I enjoy fishing. I’m not very good at it, but I do enjoy going out to the water and trying to catch fish. As I share this with you, we are a day away from the opening of trout season in Pennsylvania. Opening day can be a pretty crowded time on the water around here. So, I don’t know whether I’ll go out and try to shoulder my way to a spot on one of the local trout streams, but I’ll probably get out and try to catch a few sometime in the next week.
I don’t catch that many fish generally, and I don’t keep many of the ones that I do catch. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, most of the fish I catch are actually quite beautiful creatures, and I don’t particularly like killing them. Although, a properly cooked trout fillet is a very delicious meal, so I’ll likely keep a few fish, if I’m fortunate enough to catch some.
But around here, at least, there is another reason I don’t keep and eat many of the fish I catch. I live in an older industrial part of Pennsylvania. That means that most of the lakes and streams around here have some level of chemical contamination that’s built up in the streambeds over the past hundred years or so.
Near my house, for example, there is a little stream that runs through our local park. It would be a lovely feature of that park except for the fact that the water in the stream is bright orange. It is contaminated by run-off from old steel mill slag heaps and abandoned mine seepage. I don’t fish in that stream because my best guess is that there are no fish in it. A sad legacy of human short-sightedness. We get our money and leave our mess for someone else to deal with.
There is another local lake where I and many others do fish. There are a lot of fish in that lake, and I’ve caught some of them. But I am very careful about eating any of the fish that I catch there because the silt in that lake is contaminated with PCBs, an industrial chemical that is a notorious cause of cancer.
There are bass and catfish in that lake that are big. Those big ones are all more than a few years old. That means that they’ve been living in that water, swimming and eating in the chemicals that contaminate that water for years. Those chemical contaminants will have seeped into the flesh of those old fish and become more and more concentrated in their meat. I don’t want to eat those chemicals, so I don’t eat those fish. If I catch any of those old fish, I enjoy the experience. Then I set them free back into the lake.
What’s true for those old fish and their contaminated water is also true for us in a spiritual sense. We all live in a world that’s not shaped by Jesus and the values and priorities of his kingdom. We may say we love Jesus. We may say that we want him to shape our lives. We may say that we want to love what he loves and value what he values. But the world around us seeps into our hearts and minds and shapes what we love and what we value.
That is something that James is very much aware of and concerned about in his letter. We’ve been seeing that as we’ve worked our way through the letter of James in the New Testament. We’re in the first verses of chapter 2. Here’s what James says there:
1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? [NIV]
Notice what James says there right at the end: “Have you not . . . become judges with evil thoughts?” Those “evil thoughts” that he refers to there are the contaminants that have seeped in from the world around us. It was true in James’s day, and it is still true in our day. The values and desires that are dominant in the world around us are constantly seeping into our hearts and minds and influencing what we value and what we want.
Wealth, glamor, fame, celebrity—those were the worldly values that were influencing the Christians in James’s church, and he was very disturbed by that. They were excited if a wealthy or famous person entered their church. But when someone poor and shabby came in, they told him to go stand in the back.
Do I need to try to convince you that it’s the same today? I can’t believe I do. Our televisions and our social media feeds are full of stories about the rich and famous. And that stuff is on our televisions and social media for one reason, because that’s what we mostly want to look at. And it influences the way we look at life and the way we do church.
A little while ago I saw some news reports about some megachurches that always block off a special VIP section of seats in the front of their worship spaces reserved for any famous celebrity that might show up at their worship services. I can only assume that those churches have snipped these verses out of their Bibles.
Now, I suspect your church might not actually have that kind of VIP seating section, but all of our churches have a tendency to give special reverence to our wealthy and socially important members. And yet, having money or a prominent position in the community isn’t necessarily a sign of spiritual maturity or importance in God’s eyes. In the life of our churches, spiritual maturity and faithfulness to Jesus should be the things that we most value. Let’s strive to make our churches places where we value what Jesus values.
©2022 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved; use with attribution.