It is not always easy being a West Virginia alum and fan in Kentucky. Sometimes people come up to you and make some jokes that is all in the good-natured fun of being a sports fan. Sometimes people ask me if West Virginia University is located in Virginia. Sometimes, though, the joking goes too far and crosses the line of making a transplanted resident of the state feel unwelcome.
Let me give you a couple of examples. In 2010, a couple of weeks after one of the darkest moments in Kentucky basketball lore and one of the greatest upsets in West Virginia basketball history, Abbi and I went to Fayette Mall to walk around and do some shopping. Of course, I wore one of my WVU hats, as any proud alum would. After a few minutes, we began to notice that people were glaring at us, especially at me, everywhere we went. It was as if people were saying, “You’re team won. You’re not welcome here.” Even a manager at Chick-Fil-A asked us, that afternoon, if we felt safe. We did.
There’s more. A couple of weeks ago, Abbi, Noah, and I decided to go to the state fair to enjoy the atmosphere. Again, I have on my WVU hat. A gentleman decided to ridicule me as we were walking around claiming, essentially, that I needed to buy some Kentucky gear if I wanted to live in Kentucky. There have been other cases like that.
Now, I understand all of that to some degree. Kentucky and West Virginia are very similar in that they both have fan bases that dominate their respective states. To be a fan of Kentucky in Kentucky, much like being a fan of West Virginia in West Virginia, is an important part of the culture and identity of Kentucky. Even if you never attended a class on campus, to root for Kentucky is to be accepted and to be part of the culture and mystique of the Bluegrass State. Those wearing anything except Kentucky’s blue and white are seen as different, odd, or, perhaps not even a true Kentuckian.
I mention all of this because, I believe, we will see something similar in our passage today from James 2:1-10 and 14-17. James describes a situation he wants the church, and each of us, to avoid. James uses an analogy of a rich person and poor person, who are both visitors to a service and are being escorted to their seats. The rich person is directed to a great seat and is given special attention, while the poor person is told to stand elsewhere and is not given the same level of attention. (James 2:2-3, NLT) James invites us to look at the difference in treatment between the rich person and poor person and to consider how we might act today. James wants us to see that if we truly want to love like Jesus then we cannot play favorites in the church or in our personal lives. If we want to love like Jesus, then we are called to express a love that knows no biases and treats all people the same.
James expresses this through an example of a rich person and poor person who walk into a meeting. There are two important things we need to understand about what James describes before we can move too much further. First, he uses a word that can be defined as a meeting or assembly. What James likely describes is a worship service that is attended by both this rich person and poor person. Second, it seems that James is talking about people who represent different levels of economic means. There is a bit of that, but at a much deeper level James speaks of people who represent two distinct cultural statuses in the Roman world.
In James’ time, much like our own day, status and how someone was viewed in society meant everything. There were several different societal orders in the Roman Empire, such as the senatorial and equestrian orders. James’ rich visitor, who comes dressed to the worship in expensive clothing, was likely an equestrian, which was the second highest societal order in Rome. Members of the equestrian order were mostly people who worked in trades and were seen as having “new money.” They were also a highly honored group of people in Roman society.
That wasn’t the case for the poor of the Roman world. They made up about 90 percent of the population. If you were not a member of the top two orders then you had to struggle to survive. The type of person James describes is someone who has come to the worship in extreme poverty. A vast contrast from the affluent person from the equestrian order. He paints the picture of two groups of people who come to this worship service who could not have been more different.
The way they were received, as well, could not be any more different. When the rich person enters, this person is given a prime seat in the worship service and the poor person is directed somewhere else. The rich person is warmly greeted, welcomed, and given all the important information about the service, the church’s ministry, and where to find the necessary rooms in the church. That is not the case for the poor person. James essentially tells us that this person is given the worst seat possible, away from everyone else, was barely greeted, and was ignored for the most part. The rich person was accepted, while the poor person was not.
There is a tendency for us to live into the scenario that James’ describes. Our natural tendency is to accept the person who is more like us or who makes us feel better about ourselves and community. Imagine if the scenario James’ describes were to play out here. What if two people visited us next Sunday? First, that would be completely awesome and I hope and pray every week that it happens. But, what if one of those visitors was someone who was highly regarded in our community? Maybe this person is a banker. Maybe this person is a teacher. Maybe this person is someone with obvious wealth. How would we treat this person? Now, imagine the second person being someone who came in wearing torn clothing? Maybe this person has an odor. Maybe this person says inappropriate things. Maybe this person has no money. How would we treat this person?
Our first inclination would be to say that we would treat each person the same, but when we dig down deep within ourselves we begin to recognize that our basic tendency is to surround ourselves with those who seem more acceptable. In doing so, we violate God’s law that calls us to see every person – no matter who they are, what they look like, how much money they have, or where they come from – as being a person of worth and value.
What we violate is God’s royal law that calls us to express the love of God towards all people in the same way. That royal law, James tells us, is found in Leviticus 19:18 where we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is a word that should be very familiar to us, because Jesus gave it a place of special importance saying it is one of the greatest commandments. What this “royal law” meant is that, as followers of Christ, we cannot show favoritism in how we engage and interact with others. We are called to treat all people the same and to love others as Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us unconditionally and freely. He loves us without bias or discrimination. As we following in Christ’s footsteps, we are called to express that same kind of love as we seek to love all people as ourselves. To do anything else is to fall short of what it truly means to follow God’s love and desires.
We cannot be a true witness of God’s love in our world if we play favorites as to who can receive our love. The challenge for us is to turn away from wanting to be aligned only with people who are like us or who make us feel better about ourselves, but to see the value and worth in loving and interacting with all people the same. Our world teaches us that we are only to associate with people who agree with us or who share our values. We want the honor that comes with more attention, more acclaim, and more money. We give more attention and honor to those we find acceptable than those who are different than us or who are in a different financial position than we are. The church that favors one over another is the church that struggles in its witness of Jesus Christ in the world. The church is for all and we are called to share the same love of Jesus Christ with all people freely no matter who they are, how much money they have, how they vote, or any other line of status that we can create. If we truly want to be a witness of Jesus Christ in the church, then we must see that everyone is made in God’s image and are worthy of our love and care.
When we do this, we are able to live out James’ calling for each of us to have a faith that “produces good deeds.” James is on to something here. He is not saying that we are saved by our works. We are saved by receiving the free gift of faith in Jesus Christ. What James does say, though, is that our faith must be lived out. It cannot be something that we hold onto. It must be something that is expressed in how we live and interact with the world around us. A faith that is not expressed through actions and deeds is a faith that does not make a difference in our lives or in our community.
Loving people without bias and in the same ways that God loves us and that we love of ourselves is an example of a faith that “produces good deeds.” Imagine what this could look like here. What if the people in our community knew us as a place where everyone was welcomed, everyone was treated the same, and everyone was loved in the same ways? What if we were a place that anticipated visitors coming and made ourselves ready for them by creating a space that was inviting, welcoming, and loving not just for a few, but for all people? Even more, imagine if we lived this kind of love out in our community as a living witness of the royal law. What if we treated our friends who are Republicans and Democrats the same? What if we loved African-Americans and Hispanics the same way we do Caucasians? I just imagine what our community would look like if we loved freely and without biases like that.
We can begin to live into this kind of love today. In a moment, we will gather around the table to share in communion and are reminded of God’s love and the love we are called to share with the world. As we gather at the table, we are reminded that God does not look at us differently. God sees us all the same. We are all God’s children who are redeemed by his love. It is a love given to us no matter who we are, how much money we have, or where we have come from. It is a love given to us freely through Jesus’ actions for all people on the cross. As we take the bread and drink from the cup, we are reminded of this great love and are called to leave this table changed and motived to share the same love of God with others through our words, actions, and deeds.
So, as we come to this table today and depart from this place shortly, let us do so with a commitment to be people who seek to love freely and without bias. There is no room in the church, today, for favoritism or discriminatory actions. Where there is a tendency to show favoritism, let us move towards the love that Christ calls us to share as a response to our faith in the Lord. Let us be people who love all people – no matter who they are – in the same ways we would love ourselves. Let us be people who are known for having a love that has no biases.