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Don't Leave Home Without It!
a sermon based on James 2:1-17
by Rev. Thomas Hall

In Schindler's List, a film about the Nazi concentration camps, scene after scene describes the tragedy of discrimination; when unleashed and given full sway, discrimination led to extermination-getting rid of people who were thought to be somehow "different" than others. In one scene, a Nazi SS officer props his rifle on his balcony and places the cross-hairs on prisoners who work below in the concentration camp; he squeezes the trigger and a kid falls; again the trigger and again another body crumples like a sack of potatoes-this time an older woman. At first, it is hard to shoot like this, but by the end of the war this officer can end hundreds of lives during the day and listen to Mozart over dinner. Discrimination can lead to disastrous ends.

During that same era in another part of the world, a research scientist made a remarkable discovery. He discovered how to preserve blood for later use in transfusions. Saved thousands of lives on the battlefield. After the war while traveling through South Africa, this man was involved in a severe car accident. He now needed the benefits of his own discovery--a blood transfusion. Fortunately he was less than a mile from a hospital. Unfortunately, he was black; and blacks were not allowed access to white hospitals. So the man died on his way to a black hospital sixty miles away. Discrimination can lead to disastrous ends.

The cross is a powerful symbol of the one person who yielded up his life for us all. Jesus willingly allowed himself to be stretched like canvas over those cross beams for us. It has become a symbol of compassion, self-sacrifice, and love-in-action. But I see another cross. It too burns with a message. Flames leap and flicker in its wood; it stands not on Calvary, but on someone's lawn. Can you see those little eyes peaking out from behind the curtains? Can you see the wide-eyed fear reflected on the glasses of a young mother looking out the window at it? No sacrifice here; only a message of hate and distrust. Discrimination can lead us to disastrous ends.

And this discrimination takes many forms. Have you ever seen some of the graffiti that I've put on the overhead this morning? "Japanese Get Out," "White is Right?" Discrimination is an ugly thing; it means that we treat people differently simply because of what they wear, how they look, if they’re hip like us, the type of language they speak, what color their skin is, how old or young they are, whether they are unemployed or on welfare. In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the animals who chase out the farmer and establish an animal society based upon the rule that "all animals are created equal." Even in this imaginary world, though, discrimination creeps in one night when the pigs revise the law. Next morning, the rest of the animals notice something different about the law. It reads, "all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others."

And that's where our epistle lesson begins today. Changing the law back to read that all human beings are created in the image of God. That all are equally loved by God. That Christ died for all humanity. But how could any church ever deserve the kind of criticism that this writer levels at the congregation who receives this letter from James? Sounds like a slapstick comedy, a rerun from I Love Lucy. Why do we need to be scolded about discrimination? That's what the world out there needs to hear, not us. Remember the skit this morning? Two people enter; one receives the American Express welcome at church and the other barely gets noticed. Like the well-dressed guy at a swank restaurant; the waiter waves to him. "Master Charge? Diner's Club? Oh yes, follow me, right this way, please." But the other guy is this droopy-eyed Columbo character with his rumpled raincoat. The waiter says, "We don't take checks. And we don't have a diner in this restaurant. Coffee? Fine. I'll get you a coffee to go."

James seems to think that discrimination had already applied for membership in Christian congregations of his time. Worse, discrimination had been welcomed in as a new member. It was practiced blatantly. The one person who received distinguished attention was a gold-fingered man; a good possibility that this man was of senatorial rank--a big wig in Roman politics. A person whose influence could help the church. We're talking four digit offerings here. The guy was probably well-known, well-respected, and the kind of guy that sort of turns heads when he walks by. These wealthy gold-fingered types were rare in Palestine. The church, on the other hand, was relatively poor--populated mostly by ptochoi--persons who lived in and around Jerusalem during the time of Christ: slaves and day laborers, and various types of beggars. Even the ptochoi had categories for themselves--the poor who worked and the poor who lived partly or entirely on relief. So when the gold-fingered types came to worship, heads turned and ushers quickly moved to give them a seat of honor.

Maybe this congregation had bought into the myth that ptochoi were doing something wrong, living in sin or else God would have blessed them with good-paying jobs and nice homes. Maybe they actually believed that rich people were more blessed by God than the poor. They could have thought that the ptochoi were simply lazy--if they just get up off their duffs and work they, too, could be successful. But the fact is, sin in the form of discrimination had entered the church and it still sits in the pews today. The question is not does it, but why does discrimination happen?

Sociologists tell us that people tend to favor those who are most like themselves. Could be in age or in paycheck status, or in experience or interests. Something that pulls us into groups is based upon a resonating factor--the things that resonate with our experiences, our age and interest, and our life. It's easy to cluster with those whom we've known for a long time and share similar experiences with. Students naturally cluster because they share survival experiences in the classroom. "You get past hermeneutics?" "No, don't need it, I've already had math."

Folks who have been in the neighborhood from the beginning often suspect any newcomers. The problem is exacerbated when the differences are obvious. The greatest danger we face is to remain in our own clusters; to stay in our own groups; constantly seeking out those who resonate with our personal feelings, experiences, or interests. But to be afraid to risk breaking out of the womb, out of our clusters is be dangerously close to what James warns us about this morning. For James’ church, discrimination took the form of wealth and status, for us, it may take the form of new residents and established residents, out-of-towners and local community, college aged and families or retired aged.

People who aren't our age--people who are younger than we or much older than we need to get together. People who don't share the same type of experiences that we have would discover some new friends if they would risk a little more. Like a college student who goes to class during the week. Like an older person who lives on a fixed income. Both are on fixed incomes! Maybe they could help each other. Maybe people just arriving in our churches, our neighborhoods-who have just been through life. Let's get together. Discrimination happens when we neglect people; when we are afraid to welcome everyone who enters with open arms; when we fail to value each person as someone who is made in the image of God.

The real problem is a loose connection. The connection between our faith and love has come unplugged. James says that true faith does not show preferential treatment. He says it is impossible to hold true faith in one hand and discrimination in the other. To recite the Apostle's Creed while favoring those we like over those we don't care as much for. For me, that means that children, moms, dads, chandelier-swinging, youth, hard-core students, retired persons, and newcomers will need to be treated equally. That's a tall order because I like to cluster too. But can you help me to live out the gospel? Let's connect our faith that we affirm and recite on Sunday mornings with our actions after the service and during the week. If you cluster up here you're going to miss getting to know some terrific friends of mine; and if you leave immediately after the final amen, you'll miss a vital opportunity for your faith to work through love. This connection must start here before it will ever begin out there. So will you help me? And you never know what love and faith will lead you to do.

It all began when one boy started chemotherapy for cancer. His hair fell out due to a reaction to the therapy. So he's sitting in school, humiliated and embarrassed at his appearance. He's already felt like a freak at school. So he just sits there silent-like. Then the unexpected happened. One kid sitting next to him gets past the differences of appearances and thinks to himself, "I don't want my friend to be made fun of." So he talks to other classmates and the agree on a plan. The next day in walks kid after kid with completely shaved heads. Then one day the teacher walks into class with his head shaved too. Keep faith always-never leave home without it, but to your faith add loving action for such will bring the kingdom of God very near. Amen.