Come home to Calvary
Science tells us that newborn babies can not only recognize the sound of their mother’s voice, they prefer it over almost all other sounds. Based on what we can see happening in their brains and their heart-rate, we know that they get excited to hear that voice and will work harder to listen to and for that voice. Newborns, brand new babies do this! It’s pretty incredible! And they say between 2 – 4 months, babies begin to prefer the human adult who feeds them the most. Which makes total sense to me, I still prefer to be around those who feed me! Having a preference, playing favorites, is a part of our nature as humans. As a species we have been able to evolve and survive on this earth because of these preferences, biases, and playing favorites. We are not the fastest animal on this planet. We are not the strongest animal on this planet. But our brains are pretty spectacular, and our ability to learn, to adapt, to avoid danger, and to form alliances with others like us have been crucial to our survival. This instinct to play favorites has protected us, and so it is deeply ingrained in us to be this way.
The problem is we are called to so much more than just survival. And in this day and age, that primal instinct to make snap decisions about others or have deep-set preferences doesn’t always serve the greater good. In God’s vision for this world, all are given the opportunity to thrive and live abundantly. While it is natural to want to protect ourselves and to align ourselves with those who can protect us, God challenges that notion and calls us to love and care for all people, especially those who are the most vulnerable among us. Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts. But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 year old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone that they found had been broken and had healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life. And that is what Margaret Mead believes is the first sign of civilization.
In our current world, where grown adults refuse to wear a mask or to get a free vaccination in order to protect themselves and those who cannot be vaccinated, I sometimes wonder if we can call ourselves civilized. James, the author of today’s scripture writes, “Faith without works is dead.” Likewise, love without action is meaningless. 1 John says, “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” (1 John 3:18). We love our neighbors and show that love by what we are willing to do, and sacrifice, and bear together with and for them. I am grateful that this city of San Francisco has vaccinated over 680,000 people. 80% of residents who are eligible have been fully vaccinated, and 87% have gotten at least the first dose. Those are some promising numbers. As Victor likes to say, “San Francisco values.” And this weekend, we celebrate Labor Day. The Labor Movement is a great example of people coming together to help one another out for the common good. Because people were willing to stand together in the long term, rather than seek their own personal gains in the short term, we now have weekends off, paid vacations, breaks at work—including lunch, sick leave, and paid holidays. We are all called to look out for one another and to help each other along, sometimes at the risk of delaying our own immediate gratification, and sometimes even at the risk of our own possible harm.
The thing about helping one another and loving our neighbor, though, is that if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s easier to do that with people whom we prefer. Again, that is an instinct we have developed for our survival. But as TobyMac, a Christian, hip hop artist (yes, they do exist) once said, “When Jesus said ‘love your neighbor,’ he knew your neighbor would act, look, believe, and love differently than you. It’s kind of the whole point.” We are one human family. We are all created in the image of God. God loves us, each and every one of us, unconditionally and dare I say equally? I’m hesitant about using the word “equally” because when we read scripture, and listen for God’s word, it becomes quite obvious that God has a preferential option for the poor. God doesn’t play favorites, necessarily, but God in the person of Jesus Christ talks with and spends a whole lot more time with the forgotten, the outcasts, and those considered unclean than in “polite company.” The Gospel of Luke relays this exchange: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,’” (Luke 15:1-2). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the chief priests – the leaders of his society that, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” (Matthew 21:31). A pretty harsh thing to say to religious leaders! And they, the religious leaders, say of him, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:19). So, it seems Jesus had a special affinity for those on the margins rather than the wealthy, the powerful, and the pious. Liberation theology calls this “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Not because God loves those who are poor more, but because God’s love is bound up with justice. And justice (which Cornell West defines as, “what love looks like in public”) is often not on the side of those who are poor or oppressed or marginalized. And so God chooses to stand on the side of those who are denied access to justice.
So what are our preferences and our biases? Do they align with God? We know that good, church people have had trouble with this since the beginning of the church’s existence! James’s letter calls the church out. The Message Bible by Eugene Peterson paraphrases our passage in this way:
My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out
our glorious, Christ-originated faith.
If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit,
and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him,
and you say to the man in the suit,
“Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!”
and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,”
haven’t you segregated God’s children
and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?”
It goes on to say:
“Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently?” I think it is fair to say that most of us have some biases against those who are unhoused and poor in this city. We may have compassion, and we may even work to right some of these injustices. We may even know and have befriended some individuals who are unhoused, but I think for most of us, we have to consciously put aside our biases to get to that point. I confess that this is true of me. God, through the book of James, is challenging us to check our biases and to align ourselves with the upside-down, radical message of the gospel. We can’t help that we have these biases, but we don’t have to act on them or cater to and play favorites with those who are rich and powerful. In this country, more often than not, those who have the most wealth and power are those who are categorized by race as white. Now, race is a construct, meaning it is made and maintained by humans, not God. And because race is a construct, different ethnicities and groups of people in this country have counted as white. At one time in this nation’s history those who were Irish and Italian and Jewish were not considered white. But today, they probably would be. When we talk about our biases and preferences in this country, it’s nearly impossible to do so without talking about racism.
Early on in the Black Lives Matter movement, we spoke a lot about implicit bias. Jennifer L. Eberhardt, author of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do writes:
Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist.
In fact, you don’t have to be a racist at all to be influenced by it.
Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both
the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society.
Bias is not something we exhibit and act on all the time.
It is conditional, and the battle begins
by understanding the conditions under which it is most likely to come alive.
Now, I would argue that the battle actually begins with acknowledging and confessing that we have biases, admitting that we hold them in our brains and our body because of our conditioning, our society, what we’ve seen on tv and media, and sometimes by our own experiences. We cannot change, and we cannot be offered grace, unless we are first honest with ourselves about the biases, implicit or explicit, that we hold. And because faith without works is dead, we then have to do the work to question, be critical of, and check those biases every time they surface. Our biases actually say more about ourselves than they do about those whom we are biased against. So take the opportunity to pause and wonder, “What is this gut reaction and feeling and emotion and action telling me about myself?” “Am I afraid? Why? Where did I learn that?” “Am I angry or disdainful? Why? Where did I learn that?” We must commit to examining our preferences and for whom we play favorites. And yes, be gentle with yourselves and do not let yourselves get caught in a cycle of guilt that leads to immobilization. But do commit to being honest and facing hard truths. The Harvard Implicit Bias test is one way to check our biases and find out with whom we play favorites. You can find it online, and it is free at implicit.harvard.edu. Another way to do this is to confess regularly. I love that in the Presbyterian tradition, we say together a Prayer of Confession each week in worship. It reminds me that we mess up, all the time, knowingly and unknowingly, but that God forgives and loves us anyway. In today’s prayer of confession, we asked God for forgiveness, specifically for our bias and prejudice.
Friends, mercy abounds; grace is offered. The Prayer of Confession is followed by an Assurance of Pardon. But, as Anne Lamott says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” God’s grace offered to us should not leave us where it found us. It should move us to a place where we act more faithfully in the ways of Jesus. We must work to see the world, not through a human lens, but through God’s lens. Getting to know a diverse array of people can also help us to do that better. Lori Robinson, the children’s minister at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church, is quoted in Presbyterians Today magazine as saying, “The image of God is like a mosaic where each of us has within us a single piece. The more people we get to know, the better we understand the image of God.” So whose company do you keep? Jesus ate with outcasts and sinners, with tax collectors and prostitutes, all of whom were often despised and ridiculed by those in power. Think about who you hang out with, who your friend group entails. It is natural that we are drawn to people who are like us. And we need that. But it is Christ-like to include and befriend and learn from those who are not like us. I wonder if for people in the Christian tradition, this begins with communion. When we come and sit at the Table where Jesus presides, as we will today, no one is better than anyone else. There is no seating chart according to hierarchy or favoritism. All are welcome, and all are served. The more we partake in The Lord’s Supper, the more we allow ourselves to be fed by the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the better we understand and embody the radical message of Jesus. Rachel Held Evans once wrote: “The church is God saying:
‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”
This Table where we eat – Jesus is the head, the host, the one who welcomes us.
And all the rest of us are equal. Kings, Heads of State, those who are unhoused, children, elders, asylum seekers, refugees, women, people of every race and tribe, we are all equal. And this meal does the impossible: it unites us, makes us one. We are accepted as we are but not assimilated as colonizing powers would demand. We are united but not made uniform. In the midst of all our differences, God celebrates our diversity, and welcomes us as we are.
So let us set a Table like God’s in this world. And work to eradicate that which divides and stratifies us. May it be so. Amen.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. 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. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.