Proper 18 (B), September 7, 2003
I don’t know if you saw it but there was a program on PBS called The Manner House. The idea of the project was to have a group of people live in an English manner house as though it were 1906, the waning years of the gilded age.
There were strict divisions in labor and place. Top of the heap was the Lord of the Manner, followed closely by the Lady of the Manner. Bottom of the heap was the Hall Boy. This poor fellow didn’t even get his own room; he literally slept in the hall!
In keeping with 1906 practice the lord and lady of the manner would not speak to any servant save the Butler, perhaps upon occasion the footmen. If, while cleaning the house, the other servants happened upon a family member, they would have to move away into a corner and try to become invisible. They dare not speak to them and the family dare not acknowledge their presence! They were, after all, mere servants.
Two thoughts rose in my mind as I watched the program. First, I was delighted that our American revolution was successful. The second was clearly a twenty-first century thought. How could people treat others in such a way? We certainly don’t show such preference, do we? Perhaps not to that extent but we show favoritism. We may be subtle, perhaps even sophisticated in the manner of our favoritism, but it is there. We should be as concerned about it as was James.
James referred to showing favoritism toward the wealthy. He described how his people might treat a well dressed visitor with deference while responding to one who is shabbily dressed with somewhat less respect. Of course, we’ve never differentiated between people based on dress and certainly not in worship, have we? Yes, we have and we do.
Perhaps it is not to the wealthy we show favoritism. Perhaps it is the group which considers itself in charge of the church. It could be to those who donate the most money or time or talents. Or it could be to people who are most like us.
So what’s wrong with a little bit of favoritism? Why is it not good to differentiate between groups of people with favoritism? James listed a number of reasons.
He reminded his people the very one towards whom they were showing favoritism were the same ones who were exploiting them and taking advantage of them. These favored one slandered the one to whom they belonged, their redeemer and Lord.
James’ real reason why favoritism is wrong has to do with whom God has called. “Listen, dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world be rich in faith and to inherit and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” While they were showing favoritism toward the rich God was choosing the poor.
How, then, do we go about not showing favoritism? We go about avoiding favoritism when we love everyone, low and high, as ourselves. Indeed this is keeping the entire law. If we love our neighbor, well or shabbily dressed, rich or poor, as we love ourselves, we are doing what God considers right!
There was a man in one of my previous congregations who expressed the concern that I was not doing enough to attract and keep wealthier, or “significant” church members. I take his concern as a compliment! So must you! I responded by saying that everyone in that congregation is a significant person. God doesn’t play favorites. Such is plainly visible in the gospel. We must thank God he doesn’t play favorites. If he did not one of us would be able to qualify, not one!
So let us also live the reality of the gospel by refusing to show favoritism. As God has done for us, so also let us do for others!
The sermon brief provided by Tim McQuade, pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, New Castle, PA