Mom Always Liked You Best
If you don't know from my title, I grew up a Smothers Brothers fan. The two musical comedians retired to a winery a half hour from where I grew up, and on car trips my folks often played their comedy albums on CD. A common gag was the brothers' eternal fight over who their mom loved more. The brothers would bicker: “Why do you keep saying 'Mom always liked you best'? Whenever you get mad, you always say, 'Well, Mom always liked you best'.” “Oh yeah? Well, Mom always liked you best. I used to say, ‘Mom? I want a dog, like my brother Dickie has. You remember me, I’m Tommy Smothers, that kid you don’t like so much.” “Okay, wait. Do you know why mom liked me best? Sure she liked me best, you know why?” “I never knew Mom liked you best!” “Mom always liked me best because... I happen to be an only child.”
Just as those two brothers fought over who mom loved more... James, the brother of Jesus Christ, writes today's scripture about playing favorites. James paints a central hypothetical story about favoritism. Imagine two people walk into your church, one rich and one poor. Note that across the book, whenever James uses the phrase “the rich,” 99% of the time he's not talking about Christians, not even wealthy Christians. Look a few verses later: James says “the rich” blaspheme God and abuse Christians. It thus seems James uses the phrase “the rich” to refer to powerful non-believers whose connections to the Roman Empire enable them to get away with all sorts of abuses. So James paints a scene where one such rich nonbeliever walks into a church, followed by a poor man. It makes a mercenary kind of sense to put the rich guest front and center: you signal to the other worshippers how ritzy and put-together your church is, you might flatter the wealthy guy into donating money, if you impress him maybe they'll convince similarly powerful non-Christians to stop harassing you. In contrast, that poor visitor in James’ hypothetical has little to offer. Their filthy clothes might soil your nice pew cushions, their unwashed stench might chase away those sitting next to them, they have little money or power to offer the church. This dilemma was a major problem in James' day, yet it remains so in ours.
When I worked for a legal nonprofit, my job centered on “donor cultivation,” where I intentionally courted folks who could do the most for our charity through their money, important connections, or professional expertise. If you gave up to a thousand bucks or so, we'd send you regular letters, maybe some buttons or a t-shirt. If you could give tens of thousands or millions, it was my job to set up a social rendezvous between you and our founder and CEO. My experiences on Capitol Hill were similar. With a few notable exceptions, almost every U.S. Senator and Representative's office only pays close attention when a visitor has lots of money, professional credentials, or connections. A few offices even threw away every letter sent by the ordinary people of their state, without ever reading them, since they felt those voters had so little to offer. In politics and nonprofits, the dominant logic is you favor your richer or more connected patrons people that so your good cause—whether it be in education, politics, art, whatever—your good cause actually succeeds. You grit your teeth and play favorites because what they have can secure your team's altruistic goals. At first glance, it's easy to brush off James' illustration as too obvious, a problem easily avoided. Yet in a weird way, it's exactly what most charities must do to scrape together funding. There's a logic to it, even if it's unfortunate. If the poor man got the best seat while the rich guy was forced to stand, how much longer would the lights stay on?
Yet James... rejects the wisdom of this world, writing instead: “If you do such things, have you not made divisions within the Church? If you do that, are not acting as judges with evil thoughts towards your fellow Christians?” And after my time in nonprofit “donor cultivation,” it's nice to have always been explicitly forbidden from such things in every church I've served. Here, only a few folks see who exactly gives what, mostly for tax write-off receipts. And there is a separation between our deposit-tallying and all our other ministries. Sometimes y'all ask if I know whether a donation arrived yet, and I always shrug because—according to our church rules—I am not allowed to know who gives how much. That rule exists to ensure there's not one whiff of favoritism. I'm blindfolded when it comes to who gives what... so that how I treat people—in visiting the sick, in teaching, in correcting them when they've gone astray—it's never about their wallets but rather always about our shared faith and calling as Christians. So if I don't acknowledge a specific gift myself, I'm not intentionally snubbing you. I literally am not allowed to know who gives what. Church leaders for many years have rules like that because it ensures congregations never play favorites over money, that there are no divisions over wealth, that all are treated as equals in dignity, faith, importance and ministry. It means that whether rich or poor, you are welcome here... and that all of us are here for you.
But money is not the only way churches may play favorites. Our presbytery—the regional council of Presbyterian churches—only last year started rotating its large meetings, as we realized our always-Tuesday meeting schedule kept most working class Presbyterians from participating. When do we sets church events and meeting? If we pick a weekday morning, retirees can easily attend, but those still working or raising kids must shift their entire schedule. But if you pick an evening time, at least here in Michigan, older folk may not attend due to fears of ice. There's no easy or perfect answer: whenever you set a church event, you're likely favoring one group over another. And such problems affect everything, from Bible studies to weekly worship services to committee meetings. What time you set your event inevitably plays favorites and—without even intending it—can exclude vibrant voices and insights God has given others. And trade-offs like that exist for almost every demographic you can conceive: gender, race, politics, marriage status, kid status, education level, mental health and more. Just as with money as with setting meeting times, it's so easy to default to what we know, what's convenient for us, without thinking about how it welcomes or excludes other, without considering whether it favors one group over another.
This month started my fourth year here, and James' lessons today on playing favorites reminded me of when I was looking for a new church job back in 2016. I had phone interviews with about thirty churches, I think, and visited several in-person. One church I turned down broke my heart, however. They were nice enough people. Their pastor nominating committee talked about how they really wanted someone who could draw new members. But at most meals we shared with them, Carrie and I sat ignored. They chatted up a storm with each other. But Carrie and I—newcomers who flew out solely to meet them—often just sat quietly. When they offered me the job, I had to say no. Because if they want me to bring in new people... and they were so wrapped up in each other they barely talked to me, potentially their new pastor... how much worse might they ignore any 'normal' visitors they might get? Their hearts were in the right place, they had a happy community... but they defaulted to only talking to the people they knew, the friends they already had... over newcomers like me, like anyone who would visit them. And if we just stick to only greeting the folks we know at church, our church will never grow.
To clarify, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having friends. But when your habit of enjoying your friends at church each week causes you to neglect a lost visitor needing directions to the bathroom or leads you to zip out of the sanctuary without giving it a once-over to see if anyone new is here... we end up favoring familiar comforts over our Christian call to welcome all people to the Lord's house. Now I accepted this congregation's job offer because—unlike the church I turned down—you all went above and beyond to make me feel included when I first visited. Even when your pastor search team poisoned me with infected Little Caesar's, still you were gracious and welcoming. But the difficulty is that it's easy to welcome a new pastor. I'm easy to find up here. Far harder is it to notice, walk over to, and welcome a couple quietly slipping out the left-side doors. But in James' own day when he wrote this, it was easy to spot a rich man dripping with jewels, far harder to spot a man in filthy rags hiding in the corner.
So what is our lesson, aside from the obvious of don't play favorites, whether it's over money, age, family situation, or familiarity to you? I think his biggest lesson here is that as Christians—especially as Christians who gather regularly together—we must be alert for any who might get pushed to the edges of our church. It could be a visitor who doesn't know anyone here, sure. Or it could be someone who can no longer drive themselves to church and needs a helping hand if they're to get here on Sundays. It could be a person who hasn't been around for a few months whom you assume Pastor Alex will call, not realizing that perhaps God's calling you to make that call instead. Perhaps it's someone at church who annoys you, whom you'd rather avoid... whom James is reminding you is still part of the Body of Christ, the Church. As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus. But James writes this letter to experienced Christians, knowing that as you grow into your faith, you are meant not only to follow Jesus but to help others follow him too, whether it be by making your life an example of holiness, studying the Bible that other person, or simply showing them kindness so they know they too are loved.
Jesus the Good Shepherd, and we believers are often called the sheep of his flock. But I think James is calling upon all mature, experienced Christians to be more like sheep dogs, still following Jesus and relying on him... but always circling the flock to make sure none get lost, that all know they have a place here, that we might all together as one unified and equal body of Christ might walk side by side in faith and dignity. Amen.
 Matthew 13:55, Mark 3:31 and Luke 8:19 all reveal that Mary did indeed have children after the virgin birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. But the Bible does not say whom “mom liked best.” I imagine, however, that it must have been strange for James to grow up having the incarnate God for an older brother. We do know that James changes from the skeptical brother of those gospel accounts into a respected leader of the Jerusalem church by the time we get to Acts 15:13, likely after he witnesses the resurrection of Jesus (as revealed in 1 Corinthians 15:7). But what James thought, felt or said over the course of Christ's life, death and resurrection, the Bible does not reveal: James’ evolving feelings about his brother are one of the great mysteries of Christian history for me.