This morning, we’re continuing our sermon series on the book of James, titled, “Let’s climb!” It’s an invitation into an active faith life—and Pastor Harrison and I have said that, each week, we’ll focus on a real-life temptation that keeps us from engaging in an active faith life with God. So let’s get into it!
[READ JAMES 2:1-13]
This week, we got a new printer at the church and in order to test my computer’s connection to the printer, I printed off the first page of my sermon. One of our staff members picked up my sermon, looked at the title, and said, “Love without favoritism? Oof, Good luck with that!”
The Goal of Favoritism: Flourishing for Self
Any journey from inactivity toward activity is difficult to begin! You might have the plan to be more active this year; but despite your good intent, you still haven’t started. Our habits and ways of being are difficult to break—and in our sinful world, our habits tend to pull us back to the inertia (no movement) that we talked about on New Year’s Day. Like a new exercise, “Love without Favoritism” might seem difficult (or even impossible!) because we don’t see how to begin. We can see that it requires more to begin to love those who are different from us; and it requires less to begin loving those who are the same as or similar to us. Loving without favoritism isn’t hard because it’s wrong; it’s hard because we are out of shape! So how would we start? And why don’t we start? Very simply, we don’t love without favoritism when we are focused on trying to make ourselves flourish. Trying to make ourselves flourish means rejecting God’s good plan and going our own way. Practically, this looks like both pride and exhaustion.
God calls us to love without favoritism! One of the reasons we don’t do it is our pride. We are always tempted to judge others, to think of ourselves or our ways of being as better than others. Maybe even we are afraid others whom we don’t know well. These temptations lead us to discriminate or keep some distance from others based on our worldly view of people: others’ lifestyles, thoughts, views, appearance, gender, ethnicity, wealth, education, position, social class. We also treat people differently based on what we can get from them or how they would be helpful for us…… Spiritual laziness or indifference is also a part of the temptations. We don’t ask God and work on it because we feel burdened or less motivated; even while we know we should grow mature in that area.
Another reason we don’t love without favoritism is our exhaustion. We could also talk about exhaustion in terms of spiritual laziness or indifference or imbalance. If you are trying to get physically fit, any trainer will tell you to shift your focus to work out your whole body—otherwise one part will become exhausted and another part will be unaffected. The pithy way of saying this is, “Don’t Skip Leg Day”. If your life is unbalanced, you may look strong and impressive—but you will become exhausted quickly and give up. This exhaustion and imbalance is a kind of laziness that is also connected to our pride! Someone ignores working out his legs because he is proud of his big biceps. Likewise, some of us ignore loving people who are different from us because we are proud of how we look, our way of being. We spend so much time looking at ourselves, that it seems exhausting to look at others!
God is not calling us to exhaust ourselves. In fact, it is our imbalanced priorities and our focus on ourselves that exhausts us. I wonder how many of you, already less than one month into a new year, feel like your life is filling up with more than you can handle? Do you really think this is God’s intent for you? I suggest that it is all the things that you are putting on yourself that tire you out. The extra projects and trips. The expectations for great things. The desires for your parents or children or friends to be a certain way. Sooner or later, that doesn’t work. Sooner or later, I’m worn out, I still can’t complete all of my responsibilities and so I resign myself to just to playing favourites. I have a favourite kid, a favourite friend, a favourite parent. I end up picking to be with people who are easier to be with because I feel I don’t have the energy to do what I imagine is love without favoritism. Some of us may try to do it all. Others of us may give up before we even start! But is this what God is calling us to do? I don’t think so.
God’s Path from Flourishing for Self to Flourishing for All
Let us pretend for the moment that you have the smallest capacity of anyone to love. If you have a lot of stress or exhaustion, you might say to yourself, “I only have the capacity to love one other person!” Good. Fine. If that is your situation, I encourage you to attend to James’ words: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” This is the law James says brings freedom! Even if you can only love one other person, you still have an important choice: is the one person in front of me more important than I am or less important than I am? Favoritism is about trying to create flourishing for myself—and Jesus will always set us in the right direction on selfishness and sin not because we deserve it, but because of who he is! James reminds us of Jesus’ call to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Again, this is not Jesus’ harsh instructions for us; this is God’s path for flourishing and freedom! It’s this second part that James focuses on here, and that we’re focusing in on this morning. We are temptated is to do things (even good things!) out of a motivation of guilt or shame. Jesus reminds us that it is not “doing the right thing” that pleases God, but rather it is “doing the right thing for the right reason.” And the right reason is always love because love moves us beyond pride and self-focus. Love lifts us up from exhaustion.
Now, it is easy to spot someone doing the wrong things for selfish reasons: An angry teen vandalizes his school to vent his anger. A young woman spreads hurtful lies about her friend out of jealousy. An older person is selfish and takes advantage of their position to force others to serve them and defer to them. These people are not loving others.
What is much more difficult is to spot when someone is doing what seems to be the right thing—but for the wrong reasons. Imagine you are a member at James’ church. When you go to the service on Sunday, you might not see favoritism. Instead, you might see someone graciously welcoming a nicely-dressed visitor with a smile! You would think to yourself, “there is nothing wrong here! What a beautiful act.” It is much more difficult to notice when someone does the right thing for the wrong reasons: a student turns in a cheater in the class—because, “why do cheaters always prosper?” He wants a better mark for himself. A parent gives many gifts to their child—because they want their child to like them more than their spouse. Someone is very busy working for the good of the church—but only to build up a good name in the eyes of God or of other people.
Favoritism is always a good example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Favouritism is about doing something kind for someone else but not because you intend good for that person—it is because you intend good for yourself! You attend to the nicely dressed person because you intend good for yourself! (you want to be associated with her). You avoid the person with “filthy old clothes” because you intend good for yourself! (you do not want to share in his shame). You give a big amount of money at the end of the year to some worthy church or charity—not to help them, but because you intend good for yourself! (you want to save yourself paying taxes!) If you are thinking only about yourself, you can justify any behaviour. Absolutely any behaviour. And focusing only on yourself will leave you trapped. It will rob you of every little freedom that others enjoy.
This is why God is so interested in judging sin: sin keeps people from flourishing. Do you think you have the right view of adultery or of how to honour your parents? Good. As Pastor Harrison reminded us last week, faith requires personal action and obedience—from you! You might be tempted to surround yourself with people who have the same view as you do and the same priorities as you do! This will inevitably make you feel good about yourself, more certain about how right you are and more confident in ignoring or judging others. This is how favoritism works! We surround ourselves by people who are most like us because we do not want to work on ourselves—we want to create flourishing for ourselves with no energy or effort. Instead, James instructs us: use your limited energy on your own obedience—as someone who is going to be judged by God! Look at the area of your life where you struggle most. Our temptation as people living in a broken world is always to speak about where others are weakest and where we are strongest. But James reminds us that using guilt or shame to try to enforce others’ actions or belief is useless! “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (2:10). We have people in our church who have broken every single one of God’s commandments. If your mind is drawn to others when I say that, perhaps pause and reflect on your own life for a moment.
What a mess we are, right? But if we remain focused on ourselves and on others’ sin, we will only multiply shame. If we work for our own flourishing, we will multiply shame! If we do not follow God’s path to love others “as much as we love ourselves” we will multiply shame because we will create groups that seem best for ourselves but also that exclude others. What then can we do? As we close, let’s turn our hearts to God and see his goal to guide us forward.
God’s Goal: Flourishing for Humanity
There is only one person with whom we can align ourselves where shame will not increase: Jesus Messiah, the son of God. Jesus is the only one who loves without favoritism. Loving without favoritism does not mean loving without limits. The Bible says, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son…” God was willing to give his son out of love for you. He loved you as much as his own son. He loves you as much as himself!
As my spiritual director says, “Let’s not move too quickly past that!”
God loves you as much as he loves himself. Jesus had the opportunity to pick himself over humanity and he chose humanity. This is where we will end today—exploring God’s amazing love without limits—a love that invites everyone to come and to be loved just as deeply (1) by God and (2) in God’s family. This is the purpose of a multicultural church. We want to make room for as many people as possible to experience the love of God. It is not up to one person to do it, it is up to all of us together. When we look at one another, we can see the love that God has for each person; but only after we experience God’s love for ourselves.
If the problem of favoritism is that we try to provide flourishing for ourselves; then the solution is to look to God for flourishing! As we close in prayer, consider whether you will continue to try to provide freedom for yourself or if you will take the first step in an active faith life—and bring your worries, cares, and weakness to God in expectant prayer—depending on Him for your flourishing.
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