Seek Understanding

{“Seek Understanding” is the sermon I preached at First Baptist Church Columbia, Missouri, on February 8, 2015.}

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Things are not always clear at first glance. We know this. We have been taught this as children through missives and proverbs. Let’s go over a few:

  • Not everything is as it SEEMS.
  • All that glitters is not GOLD.
  • Appearances can be DECEIVING.

Yes, appearances can be deceiving and we know this and yet we still act like we don’t. We make instantaneous judgment calls based on appearance alone. An article in Psychology Today explains that with just a few bits of information such as voice, appearance, and body language we judge and make assumptions about social status, integrity, competence, and leadership ability.

James calls us out about our judgments and our blatant acts of favoritism in our passage today. Consider this a first century psych experiment. James wrote this to early Jewish-Christians to challenge their thinking because as one scholar expertly puts it—James knew that evil takes root in self-centered human desires. The antidote to this self-centeredness is to seek understanding.

It is in this seeking and search for understanding that I struggle. James makes it painfully clear that faith and favoritism are completely incompatible when he writes, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Do you? Do I? Do we really believe?

The struggle is real because we are not living in the early centuries of Christianity; yet the concept is still valid. Favoritism is true but perhaps in a different context and in different churches. Though we live in the hot mess of 2015 we live in a culture and society that allows organizations and like-minded people to be open to and working diligently toward social justice. Which is great until it leads to discrimination which is what James is warning us about as he continues, “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 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?” Interesting side note here is that the Greek word James uses to describe the person with gold rings is chrysodactylios that literally means gold fingered.

So, what do we do? We must seek understanding, and in doing so we flounder about like fish flopping on land as they suffocate out of water.

I flounder; my faith suffocates while I play spiritual favorites. This seeking understanding does not come easily as evidenced by my job as a church secretary. Six years ago I began the process of applying for and interviewing for the position of church secretary at a Baptist church in Kansas City. As the personnel team was going over my job description that listed all the expected tasks they got to that dreaded part of the job description. We all have jobs that include this. Yours does, I know it. The one labeled “other duties as assigned.” This is the part of the interview when the pastor piped up and said, “Basically, we want you to be the face of the church.”

I knew what he meant, at least I thought I did. I assumed that being the face of the church I would be the welcoming smile and encouraging voice to church members who called or came by for questions or requesting assistance or needing assistance with their ministry. I did do all that, but it was so much more than that, so much different. I became the face of the Church with a capital C to all the people who came by who were not members. Let me tell you a story about Larry and Barry.

Larry showed up the church one day dressed to the nines. Though I had heard of this man I had never met him. I knew who he was when he walked in so I did not ask his name or offer him mine. He was dressed in a pressed and starched buttoned shirt with polished cufflinks at his wrists. His suit pants didn’t have a wrinkle and the crease was perfect. Larry’s shoes shone with a brilliance of what had to be a fresh shine. The wedding ring on Larry’s left hand had more carat-weight of diamonds than I will ever see. I do not remember why he came by the church that day. I just remember that I needed to show him something in another building and I scurried to open doors and show him the way. The interesting thing is this: I wanted him gone as fast as possible and did whatever I needed to do to make that happen. His wealth, status, and reputation made me feel uncomfortable. And yet, there was something I sensed about him in the way he held his head. I sensed an emptiness like his starched clothes and fine jewelry were the wrappings and bows on an empty box.

Barry, on the other hand, is a completely different story. My first encounter with Barry was while he was in our church Dumpster. I had spied him through an office window and decided to go meet him. I made enough noise as I approached the Dumpster so I wouldn’t surprise him. I introduced myself to him and he told me his name and that he was looking for scrap metal. Knowing we had more soda cans in the trash in the fellowship hall I quickly ran to retrieve them for him. When I came back we continued our conversation. I learned that he lived in a house without water or electricity, about his past, that he was addicted to methamphetamines, and that hadn’t eaten in three days. Lucky for him I had brought enough of my homemade spaghetti sauce that day to last me the rest of the week. So, I invited him to come out of the Dumpster and join me for lunch. I introduced Barry to our pastor and the three of easily talked and shared. We invited Barry back and sure enough for many months Barry would come for coffee or to use the bathroom sink to bathe or to eat whatever extras I had brought from home or to be in a place where somebody knew his name.

Brothers and sisters, I am here to be as transparent as I can be, so it will come as no surprise when I tell you that Barry was my favorite, and I treated him that way. While James admonishes the early Christians about showing favoritism to the wealthy, I am here to admonish myself for doing the opposite. My curt attitude with Larry conveyed that he could go “stand there” while my hospitality to Barry said, “Have a seat here, please.” I made judgments and assumptions based on appearances. What I did not do was seek understanding.

  • Not everything is as it SEEMS.
  • All that glitters is not GOLD.
  • Appearances can be DECEIVING.

Larry and Barry while completely different on the outside have something very important in common. They are both in need of a savior. This revelation did not come quickly or even easily to me. Remember, I had been hired to be the face of the church, which implies that all eyes were on me. What I realize now—and hopefully not too late—is this: we have a new job description. We are called to be the eyes of the church. We are called to SEE people in such a way that we seek understanding NOT based on their appearance or how they could benefit us but to really SEE them because they matter to Christ. James is warning us that our actions and responses to people based on what we personally decide is our favorite—whether that is people dressed in fine clothes or dirty clothes…does no one any benefit. We must seek an understanding that builds relationships, an understanding that transforms…or how about this…and understanding that just lets us ask people their names!

I no longer am a church secretary. My last day was Friday, January 30. That last week was filled with surprising emotions. I am sure that many of you can identify with me that ending a job—no matter how much you want it to end or how much you are looking forward to the next season of your life—comes with some measure of grief. Thursday, for some reason, was especially hard. Everyday I drive a back way to my work so I can drive through the neighborhood. It helps me keep my finger on the pulse of the neighborhood. The church is in a blue collar part of town near the Ford plant so it’s filled with small houses and a lot of Ford F 150 trucks. I know which houses are in the process of foreclosure. I know which house is the drug house. I can tell by the state of the front yard how the family is doing inside. I began to be filled with emotion that I would not have the regular opportunity anymore to pray for these residents as I drove by. When I got close to the church I had to stop at a stop sign and I just started sobbing uncontrollably. I knew right then that as much as I loved the church members and how dear they were to me what I would grieve the most would be the opportunity to meet people like Barry in Dumpters, or homeless teenagers like Clay who hid under the portico to use the outlet on the outside of the church to charge his phone, or people like Matt who lived on the land behind our bus barn for a few months while he got his life straightened out. It wasn’t until I began preparing for today’s sermon that I thought of Larry and other wealthy people who have come through the church’s doors. The struggle with favoritism is real. I prefer dirty over starched and pressed. This grieves my heart because the wealthy, the CEOs, the IT gurus, the doctors, the attorneys need a transformative Christ as much as meth addicted Barry does.

Favoritism is a problem of the heart that can be alleviated when we change our mindset of being the face of the church to being the eyes of the church. This does not come without discomfort and for this we pray…

Lord Christ be with us in our discomfort and transform our eyes to truly see and seek understanding so we can come as we are so we can welcome those who come as they are—whether that be gold-fingered or dirty.

Amen.

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