Is that your final answer?

Message preached September 10, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon James 2:1-17

As I indicated last week, this month weíre taking a journey with our brother James, a down-to-earth, "blue jeans" sort of guy who doesnít mince words. He is simple, direct, and sometimes his words itch like heaven. That is, while at certain points we may find them to fit comfortably, at other places what he has to say may scratch our skin, be a bit too snug for our liking, cause us discomfort. Call it wisdom "with a kick."

This morningís portion is a perfect example. Brother James begins with a hypothetical situation. "Suppose a rich person wearing fancy clothes and a gold ring comes to one of your meetings. And suppose a poor person dressed in worn-out clothes also comes." (2:2 CEV) An interesting scenario! Allow your own imagination to fit in the details that might make it more contemporary. Try to picture the same thing happening right here in the Long Green Valley. Which person would receive a better welcome? Have you made your choice? As Regis Philbin might ask, "Is that your final answer?"

We were camping up on Cape Cod this summer and since it was a Sunday, and since it was also my birthday, I prevailed upon my family to attend church. Youíd think that would be easy for a Pastorís family, but itís as hard for us as it is for everyone else. Anyway, this time I succeeded. We managed to get up and make it to the 8:30 am service at the nearest church.

Now, we werenít exactly dressed in our Sunday best. We were camping, after all. I wore the nicest T-shirt I had. ĎNuf said? They did have the back rows roped off, so that when we entered a tad bit late we didnít have to march way up front to find a seat, for which we were thankful. However, no usher showed us the way. A nice lady in the back smiled and motioned for us to do so.

It was a good service, using more contemporary music. There was a lot of singing. Except for a few hymns toward the end, the words to the songs were projected on the wall up front. I think our children got a lot out of it. The love of these people for God and for one another was very evident. Furthermore, the sermon was good. I was able to turn off my "preacher" brain and listen as someone thirsty for Godís Word, something not always easy for a Pastor to do. I was blessed. I was thankful for that birthday present.

After the service, however, something happened. Amend that last remark. Nothing happened. No one spoke to us. No one even seemed to notice we were there. We didnít rush out. Tessa had to use the bathroom. The congregation filed past us as we waited beside the door for her and Karen. In the entryway the pastor was in conversation with someone else, so we didnít even connect with him... Was it us? Was it how we were dressed? I chose that church, in part, because of it proximity to the State Park. Certainly theyíd had campers as visitors before. Maybe there were other reasons for the inhospitality of these people of which we werenít aware. It did, however, almost take away the joy of worship... Almost...

Iím not trying to compare our family to the sort of folks that brother James mentioned in the scripture we heard earlier. We werenít "poor folks," even though our clothing may have been better suited for the woods than the sanctuary. Brother James is talking about more than clothing. In the present generation, which tends to "dress down" more than "dress up," there are still divisions between those who have and those who have not. The evidence may not be as much in the clothes worn as in "other" no less tangible things.

Every week, it seems, I get a mailing from some company that wants to provide our church with information for us to reach out to people in our neighborhood, data based on home sales in the area. Thatís not a bad idea - though, to be honest, such information is relatively easy to get hold of, which raises some question as to why weíd pay someone else to gather it for us. The biggest objection I have to it, though, is that it only tracks home sales. What about those who rent? Do these persons count? What do you think? Is that your final answer?

Perhaps youíve heard the flap involving the middle school our oldest son attends. Because of a recent fire elsewhere in the county, elementary age children on the east side are temporarily shifted to another facility, and the high school age youth at that place have been transferred to an unused portion of Cockeysville Middle School until renovations are complete in December. The problem is, those older youth are "problem" kids, youth expelled from other schools, which has certain parents in our school up in arms.

While I understand the concern, I wonder - if not in my sonís school, where? Nobody wants troubled kids near their own children. Sure Iím a bit worried. I do remember, however, that the school shootings of recent history involved youth still in their own schools, not outsiders bused in. Is our worry in the right place?... To be honest, on the other hand I also wonder if county school officials might have had some space in their own complex of administration buildings to temporarily house these troubled youth. What better place for them? Of course, again, I donít mean to imply that these kids correspond to brother Jamesí "poor folks," but letís make it personal. What if a family with such youth came here. Would we welcome them with open arms? Is that your final answer?

Speaking of "welcome," the same day we attended that church in Cape Cod, we went out to eat at a restaurant known for being "grumpy." Itís their claim to fame, if you will. The mat outside the front door says, "go away!" At this place, you seat yourself, write up your own ticket from a handwritten menu (full of intentional misspellings) tacked on the wall, and bus your own table. It was crowded that day, and one of cooks who double as waiters told us we really ought to go eat somewhere else.         (If you're interested, find "Jack's Outback" on this website).

Believe it or not, it was fun. If we hadnít known it was going to be like this ahead of time, though, I wonder if we wouldíve liked it as well. The old fellow who operates the joint is an interesting character. He bills himself as the "guy who hates children" but, you know, he seemed to delight in serving ours. In reality, heís a kind-hearted prankster. And even though he had playful glee in his eyes when he served me my toast after I had finished my eggs, I felt strangely welcomed. All in all, it was an interesting birthday for me, full of different kinds of welcome.

Back to brother James, his hypothetical situation speaks of partiality toward certain folks as opposed to others. Do we treat someone with more respect, extend them more welcome if they appear to have it more "together" in this world? Brother James bluntly asks if we show more hospitality toward these folks. Thatís an uncomfortable question, isnít it? In his simple and direct way, brother James forces us to decide, and then asks "is that your final answer?"

Of course, he then goes on to other final answers, when he touches base with the final authority and lays claim to the upside down reign of Jesus. "Has not God chosen the poor in the world," James says, "to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?" (2:5) Who wants to be this kind of Millionaire? If anything, God is partial to those who have little. Are we? Is that our final answer? God is partial to those who know that they donít have it all together. Are we? Is that our final answer? God is partial to those who can receive a simple loaf and fish as a feast. Can we? Is that our final answer? God is partial those who can see treasure where others see only poverty? Can we? Is that our final answer?

A rabbi asked the question of his disciples, "When do we know that light has appeared out of darkness?" One student answered, "When we can tell the difference between a dog and a lamb?" "No," said the rabbi. Another student answered, "When we can tell the difference between a palm tree and a fig tree?" "No," said the rabbi. "When, then, do we know?" the disciples asked their teacher. "We know that light has appeared out of darkness when someone can look in the face of any human being and see the face of a sister or brother." (borrowed from The Spiritual Formation Bible, ©1999, Zondervan, p. 1605)

When we call someone to be a teacher or a mentor in this congregation, we are asking them to not only speak the truth, but also to live it. Good teachers, good mentors "embody" what they share. The best are those who see a treasure in this person with whom they have been entrusted. And despite any difference in age they see in this face a brother or a sister in Christ.

The same is true between all of us and whomever God brings our way. Hypothetical situations give way to real people. How we welcome people matters! Itís not a case of learning the latest method of evangelism. Itís simply recognizing in a stranger someone who is a sister or brother, and reaching out to them with the love of Jesus. Are we willing, Iím mean really willing to welcome others with the honor that belongs to everyone? Is that our final answer?

Let me end with one of my favorite stories. A young fellow came to church one Sunday. His hair was long, his clothes a bit shabby, and his feet bare. In that era he would have been called a "hippie." Obviously, he was not well acquainted with anyone there, or with what happens during worship. People noticed his presence immediately. It was hard not to, since he didnít enter at the "usual" time. As there were no seats in the back of the sanctuary, he started walking forward, looking for a place to sit. As he passed, whispers arose. "What is he doing here?" "He canít just come in like that!" "Arenít the ushers doing their job?"

Seeing nothing available, he came all the way up front and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the pulpit. Just about then, one of the elder gentlemen of the congregation started walking forward, his cane paving the way. He was properly attired for the occasion, and as he passed there were also whispers. "Deacon Jones will take care of that young man." "Itís about time somebody did." "At his age, though, he shouldnít have to do this."

The old man finally made it up front, with all the eyes of the congregation upon him, expecting him to tell this mixed-up fellow where to go. A strange thing then happened. This elder, with not a little effort, sat down on the floor next to the young man. Dumbfounded, the congregation turned in silence to the pastor who was standing at the pulpit this whole time ready to preach. After a moment, he composed himself and spoke. "What I am about to say, you will not long remember. But what you have just witnessed, you will probably never forget."

I do believe brother James wouldíve smiled at that answer.

©2000 Peter L. Haynes

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