Date: September 7, 1997
Sermon Title: Mercy triumphs over judgment
Text: James 2:1-17
Word Count: 1884
Just before the beginning of the Sunday service at Saint Bartholomew's on Fifth Avenue, New York City, a man wearing a large hat was discovered sitting in the front row. An usher moved to his pew, leaned in and discreetly asked him to remove his hat. The man replied that he would not. The head usher was then summoned, made the same request, and received the same answer. About that time the president of the women of the parish arrived and was asked to assist. She had the same dismal result. Finally, only two minutes remained before the opening hymn and the Senior Warden of the parish was summoned. He tiptoed up beside the man and tried to seize the hat but the man nimbly dodged and there was no time for further attempts. As the opening hymn began and the procession entered the church, the man stood, removed his hat and did not put it on again. At the conclusion of the service, the four frustrated people waited for the man at the rear of the church. The Senior Warden approached him and said, "Sir, about the hat: perhaps you don't understand, but in the Episcopal Church men do not wear hats at worship." The man replied, "Oh, but I do understand. I've been an Episcopalian all my life. As a matter of fact I've been coming to this church regularly for two years and I've never met a soul. But this morning I've met an usher, the head usher, the president of the church women and the Senior Warden."
Each one of us has met this “man with a large hat” at one time or another. Prejudice comes in many shapes and colors. And when we’re confronted with a strange situation like the one in the story we often don’t know how to react in a Christ-like way. At one time or another we have all been partial towards other people; by showing favoritism on the one hand or discrimination on the other hand.
In living our lives as followers of Christ we are called to take on the character of our Master, and not be partial towards others based on human standards. Christ says that there is only one thing that is more important than loving and accepting our neighbor, and that is to love God with all our heart, strength and mind. Our neighbor is any person who comes to us in search of a meaningful encounter with the living God whose name we carry.
I have to wonder sometimes if there are people here, who are driven to extreme measures in order to find a way to become included in our fellowship. How hard do we make it for others to “fit into” the Body of Christ depending on their hair style, the clothes they wear, their ideas, their family history, and what have you.
In our culture we have a tendency to judge a book by it’s cover. Usually we decide whether a book is worth our money and time on the basis of the author’s name, the title, and the layout of the front cover. This discriminating tendency is also transferred to our day to day activities (and it isn’t all bad - there has to be some measure of healthy discernment). But, first impressions are often the deciding factors in our decision-making. “It’s all in the presentation”, we are told. “It’s not what you know, but who you know, that can make you or brake you.” “I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine.”
In one way or another all of us subscribe to this philosophy. In fact these indoctrinating lines have burned themselves into our culture’s collective soul. We pride ourselves in the fact that we are a fairly discriminating society, and also that we show favor in those relationships that we expect to benefit from. That’s pretty normal stuff. And we hardly even notice that we tend to bring our everyday biases along with us into the Church community.
James writes to followers of Jesus Christ about the meaning of a faith that works. He is concerned with the vitality of the Church. He lays it out that our life-style and our biases must be consistent with the teachings of Christ. What we claim to believe must be evident in our deeds.
Let me read from James 2:1-13
1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. [And] Mercy triumphs over judgment!
Certainly the Church today is not unique in its practice of giving more weight to the words and opinions of some members over against others. The Church today is also not unique in how it treats strangers, people from minority groups, women, or any other category that does not fit the norm. Allow me to say it the way I see it, Just as the early Church showed favoritism, we show favoritism toward some people, and we also discriminate against others.
But God’s Word calls us to have mercy with those who are in disfavor, because God will judge mercilessly against those have no mercy.
Many years ago, in the West Indies, what now is known as the United States territory of the Virgin Islands, Lutheran Missionaries ministered to the Danish landlords who ruled the islands. One of the pastors, who saw that the Danish were only serving the white people, asked, "What of the Negro slaves in the fields? Who ministers to them?" He was told, "If you want to preach to them, go out into the fields where they work. We don't want them in our church." The pastor did so, and today large Lutheran congregations in the Virgin Islands testify to the pioneer preacher who went into the fields and into the slaves quarters to preach the freedom that Christ brought.
In this story we see prejudice and judgment at its worst. And we also see mercy at its best. God fills our every day with countless opportunities to have mercy on others. Sometimes we may be challenged to take a stand on an issue of social justice. And, frequently we have opportunities to encourage someone who has been dealt a raw deal. God’s grace toward us enables us to have mercy on our neighbor.
We can learn from the life of Dr. Paul Brand, who was a missionary surgeon. He writes: “During my life as a missionary surgeon in India and now as a member of the tiny chapel on the grounds of the Carville leprosy hospital, I have seen my share of unlikely seekers after God. And I must admit that most of my worship in the last thirty years has not taken place among people who have shared my tastes in music, speech, or even thought. But over those years I have been profoundly -- and humbly -- impressed that I find God in the faces of my fellow worshipers by sharing with people who are shockingly different from each other and from me.”
C. S. Lewis recounts that when he first started going to church he disliked the hymns, which he considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as he continued going to church, he said, "I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit”
Our scripture text is very clear on the will of God towards all people. As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Our faith in Jesus Christ leaves no room for favoritism or discrimination towards others.
Deuteronomy 10:17 tells us about the reason, For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.
Job 34:18-20 states this truth in words that resurrect memories of the events that shook our world in the last week: 18 Is God not the One who says to kings, `You are worthless,' and to nobles, `You are wicked,' 19 who shows no partiality to princes and does not favor the rich over the poor, for they are all the work of his hands? 20 They die in an instant, in the middle of the night; the people are shaken and they pass away; the mighty are removed without human hand.
God plays no favorites, regardless of whether you’re Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, or just a bum sleeping under the stars on Main Street.
And, God is also an impartial God when it comes to offering grace and forgiveness. Indeed, God seeks reconciliation with every human being, for we are all His beloved creations. It doesn’t matter that we don’t approve of the shabby looking fellow, or the loose woman in the core area. Christ has also died on the cross for him and for her.
Jesus Christ has broken the barrier that separates us from God by taking the judgment for our sins upon himself. Even though we deserved nothing but judgment, he gave us his amazing grace. That grace is extended to every human being. In Acts 10:34 Peter confesses: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
If God, who is the Creator of all people, offers mercy rather than judgment, should we not also make every effort to include people rather than exclude them.
May Christ’s triumph over sin give us the conviction and the strength of character to also extend mercy to everyone who crosses our path. May no-one, especially not a person who has attended our services for two years, have to put on a huge Mexican sombrero and sit in the front seat in order to be noticed.
Let us submit our assumptions, our preconceived ideas, and also our favoritism toward others to the healing cross of Jesus Christ. Let us put aside that which alienates us from God. And let our faith be genuinely reflected in acts of mercy.