man in a walker – on by one, the usher hits the red button, and they fly out of their ejector seat pews.

Maybe you remember the ads, which were carefully timed to appear during Holy Week. What you may not remember is the outcry. A friend of mine in Cleveland was part of the U.C.C. staff that dreamed up the commercials. He said they received a mountain of mail. Some of it said, “Say whatever you want, but in our congregation, we reserve the right to reject anybody.”

Now, I know. That strikes a nerve in some of us. We have heard the lesson for today. It’s straight-forward. God welcomes everybody. God creates everybody, so God welcomes everybody. That’s the word from Brother James. All else is commentary; except, it is nearly impossible to welcome all the people that God welcomes.

It is there in our gestures. Have you ever noticed what our hands declare?
The hand says “Enter…”
The hand says “Halt . . . “
The hand says, “Come and sit right here . . .”
The hand says, “Move along . . . sit over there . . .”

The hand says all of this, for the hand reveals the heart. If the heart is welcoming and hospitable, the gesture reveals openness and generosity. If the heart is anxious or fearful, the hand will reveal it.

James is acquainted with those gestures in the church. He has seen them in his own church. The rich person enters and is escorted to the choice seat. If the needy person in dirty rags is there, she is told to move, if not ejected.

Please note: we are not talking about reserved seats in the concert hall. A hundred dollar ticket puts you right down front, while the cheap seats are in the balcony.

James is not talking about that. No, he is speaking of “the assembly.” That is the tag-phrase for the sanctuary, the synagogue or the sanctuary, where every child of God is invited, and where the hosts and hostesses are called to welcome them. It is a church that is intentionally blind to the distinctions of the world.

Did you see the movie “Finding Neverland”? It’s the story of J.M. Barrie who wrote “Peter Pan.” He is failing as a playwright. Nobody came to see his last show, and he has lost all inspiration. The muse returns, he drafts the words, books the theatre, hires the actors – but fears that nobody will actually come. So he goes to the waifs homes of London, visits the orphanages, and offers free tickets to any child who will come. Soon the theatre is jammed, and the play is a huge success – because he welcomed the little ones that the rest of the world turned away.

It’s a metaphor for the Gospel. Jesus said, “Let the little ones come to me.” He meant the children, to be sure, but in the broadest possible sense, the little ones. He welcomed both the little and the big, the rich and the poor, the ones who heard him gladly and those who were still working through the implications of his message.

At the heart of it all is the experience of evidence of welcome. The gesture of inclusion – “y’all come.” This reveals the heart, not only of the point person at the door, but the very heart of the whole institution.

My daughter and I took a whirlwind tour of four colleges in Boston. We returned last night. Every college is distinctive, of course. Some of them require a distinctive amount of money.

We visited one school where the tour guide was indifferent. She didn’t make eye contact to any of us, took little interest in our questions, and basically moved through the tasks of the work-study job. It was a big school – no surprise – and I can imagine that the students often feel like mere numbers.

Then there was another college, where we went on a whim during a long lunch break. We didn’t know much about it, didn’t have much time, and stopped by to see if we could at least drive through campus. The guard at the gate could have turned us away. But he pushed back his denim cap, signed an orange pass, and pointed us toward a convenient spot in the parking garage.

Even then, we weren’t certain what we would see, since tours weren’t scheduled for the day. But the admissions receptionist smiled, offered us a conversation with a staff member, and that impromptu visit turned out to be the most hospitable stop of the whole tour.

It’s this sense of welcome that makes the difference. Brother James asks, “Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” If you believe, it will be clear in your works of welcome. It’s obvious in treating the neighbor as we wish to be treated. It’s clear in how we postpone our own urges for the sake of the guest.
James puts this forth as his hope for the church of Jesus Christ – that it would be an intentionally blind church where all are welcome. Distinctions do not divide. The greatest possible good for the largest number of people is pursued. It’s a church where I work for your well-being because we are both children of God.

William Barclay explains the Greek words that James is using. They have to do with seeing, with looking upon the face, with regarding people for what you see about them. We see differently from what God sees. We see the nice clothing, the expensive haircut, the shined shoes, the manicured fingernails, the chiseled physique. Or we see the discounted blouse, the torn sleeve, the dime-store makeup, the downtrodden expression.

Do you know what God sees? A child of God! God looks at the human face and murmurs, “She looks like me. He was made in my image. Whether those people know it yet or not, they are my offspring.” Each one of us – you, and you, and you. Sisters, brothers. Different, but not better or worse. Each one identical in the love of God.

Henri Nouwen gets at this when he writes, “The church is one of the few places left where we can meet people who are different than we are, but with whom we can form a larger family.”

At our best, this becomes true. We welcome one another into our lives, sweet or ornery, all of us in the process of being changed by God’s love. Those who have a lot, those who have a little – all of us, all of us, have God in common, because God makes us and God loves us.

So the church is called to be something different from the football team. Football is fine as a sport, but you only get to play football if you are strong, mighty, and fast. And the church is something different from the office staff. In the office, there is a hierarchy, a pecking order, a gradation of value based on importance and significance. And the church is called to be something different from the clientele of the shopping mall. People go to the shopping mall to buy things, to make purchases, and that only makes sense if you have the money to go.

Oh no. We are different. In the church, we gather before the Word of God. We gather to hear how God chases after us, how God is always calling us out to trust, to love, to make a difference. We gather to hear the Word that shakes us out of our complacency and comforts us in our affliction. Most of all, we gather and we hear that every single one of us is wanted and beloved. Every single one, even the grumps. Every single one.

Because this is the church. The intentionally blind church, where every single person has infinite value.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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