Monday, November 5, 2018

Gr-Attitude

Psalm 146
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

If you were with us last Sunday, then you will recall that we are in the midst of a series of sermons on the topic of stewardship.  I won’t quiz you today, I’ll just tell you.  I define stewardship as anything we do in response to the salvation we’ve received.  Sure, we’ll talk about money at some point, but we’ll also talk about the time you spend with those in need in Jesus’ name; we’ll talk about the kindness you show because of the kindness you’ve received; we’ll talk about the life we live as a gift of thanks to the Savior who has given us eternal life.

Last week we saw in the Son of Timaeus, that this response is mostly just following Jesus with joy.  As important as it is to seek to follow Jesus in all things, the attitude that leads us to follow, I believe, is equally important.  So today we look to the Bible’s songbook.  Today we look to Psalm 146 to remember that our life’s beginning and end is praise.  Today we remember that the stewardship of our money, and time, and talents isn’t born out of duty, it’s born of our grateful praise.  

I need sermons like this one sometimes.  Is that weird to say out loud?  I need the reminder to give God my thankful praise.  I’m hoping you need that reminder too, otherwise this message is just for me.  

I need this message because I am so richly blessed: I’m in relatively good health, I have a loving family, I have a great job, and I live in the best place on earth; but that doesn’t always mean I’m happy.  Have you ever noticed that?  In fact, sometimes it works the other way around: you eat the perfect steak and every other steak is then compared to it; your brother-in-law lets you drive his Tesla and then you have to drive your own dumb car back home; you go on a cruise and then you get home and no one is feeding you.  Gratitude does not automatically spring from having every good thing in the world.  It is a choice and it is a choice to set our eyes on where those good gifts come from.  

Psalm 146 identifies that source with the name "Lord."  We use that name so easily here that we forget that it’s actually a pretty complicated notion for us.  Tuesday is an elephant in this and every other room enter between now and then, right?  Today we need to remember not to put our trust in so-called princes, don’t we?  But that’s not the half of it.  Today we need to remember our True Lord; the Lord the psalmist was talking about.  

This Lord is the giver of both life and justice. The same God who "made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them" also gives "justice for the oppressed and food to the hungry.”  A Lord, not to be feared, but a Lord who sets the prisoners free, defends orphans and widows, and passes judgment against those who would abuse them.  I don’t care who you’re voting for on Tuesday, but I can guarantee you that they will fall short of our Lord.  If your politicians are the source of your happiness, you will be sad whether they are elected or not.  

But happy are those who put their trust in the eternal God who made heaven and earth. Our Lord, the maker of all things, intimately cares for us: our Lord opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, and watches over the stranger and the orphan and the widow.  

Psalm 146 begins and ends with a call to praise because praise should be our beginning, our end, and our everything in between.  Our faithful stewardship is born, of course, out of God’s faithfulness; and our faithful stewardship begins and ends with praise.  And sure, we already have moments of praise; we have moments of sincere gratitude.  

I was at the Tuning Fork the other day (it seems I have a lot of Tuning Fork stories, don’t I?).  I was getting some work done, sipping some coffee, and sort-of minding my own business.  I say “sort-of” because it’s hard not to notice people.  I noticed a couple of women come in and sit down—and I promise I wasn’t listening in on their conversation—but I could tell the kind of conversation they were having.  They were having a get-to-know-ya conversation.  And I thought, “That’s what we need as a culture; we need to deepen our relationships with one another; we need to make new friends; we need to make better friends with old friends.”  And then I thought, “This simple coffee shop—because of what they are doing—is holy ground.”  So as I was leaving, I shared those thoughts with Tim, the owner; and he seemed to appreciate that I appreciated him and what he was doing.  

I had a moment of gratitude and it was nice.  It wasn’t my only moment of gratitude, which is also nice.  But the psalmist reminds us that, when it comes to the faithfulness of God, we are called to more than moments.  We are called to lead lives of praise, lives of gratitude.  To live that kind of life—to live a life of day in and day out praise—is a spiritual practice that won’t happen on accident.  It might just require our personal discipline and the support of the people gathered in this place. God brings good things into our lives every day, and we need to develop eyes of faith to see them.

And I know, there are also times when it is hard to praise God.  Some of you may know that I did an internship at the Crystal Cathedral when I was young.  It was a good experience, but I did not drink their Cool Aid, if you know what I mean.  To give you an example: once, when I was in their bookstore, I came across a Schuller book titled “The Be Happy Attitudes.”  I remember being a little embarrassed by the audible “ugh” I let out.  No, I’m not saying that every day is rainbows and unicorns; but we do always have reason for praise; we do always have reason for gratitude; we do always have reason to believe that, even in our lamenting, our Lord is a Lord of redeeming hope.  

Not all of the psalms are psalms of praise; there are psalms of lament as well because lament is a part of life too.  But often, those psalms are also psalms of transformation.  As we gather around this Table, perhaps it brings to mind that Jesus quoted one such psalm on the Cross.  Psalm 22, which begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” ends with the praise, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”  

Here at this Table, we remember where the depth of our gratitude comes from.  Here we remember that the God of All Creation, became one of us to show us the depth and breadth of that faithfulness and love.  

There’s an interesting thing happens at the end of the book of psalms: the last five Psalms, beginning with 146, are all a calls to worship.  It seems odd that this book—this collection of Israel’s worship music, as it were—should end with calls to worship; that is until you think about it.  When you think about it—when you think about vast, immeasurable love and faithfulness of God remembered here at this Table—when we leave this place, our grateful praise is just getting started!  

Let us learn together to recognize and remember the faithfulness of our Lord.  Let us seek to have an attitude of gratitude for all we have received, especially the gift of eternal life through our Risen Lord.  And let our lives be a joyful response to that gift in all we do and say.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Raising the Bar

Mark 10:46-52
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today we begin a brief sermon-series about stewardship…, which should not really surprise anyone.  It is common practice for many pastors, at some point in the fall to use the word “stewardship” in at least one sermon.  

Now, you can look at this from a cynical point of view: as we come to the end of our church’s fiscal year, your elders want to start planning a budget for the next.  So at some point, we want to ask (what I think) is a reasonable question: what do you suppose is your best guess about how much you’ll be giving to the work of the church in the coming year?  I say that’s the cynical point of view, but it’s really not that cynical.  Like I said, I think it’s a reasonable question and it helps us discern what we can or cannot afford to do.  

But there is another way you can look at sermons like these that is decidedly not cynical.  These sermons give us a chance to remember, at least once a year, what the notion of “stewardship” is all about.  Stewardship, especially when it’s about more than money, is actually a beautiful thing.  

Now, I’ve been your pastor for ten years now.  Which means that I’ve been preaching at least one sermon about stewardship a year for the past ten years.  Each time I do, I try to throw in my own definition of stewardship; because it’s different than what you’ll find in a dictionary.  So out of curiosity, does anyone want to take a stab at how I define stewardship?  Didn’t think there’d be a pop quiz today did you?  Well, don’t worry, I am prepared to define it again; but pay attention, you will be tested on this again.  Stewardship is everything we do in response to the salvation we’ve received.  So yes, our financial giving is stewardship; but so is the kindness we show to those in need; the time we spend helping others; the ways we use the talents we’ve been given in the church and in the world; and so much more.  Today we talk about stewardship; and we learn about it from a guy who knew how to do it right.  

Today, we hear Mark’s account of the healing of Bartimaeus.  And what strikes me about this story all that we know about him.  We know from the story that he was, of course, blind; but also that he was, of course, a beggar; that was really the only job a blind guy could get in those days.  But there’s more to him, isn’t there?  Based on this interaction, it seems that he was also kind of mouthy, right?  He practically extorts this healing out of Jesus: he just shouts until he gets what he wants.  He’s so obnoxious that people try to quiet him down; which only makes him louder.  We may know people like that, right?  So finally, Jesus calls for him and everybody suddenly changes their tune: “Hey, good news, buddy; he’s calling for you.”  

As a beggar, maybe this was his begging style: just yell and make a scene until someone helps you; it may not be a nice, or even effective way to solicit donations, but berating people until they give is a style.  It’s not my style, by the way; I’m usually quite polite about “the ask,” as they say.  But I think, more to the point, he’s not the kind of guy who will be passive about his own salvation.  He is disabled, yes; he is dependent on society’s handouts, but he’s not going to stay that way if given a choice.  And as Jesus walks by, he has his choice.  

It seems strange to me that Jesus calls him over, rather than going to Bartimaeus.  I mean, wouldn’t you go to the blind person, rather than the other way around?  But maybe it has something to do with his take-charge attitude.  Maybe Jesus is trying to see how much Bartimaeus is willing to put into his healing.  Hard to say.  

But more importantly, perhaps the most surprising thing we know about Bartimaeus is that his name is Bartimaeus.  They called him blind.  They called him a beggar.  But we call him Bartimaeus!  There’s sort of a joke in the way Mark tells us his name, by the way: Mark calls him “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.”  The joke is, in Hebrew, “Bar” literally means “son of;” his name is “Junior.”  Either Mark is, for some reason, translating the Hebrew part of his name for his readers, or there’s something else going on.  My money is on the “something else.”  I think Mark mentions Junior by name because the early church knew Bartimaeus by name.  They knew him because he was important in the early church; they knew him because knew how to respond to his salvation.  That’s a pretty good thing to be famous for.  

The stewardship lesson we learn today from Bartimaeus is that salvation ought to inspire something in us.  A pastor friend of mine asked me recently what I was grateful for.  The time it took me to think of an answer made me realize that I should be asked that question more often.  Last week the question was, “Which kingdom are you living in?”  The fact that we can answer, “I am living in the Kingdom of God,” ought to bring us such joy!  Bartimaeus gets it right.  The God who called all things into being–the God who became one of us so that we might have life forever–intends for us to live in that abundant kingdom now.  We have much to be grateful for.  

But there is one other lesson we learn from Bartimaeus that’s worth noting.  It comes right at the end of verse 52: Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well;” and what does Bartimaeus do?  After receiving his sight, Mark tells us that he, “Followed [Jesus] on the way.”  Now to be honest, it’s not really clear as to what Mark means by “followed Jesus on the way:” it could be that he literally started walking behind Jesus along the road that Jesus was on that led to Jerusalem.  I think it’s more likely a way Mark is saying that, on that day, after receiving his salvation, Bartimaeus became a follower of Jesus; on that day, he became a disciple.  

There are other notable blind beggars in the Gospels.  I like to think that at least a couple of them are Bartimaeus, but perhaps unnamed. Like the guy in John who gives the religious leaders such a hard time.  More likely we meet him again in the Gospel of Luke: in Luke 18, we read a story that seems to me to be this same story.  But Luke goes on to also mention the way Bartimaeus begins to follow Jesus: it reads, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus], glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.”   

He follows Jesus the way any disciple should: giving glory to God.  Now lest we forget, it doesn’t seem that he was exactly wallowing in the mire before Jesus gave him his new life.  But after his sight is restored, he uses his renewed life to let the world know his joy.  The way he followed Jesus matters; he follows with grateful joy; I wonder if he skipped.  

Have you ever noticed men aren’t really allowed to skip?  Everyone else can skip if they want to: children skip and you hardly even notice it; a grown woman skips and it’s cute and whimsical; if you see a man skipping toward you down the street, you cross the street.  Men cannot skip.  

Which is really a shame, if you think about it: I mean, why would a person skip?  No one needs to skip; walking is a perfectly efficient way to get you from one place to another; and running would certainly get you there faster.  No, skipping does more than just to get you where you’re going.  In a way, skipping tells a story about someone.  Skipping tells the world how you feel (and if you’re man, that maybe that you’re a weirdo).  And how does a skipping person feel?  Well let me put it this way: have you ever seen anyone crying while they’re skipping?  You can’t be sad when you’re skipping; you can’t be angry when you’re skipping.  In fact, skipping might be at least a temporary antidote to unresolved anger.  Give it a try: next time you are mad go for a nice skip around the house; my guess is that you won’t stay angry for long.  

Skipping is about joy; a joy that just can’t be hidden away; a joy whose expression can’t be bothered with self-consciousness just because it looks silly.  Which is why it’s tragic that men can’t skip: because everyone who truly understands the gift of salvation that they have received, has a reason to skip.  The good news is: skipping is not the only way we express the gratitude we feel.  In fact, as our Scripture lesson remind us today, our entire lives can be an expression of the joy we have in our salvation.  

Whatever our circumstances might be today, we have been given a wonderful gift.  The salvation we have received calls us to respond: it calls us to rise and follow Jesus and it calls us do so with joy.  Let us learn from the example of Son of Timaeus: let us seek to live as faithful stewards of the lives we’ve been given; giving thanks as we follow Jesus along the way.

Monday, October 22, 2018

King Dumb

Mark 10:32-45
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Part of my contribution to society is not always saying the things that pop into my head.  One way I’m trying to make the world a better place (I have a feeling some of you share in this ministry with me).  So yes, a public service I provide is to keep my mouth shut.  For example, I once heard someone say they were a “news junkie.”  What I didn’t say was, “Well you are clearly on something.”  I can’t think of many things that are more damaging to the human spirit than a close attention to the news; especially during an election year.  

I have certain tendencies to start with.  I don’t need to be intentionally reminded of the troubles of the world.  I can see the cloud in every silver lining.  I don’t need the help of the news media to remind me of the negativity of the world.  

It gets to us as human beings; it gets to as a culture; and it gets to us as a church.  It erodes our hope and trains our brains to only see only the bad.  I’m not saying we should just ignore the troubles around us; we’re not going to make the change in this world our Savior calls us to if we pretend that nothing is wrong.  What I am saying is: let’s keep in mind that the world we see around us is not the world we really live in.  We live in the world our Savior proclaimed.  Let us remember that Kingdom; a kingdom that lives in us; a Kingdom we help to build; a Kingdom that will live on long after this one is gone.  

You may know that I am a supporter of the “Me Too” movement.  I know some have mixed feelings about it, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for men, particularly men of power, to be held accountable for the ways they treat (and even have-treated) other children of God.  And of course, I can be so staunchly supportive of the movement because I know my own personal history.  I know I have never done anything that would jeopardize my position as a pastor.  I have a relatively skeleton-free closet.  I could run for public office and the most questionable thing you’d find about me is the decision to run for public office.  

But having said that, I am a man of a certain age who grew up in a different era.  This movement causes men like me to take stock of that personal history.  I may not have ever done anything that would get me fired, but there may be some things I’m not proud of; there may be some things I regret; I might even owe an apology or two.  

I hope someday, when people look back on my life, I will be remembered for the good and not the dumb things I’ve done.  In short, I’m glad I’m not one of the twelve disciples.  I’m glad I don’t have gospel-writers, telling the Good News of Jesus, while also telling about all of the dumb things the disciples did.  They couldn’t have been that dumb all the time, right?  But those are the stories that got written down.  

To say that what we read today was not their brightest hour is a huge understatement.  They are on their way to Jerusalem.  Jesus has just explained why he’s going to Jerusalem.  He has just told them what is going to happen there.  He just indicated what his kingdom looks like: he has just told them that he will give his life over to brutality and death and that he will rise again in three days.  And without missing a beat, the Sons of Zebedee jump up and try to claim seats of power.  Now, the other disciples are understandably angry, but keep in mind, they’re dumb too.  They’re not angry because James and John have done something wrong; they’re angry because they didn’t think of it first!  

As bad as all of that is—as clueless as that is to what Jesus has just been saying—it’s actually worse than that.  It’s worse because this is not the first time this has happened.  Back in chapter eight, Jesus says something similar: he tells the disciples that he must (quote) “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Then we hear that Peter took him aside and rebuked him.  We’re not sure what Peter said to his teacher, but he was clearly trying to talk Jesus out of going to the Cross.  To that, Peter gets called Satan.  You’d think being called Satan by your teacher would stick with you and teach you a lesson.  Nope. 

One chapter later, Jesus took a trip with the disciples for the express purpose of teaching them.  He tells them again that he will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again.  When they get where they were going, Jesus asks them, “Hey guys, what were you arguing about on the way?”  And of course, that’s when they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  

So the story we read this morning isn’t just an example of how the disciples don’t understand Jesus and what he’s doing, it is one in a series of examples of how the disciples don’t understand Jesus and what he’s doing.  Are they not listening?  Are they amazingly forgetful? Are they dumb?  What’s wrong with these people?  

Once upon a time, there was a couple off on a road trip.  They stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch.  When they were done with their meal, the woman unfortunately left her glasses on the table.  It wasn’t until they were on the road again that she realized what she’d done.  As it turned out, they had to travel quite a distance before they could find a place to turn around.  Of course the man fussed and complained the entire way back to the restaurant.  When they finally got back, as the woman was getting out of the car, the man sighed and said, "While you're in there, you may as well get my hat, too."

We wonder at the cluelessness of the disciples, we may even find them funny, but the truth is: we are just like them.  We may not manifest our cluelessness in the same way, but we are certainly clueless.  We so quickly forget the Jesus we claim to follow and we so quickly forget what went to Jerusalem to do.  We live in fear and confusion.  We become divided and isolated.  We speak more than we listen.  We take more than we give.  We insist on being served more than we seek to serve.  We so quickly give up hope and we lose sight of joy.  

Do you know who else does that?  Everyone.  These are traits, not of the followers of Jesus, but of the world we live in.  These are the traits that are killing us as a culture, and unfortunately they are killing us as a church.  The Sons of Zebedee were not any more ambitious than anyone else; the problem was that they were exactly as ambitious as everyone else.  The thing they failed to see was that, in the Kingdom of Jesus, ambition is worthless.  As are fear, division, isolation, greed, and self-service.  If you look around this world and it all seems overwhelming and disheartening, that’s because it is.  But I would suggest that you may be looking at the wrong world.  

Like Jesus to the twelve, he keeps pointing us—by his work, his words, and his Spirit—to a different world, his Kingdom; but we keep looking at this one.  We live in this world, but we are meant to seek and serve his.  We are meant to live in the Kingdom of God, not as if it’s a someday place, but as if it is a place that is here and now, built in and through us.  

I know that’s hard to do; the disciples show us today that we’ve never been good at it.  But that’s why we’ve got one another.  Let’s learn to ask one another, “Where are you living today?”  And let us learn to answer, “I am living in Kingdom of God.”  And then let us remind one another what that Kingdom looks like.  Because it looks strikingly different than this one.  It is a Kingdom shaped by Jesus himself: a kingdom of self-sacrifice, unconditional love, unity, eternal hope, and eternal life.  This is Good News!  I want to be a news junkie for that kind of news!  How about you?  

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Grownups Are Talking

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I haven’t preached this sermon in a long time… out of fear.  Last time I preached from this text, some heard me say something I didn’t say and wouldn’t ever say.  So before we go any further, we need to draw up a contract, you and I.  We need to be clear about what this sermon is not about.  Please repeat after me: this sermon… is not… about divorce.  

The truth is, I would never judge you for your marital status or history.  If you have gone through a divorce, rather than my judgment, you have my compassion and sympathy.  The fact that I am still married to my first wife is not only by God’s grace, it’s by a lot of hard work.  Even though we’ve been married for twenty-two years, I know well that the next twenty-two are not guaranteed.  I do not and will not judge anyone who has been through a divorce.  And frankly, neither does Jesus.  

If you were following along with the Scripture reading in your pew Bibles, you may have noticed that the section heading for verses 1-12 is titled, “Teaching about Divorce.”  And the well-trained eye may also notice that Jesus, in fact, does not really teach about divorce here, at least not in front of the Pharisees.  Although he is asked about divorce, his answer is about marriage.  He does what I believe those in the political world call a “pivot.”  It’s where you are asked a question and you then answer a different question.  And this isn’t the only pivoting that’s being done in our reading this morning.  

No, they ask Jesus a tricky question about divorce, but the answer Jesus gives is about wholeness; the answer he gives is about what God knows is good for us.  And that’s a truth that extends way beyond marriage: that’s a truth that applies in our friendships, with our siblings, with our neighbors, and especially in our churches.  I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that this Scripture lesson ends with children.  As I consider this story as a whole, I can’t help but think about the children: children, who have the least to do with our relationships falling apart, but who often bear the same scars.  As he does elsewhere, here again Jesus raises up a child as an object lesson; and as before, it isn’t a lesson for the children.  As it is whenever Jesus puts a child before us, it’s a lesson for the grownups.  

An interesting thing happens in this part of the Gospel of Mark.  In the chapter leading up to our text today, there is this reoccurring theme of children.  But again, the point Jesus is building to isn’t for or about the kids.  

This part of Mark’s Gospel begins with an argument among the disciples of which of them were the greatest.  To show them what greatness means in his kingdom, he put a little child in front of them and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”   And then later, Jesus alludes to the child again to make a similar point: speaking of those who are not like us doing the work of Christ, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  

I hope that it’s not the same kid.  That would be awkward, right?  Every time someone misses the point of what life in the Kingdom of God is all about, Jesus brings out the same kid.  “Come here, Charlie, they need to hear it again.”  Jesus uses, again and again, the image of a child to each us something; and as is often the case when we need to hear the same lesson again and again, we aren’t getting it.  

But before that, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a question designed to make him look bad.  There is no good way to answer their question.  It’s a “yes” or “no” answer that, either way, will alienate someone.  But in fine Jesus-form, he pivots.  He answers their question with a question.  And by the way, here’s something I’ve learned in 22 years of marriage: when someone answers your question with a question, never answer that question.  It is almost always a diversionary tactic.  “Did you eat the rest of my sandwich?”  “Where did you see it last?”  

They ask Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce and Jesus asks them, “What did Moses command you?”  And his use of the word “command” is interesting because they don’t really answer his question either: he asks them about commandments and they answer with what is “allowed.”  Another beautiful example of a pivot.  Jesus asks them about what the law commands and they cite the loophole.  

Isn’t that just like us?  We spent the better part of September talking about practicing good religion; about knowing the difference between a religion that’s about living out our faith to the glory of God and a religion that’s about something else.  Well, it seems we’re not done talking about it yet.  Bad religion is always looking for the loophole.  Rather than trying to grow in our understanding of what God wants for us, bad religion looks for what we can get away with.  

Again, this is not so much a question about divorce.  Jesus asks a better question: what does God want for you?  Understanding that not every relationship does or even should continue; still, what is God’s will for you?  As Jesus points out, God has made us so that we might belong together.  Taking away the legalism we might otherwise be tempted to impose on what Jesus says, he points to a simple truth: God made us to live together and commit to one another.  

And then the child walks back in; actually it seems there were a bunch of them, clamoring for a blessing.  The disciples do the sensible thing: they try to send them away.  These kids are in the way; these kids aren’t useful to the cause; they have no influence or money or importance.  The disciples don’t see any need to have these children around and so they try to send them away.  

But Jesus shows us that we do need them.  We need them like they need us.  Or rather, we need them because they need us.  Who better to illustrate the fact that people belong together – in a family or in a church family – than a child?  Notice how Jesus states the parable this time: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  I think what Jesus is getting at in this parable is that we depend on one another.  What he’s really pointing to here is how children remind us that we need each other.  Rather than looking for loopholes for how we might separate ourselves from one another, we are to look to the child and remember that we were, from our birth, made to care for one another and depend on one another.  

Today, as we gather around the Table of the Lord, we remember that today is World Communion Sunday; a day in which, many churches around the world, remember this meal that we have in common.  And there’s a huge amount of irony in that.  Yes, we have one faith in one Lord that is celebrated through Christ’s one table.  But we’re also talking about a lot of different churches; churches that have, among many other things, divorced themselves from one another because of various understandings of the meaning of Communion!  Did they have valid reasons for these separations? Sure.  Did they hurt?  You bet!  Will we continue to have legitimate reasons to separate ourselves as individuals and churches from other followers of Christ?  The odds are good.  

But for us, instead of looking for those loopholes, we would do better to remember that we have been made to live together; to depend on one another and to take care of one another.  We would do well to remember that God has made us to live together; and what God has joined together, let no one separate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Wise Guys

James 3:13-18
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I think we can all agree, there is a difference between being “smart” and being “wise.”  I think we can also agree that one will get you a lot farther in life than the other.  For example, I have peculiar kinds of intelligence.  I’m not terribly book-smart, nor do I have great strengths in science or mathematics; but I can read a person.  I’m empathetic, so can usually tell what a person is feeling, even when they don’t want me to.  Also, I’m insightful: I usually have pretty good thoughts about what a person ought to do with those feelings.  I possess peculiar kinds of intelligence.  My wisdom comes in knowing that I should probably keep all that to myself until asked.  Needless to say, wisdom has gotten me a lot farther in life than my intelligence would ever have.  

Maybe that’s the reason the Bible seems to put such value on wisdom.  As I’ll mention later, wisdom is mentioned throughout Scripture as something we ought to seek to possess.  But as James reminds us today, there is more than one kind of wisdom.  And we would be wise to know the difference.  

To begin our lesson today, James asks a surprisingly good question: “Who is wise and understanding among you?”  The question almost slips right past us, but it warrants an answer.  Who is wise and understanding among us?  I mean, please raise your hands; we need to know who you are!  This church has some decisions to make; who are the wise among us?  

I guess another good question might be: who is supposed to be wise and understanding among us?  Don’t tell me it’s me!  I try, but I must confess that some days are better than others.  Perhaps it’s our Ruling Elders; perhaps that’s why we elect them to make decisions for us.  They do seem pretty wise to me; maybe they are the wise and understanding among us.  But then again, we do believe in a “priesthood of all believers” around here too.  My guess is, James has us all in mind.  So maybe (and not just “maybe”) we all are supposed to be wise and understanding for each other.  But as I said, that might be trickier than it sounds.  

We continue today in our study of James.  A book that I believe reminds us of what it means to practice the good kind of religion.  Like it or not, if you put in the time and effort to get yourselves to a church on a Sunday, you are a religious person.  The tricky part, of course, is remaining the good kind.  Today James shows us that, key to remaining a good kind of religious person, is wisdom.  But of course, it isn’t just any-old wisdom, is it?  

Wisdom is a remarkable concept in Scripture.  I don’t think we spend nearly enough time exploring this it.  In the Bible, Wisdom is more than just knowledge or insight, or even experience.  Wisdom is described almost as a conscious being with a will of its own… and even a gender.  As we study what the Old Testament says about Wisdom, we see that it looks a lot like what the New Testament says about the Holy Spirit.  Wisdom knows the heart of God; Wisdom seeks God’s good above personal good; Wisdom seeks a deeper sense of spiritual maturity.  

But today we find that there is more than one kind of wisdom, isn’t there?  According to James, there is the Wisdom that comes from heaven, and then there is a wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, and even devilish.”  I think bad religion is made when we confuse those two kinds of wisdom.  

I was talking with one of our friends this week about today’s sermon title.  He pointed out that “wise guys” was a phrase common to the Three Stooges.   This is not a reference I was trying to make, but now that he mentions it, I wish I’d thought of it.  One of the ways that bad religion manifests itself is through the same kind of self-serving, Stooge-like behavior that James describes.  His insight mage me start to imagine the practitioners of bad religion slapping each other around like Larry, Moe, and Curley.  

“Eh, a wise guy, eh?”  Boink!  “Neaahh”  “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.”  

If anything sums up the kind of wisdom (if you can call it that) displayed on the Three Stooges, it’s the kind James describes as “envy and selfish ambition.  And as silly as that might initially appear, it is also the same kind of wisdom that permeates our culture depends on.  As one commentator I read put it: “North American culture depends on active envy and ambition as heavily as it depends on fossil fuels.”  It is the culture we live in.  It permeates our media, our economy, our schools, and even our homes.  It’s no wonder this kind of wisdom finds its way into our churches, it’s all around us! 

And by the way, it may seem here like this is turning into one of those “us and them” kinds of sermons, but I don’t like those sermons.  You know the ones I mean?  The ones where the preacher rails against the evils of this world; and how we shouldn’t be like “those people.”  First of all, I like those people; the main difference I see between “us” and “them” is that we know to seek godly wisdom.  In fact, I see a lot of them working with us in the Kingdom of God, even if they don’t know it yet.  

Besides, sermons aren’t meant to focus us on them, they’re meant to focus us on us.  What James talks about today isn’t about us versus them, it’s about good wisdom versus the bad kind.  And we are called to find the good kind.  

The first thing we ought to notice about this good kind of wisdom is where it comes from: notice that it comes from above.  Not literally.  You know what he means, it comes from God.  We don’t find this wisdom out in the world not because the world is evil, but because that’s not where this wisdom comes from.  It comes from God alone.  So to seek the wisdom of God, is to first seek God.  

The second thing we notice is that God’s wisdom turns your wisdom on its head.  James says God’s wisdom is, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”  In short, God’s wisdom is a wimp, right?

My original sermon title was written back when I thought every woman would be gone today at the women’s retreat.  I was going to point out how God’s wisdom flips just about every masculine trait our culture admires.  Selfish ambition is a quality that is not only accepted and praised in our society, but it’s a rewarded, masculine trait.  

It sounds to me that, if God’s wisdom were in grade school, he’d probably get his lunch money taken away a lot.  This can’t really be what God wants from us, can it?  Does God really want us to act so vastly differently from what our society expects?  Well, of course.  We proclaim the Good News, in part, by living lives that are noticeably different from the world around us.  Of course God wants us to live out a wisdom that might even go against what we might even think is wise.  

But there is one final thing we notice about the wisdom that comes from God: what it produces.  James says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”  As we seek wisdom in discerning our future, does our wisdom produce peace, or does it foster envy and selfish ambition?  I know we are dwelling in the wisdom of God when we produce peace.  I know we are all the wise and understanding when we growing peace, both among ourselves and out in this world.  

Let us all seek the wisdom that comes from God alone; and may his peace be born within us, through us, and out throughout our world.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Big Mouth

James 3:1-12
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Not long ago, someone who doesn’t go to church asked me what I was preaching on that Sunday.  I gave the answer I often give in situations like that, which is: how the Bible says, “Don’t be a jerk.”  I like giving that answer for a couple of reasons: first, it’s kind of funny and a little self-effacing and shows that some Christians don’t take themselves too seriously.  The other reason is that it’s likely to be true.  Woven in between the message of the Good News of eternal life in Jesus Christ and what to do about that Good News is the message: “Don’t be a jerk about it.”  The Bible may not put it that way, the point is in there.  And chances are, whatever else I’m preaching on that Sunday, that point is at least implied.  

It’s been more than “just implied” for us lately, as we take a tour through the Book of James.  I mentioned at the onset that I think James is centrally a book about how to be the good kind of religious person.  The obvious flip side of that is that it is possible to be the bad kind of religious person.  I say “obvious” but perhaps it’s too obvious.  It’s actually quite easy for us to be the bad kinds of religious people.  So easy, in fact, that perhaps we need a sermon series on the Book of James from time to time to remind us who we’re supposed to be.  

There’s a delicate balance between good religion and bad religion and the fulcrum point of that balance is right here in your mouth.  James reminds us today that, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”  We have, in our big mouths, the ability to proclaim the glory of our Risen Savior; or by the words we speak, we have the power to deny him as well.  And while we’re at it, we may have some other body parts we’ll want to keep in check as well.  

I was at a gathering of pastors not long ago, and one of them said something that made me laugh.  She said, “Name another profession where everyone is your boss and everyone can critique you for anything at any time.”  (Pastors can get a little overly sensitive sometimes.)  I had an answer: “Celebrities!  Celebrities are under that kind of scrutiny: what you do, what you wear, who you have relationships with, how your kids act; celebrities deal with the same stuff all the time.  So if makes you feel better, just think of yourself as a celebrity.”  Pastors do flip out sometimes, but by and large, you get used to it; the scrutiny makes you a better person; but I’ve got to tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart.  

But there are other reasons for not becoming pastors, or as James puts it, “teachers.”  Did you know that, according to my denomination, I’m not called a “pastor.”  They don’t even refer to me as a “minister” anymore.  No, a few years back they started calling me a “teaching elder.”  So on Tuesday, the “ruling elders” will gather at a meeting, moderated by the “teaching elder.”  

To be fair, when James says teachers will be “judged with greater strictness,” I think he’s talking about God’s judgment; but still, not a strong recruitment statement for pastors.  The reason James gives for that stricter judgment from God: teachers saying the wrong thing.  Well, duh.  Of course we say the wrong thing, we remain unfortunately human.  We all, as James says, make many mistakes.  Of course church leaders (whatever you’re going to call them) are going to make mistakes, especially with what we say.  There is a reason I write this out before hand; and even still, what I say isn’t always what I mean and may not be what you hear even if I say it right.  As complex as the human language is, it’s a miracle we understand each other at all; and that’s when we’re being careful with the words we choose.  So often, we don’t even do that; and we have all experienced what happens when our careless words strain and fracture relationships.  

One of the most powerful metaphors that James uses today is “fire.”  Fire, of course, has tremendous power; power for good and for bad.  Where would we be without fire?  We wouldn’t live here, I can tell you that.  It’s not going to be very long from now that we will be using fire a lot.  Fire keeps us warm; fire cooks our food; fire usually powers most of our cars; fire can even remind us of the presence of God [indicating the Christ Candle].  But, as we who live in this part of the world have been reminded of over the past few months, fire has the power to do tremendous damage as well.  

Like our words, fire has the power of both.  With our words we give praise to God.  With our words, we proclaim the glorious news of our Risen Savior.  With our words, we affirm the hope we have through him for life eternal.  With our words, we extend his grace and mercy as we forgive one another as he forgave us.  Our words are powerful things: they can shape the very world around us, bringing life and hope and peace.  

And in the very same way, your words can burn this place to the ground.  James says, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  Now that is a warning!  If you love Jesus; if you love his church; if you love the people of this church, watch your mouth.  

I’ve seen some things in my career; things I wish I could un-see.  Things that might otherwise would be happy things for a church; but things that seemed to cause the place to just implode.  Things like introducing new musical instruments to the worship service; things like rearranging the furniture; things like figuring out what to do with a large financial gift; good things that wound up figuratively burning the church to the ground.  But of course, it is never the things themselves that set the place ablaze, it was always our words; it was what we said, it was how we said it, and to whom.  

But it isn’t just our relationships here that we should be worried about; and frankly, it isn’t just our words that can set things ablaze.  When I think about the damage Christians continue to do the image of Jesus, it breaks my heart.  Scandal after scandal after scandal; when are we going to learn, the world is watching.  We quibble and fret about how people (especially young people) don’t seem to want to go to church anymore.  Really?  When I hear about some of the things some so-called followers of Christ are up to, I’m not sure I want to go to church anymore.  

We need James.  We need the grace of God first, but we need James.  We need James to remind us that the ways we practice our religion matter.  They matter in our relationships with one another and they matter to the Gospel we proclaim; both with our mouths and with our lives.  

I asked Sonja if I could retell a story she told me last Sunday.  It’s not a story I want to tell, but it’s a story I need to tell.  She was talking with a new friend over at the library a while back.  As it should, the conversation turned to subjects of faith and religion.  Her new acquaintance didn’t go to church, but had opinions about the churches in our area.  Without revealing too much, Sonja asked, “So, what do you think about that Calvary church?”  

She answered, “Oh, I hear good things about that church: they’re really involved in the community and they’re friendly.  Oh, except for their pastor.  I see him walking around a lot, and I wave and he never waves back.”  Now if you know me at all, you know that is my nightmare; a nightmare that apparently has come true.  

If you don’t know, I have a particular eye condition that leaves me functionally blind.  That is, until about a year ago, when I got a new kind of contact lens.  Now, I put them in in the morning, take them out at night, and I can just about see all day.  For the first time in my life, I’m like a normal person.  But that was a year ago; I’ve lived and walked around Bayfield for about a decade.  I shared, right after getting my new contacts, that this is a friendly town.  People wave at me all over the place.  At the time I joked, “Have people always been waving?”  Apparently, they have.  Apparently, for nine years, I’ve been giving the impression to people who don’t really know me, that I’m a stuck up jerk.  Thankfully, Sonja took the opportunity to explain my situation and hopefully redeem my reputation a little, but I can only hope that was an isolated incident.  By the way, you know I was waving the heck out of people all week, right?  I wore my shirt on Friday, just so I could be friendly to all the parents driving by after dropping off their kids.  [Acts out pointing, waving, and smiling.]

I mention my nightmare coming true for a couple of reasons: first, if you ever meet anyone who thinks I’m a jerk (for whatever reason), please take a moment to try to salvage my reputation; like I would do for you (like I have done for some of you).  But I also mention it, simply to remind us all, we tell the world about who we are as religious people, through more than just our words.  Our words certainly do the most damage, but certainly our actions can convey all sorts of messages as well.  Does that mean we will always be perfect?  Of course not.  But the good news is this: our words have great power to do good as well.  We can, by our words, explain things.  By our words, we can seek forgiveness.  By the power of our words, we can glorify God and proclaim our salvation, as we restore the relationships our words have broken.  Let us, by the power of God at work within us, make our Savior known in all we do and especially in all we say.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

God Likes You Best

James 2:1-8
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

In my life so far, I’ve been to a lot of churches.  Granted, my day job keeps me from visiting as many churches as I’d like; but let’s just say, I’ve seen a few.  In all of the churches I’ve visited or worked with, I would guess that every single one of them considers themselves “friendly.”  I would guess we would consider ourselves friendly too, right?

In truth, I think we’re probably friendlier than most, but here’s the thing: when I’ve visited other churches, I have also spent more than a few awkward fellowship hours drinking coffee all by myself.  I have a pastor-friend who says that’s her vision of hell: to sit alone in an eternal fellowship time, drinking bad coffee.  We prove how much we care for one another by at least getting good coffee.  But that’s not my point.  My point is, we would be the last to know whether we’re a friendly church or not.  

Which is why, what James has to say to us today, is important.  What James would call “impartiality” I call “friendly”; when he talks about how we treat nicely-dressed people, I call “a bit more complicated than just that.”  But his point should be well-taken: how we treat others is important.  James takes this seriously enough to question our faith based on our friendliness.  He goes so far as to call our lack of friendliness, or impartiality, or not being welcoming a “sin.”  Whatever we call it, what James says to us today is important.  It seems that God cares, not only how we treat other people, but that we treat others as God would treat them; and that is not as easy as decent coffee and, “Hey, where are you from,” but that’s a good start.  

A young minister, new to the congregation, learned that one of the wealthiest members of the church never gave any money to the church.  So the young pastor made a phone call.

The pastor said, “From all appearances your business is doing quite well, and yet I understand you haven’t given a penny to support the work of your church.”  And in his most guilt-inducing tone, the pastor continued, “Don’t you think it’s time to help support the work of your church?”

“Well,” said the rich man, “did you know that my mother is ill, and she has extremely expensive medical bills?”

“Um, no,” mumbled the pastor.

“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed?” 

“Oh, why no.”  

“Or that my sister’s husband left her broke with four kids?”

“I… I… I didn’t know any of that,” stammered the pastor.

“Well,” said the rich man, “if I don’t even give them any money, what makes you think I’d give any to the church?”

Just to be clear: there are a lot of things that James is not saying to us today.  Like being rich, for example.  James certainly seems to have some thoughts on what the wealthy are like, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.  The problem here isn’t about being rich. 

As you’ll recall, we’re spending a few weeks to study the Book of James.  I think it’s important for us to take a look at James from time to time because, like it or not, we are religious people; and the Book of James is about being religious, but doing it in the right way.  James doesn’t take the time to tell you what you ought to believe about Jesus like Paul does; which is why some have seen James as being legalistic.  But I see it as more about religion.  There’s a fine line between legalism and religion, but when we do it right, religion can be a powerful force for good in the world.  Legalism is what religion looks like when it goes bad, but when we do it right, religion helps us to live out our faith together in the world.  Legalism is when we try to earn God’s favor, but true religion comes from the understanding that God likes us already; that God loves us forever; and that that our Savior’s work for us means that we don’t have to earn anything.  And that is what the Book of James draws us to remember: to practice true religion in response to the gift in Christ that we have already received.  

So today, we consider again how to be the “good kind” of religious people.  Today James tells us that true religion does not have favorites.  True religion, apparently, does not favor people based on what they’re wearing.  Really?  To be honest, when he says this, there’s a part of me that wonders, “What was going on at that church?”  I know that churches like that exist, but I guess I’ve been a Coloradan long enough because it blows my mind.  I don’t think anyone here cares what I’m wearing today; Sherry, maybe, but probably not.  I try to clean up for worship—wear my Bronco tie for obvious reasons—because I know people will be looking at me; but I wouldn’t think people would treat me differently if I didn’t dress up.  It’s a strange thing for James to focus on.  So strange that it makes me think that he isn’t talking about clothes.  

Once again, there’s a lot of things that James is not saying today.  So if James isn’t talking about being rich and he’s not talking about fancy clothes, what is he getting at: he’s talking about showing favoritism; kind of a surprising sin, isn’t it?  Well, unfortunately, it’s probably a sin we commit all the time.  Here in the church and out in the world, we pick favorites all the time.  Part of it, I am sure, stems from the fact that we are a culture of choices: we choose our favorite political parties and candidates; we choose our favorite restaurants and churches; we even choose our favorite TV shows where we can choose our favorite singers.  We live in a world where we can choose our favorite everything; why not people?  

But what James is getting at is far more sinister.  You can hear the seriousness in his voice when he says, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  He’s questioning our faith in Jesus when we show favoritism.  That is surprisingly harsh, until we find out the Commandment we are breaking.  It’s a big one.  Jesus only left us with two: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Showing favoritism is a big deal.  And by the way, he isn’t just saying be nice.  That isn’t true religion either.  

There’s a TV show I like called “Fargo,” loosely based on the movie.  Like a lot of entertainment I like, it isn’t for everyone, but it’s really well-written.  In fact, a couple seasons ago there was a scene that had such a great line in it that I kept running my DVR back to hear it over and over again.  It’s a conversation between the good guy and the bad guy, who has come in from out of town.  So they’re having this tense conversation about “the way things work around here” and the good guy offhandedly says, “Well, we are a friendly people.”  

And the bad guy says, “No, no you’re not.  Quite the opposite, you’re actually pretty rude.  But it’s the way you’re rude: you’re so nice about it.”  

I love that line.  I don’t know if it accurately describes the good people of Fargo, but I know it describes a lot of church people.  We exclude, we judge, we look down on people, but we’re so nice about it.  Jesus calls us to do better than be nice; it turns out, Jesus calls us to love.  

James rails against favoritism as strongly as he does because it undermines the very gospel we proclaim.  He is right to call it “sin” and we are right to repent of it.  Here in this place and out in this world we are commanded, by the love we have been shown, to love those around us.  Not just be nice.  Not just to those who look like us and think like us and agree with us.  We are commanded to see everyone around us as beloved children of God, redeemed by our Savior’s work, and then love them accordingly.  

As we seek to live out a true religion, let us first remind one another of the love and grace that we have received; and then let us seek to extend that same love and grace to those around us in this world.  Let us seek, in all we do and say, to fulfill God’s “royal law” as we seek love all our neighbors as ourselves.