DELIVERED 25 AUGUST 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS
As most of you know, I am the father of 3 children. Recently, my oldest two–Evangeline (11) and Cecilia (9)–have started collecting things. It began with Pokemon cards…but it is beginning to grow. So, not too long ago, they asked me if I collected anything when I was their age. I, of course, replied that I did: if you know me well, you know that I have a “collecting” nature: my house is full of knick-knacks; when we visit National Parks, I get the “stamps” from the visitors’ centers for my little National Park book; I don’t even delete photos from my phone. So, yes: I was and am a collector…and when I was a preteen, I collected baseball cards and then, a bit later, comic books. So, knowing that they were about to spend a few weeks with my parents this summer in my childhood home, my kids asked the big question: “Dad…where is all that stuff?” And then, a few weeks ago, my children became the proud owners of some complete Topps and Donruss sets from the early ‘90s as well as a few binders full of X-Men and Amazing Spiderman issues from the same period of time.
This is all somehow simultaneously exciting and terribly boring to them.
But watching them go through these old binders has had me thinking back to when I was their age collecting all of these things in the first place, and it’s led me back to a central story in my life. It goes like this:
ONCE UPON A TIME…I bought a Beckett’s.
Do you know what this was? For any of you under 35, allow me to explain: in a time before the internet, if you were a collector of a thing and you wanted to know its value, you needed some way to know what a standard price for it might be. A “Beckett’s” was a guide to the standard prices for baseball cards, and it was published (at that time) annually. So, long ago, 10-year-old-me would eagerly await the newest Beckett’s, buy it, and then spend hours in my room tallying up what all of my cards were worth.
(There are people right now looking at me like I’m talking about making dominos out of animal bones in a log cabin. But I digress.)
So, one day, I’m going through my cards and my Beckett’s–ten cents, twenty cents, a quarter!–and I discover that I have a card that is worth 8 bucks. It is a Darryl Strawberry Topps rookie card. 8 bucks! 1 card! So, I take this card out of my binder, run to my mom in the living room, and proudly announce: “this card is worth 8 bucks!” And my mother–who is generally a wonderful, Godly, and endlessly supportive woman–on this day said to me, without looking up from the magazine she was reading,
“that card’s worth what somebody’ll pay for it.”
– My Mom, c. 1993
I was devastated. 8 bucks my foot.
Here’s where I’m going with this story: we human beings have a profound and truly troubling value problem. We see this all the time in this crazy paradox we are all living through. On the one hand, we have more sources of affirmation and approval than ever before: for many of us, our lives are absolutely full of times we can share what we think, what we are seeing, what we are good at, where we are traveling with one another and get near-instant gratification from people giving our lives a virtual “thumbs up” or “heart.” But on the other hand, we are living in a time where loneliness, depression, and even violence springing up from feelings of social rejection and isolation are plaguing our society like never before. So…how is this possible? Why is it we tend to feel simultaneously special and unique and precious…and also worthless?
To get at an answer to that question, I’d like us to look at two specific passages from James’s letter, both of which have to do with what wealth looks like in the context of the early church. The first comes from James chapter 2, and it says this:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
If I’m honest with you, this is a passage I would usually skim through. The reason for that is that it feels initially unrelatable to me: I don’t know that I have ever offered a favorable seat at church to a rich man with a fine robe and many rings.
And honestly, even if I try to expand how it applies and ask myself, “Kenny, but have you shown more attention to a person whose wealth you thought might be helpful to you?” Well, even then…I know on some level the answer is yes, but I still kind of want to say, “not really.”
Of course, I am not the same person as all of you, and we are all susceptible to different challenges, so I don’t want to belittle the power of this point: clearly, James believes that showing favoritism is both a present and a serious threat in the early church. It is also a threat to us: we should not do it. But I do want to challenge us to dig a bit deeper into the whys here, because I know that at least for me personally, they start to root out something that I don’t initially see. I think what James says in this passage exposes that showing favor to people who are wealthy actually does 2 harms:
First, it communicates to the poor that you see them as less than they are. So James says, if you show favoritism, “have you not dishonored the poor man?”
But second, partiality communicates to the rich person that their sins–the ways they fall short–are less important, too. This is why he reminds his readers that the wealthy people they know aren’t perfect: they oppress the poor, and they even drag people who are of a lower social standing than them into court so they can extract even more suffering from them. James reminds the early church of the sins of the rich…and why would he do that, unless what he is really concerned with is that the leaders of the church are forgetting them? And that, I think, starts to hit home, at least for me: do I also sometimes look at people who are successful and think to myself: sure, they aren’t perfect, but they must be doing some things right! And if so, what does that expose about what I think about value?
Let me be practical for a second to try and help this point stick with us. What I’m getting at is that I think we sometimes convince ourselves that wealth might not be the whole story when it comes to how good or bad we are…we might even be especially skeptical of rich people…but we convince ourselves it’s part of the story: that a wealthy person is doing something right if they are wealthy; that wealth is in some way a sign of divine or cosmic blessing. And as a result, we allow the reverse of this logic to find a quiet, secret space in our brain: we begin to believe that a poor person, because they are poor, might not be doing anything right at all. Or, in other words, that their poverty is their fault…it reflects their value.
It reflects their value.
I came into this week thinking that of all the sins I am tempted by, partiality isn’t really one of them. But I’m coming into this moment now saying that oh man, partiality is everywhere…and it’s maybe less about favoring the wealthy than it is discriminating against the poor…because I tell myself–we tell ourselves–they deserve it.
If you don’t think this is a real concern in the world we live in right now, look around: at the ways we are telling ourselves in this country that wealthy people have more value in the world than poor people. At the ways we are allowing and overlooking the subhuman treatment of poor people, as if such treatment should be allowed because of mistakes they might or might not have made. At the ways we perpetuate the idea that wealthy people must have some sort of divine blessing or righteousness behind them, as proven by their material success. If these stories aren’t familiar to you, keep your eyes open for them this week, not so you can feel self-righteous…but so you can feel challenged by how easy it is to slip into this. And so you can learn to resist it.
So how did we get here, to this profound confusion? And what can we do about it?
I think the root problem is the result of a misunderstanding in our world about value. To return for a moment to my mom’s point about baseball cards, a thing is only worth what someone will pay for it.
That’s frustrating–especially to 11 year old me, who knows no one will give him 8 bucks for a Darryl Strawberry!–but it’s also, on some level, profoundly true. If all my best friend will give me for that card is a buck twenty-five, what Beckett’s says doesn’t matter: the card is worth a buck twenty-five. After all, what is a baseball card, really? It’s a rectangle of cardboard with some ink on it. It holds some basic information…that you could find in countless other places. Does it have some value, just as an object in the world? Sure. But that value is not 8 bucks. It’s not even what my friend pays for it. So, in a sense, card collectors are always fighting against a deep fear which is also a deep and upsetting truth: cards aren’t really worth much of anything at all. But by managing this little miniature economy, where this card must be worth a bit more or less than another one, they can convince themselves that’s not true and create a kind of micro-economy, where the worth of a thing can be determined by its comparative value.
Our lives are much the same: the thing many of us fear, and which is driving the loneliness and even the anger of our age, is that our essential value as living, breathing things on a planet with 7 billion other versions of us is almost nothing. And so we begin to obsess over our comparative value–what we are worth in comparison to other people–in the hopes that this will give us satisfaction and happiness. This is the fundamental hunger that social media taps into: it’s a way of comparing our value to others. And so much of our world–of our marketplaces and our work environments and our digital lives and even our homes and our relationships with our siblings or our relationships with our spouses or even the relationships between one church and another church–so much of our world is fixated on these comparisons of value!
“I’m a better worker than so-and-so…why do they make more?”
“Oh no! My sister is going to med school! What’s that going to mean for grandma’s will?!”
“Why is it that all the dishes and the laundry are always something I’m responsible for? When was the last time you did anything?”
“How did that photo get 200 likes when mine only got 50?”
And for me sometimes: “Why do 1000 people show up to listen to his sermon?”
We obsess over our value as it compares to other people.
But here’s the flip-side of what my mom was trying to tell me: sure, that card is only worth what someone will pay for it…but then again, it is worth what someone will pay for it. So, what happens if someone pays more? What does that do to the card’s value?
At the very beginning of that passage from James, James writes,
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”
He reminds his readers, then, of who they are: they are brothers…holding to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” What “glory” is he referring to? Well, based on what we read last week in chapter 1, it would seem it’s the “glory” of being made perfect and complete through steadfastness in our faith. In other words, it’s the glory Jesus is bringing you into. Which is to say: his glory.
You have been purchased for waaaay more than your comparative value. While you–while we–were quibbling about which of us is worth a quarter and which is worth fifty cents, Jesus metaphorically bought us for a king’s ransom. He paid not in coins but with his actual life. So what, then, are we worth?
At root in the dangers James is pointing out about showing partiality to the wealthy in the early church is this issue of forgetting 1) what you are worth and 2) how you became so valuable. What are you worth, brothers and sisters? You are worth exactly one Jesus. A person sinless and divine and righteous. Your value is incalculable. But how did you become so valuable? Not because of something innate in you, or some talent or skill or shrewdness or beauty…that’s Beckett’s talk! That’s arguing over pennies! You became infinitely valuable because Jesus paid infinitely.
And I think at the bottom of what James is saying to the people in the early church is if you have entered into a community where every single person is valuable beyond measure, don’t give that up to go back to shallow comparisons. Treat everyone–everyone–according to how God values them. Don’t accept that your rich neighbor has “better stats” than your poor neighbor and differentiate in your treatment of them! And don’t assume that your value is something that moves up or down based on the stuff you do or don’t do! That was the Pharisees’ problem, not so long ago. But instead start by remembering what price Jesus paid for you, and where he is taking you now that he’s got you! You are in the process of being made perfect and complete; you are “holding faith” with the “Lord of glory.” So the point isn’t to stop treating rich people well; it’s to treat everyone as you would treat Christ.
The anonymous author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
We value each other rightly when we let go of our comparisons and act towards each other as we would act towards Jesus himself. If it were Jesus who came to you for help, having nothing…how far would you go in helping him? What would you do for a person of immeasurable worth?
James closes this section of chapter 2 by writing,
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Which is a way of saying: you have received something you did not deserve–not just forgiveness of your sins, but worth beyond comprehension–so carry that sense of generosity forward and apply it to your relationships with others. Speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty, with mercy…and don’t allow the petty judgments of comparisons and rivalry and envy to get in the way. If you’ve been purchased for a million dollars, don’t go back to quibbling about whether or not this thing you’ve done wrong or someone else has done wrong has lessened your value by a nickel…or, vice versa: don’t assume that someone’s material wealth or professional success makes any real difference in how God sees them! Adding a dollar of value or taking a dollar away…judgment…misses the point of what God has done and how God sees you.
So, if all of this is true, how can we be steadfast in our pursuit of seeing others and seeing ourselves as God sees us? How can we keep from falling back into this old pit of comparative value?
Well, we could all quit Instagram, I suppose. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, especially if you find it to be a real distraction or a real harm in your life. But James suggests we actually take a different approach…or at least go a few steps further. In chapter 5 of his letter, he writes,
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
On its surface, this is certainly a harsh set of verses, especially since all of us are at least comparatively rich people! We should all take to heart what James says here about placing our hope in material possessions–our houses, our bank accounts, our retirement plans. But I actually want to close this morning by zeroing in on what he says at the end. After telling us that we have defrauded and robbed and taken advantage of our neighbors–all of whom are precious to God–he says, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”
I’m going to offer a personal reading of this passage. I know it’s not the only thing the passage says…but I think it’s one thing: I think the righteous person you condemn and murder by greed and partiality…is you. Think about it this way: James’s letter begins by talking about what we are being made into. God is transforming us into people who are like Jesus. That process starts when we are bought at the price of Jesus’s life. But it doesn’t finish until we also are trained in righteousness. The dangers James spends most of his letter warning us about are the things that get in the way of this process: our arrogance, our pride…and our tendency to abuse the people we think we are better than. When we are partial, it doesn’t keep other people from being trained to be righteous. But it does keep us from being trained in that way. When we choose judgment over mercy…we lose mercy. And, I think, when we compare ourselves to others instead of to Christ, we condemn ourselves and effectively kill the righteous person God is rewiring us to be.
So, how to resist this? Well, I think part of that answer is choosing the disciplines of mercy and generosity. We love. We give. We find ways to remind ourselves that our material wealth and privilege aren’t the things that make us valuable to God. We serve our neighbors. We volunteer–we work without expecting payment for it!–to help others. We give charitably to people, to churches, to non-profit organizations because this is good for us to do. It helps us short circuit the pride that always threatens to convince us we deserve blessings because we are worth it. And it helps us remember something true: we are becoming like Jesus the more we follow him…and that means the end of the road for us is living sacrificially. When we are merciful, when we are generous, we are putting to the test the things we believe about who God says we are. There is nothing we should be more eager to do than that.