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.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Do I Look Pretty?

James 1:19-27
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lying is a sin.  It’s kind-of referred to in the Ten Commandments (bearing false witness).  You are not supposed to lie.  Having said that: if someone you care about asks you, “Do I look pretty,” feel free to come find me after and I will grant you absolution.  

A friend asked me earlier this week, “Is it okay not to be completely honest with people?”  

I said, “‘Okay’?  In most relationships it’s important not to be completely honest with people.”  Of course, it’s also important to know the difference between what needs to be said and what probably shouldn’t be said.  Some questions are just too important not to be answered directly and honestly.  Like, for example, “As a church, do we look like Jesus?”  This Table reminds us that we are called to be the Body of Christ; do we look like him?  In many ways, I think we do; but if we’re being honest with each other, we would have to admit that we could do better.  It is important, in the ways we live our lives, that we look as much like Jesus as we possibly can; the world needs us to show him in our lives; our Savior calls us and by the Spirit guides us to be the face of Jesus; so we strive to be that face more and more.  

We may not like hearing that we’re not as “pretty” as we could be, but if we want to be more like him, sometimes it takes a good hard look in the mirror.  

As you may know by now, through at least most of September, we’ll be looking at the Book of James.  For reasons I’ll talk about in a minute, I like coming back to the Book of James from time to time; I think it’s important; but I should also point out that James has not always been well-reviewed, so to speak.  The most famous example comes from the great church reformer, Martin Luther.  Luther called James a “gospel of straw” and questioned why it had been included in the Bible in the first place.  He was not a fan.  

I think the problem, when people bristle against the Book of James, is that it is placed right there alongside of the books of Paul.  Paul’s writings, as I’ve mentioned before, have two distinct parts: there’s the first part, where Paul lays out the Truth of Jesus Christ; and then there’s the second part, where Paul lays out what he thinks we should do with that Truth.  Then we come to James and expect it to be the same kind of book, but it’s not.  

Some have looked at James as if it’s like the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament; books like Ecclesiastes or the Book of Proverbs.  I think that’s helpful, but I think there’s more to it than that.  Whereas Paul starts with Truth as the foundation for how you live out that Truth, James just assumes you already know it.  James skips past what you already know and jumps to what you should do with it.  In short, Paul centers on faith, but James centers on religion.  And as a church, we need to think about our religion.  

A couple of weeks ago, as you know, I spent a few days with my brothers; a thing we haven’t done in decades.  We talked about everything.  Many of those things, I should not and will not ever talk to you about.  But one of the things I should not but will talk to you about anyway is my younger brother’s hair.  My younger brother has always been the pretty one.  I was talking to him about his hair, which is short on the sides and in the back, but he grows it out long in the middle and on top.  Turns out, it’s to cover up a bald spot; a comb-over!  You have no idea how happy that made me.  

That is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor of what most people think about religion: I may not be perfect, but at least I’m better than somebody else; and if I can’t be better than someone else, at least I can notice their flaws and feel better about mine.  

It’s no wonder religion has a bad reputation.  Through the years, we’ve certainly done plenty to earn that reputation.  From abuse to the covering up of abuse, to greedy televangelists, to holy wars and colonialism, the reputation the Christian religion has is the reputation the Christian religion has earned.  All of those things are probably why, when you ask most Americans if they are “spiritual” or “religious,” they are almost always just “spiritual.”  I admit, I am much the same way: I was at a party last night, when someone asked me what I do for a living.  It made me cringe.  I mean, you’re religious, but I’m religious professionally.  And it’s always been that way: we read the Gospels and see how, in Jesus’ day, it was the religious people who usually missed the point the most.  I would much rather not be a Pharisee, but here we are, participating in a religion.  

Now of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t.  We also know that there are reasons why we’re here that are completely separate from everything I just mentioned.  With all its flaws and abuses, I do a disservice to you, the church, when I constantly apologize for our religion.  Yes, we are religious people.  Proudly, we are trying to do it right.  We are people of faith, gathered together to try to live out that faith in ways that glorify God.  We are religious people trying to live out what the Book of James describes.  

Today we hear those famous words of James: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”  Now in a way, it sounds like he’s discounting the hearing, right?  “Merely hearers?”  But just a verse before, James says that this word that we have heard has the power to “save your souls.”  All he’s saying is, it’s meant for more than that: we are meant to do something with what we’ve heard. 

There once was a man who decided to take over an old, run-down piece of land.  It was a mess: the fields were overgrown with weeds, the shed was falling down, and the greenhouse was just a frame and broken glass.  

As he started the work, his pastor stopped by.  As they talked, the pastor volunteer to pray a blessing over the work: "May you and God,” he prayed, “work together to make this the allotment of your dreams!"

A few months went by and the pastor stopped by again.  Lo and behold, the place was completely transformed: the shed was expertly rebuilt; vegetables were growing in neat and tidy rows; and the greenhouse was repaired and growing beautiful tomatoes.

“Why this is amazing!” exclaimed the pastor.  “Look what you and God have accomplished together!"

The man agreed, but added, “Do you remember what a mess this place was back when God was trying to do it on His own?”  

Of course, God can do whatever God wants to do, but God prefers to do it through us.  That’s all that James is saying: religion, true religion, is when we do what faith inspires us to do; and that we do it together.  

I love the mirror metaphor James uses, mostly because it’s hilarious.  The absurdity of it is just wonderful: you look in the mirror, check your hair, make sure your fly is up; and then you walk away to another mirror and say, “(gasp!) Who is that?!”  We receive the life-giving Truth of our salvation—we know who we now are in Christ—and then we walk away, forgetting what that looks like.  We walk away forgetting to be careful about the things we say.  We walk away forgetting to care for those that Jesus cares about like widows and orphans.  We walk away and forget to keep ourselves unstained by the world.  The imagery James uses is absurd to the point of being comical, but the true absurdity is that we do it all the time.  Which is why we’re studying James.  We study James to remember that our religion ought to lead to something more.  

Here, we practice religion, but my hope is that we do it the right way: that we might be mirrors for each other.  I hope that we can see in one another, what we ought to look like in Christ: that I see in you a person that is quick to listen and slow to speak; that you see in me someone who has gotten rid of “sordidness and rank growth” (what a great way to put it).  My hope is that we see in one another, the very Body of Christ that we proclaim here at this Table.  But my hope, most of all, is that the world around us also sees our Risen Savior reflected in our lives as well.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

No Picnic

John 6:51-69
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

They say, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”  That phrase bothers me a little.  It’s more than a little insulting.  I mean, “That which does not kill you”?  I have a name.  

I’m kind-of kidding.  I don’t think I am a terribly challenging person to live with; at least not on purpose.  My goal is actually to make the lives of those around me easier, not more-difficult; but I know I don’t always meet that goal.  I hope that my family can verify that, when I am a challenge to live with, it’s almost-never on purpose and I almost-always feel bad about it.  

In fact, if my presence in your life is a challenge to you and it seems I am doing it on purpose, it is probably because we have some sort of agreement.  It’s probably because I am working with you to grow deeper, at least spiritually.  I would never work at helping you become a better person without your consent.  I wouldn’t because I know what it takes to grow deeper: it takes challenge.  Either by circumstance or conscious and deliberate work, we don’t grow unless we are challenged.  And it is never pleasant.  It takes effort.  Not everyone wants to go through it, and that’s okay.  Not everyone is ready to take on the challenge of growth, and I would never intentionally inflict that on a person unless they wanted it.  

But then again, I’m not Jesus.  Jesus will push you to grow, whether you like it or not.  We’ve been reading through John chapter six for a few weeks, and I can say with confidence: this is the very worst and the very best of it.  (Ken, I am genuinely sorry you had to read that, but someone had to.)  Today, Jesus is pushing us to grow deeper.  May we rise to the challenge.  In this time in God’s Word, may we let him push us to be the people we are called in him to be.  

Here’s a Bible-trivia fun-fact for you: you know how, in the Old Testament, Moses gave the people rules about what they could or couldn’t eat?  Like pork: Moses was very specific about how the people weren’t supposed to eat bacon.  Now, we look back on rules like that and think, “What kind of God would create a thing like bacon, and then forbid people from having it?”  But when you think about it, the rule does make sense.  Maybe not always on a spiritual level, but you can see the practicality of it in those days.  I mean, a lot of bacon isn’t good for you, but in those days, improperly handled pork could be deadly.  

So the Old Testament had rules about what you couldn’t eat to, among other things, keep people safe.  Back to the fun-fact: did you know that the Bible doesn’t say anything about not eating people?  To be fair, the Bible never encourages it, but there is no specific rule (as with pork) that you shouldn’t.  I think there’s a very good reason for that: you don’t need one.  In the course of human history, it’s a rather rare practice.  Most cultures and most people in generally are horrified even by the thought of it.  I’m uneasy even by talking about it right now.  I only bring it up (and I will stop talking about it now) to point out the attitude with which we ought to hear Jesus today.  The emotional response that Jesus is looking for from us today is that we be horrified by what he says.

A couple of things about what Jesus says today: first, simply, he is, of course, not being literal.  But he’s also not talking about Communion.  When we hear Jesus say these horrible things, we mentally jump right over to the Lord’s Supper, right?  “No, no, it’s okay; it’s just an analogy; it’s a spiritual thing.”  Except that, even though we’re not supposed to we’re not supposed to take Jesus literally here, we aren’t supposed to hear this as simply allegorically either.  

Here’s another Bible trivia fun-fact for you: in the Gospel of John, did you know there is no institution of the Lord’s Supper?  Seems like a pretty-big oversight, doesn’t it?  The Lord’s Supper is certainly alluded to, but John never expressly tells that part of the story.  To me, it seems like John anticipated the mental jump we’d make with John 6, if this was told it in the context of Communion.  It is as if he wants us to find a way to set aside that symbolism, and just be shocked and mystified by what Jesus is actually saying.

To hear John 6 as only being about the bread and cup of Communion, is to miss the point Jesus is making.  Yes of course, what he’s talking about is a spiritual thing, but before that, it’s supposed to be disturbing.  This is gross because it’s meant to be gross.  All throughout John six, Jesus has been trying to offend us, and it comes to a pinnacle here.  

If you’ve been following along, John 6 begins with a story that is told in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five-Thousand.  There’s a reason it’s told by all the Gospel-writers: it shows the power that Jesus has to provide for the people of God by taking a little and making a lot with it.  

But then, John tells us something the other gospel-writers don’t: John tells us that Jesus then used this miracle to question everyone’s motives.  He does it on purpose and it comes to a head this morning.  John 6 began with a multitude, and ends with nearly everyone getting scared off.  He basically asks everyone, “Are you following me–are you with me, right here right now–because you know that I am the way to Salvation, or are you just here for the food?”  

By the way, do stick around for the potluck after.  There’s nothing wrong with sticking around for food that someone else made.  Even if you didn’t bring anything, do stick around; there’s usually plenty and we’re pretty good about sharing.  I assure you, Jesus isn’t questioning your motives for being at a potluck.  John chapter six is a test; a test that concludes with Jesus asking us all: are you following me or are you just following me around? 

Jesus is being offensive, but he isn’t just being offensive.  It’s a test that is hard for us to hear, but it’s vital that we do.  The religious-people rightly notice a Moses-like connection in Jesus: he is providing bread for the people of God like Moses provided bread for the people of God.  So the religious people are rightly interested in whether or not Jesus is Moses-like or if he’s just doing Moses-like things.  Is he sent from God to provide bread from heaven or is he just handing out bread?  And Jesus reminds us that he is neither.  He doesn’t just bring bread from heaven; he is the Bread of Heaven.  And he brings this lesson to us with this offensive-level intensity because it is the most important thing for us to hear.  He shocks and offends us because this is life-and-death.  Sure, he’s not talking about cannibalism, but neither is he inviting us to Sunday brunch.  

Jesus calls us to consume him and him alone; that he be our one true nourishment; that he be what’s flowing in our veins and giving strength to our muscles; that he be the source of our very lives, and him alone.  

Here at the end of chapter six, we finally hear the point that Jesus has been building towards the whole time.  After all this confrontational and insulting talk that drives nearly everyone else away, Jesus turns to us and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” and it’s a good question.  If even Jesus himself hasn’t scared you off yet, then why are you here?  Are you ready to let Jesus be your one source of nourishment and stand with him no matter what?  

It’s funny: Peter is not always the guy with the “right” answer; he’s usually just the impulsive disciple who answers first.  His usual “speak first, think later” attitude often gets him into trouble, but this time, this time he is absolutely right.  Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” and Peter’s answer is the right answer: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Peter remains and does so for absolutely the right reason: that there are no other reasons than Jesus.  

May we learn to be as faithful.  May we learn to consume him: to have his love, his compassion, his wisdom, and his mercy.  May we trust him enough even to welcome his challenges to us.  And may we, in all we do and say, be more and more like him as we seek to be his Body in this world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Taste & See

John 6:41-51
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

To me personally, John chapter six is one of the most important chapters in the Bible.  Although it may not be as significant as, say, the accounts of the Resurrection, or that day on Pentecost, or even John chapter three for that matter, John 6 is certainly up there.  Like I said, that is my personal feeling.  You don’t have to hold John 6 in such high regard, but I think you should.  We’ll be looking at this chapter next week and maybe the next, so maybe take a few minutes to read it again this week.  The themes we find here have shaped who I am lately [by “lately,” I mean over the past few years].  What Jesus has to say to us throughout this chapter ought to mold who we are as his followers and also as his church in this world.  

Now, having said that, notice I never said I liked John chapter six.  For the record: I do not.  In fact, that’s why this chapter is so important to me: it’s made me work on my faith and how I live it out.  Here, Jesus shows us things about ourselves and about who he is that are alarming and not just a little offensive.  We’ll talk more about that next Sunday at the park; but for today, realize that Jesus is not trying to make friends here.  When Jesus offends people today, it’s on purpose.  Jesus is indeed the Bread that has come down from heaven and the Bread of Life, but he might also have reason to leave a bad taste in your mouth.  

I imagine, you don’t have the same love/hate relationship with John 6; so let us start with a brief background.  John chapter six begins with an interesting version of the feeding of the multitude.  In John’s version, Jesus, the disciples, and the multitude are out in the middle of nowhere.  Apparently, Jesus had gone out into the wilderness to get a break from the religious people—who were actively persecuting Jesus as this point—but it seems everyone (including the religious people) followed out there.  Now, the reason I mention that story is because there are two things about it that set a context for the rest of the chapter.  The first thing is bread.  

I’m sure you’re familiar with that feeding story: it got late so they started they taking stock of their food situation; and apparently, the only  person who thought to bring food into the wilderness was a child.  The only person in the entire multitude with food is some kid with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Now just as an aside, I would point out that, although that is not enough food to feed something like five thousand people, that is a lot of food for one boy.  But as you’ll also recall, Jesus takes that boy’s food and feeds everyone with twelve baskets full of bread left over.  So that story brings into chapter six, this theme of—not only bread—but abundant bread that we will hear throughout the chapter.  

There is another thing that sets a context to John 6.  We’ll talk in more about it next week, but it’s worth mentioning: before Jesus feeds the multitude, he turns his disciple Philip and asks, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  This freaks Philip right out because it’s meant to.  The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus asked Philip this to test him.  Jesus is trying to challenge Philip’s faith and Philip does not pass the test.  The panic-stricken Philip says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  So another context that runs through John 6 is that Jesus will be testing everyone; and I mean everyone.  He will test the faith of his disciples, the gathered multitude, the religious leaders, and if we’re paying attention, even us.  In fact, if we’re paying attention, we’ll see that, even in our lesson today, Jesus is testing us.  

In our lesson today, John begins by saying, “The Jews began to complain about [Jesus] because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’”  Today, in Washing DC, there is a march going on.  I don’t think I know anyone in that march and I certainly don’t know what the motives are for every participant in that march; but I know there are some in that march would read that verse and say, “See.”  I know that there are some there who would distort that verse to reinforce their prejudice against Jewish people; as though Jesus would ever be okay with that.  Not only would Jesus not condemn or exclude a group of people because of their so-called race, but I think he would prefer we would take his words more personally.  Rather than hearing from Jesus only that which reinforces our stereotypes, I think Jesus would prefer we pay attention to what he’s saying to us.  

John refers to these complainers as “the Jews,” but I should point out that there isn’t anyone in John 6 that isn’t Jewish.  Jesus is Jewish, the disciples are Jewish, the crowds are Jewish, and these complainers are Jewish.”  So what is John actually saying?  Well, he probably means is “Judeans”; he’s indicating that these complainers traveled from the south, where Jerusalem is, up to Capernaum just to keep an eye on Jesus.  They travel all that way, just to complain.  So what John is alluding to is that these complainers represent the Temple; they are from the religious establishment; they are important church-going people.  They are, I’m afraid, a lot like us.  

I know: we don’t like being compared to the religious people in the Gospel story; they’re typically the bad-guys.  We’re not bad-guys; we wouldn’t have crucified Jesus, right?  Well maybe, but in retrospect we would have at least regretted it; but as religious people, we do share their “tendencies”.  If we’re not careful, we risk making their same mistakes.  We would be wise to hear what Jesus says to them as though he is speaking to us.  

John tells us that they complain about Jesus, but what is their complaint exactly?  Is it that he fed thousands?  No.  Is it, as it often is, that he does these things on a Sabbath?  It doesn’t seem so.  Does their complaint even really have anything to do with Jesus saying, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven”?  Not really.  They certainly don’t like it, but their complaint comes down to something else: they know his family.  They say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know.  And now here he is calling himself bread from heaven.”  They are offended by Jesus, not because of anything he’s said or done.  They are offended by him because they think they know him.  “How could God possibly have anything to say through this son of Joseph?”  

We see in these religious people, something we see a lot in religious people: a tendency to practice a faith without risk.  We have our routines.  We practice our religion this week like we did last week and the weeks before that.  We fulfil our obligations.  We care for the folks we go to church with and we even like most of them.  But do we trust them?  Do we trust that God might say something profoundly new through them?  Would we follow one of these people into a new direction for the church if God actually spoke through them?  Do we trust that God would even speak through them?  

I saw a great metaphor this week when I was visiting our sister church up in Lake City on Wednesday.  They are starting the process of looking for a pastor and I am the Presbytery’s representative to them from the Committee on Ministry.  So this week, as a part of those responsibilities, I went up there to moderate their Session meeting.  It’s funny: in my thirty-some odd years of church work, I can’t say I’ve seen everything, but I’ve seen every kind of thing.  They started talking an issue they were having and a little bell went off in the back of my mind; it was kind of like the sensation you get when you hear the opening notes to a song and you realize, “Hey, I know this one.”  

They were talking about a flower garden on their church grounds and they were having trouble figuring out how to care for it.  Should they ask for volunteers?  Should they try to hire somebody?  Should they just let it go fallow for now?  As they were debating, I asked a question that I thought was terribly insightful.  They didn’t notice how insightful it was and I’m afraid you won’t either; that’s why I’m telling you.  As they were talking about how to care for this garden I asked, “Well, who used to do it?”  They told me about this lady (we’ll call her “Martha”) who used to coordinate everything—she had an entire team of helpers—but then “Martha” had to move away.  I don’t know the “Martha” or the garden in question, but I knew all those things before I asked; I’ve seen it before.  

You see, “Martha” started this garden and this was “Martha’s” baby.  Everyone loved the garden and “Martha” for tending to it; but now “Martha” is gone and no one is brave enough to touch “Martha’s” baby; no one is brave enough to seek a new purpose for “Martha’s” garden; so now, they have an unattended garden, overrun with weeds; and their Session can’t pinpoint what to do.  

I didn’t feel it was my job to make their decisions for them, but the solution to me was obvious and awful.  They don’t need to walk away and let it go wild.  They don’t even need to hire someone to care for it.  What they need is trust.  What they need is siblings in Christ who can trust each other enough to hear God’s calling and mission through this crisis.  Because it’s going to take more than just volunteers; because something is going to go wrong.  It’s going to be my day to water and I’m going to show up and find out you’ve already done it.  Do I love and trust you enough to find out why?  Will I just bail on the project and let you be the new “Martha,” or will I hear your apology and listen to your story; maybe a story about a neighbor, who never goes to church, but likes to tend to gardens, and this was a window.  

I love that garden metaphor because I think it speaks to the obvious and awful truth about being a part of the Body of Christ, the Church: that it is all about our relationship with one another.  Relationships are complicated, and messy, and they can sometimes hurt.  Having the love for one another that allows that complicated, messy hurt to then strengthen our relationships is what makes it worth it; but it takes work.  It takes trust.  Trust in one another, but trusting more in the Bread of Heaven, who nourishes us for eternal life.  A nourishment that sometimes comes in the form of the people you call “your church.”  

Let us not be like the religious people of Jesus’ day.  Let us not be so comfortable in what we think God is doing that we neglect to see it even in those next to us.  Let us have eyes that are open, ears that will listen, and spirits that will be fed by our Risen Savior.  And may the world around us see the life-giving Bread of Heaven alive and at work in us and among us.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Therefore

Ephesians 4:1-16
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Often, when I come up with sermon titles, I do it maybe weeks or even months ahead of time.  I base them on a preliminary study of the Scripture lesson, what I discern might be something God is trying to say to us through it, and something hopefully clever that gives a hint about what the message will be about.  But then sometimes, somewhere along the line, the Spirit changes things on me; sometimes at the last minute.  With that in mind, you can make the following correction to your bulletin: the actual title of this sermon is “Therefore.”  [The original title was “The Adult Table,” because I was drawn to the maturity theme of vv. 11-16.  Clearly, God had other plans.]

I like the word “therefore.”  It sounds a little silly to use “therefore” in casual conversations, but it’s a good word.  Maybe we should throw it into sentences like, “My wife came home from her trip on Saturday, therefore, I spent most of Friday cleaning the house.”  It’s kind of an old timey word, so we use words like “so” instead; but wouldn’t “therefore” have sounded just a bit more classy?  Seems like the only time I regularly run into the word “therefore” is in the Bible, especially in the letters of Paul.  

It’s right there in the beginning of our reading today, where Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  I had a professor in seminary that used to say a thing that maybe you’ve heard before too: when you see a “therefore,” find out that the “therefore” is there-for.  It’s a cute little pneumonic, but it reminds us that context is important; “therefore” tells us that this is a continuation of something else.  The thing before us is a result of something that came before it; so we ought to look into what that was.  

We will, of course, explore the context of what Paul is saying in a moment, but something related to that comes to mind: we are a “therefore” in this world.  Do you ever think about that?  I hadn’t, really; that’s why the title got changed.  We, who have received the boundless grace of our Risen Savior are now a “therefore” in this world.  Something has set a context for our very lives; something has come before our being here today, together.  That, of course, is the dying and rising of Jesus.  We are, therefore, set free in this world to live the lives we are saved and called to live.  As we are sent into this world, the question we must keep asking ourselves is, as you might expect: what are we therefore there for?  

So what is the context of Paul’s “therefore”?  As the Book of Ephesians enters what is its second half, this “therefore” actually refers to everything that comes before it.  This is common in Paul’s writing style; you’ll find this kind of thing in most of his letters.  Whether he’s writing to help a church with some sort of crisis or he’s just writing (as he is in Ephesians) to help a church be the church, he usually follows the same pattern.  In the first part of the book, he proclaims and teaches the Good News through Jesus Christ alone; and then in the second part, he talks about what you might want to do with this very Good News.  As we’ve talked about in this series, the first three chapters are all about God.  It is God who loves us more than we can imagine.  It is God who has, in Jesus, reconciled us back to God, and not ever anything we could have done to earn it.  It is God, who calls us into a new eternal family.  And it is God’s Spirit that is always present with us to lead us, to strengthen us, and to remind us of our eternal hope.  Three chapters about the abundant, unfathomable grace and love of God; and then three chapters, beginning with chapter four, about what to do with that gift we’ve received.  It turns out, these final chapters of Ephesians are really what the book is about.  That is, again, Paul’s style: the ending, practical part is the point Paul is getting at and the first, theological part is the argument for it.  

This sermon, by the way, the end of this series on Ephesians.  If this seems like an abrupt place to stop, rest assured, it is on purpose.  We end here, for a couple of reasons.  You can think of the first reason like this: remember when you were young and still in school?  Do you remember wondering during class sometimes: will this be on the test?  It’s as if, you’re about to take a test, say, on the Revolutionary War.  You know very well that this test is only going to be about the names of the central figures, the names of the important places, and the dates when important things happened.  It’s a memorization test.  But then in the class before the test, your teacher keeps going on about the theologians and philosophers who shaped the minds of the founding fathers; about the economic and political climates of the day.  Nothing that is helpful for remembering names and dates.  None of that is going to help you choose between right and wrong answers on a test.  But then again, that information might be helpful to those who want to be responsible members of a democratic society.  That is a different kind of test; that is a big picture kind of test.  In the big picture, the dates and names are not nearly as important as the influences and the reasons; but even in faith we do lose sight of the big picture sometimes. 

Sometimes we read the letters of Paul and we get hung up on “part two.”  We read Paul’s instructions about what it means to live as a faithful follower of Jesus as if they are like names and dates to be memorized.  I can’t help but imagine how annoyed Paul, a reformed Pharisee, would have been with us in that.  He spends half a book talking about the free life and grace that we’ve received in Jesus alone, and we focus on the last part like they are rules to follow.  

So we’re stopping the series here, before we can get too distracted; before we start telling each other about how wives and husbands and children ought to treat each other.  And besides, in our reading today Paul shows us all we need to know.  “Lead a life,” Paul says, “worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  Simple.  It’s good to keep it simple, even if rubs against our urges to have rules.  

Speaking of which, I’ve been trying to brainwash you lately.  You may not have noticed because I do try to keep my mind control subtle; but today I’m done being subtle.  Throughout this series, I’ve been throwing a phrase in every week (often several times) in the hopes that it will get stuck in your head like a catchy tune.  My hope is that, as you hear this phrase repeated again and again, the Spirit will stir something in you like it has been stirred in me.  My hope is that this simple phrase will sound to you as a fitting description of who we are.  That we, as a church, are a people who simply seek and serve Jesus.  Simple: we seek and we serve Jesus.  I see that as an adequate and accurate description of our mission.  We may not need it embroidered on our shirts, but we should probably write it down somewhere: we are a church that seeks and serves Jesus.  

We seek Jesus in the ways you’d expect: in our study of Scripture, in our prayers, in our worship, and in our fellowship; and then we serve.  The serving is the “therefore” part.  The seeking sets a context for, simply put, everything we do to “Live a life worthy.”  It’s everything we do, as a gathered people of God, that proclaims and embodies God’s love.  You know, all of those things we wear our shirts to.  It is everything we do as faithful followers of Jesus even throughout our lives.  We serve Jesus as we make every effort to maintain our unity in the Spirit.  We serve him as we use the gifts that we have been given as a church and throughout our lives.  We serve him as we lovingly speak the Truth to one another and to the world around us.  We serve him as we recognize and care for our Savior’s Body, here in this place.  

Being the church that Jesus calls us to be is deceptively simple: we simply strive to seek and serve Jesus.  But of course, it isn’t always that simple is it?  That’s why we return to this Table again and again.  Here we are reminded of the “therefore” that shapes what we do and who we are.  Here we remember the Savior who gave of his body and his blood, so that we might, therefore, be his Body in this world.  

Remembering the love, the mercy, and the life eternal that gathers us here, let us, therefore, live lives that indeed are worthy of the calling to which we have been called.