“The room should feel empty when you are in it.” These were the instructions given to Forest Whitaker in the movie, The Butler. This is a powerful line that guides the whole movie. Here you have a lowly butler in the presence of presidents and great dignitaries, and a line is being drawn in the sand in which he’s told that his presence doesn’t matter. But oh how the movie turns, when after years of working at the White House the butler is finally invited to sit at the table with the rich and powerful as a guest. How your heart leaps at this scene, because lodged inside all of us is the longing to experience a place where people experience life with one another regardless of their class or ethnicity.
This is exactly James’ point as we come to our text this morning. James wants us to understand clearly that when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ there is no such thing as the room feeling empty when anyone is in it. He wants the poor and oppressed to know that because of Jesus Christ you have been invited to the table. The table, the church of Jesus Christ, is to be made up of rich and poor. He wants the rich to know that while you maybe looked up to and esteemed by the world, once you signed up to follow Christ your financial portfolio carries no currency in the kingdom. James is clear: THERE IS NO PLACE FOR CLASS DISTINCTIONS WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF GOD OR THE CHURCH OF Jesus Christ.
If there’s one statement that crystallizes the essential teaching of our text it is this: BOASTING IN Christ ALONE DISMANTLES CLASS DISTINCTIONS. As we study this text James is going to teach us three important truths: 1) I must not play favorites; 2) My only boast must be in Christ; 3) I must constantly be in touch with my own mortality. I want to preach this morning from the subject, Trading Places.
Pray/The Issue of Class
In order to understand why James would take significant time dealing with the issue of class in his letter, you have to understand a little about the world of the NT. In the NT there were really only two classes of people- rich and poor; the haves and the have nots, with the poor far outnumbering the rich. The wealthy owned land, while the poor simply worked the land that the rich owned. This whole set up is eerily similar to sharecropping which was prevalent some generations ago in our country. What’s more is that by the time James sits down to write this letter slaves outnumbered free people in the Roman world, and of course slaves were not people of financial means, thus adding to the growing numerical disparity between the rich and the poor.
What’s more is that under no circumstances did rich and poor come together in meaningful ways to do life with one another. They didn’t socialize or even share meals with each other. There was, and I want you to feel the weight of this statement, no place one could find in the Roman world where the rich and poor actually experienced life together. WHICH MEANS THAT THE BIGGEST DIVIDING LINE IN THE WORLD OF THE NT WAS NOT RACE, IT WAS CLASS!
If this feels vaguely familiar to you it should. For like the world of the NT, the dividing lines of class, of rich and poor, have been thoroughly ingrained into the individual and collective psyche of we Americans living in 2013. Most of our freeway systems that were established in the middle of the 20th century took the place of the old train tracks in that they intentionally and strategically divided the rich from the poor. I cannot help but think that the incredible debate and anger over the merging of Shelby county with MCS has class (and race) written all over it. The relocation even of churches, what some have called white flight, points to not only racism, but the issue of class as well. Even our housing and this whole notion of suburbia was the attempt of one man to establish a caste system in our country that kept the rich from the poor.
Without a doubt the most important real estate developer today is a man by the name of J.C. Nichols. What’s ironic about this is that he’s been dead for 60 years. J.C. Nichols legacy is that while he didn’t invent the suburbs, he perfected it. Nichols didn’t just sell houses, he sold communities and a way of life. And he became quite popular because what Nichols appealed to was the fear of many of our affluent white brothers and sisters that they were living in overcrowded cities way too close to the undesirables. Nichols perfected the suburbs and offered these concerned consumers a safe place to live far away from the poor. To guarantee their safety it was Nichols who worked with the National Real Estate Board to draft covenants like this one: “A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood members of any race or nationality whose presence will clearly be detrimental to the property values of that neighborhood. Like termites, they undermine the structure of any neighborhood in which they creep”. And sure while these covenants were deemed unconstitutional some years later, its effect continues to influence us, all of us, even black folk to this day.
I’ll never forget when Korie and I were looking to buy our first home. I had a lot of questions and I wanted to be a good steward. So I called my mentor up who happened to be black and asked him for advice. I wanted to know how one could tell if it was a good neighborhood. This is what he told me in all seriousness: Bryan, drive through there around 11 at night, and if you see white folk jogging it’s a great neighborhood! And while I get the whole point of being a good steward and wanting to make wise financial decisions, what I want you to see is that home values, ethnicity and class are all inextricably tied and deeply ingrained into how all of us think. LIKE IT OR NOT, CLASS IS A MUCH BIGGER DEAL THAN WE’D LIKE TO ADMIT.
I Must Not Play Favorites
See, James understands this, that’s why he picks up the pen and goes to war with this whole notion of class within the church of Jesus Christ. Look at how he begins in verse 9…Now this is interesting because upon first reading we would conclude that the poor is a believer, and the rich is not because James calls the poor brother, and not the rich, but this is wrong. In Greek syntax (the language that James is writing in), it should actually read rich brother. So that, and this is important, both the poor and the rich are followers of Jesus Christ, and therefore brothers. What this implies is that now that they are brothers, they are to venture into the first and only place in the Roman world that offered a meaningful exchange of lives and sense of community among the rich and the poor and it’s the church of Jesus Christ!
Friends I’m here to tell you that the church of Jesus Christ is not to be some gang- a place where only the poor come together to experience community. Nor is it to be a country club- the place where only the affluent come to experience life together. But the primary place in our world where there is to be a sign that says, “Rich and Poor Welcomed Here,” is to be the church of Jesus Christ! Which means as a believer I must not play favorites.
See, the church is to be like the military. You know whenever the military holds a draft, essentially what they are saying is that we have an urgent need, and we need your help. The military drafts from Orange Mound and Germantown. The military drafts from culdesacs and projects. The military drafts folk who live in gated communities, and folk who eat government cheese. They don’t play favorites. Once you put on that uniform, your tax bracket means nothing, it’s all about the mission now.
Like Uncle Sam, Jesus holds a draft. He drafts black and white rich and poor and from all walks of life. And when he chooses you for salvation, he puts you in a platoon called the church of Jesus Christ. And when you join this platoon, your financial portfolio means nothing, because what trumps everything is the mission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. James is clear: BOASTING IN Christ ALONE DISMANTLES CLASS DISTINCTIONS. And a part of what this means is that there is no place for favorites within the body of Christ!
Jesus didn’t play favorites. In fact he used the dinner table as a microphone to announce to the world that rich and poor are welcomed here. The early church didn’t play favorites: Acts 2:42-47; Acts 4:32-37. And Paul didn’t play favorites. Paul once wrote a letter to Philemon. Philemon is a wealthy man who owns slaves. One of his slaves was a young man named Onesimus who ran away, bumped into Paul and got saved. Now Paul tells this poor slave that he has to go back to his rich owner. That’s why Paul writes Philemon. Paul wants Philemon to take back this poor slave, no longer as a slave though, but now as a brother. Paul tells the rich to take the poor back as a brother! Paul’s letter to Philemon only underscores James’ point- there is no place for favorites within the body of Christ! BEELINE FOR THE CROSS!
So I want to challenge you. When was the last time the poor sat around your dinner table?
My Only Boast Must Be In Christ
James is clear: BOASTING IN Christ ALONE DISMANTLES CLASS DISTINCTIONS! And beginning in verse 9 he gets to this whole notion of boasting. The word boast simply means to have confidence in, to glory or pride oneself on. Specifically the rich, James says, are to glory in their exaltation, and the poor are to glory in their humiliation. What does this mean? Well remember that in the world the rich are esteemed as high, and the poor belittled as low. Also remember that in the kingdom they are brothers, which means the playing field has been leveled because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. To level the playing field the poor have been exalted, and the rich have been brought low. How has this happened? Because of Jesus Christ. Which means that when James commands the poor to boast in their exaltation he is really telling them to boast in Christ. And when James commands the rich to boast in their humiliation he is really telling them to boast in Christ. James is clear, my only boast must be in Christ, not in my finances or lack thereof, because my finances carry no weight in the kingdom of God. A wealthy Christian once said of his poor friend, “When I die I shall leave my riches. When he dies he shall go to his.”
I love the game of Monopoly, I mean I really love it. Open the game up, give out the money, roll the dice, and don’t you let me get Boardwalk or Park Avenue, cuz if you do, it’s over. I just love the whole notion of growing money, and buying houses and hotels, and doing everything I can to exalt myself and destroy you in the process. I love it. But like everything else there comes a point when the game is over, the money is put back in the box, and the box on a shelf. And no one ever, and I mean ever has to worry about the Monopoly money missing, or counting it to make sure we’ve got it all, because no one’s going to steal it. Why? Because monopoly money is only good in the kingdom of monopoly, it carries no currency in the kingdom of this world.
That’s what James is getting at. Stop boasting in what you have or don’t have, in the scheme of things it’s all Monopoly money. Sure steward it well, but there’s going to come a point when God will say game over, and the houses you bought, the things you invested in will mean absolutely nothing when you behold him face to face! If this be the case then why does your joy rise and fall on whether or not you get approved for that home loan, or what school your kids go to, or your zip code? It’s all monopoly money.
I Must Constantly Be In Touch With My Own Mortality
James is clear: Boasting in Christ alone dismantles class distinctions. How do I do this? I must not play favorites, Christ must be my only boast, and I must constantly be in touch, finally, with my own mortality. Look at what James says in the 10b-11; pay attention to the phrases…James’ imagery is eerily similar to that of the OT: Psalm 103:15-17; Job 14:1-2; Isaiah 40:6-8. You know what the Bible is saying? We all have a date with death. That if God should so tarry, we will die! Jog as much as you’d like, workout as much as you want, you will die. If this be the case, do you not see the absolute foolishness in boasting in what side of town you live on, where your kids go to school, how much money you have? You will die! And when you are dying I promise you, you will not wish you would’ve bought a bigger house!
Several years ago I was on a plane when the engine went out. We heard this loud boom, and saw smoke coming out of the engine about 8k feet in the air, followed by an eery silence. Then something beautiful happened. All of us spontaneously stretched out across the aisle and held each others hands and prayed. Blacks prayed with whites, Asians with Hispanics. And I’m sure rich with poor, I don’t know, you know why, because at that moment no one was checking out to see if that was a LV purse. It didn’t matter because we were all unusually aware of our own mortality, so much so that class didn’t matter.
That’s what James is getting at. He says like that flower we will pass away. There’s coming a time when God will say give me back my breath and we shall behold him face to face, and when we’re flatlining, whether or not we got our shirt from the LaCoste store or Target will have no bearing, because we are in touch with our own mortality. James says you want to go to war with class, keep intimately in tune with the reality that you will die!
One of my all time favorite movies is Coming to America. In this film Eddie Murphy plays a prince from a faraway land named Zumunda. This prince comes to America and becomes poor, even taking a job as a lowly custodian at a McDonald’s knock off called McDowell’s. While here he falls in love with a beautiful woman who happens to be with a rich boyfriend. This rich boyfriend looks down on and makes fun of Eddie. But Eddie’s not bothered, he keeps whistling at work, and keeps a positive attitude. What keeps Eddie whistling while he works? What keeps him from a woe is me I’m poor mentality? Because Eddie knows he’s not from here. He knows that soon and very soon he’s going to see the king. He knows that he’s a child of the king, and has an inheritance waiting on him. That’s what James is saying. Who cares if your poor your daddy ain’t, YOU ARE A CHILD OF THE KING! AND SOON AND VERY SOON YOU WILL GO TO SEE HIM WHERE WAITING ON YOU IS AN INHERITANCE. YOU MAYBE POOR IN FINANCES, BUT YOU ARE RICH IN Christ!