Teachers aren’t supposed to play favorites, but they inevitably still have them. For each of you brave teachers who have started back to school this week, I hope you have at least one. For the college professor, it may be the student who is as passionate about your area of expertise as you once were. For the grade school teacher it may be the one child who always follows your directions without having to be asked a second time. In my years as a preschool teacher, my favorites were the ones who knew how to make me laugh. A silly dance, a funny voice, and a guaranteed smile for each time they entered the room. And maybe I did favor them as well. Maybe I was quicker to assume the best about the ones who were easier for me to love. Maybe I was quicker to brush off their undesirable behaviors as being out-of-character. But for the most part, I tried very hard to be fair. I knew, as any teacher does, that for every student who is easy to enjoy there are five more who are difficult. I knew it wasn’t their fault, either, that the difficult ones led difficult lives, and that they were in fact more in need of my favors than the easy ones. And so I often tried to play the teacher’s part to the best of my ability, which is the part of charity, which is an attempt to see each child of God as bearing God’s own likeness, no matter how far from that likeness they may seem. I tried, very hard, not to play favorites. And yet, if I am honest, I must acknowledge that without a few favorites in the mix, without a few good reasons to smile from time to time, my teaching career would have been deadly to me.
“Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” I read James’ letter to the Church and sigh. I want to un-read him. He is so direct. So clean. So simple. And what he asks of me seems impossible. James wants me to turn my favoritism upside down. He wants to take my natural inclination towards what is pleasing to me and redirect it towards that which is revolting. But, of course, he isn’t speaking to me as an individual at all. He is speaking to us, as a body. He is speaking to the kind of favoritism that can take place on a corporate level. When a whole body of people play favorites it looks like this: white bodies are favored over black bodies in their ease of navigating legal and economic systems. The citizen is favored over the refugee when accounting for how much protection we can afford to extend. I don’t think I have to impress upon you the insidious nature of favoritism in our culture. It is obvious, perhaps even to the point of banality to those of us upon whom the culture is bestowing its many favors still. The particular instance James speaks of may have even happened here today: we see someone who looks appealing or impressive and direct our attention towards them while the sight of someone smelly, dirty, or unkempt inspires us to look away. James doesn’t have to convince me of human nature. What I can’t wrap my head around is believing in a God who represents its total opposite.
I favor those who look like me, or I favor those whom I want to look like. I favor those who make me comfortable or glad. God favors the furthest thing away. God is all-powerful and favors the weak. God is the source of all abundance and favors the poor. God is more grandiose than the stars or herons or roses of creation and yet God favors the meek. God’s favoritism for what God is not is so strong in fact that God even becomes what God is not, which is weak, and poor, and meek in the person of Jesus, just so God can keep bestowing favors on those who are least godly. This is the story of our faith, and if you repeat it to yourself several times it can grow familiar enough to be innocuous; but the moment you try to emulate it, it is a formula which sizzles with danger. Just imagine if I had gone in to play favorites with the most poorly behaved children in my classroom; they and everyone else would have thought that they could get away with murder. Just imagine turning towards the next smelly, dirty, unkempt person whom you see; they might try to get off with everything you have. Just imagine a European nation letting non-Europeans flood it’s borders for safety; surely their public services would fall apart. The way God is doesn’t make sense in the economy of this world when you start thinking of the implications for believing in that kind of God with our actions, as James suggests we might. Indeed, one could not act like that kind of God in this world and survive. Yet as it turns out, God is not even interested in survival. In Jesus God leaps headlong into the antithesis of self-preservation, into poverty, selflessness and death. James gestures towards the one who has given up all of his power to be close to the powerless, looks at the Church and says, “now it’s your turn.”
The thing which terrifies me about James’ invitation is the fact that my own partiality defines me. Especially in the age of FaceBook, I am what I like. Part of why that system of social media is so enticing is because it reflects the way we think and construct ourselves. I am an individual with a will who gets to judge what is good and what is bad. And if I’m lucky, I get to gather up all the good around me, I get to make a fortress of friends who support me and help me feel good about myself. I get to pay attention to the things I like and avoid the ones I don’t. The idea of erasing partiality from my daily life would mean erasing my very personality. Even Jesus displayed this kind of partiality, as we can see in the story this morning of a woman from outside his own tribe who came to ask for help. But when Jesus is confronted with his partiality, he changes. He reflects a God who shows no partiality, who is partial to all, who is partial to the other, to the poor. In the moments when I am confronted by this God, I risk losing myself, I risk losing what defines me, but stand to gain a life in God which transcends the meager human boundaries I’ve drawn for myself alone.
What does it look like to say “yes” to James’ offer, to say “yes” to the impartial, all-loving God as a whole people? What does it look like to be the kind of Church James is speaking of, the kind where those on the outside come back in and those who are always on the inside adjust accordingly? I can see it happening in the leadership at the cathedral in St. Louis, which has been actively engaged the #blacklivesmatter protests in Ferguson for the past year. I can see it happening here in Portland in places like homePDX, a church of homeless folks which meets by Morrison Bridge each Sunday at noon and in Pioneer Courthouse Square each Thursday evening. What does it look like in this place when we become more than a collection of folk who look more or less just like each other? When does this place looks the same inside as it does outside in the neighborhood directly around us? Are the folks who eat with us on Saturdays a part of our whole family? It’s fine to keep our favorites. It’s fine to enjoy the people who act like us, and make us laugh, and make us feel safe and glad; they are, in fact, a bright light from God which shines in our life, usually during the darkest times. But light shines outward into darkness, and if we are to follow God in Jesus, we will also turn our gaze away from what is safe, and towards an unruly, often frightening world, favored by God’s grace.