Excerpts of the Rev. Mark Peterson’s sermon yesterday at Knollwood Community Church in Burke.
There was a woman across the tracks from a downtown fashionable church. She wanted to join this church and the pastor asked her to pray about it. Each time she assured him she really wanted to join, he would ask her to continue praying about it. Then he didn’t see her for six months. Finally, he saw her and he asked if she was still praying. She replied, “The Lord told me not to worry about getting into that church. He said, ‘I’ve been trying to get into that church for 20 years.’”
This morning we are going to consider “the peril of partiality.”
In Chapter 2 of his letter to the church, James warns against favoritism.
What a remarkable statement. Who is saying this? None other than the brother of Jesus. Yet, if anyone could have expected and demanded favorable attention, it could have been James.
James cautions against this attitude, which so easily entered into the church. Think for a moment about the unique social structure of the early church. Into this new institution came slaves and masters, rich and poor, the oppressed and the oppressor, male and female (remember the great value distinction made at that time between the genders).
In the early church it was not unusual for a master who had found faith in Christ to come under the spiritual tutelage of one of his slaves. Or for one who was in debt to another to find himself seated alongside his creditor.
In New Testament times, rings were a sign of great wealth. Wearing them was a way to “show off” one’s status, to display one’s affluence. In James Chapter 2, verses 2-4, the poor man is dressed in what was considered to be “filthy” clothes, obviously indicating a low economic status.
Since 90 percent of people at that time were considered as poor, one who walked in the door adorned with rings would stand out like the proverbial “sore thumb.”
James says that in treating one differently than the other they had the effect of dividing. Why? Because in showing partiality, in giving preference to another wrongly, the act of doing so assigns relative value to people and judges them based upon appearance.
I heard this story back in the ‘70s. It took place out in California in the heydays of the hippie movement.
One Sunday morning, during the worship service of a very conservative, traditional, buttoned-down evangelical church, the pastor had just gotten up to give his sermon. In walked a young man wearing dirty, worn and torn blue jeans with a T-shirt. His hair was down past his shoulders; he had a scruffy beard and he gave off a bit of an odor that did not resemble Brut cologne.
He began walking up the aisle of the packed church. The auditorium hushed; every eye was turned towards this stranger. The pastor paused. The young man walked all the way to the front, then sat down, crossed his legs and waited for the pastor to continue.
From the back came one of the elders of the church who was in his early 80s. He walked towards the front. Everyone waited, anticipating what he would do. It seemed to take forever.
When he arrived, he set his cane aside, awkwardly, and with obvious discomfort sat down alongside the young man, and put his arm around his shoulder. And he worshipped together with this stranger, showing no partiality whatsoever. It wasn’t necessary for the pastor to preach that day. The people had just seen a sermon they would never forget.
Showing partiality contradicts God’s own attitude towards people. Proverbs 22:2 says, “The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them both.”
Jesus’ ministry was a reflection of the character of His Father. … God expects His people to act like Him, Leviticus 19:15. In I Samuel 16:6-13 we hear God’s instructions. “Do not look at his appearance or the height of his stature … for man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”
James anticipates the question in his reader’s mind — “But, is it really that big a deal?”
In James 2:9-11, he explains, “When you show partiality, you exalt the one and dishonor the other.” It is no small thing. It really does matter to God.
As the old saying goes: “We are just one beggar telling another where the bread line is.” Oh, the marvelous grace of God.