“What is she doing?” asked the friend.
“Waiting for me to get home.”
We all have bad habits, as individuals and as a church. One of the bad habits of the first-century church was the practice of showing partiality to the rich. A person with gold rings and fine clothes would come into the congregation, followed by a poor person in dirty clothes. Church members tended to honor the one wearing fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while they would look down on the poor one, saying, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit at my feet”.
They were making distinctions, writes James in his letter, and acting as “judges with evil thoughts.”
These are very bad habits!
Of course, we do the very same today. A young husband and wife with well-behaved children, showing up at worship for the very first time, are almost always going to be received more warmly than a homeless man off the street, or someone with bad habits, a mental illness or a problem that tends to be disruptive. We make distinctions, and sometimes even act as judges with evil thoughts.
“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters,” says James, a servant of God and Jesus Christ. “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor”.
So how do we move away from showing partiality, making distinctions and judging people on outer appearance?
Surprisingly, the answer is not better theology, morality or biblical interpretation.
It’s better habits.
The New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg has written a book called The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012). In it, he tells the story of companies that found success simply by replacing established routines with smarter habits.
Back in the 1990s, Starbucks employees were regularly cracking under the pressure of so many custom-made coffees. Then Starbucks created the LATTE method for their baristas: LATTE stands for Listen, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank the customer and Explain why the problem occurred. With this new habit, customer and employee satisfaction radically improved.
Success came from getting in the habit of doing things differently.
James has some strong suggestions for a church in search of better habits. He begins by urging us to obey the law of love, which he calls “the royal law” of Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. This means treating others as we would want to be treated, and showing the same mercy to others that we would want to receive from them. James identifies this as “the royal law” because it is the rule that stands at the very center of the kingdom of God.
When we show partiality in the church, we break the Royal Law.
In her book, Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World, Rebecca Manley Pippert tells about a highly intelligent college student named Bill who had become a Christian. As so many college students do when they leave home, Bill explored his identity by rejecting some of his parents’ beliefs. Following his generational norms, he never wore shoes, regardless of the weather. He always wore jeans with holes in them and a T-shirt regardless of the occasion. In fact, that’s what he wore when he attended the campus chapel services — jeans, T-shirt and, of course, no shoes.
Summertime came and the chapel services were on hiatus. The next Sunday Bill decided to visit a local church across the street from the campus. He arrived a little late, and the service had already started. The very-well-dressed church members who had arrived on time were sitting on all the seats at the back and along the center aisle. As Bill walked down the aisle looking for a seat, there were no open spots. Because of his unusual fashion statement, no one in the congregation would scoot over to give him a seat.
Bill walked all the way to the front and still didn’t find a seat. Finding himself at the front with no seat, he sat down on the carpeted floor between the pulpit and the front pew. This might have been acceptable at the college fellowship, but it had never been done in the conservative church before. You can imagine the tension in the congregation. People were aghast. Not only was he not dressed for the occasion, but also by sitting on the floor at the front of the church, he was interrupting the service.
The tension was building when the focus switched to an elderly member of the congregation as he got up from his seat and began walking very slowly up the aisle toward Bill. People looked at each other as they wondered what the silver haired man in his three-piece suit would do. Would he politely tell the young man that he was dressed inappropriately? Would he help him to a pew? Would he escort him to the back of the church and out the door?
When the elderly dignified man finally made it to where Bill was sitting, he stopped. He didn’t say a word. But with great deliberation, the old man slowly sat down next to the poorly dressed young man and put his arm around him. The two of them sat there and worshiped together
The Royal Law of Love.
Saying we have faith is never enough. We have to make a habit of putting our faith into action.
Have you heard about the one percent or their financial opposites the ninety-nine percent? Chances are unless you’ve been living beneath a rock, you have been exposed to both sides hurling accusations at each other. Ever since a group of ordinary citizens occupied Wall Street, mathematical percentages have taken on new meaning in the United States. Reading about this “new reality” can be both discouraging and controversial. Yet income, social, ethnic, gender, and other polarizing disparities are nothing new. This week’s lectionary readings remind us of that uncomfortable fact.
The lesson from James is strong in its admonishment to avoid showing partiality to the wealthy and powerful while trampling or even ignoring the poor and marginalized.
This week’s gospel is comprised of two healing stories, the first being the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the second the healing of the deaf man with a speech impediment. Jesus heals insiders and outsiders— the one hundred percent. When Jesus is around, lines blur and grace flows exponentially. This lesson offers wonderful possibilities to speak to inclusion and the possibility of a different way of living in this world as disciples of Christ.
There will always be the divide between the haves and the have-nots, between the lucky and the down-trodden. The only hope we have is to align our saint/sinner selves with the way of Christ, choosing to see and live the wholeness of the beloved one hundred percent. By loving our neighbor as ourselves, by seeing and doing, we move one step closer to breaking through the divide. We move one step closer to experiencing God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ alternative vision is where the ninety-nine and the one percent become the one hundred percent, held together in love and grace and walking toward a better way.