The Voice: Sermon by Keith, 12.6.15 Advent 2C

Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

December has to be the craziest month of the year.  In many ways, if we could step back and look at all the somewhat wild and out of the ordinary things we do this month, we would realize just how crazy this month and how crazy we just might be.  Why is it so crazy?

It is because we are preparing.  You see the husband up on the precariously balanced ladder, getting directions from his wife who should be holding the ladder but is instead giving instructions on where to hang the icicle lights just right.  And it is about 20 degrees outside.  And the wind is blowing.  They are preparing.  You see stores filled with people with a high level of intensity and aggressiveness as they shop, shop, shop; people making their shopping lists and checking them twice.  They are preparing.  With the flip of the switch, the day after Thanksgiving, the radio stations start adding in old nostalgic songs to their playlists about chestnuts and walking in a winter wonderland.  The airwaves are helping us to be prepared.  Even our sanctuary is now set to help us prepare.  We have all the greens this year, but also the smell of the sanctuary that is helping us to prepare.  Not just the smell of the evergreen tree and swags fill the air, but also the cinnamon smell of the cookie tree ornaments hanging from our lights.  People are preparing, we are preparing, because soon it will be Christmas.

But we as Christians do more than just prepare for Christmas, we prepare for Christ.  Last Sunday, Ellen Jones helped us mark the first Sunday of Advent, a season that lasts right up until Christmas.  Advent is that time of year when we prepare for the arrival of Christ.  We prepare to celebrate his first arrival, that humble, quiet birth in Bethlehem.  But we also prepare for his second coming, that day that Jesus promised at the end of the book of Luke and the beginning of Acts when we would see him coming again in his glory.  The Sundays of Advent go backward in time, from the future return of our King down to his modest birth on Christmas.

And during this time of preparing, we, as individuals and as a community of believers, do all kinds of physical things to prepare for Christmas.  We hang the lights, we fill out and mail cards, we shop for gifts, and menus are planned as we prepare for visits from family and friends.  Here the sanctuary is decorated, we light a new candle every Sunday to mark time through the Advent season, and Joan has been in the back meticulously counting candles to make sure have enough for everyone on Christmas Eve. But there is more than just the physical parts of preparing for Christmas.  There are the spiritual things we do to prepare ourselves for Christ.  It’s easy to prepare for the holiday of Christmas.  But how do you prepare for Christ?  I bet there are some of you out here right now who could exclaim this early in December, “I am ready for Christmas!”  But my question for you is, are you ready for Christ?  And I think we can get so distracted by getting ready for Christmas, we forget who we are getting ready for.

Thank goodness we have someone just as crazy as we are to help us prepare for Christ as we get ready for Christmas.  He shows up like clock work every second Sunday in Advent.  No, it’s not Rudolph or Frosty or even Santa.  They are the list of those helping us get ready for Christmas.  It is John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locust who helps us get ready and be prepared for Christ.  He had no church but the desert wilderness by the Jordan River.  He was a wild nobody.  Luke even begins this section by letting us know who the “somebodies” of the day were.  The lengthy list of the Roman political and Jewish religious leaders of the day reminds us of the power structure and systems that existed at this time.  But it wasn’t the emperor, the governor, the local kings or priests that God chose to prepare the people for the coming Christ; it was this long-haired, locust eating prophet calling out in the wilderness.

This wasn’t his idea.  This was his calling, God’s purpose for his life.  John was talked about hundreds of years before this scene from the prophet Isaiah:  “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord!”  John had been called by God to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah—Jesus was about to begin his pubic ministry, and John was preparing people, getting them ready for Jesus and his message.  He did that by teaching people to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

For John, to prepare for the coming Christ meant to turn around, to change direction in both actions and attitudes.  Repenting doesn’t just mean feeling remorse or regret for an act or decision and then getting up and doing the exact same thing over and over again, it literally means going in an entirely different direction.  Stop the crazy acts that you are doing and turn around, turn back towards God, because in that turn around, you will meet the coming Lord.  John’s hearers were going one way, unprepared for Christ.  They might have thought their religious affiliation or their political ties were going to save them.  But, John told them to turn their lives around and go another way.

“What then should we do?”  they ask John.  How do we prepare?  How do we repent?  How do we change directions?  It is interesting that three different groups ask John what they need to do to prepare, covering the entire gamut of those who were considered “in” and those who were considered “out” by the political and religious leaders of the time.  They begin with the closed group of those who believe they are OK because they have the membership card of being Abraham’s descendants who are oppressed by the Romans.  The next group is the tax collectors who move between the occupied Jewish community and the occupying Roman authority.  They are agents of the political reality, making decisions of self-interested compromise every day.  The third to ask are the occupiers, the soldiers.  They wield the sword of the world’s power, but they too are capable of sensing they needed to turn around and change what they were doing.

Notably, John does not demand that any of these groups leave their places.  Repentance is a change in direction of actions and attitudes that requires them to stay where they are.  They do not run from their sin, they seek forgiveness for it from those around them.  They stay where they are, but they are to be different where they are.  John identifies what each group needs to repent from and turn to.  From those who would claim the protection of status, affiliation, or membership, John demands that generosity replace self interest.  The needs of the other should take greater priority, higher status, than one’s own protection or security.  From those, who like the tax collectors, have learned survival skills in an unjust system, John demands integrity.  No more stealing, no more gaming.  They must demand less for themselves so that others may be treated fairly.  And finally from the soldiers, whose tool is raw power, John demands respect for others.  John tells these that the fruit of their repentance will be seen not in personal gain but in true modesty.

So, how do we prepare for Christ?  We repent!  What would John’s words be to you if you were standing on the banks of the Jordan and you asked, “What then shall I do?”  First, identify what is separating you from God in your life.  This will take some quiet time during this crazy time of year.  Turn off the TV, the radio, the internet.  Take a break from shopping and decorating.  And just sit, and think, and identify those things that separate you from God in your life.  And just because you are coming to church on Sunday doesn’t mean you don’t have some brokenness in your life that needs to be addressed.  Are you materialistic?  Do you like to be surrounded by things, more things than you could ever need or want? Are you selfish?  How are your thoughts?  Are you impatient with others?  Do words spill out of your mouth that are hurtful and angry?  Identify those things.  And then the second, do the opposite, right where you are and where you live and work.  Ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt.  If it is time to clean out the closet, both literally and figuratively, do it.  Change direction in your life.

Are you ready for Christmas this year?  More importantly, are you ready for Christ?  Are you ready to celebrate his first coming?  Are you ready to receive him, when he comes again in all of his glory?  If you listen closely, over the songs about Rudolph and Frosty and White Christmases, over the craziness that surrounds us this time of year, you will hear a voice, a voice of one calling in the desert:  Prepare the way for the Lord.  That is the message of this second Sunday of Advent, prepare your life, prepare your heart, prepare your whole being by turning toward Christ, seek his forgiveness and wholeness, and expect his grace.  Because it is only by his grace we are able to make that turn-around and be prepared for the day we see him, not in a card or manger scene, but for the day we will see him face to face.

 

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Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble! Sermon by Keith: 6.28.15 June with James

Scriptures: James 3:13-4:17

Did you hear the questions in this morning’s reading?
“Who is wise and understanding among you?”
“From what do conflicts and disputes arise?”
“What is your life?”

James just hammers these questions at the listener, followed by a reflection on living the Christian life.  It may seem like a hodge-podge of subjects, but James wants his hearers to know that what they think matters, what they say matters, how they act matters, and how they live matters.

One of my youth group kids in Wyoming came to one of our gatherings after having a discussion with two of her friends.  They had just been baptized at their church.  They were now saved and now they could do whatever they wanted.  They were good to get to heaven.  It was all about them and their “get out of jail free card.”  James would have had a fit with that, because he makes it clear: every day and every action speaks to the faith that one receives on that day of baptism.  And the questions James asks today point to a particular way of life, a life of humility with God and each other.

Now, I’m not sure how you define Christian humility, but one of the best definitions I’ve heard that humility “is living into the reality that God is everything.”  It is no longer about us, but about God. And for James, living the God-centered life of Christian humility starts with wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?”  You would think that James might answer this question by saying it is those in charge of the church.  He was one of the early church leaders after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but James isn’t looking for credentials or letters after someone’s name.  He was the brother of Jesus!  If anyone could drop a name to get attention, it would be him.  And we hope the leaders of the church, then and now, would have wisdom and maturity of faith to make decisions, but this is not what James is looking for.  James lifts up markers of evidence of God-given wisdom in the life of individuals.  These include:  Gentleness and a humble heart, purity, living in peace, willing to yield, full of mercy, no trace of partiality.

These are the markers of wisdom, and these traits are hard to live into.  They speak of a life that is not ego-driven, not grasping or envious.  Our culture says “watch out for number 1!”  These traits of wisdom that James calls for move us away from self-gratification to a life where the concerns of the community take precedence.  Look around.  Are there people here that you see who embody the Godly wisdom James extols?  What habits or practices do you see them doing and are there ways that what they are doing can be applied to the life you share in the community?

James then turns his attention to conflicts, and I think you could say James believes conflict happens when wisdom and humility are suppressed or ignored, and one’s ego and self interest take center stage.  Within any relationship, family, or community, there will be times of disagreement.  James looks at these conflicts and sees envy as the core of the problem.  He calls it different things, selfish ambition, cravings, and coveting, but it really comes down to desiring what another person has.  James sees this as a sin that feeds itself, wanting leads to wanting more, craving ever more, asking for the wrong things, and finally escalating in violence and death.

Sadly, this is the culture we live in.  Advertisers would have us buy the newest brand-name cloths, cars, and electronics.  One study showed that the average American is barraged with approximately 5000 advertisements per day.  That is just one day.  We are told we will be happy if we use the right toothpaste or drink the correct beer.  We become envious that we aren’t on the bandwagon of goods we see on TV or even down the block at the neighbor’s house.  We envy others who appear to embody or have what we want, making over ourselves and our homes in their images, instead of living into the image God has given us.  Again it takes wisdom to discern what enough is and to listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice when the voice of the world says, “More!”

James then moves to the question of “What does God want?” by using contrasting the desires of the world with the desires of God.  God wants our hearts.  God is yearning and searching for the human spirit that mirrors God’s own image.  Therefore, in choosing to draw near to God, we are throwing off the power that earthly wisdom has over us.  This idea of friendship with the world versus friendship with God is not a call to renounce the world’s created goodness, but instead seeks primary loyalty with God, whose righteousness is made accessible in God’s wisdom.  James sees wisdom and righteousness connected in this way, and one must choose to serve God or the world, no middle ground is possible.  And when we say yes to God and God’s righteousness in our lives, we receive God’s gracious granting of divine wisdom.  Saying yes to the world’s priorities, the “getting more and be envious of what others have”, leads to death and destruction.

James then brings his wisdom talk back to our relationship with each other when he asks, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”  This section could easily be tied back to James’ talking about the tongue from last week.  What you talk evil or slander someone, James says you have made yourself into a judge of that person, lifted yourself above the law, thus making yourself above the lawgiver.  We have a tendency to judge people quickly for all types of reasons, like how they are dressed or speak, before we know them.  We may see one little side of them and automatically assume something about them which may not be true at all.

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho said, “We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation.  It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.”  We really know only our own paths, and often we think ours is the only way to go or live and thus it is why we tend to judge others.  But I also believe this command of James not to speak evil or judge one another is an invitation to walk with one another.  It is one thing to stand and point a finger of accusation against someone you may not agree with, it is another to walk, live, and ultimately love them, knowing their hurts and struggles.  This allows us to be with them and for them and not over them.

The last question that James asks is the most humbling.  It is the one that puts all our plans and goal into perspective and makes us realize we are not in control.  “What is your life?”  James’ answer:  Life is a vapor!  Like a morning mist that soon vanishes, so life is short and uncertain.  There are no guarantees about tomorrow, let alone next year or ten years from now.

You might be thinking, “That’s morbid! I don’t want to think about those things!”  Now, I’m not saying we should obsess about it, but we do need to think about death for what it is, a thief that often comes unexpectedly.  I’ve done one funeral for someone who is younger than me.  He fell from a ladder.  That wasn’t the plan for his family.

What James wants us to do is to contemplate our plans in light of our own mortality and God’s sovereignty and our dependence upon God.   This doesn’t mean we don’t make plans, but when we make plans with God at the center of our lives versus trying to fill our own wants and desires, things can look a bit different.  James’ example is as fitting then as it is now.  In following God, income will not be the motivating factor for pursing a career.  We must take the doing of good in God’s service the goal and direction of our lives.  James basically says that ignoring God in our plans is folly, but we are called to be wholly in God’s service.

Friends, there is a promise in these hard passages.  And that is living humbly in God’s will and with each other we will be exalted.  I don’t know if you had a chance to watch President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the martyrs shot in South Carolina.  If you didn’t, I’d recommend watching it, even if you aren’t on the same side of the political fence as he is.  And if you watch it, you might come away thinking it was too political.  And that’s ok; he is a politician by trade.  But he also preached.  He preached about grace, God’s unmerited, amazing grace and how it transforms our lives.  He preached about how this small Bible study group had shared grace and hospitality to the man who would take their lives.  They opened themselves up to a stranger by opening their church, their Bible study, and even their very lives to him.

Friends, grace is a free gift from God, and humility is one of the many gifts of grace we experience in our lives. It is by grace that we learn not to be self-centered, but self-giving, which is the very nature of our God who gave of himself in the Son.  And as God’s grace transforms us, as humility becomes part of our lives, we will find that we are never far away from the heart of God.

Blessing and Cursing: Sermon by Laura, 6.21.15 Pentecost 4

Scriptures: James 3:1-12, Psalm 19

Here’s how John Hockenberry of National Public Radio’s “The Takeaway” opened his show on Friday: “What happened this week? What happened this week? …[O]nly in America do you have in the same week a network anchor who lied and tells America he wants to be trusted, a woman who’s white who tells America she wants to be considered black, and a white man with a gun who kills nine black people in a church in Charleston and says to police he wants to start a race war. One week. But is it one America? Trust, race, and violence, all three, that’s the big construct, right there, in one crazy, only-in-America, kind of Biblical parable. What does it mean?”

Hockenberry’s show goes on to consider the connections between our difficulties in trusting one another and our government to speak truth and to follow words with actions; the ongoing history of discrimination and violence against African Americans, and the continuing rise of gun violence, constantly asking, what lessons can be learned? What wisdom can be gleaned from the ruination of lives and the murders of innocent people in a house of worship?

The pain is deep and the issues are complex.Everyone has a theory on the roots of our problems. But this morning, the book of James cuts through the layers. Each of the stories Hockenberry named exemplify the dangers of an untamed tongue. Each person made choices to use his or her speech, sparking “forest fires” of distrust and violence, not merely “staining” their own lives but also setting ablaze what James calls “the cycle of nature,” creating with their words—and the actions flowing out of them—an environment of distrust, a climate for violence, a world of hurt.

They may seem so small, but our tongues do have a power disproportionate to their size. With them we exercise the creative capacity for speech, given to us by the God in whose image we are created, who spoke a Word into the chaotic void and created a universe.

Adam named the animals, and we continue to name the world and each other, which, “in some sense…creates a genuine reality,” notes author Dan Clendinnen.  Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with speech. Describing the world we see, we mistake it for the whole world. Making meaning of what we see, we conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according the world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.” We are all connected to one another in a web of relationships in which our words have world-formational power.

We know from our own experience that the childhood rhyme is a thin defiance against the truly hurtful power of words: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Hateful remarks, shaming criticisms, and glib gossip can leave more enduring wounds than broken bones.

I can’t help but think of the collision of worlds between the African-American Bible study group in Charleston and the young white stranger they graciously welcomed and hosted, living out the Word of God they were studying. But even after receiving their hospitality, face to face, he continued to live according to the ways of a world constructed by hate speech, as he turned on them with words of hate and a gun.

That is why it is vital that we Christians are people who know and live out of the power of the Word to heal and to bless. We believe in God’s creative Word made flesh, and we proclaim Jesus Christ, in whose life of teaching and healing, in whose unjust death and unexpected resurrection,
our universe is created anew.  We receive the power of speech as part of God’s gracious invitation to participate in the ongoing recreation and restoration of the world.

Our speech is a Christian practice, by which we live out our love of God and neighbor. But James does not underestimate the challenge,  saying wild animals are tamed more easily than our tongues, and seeming gloomy on our prospects in controlling our speech.

Indeed, even in our churches, where we intend the best use of our speech, without realizing it, we sometimes find ourselves speculating about others in ways that are subtly harmful. Especially here, we must take seriously James’ wisdom from ch.1, “Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak.” We are being restored to God’s image, but sin is pervasive and tenacious, and we do make many mistakes.

But James also tells us that the capacity to control our speech is a sign of maturity in the faith, which suggests that there is hope for us yet! We can choose to pray and practice to learn to use our speech for healing and not harm.

Of course, like any spiritual practice—loving speech takes practice! It is a process in which we notice and learn about God and ourselves. We can observe our speech and notice how it reveals our inner life, what we truly value and depend upon. Comparing our words to our actions, noticing the degree to which they have integrity, we will know how we have been growing in Christlikeness.

The Renovare workbook we are using in this summer’s Spiritual Formation Group suggests ways to engage in practicing loving speech:
–Be a gossip-buster. Whenever someone you are with begins to gossip, quickly end it. Guide the conversation to a different subject.
–Practice the art of speaking positively. Resolve to make two positive remarks about someone or something for every negative remark you make.
–Cultivate integrity in your speech by focusing on simplicity and honesty in all that you say.

These practices sound so simple and obvious, but trying them for a week is revealing! The point of them is not to get it perfect, but to see what we see. Sometimes we won’t like what we notice.
The awareness of what we don’t like in our words and actions is an invitation to ask for God to change us.

The good news is that we can learn to use our speech to bless others and share the truly good news of Jesus Christ; we can learn to discern when to speak and when to stay silent, and we can learn to speak in the Spirit to create worlds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.

Do you see my stole? It’s my ordination stole from Alaska, and it features a raven and eagle with little crosses in their bellies, wings, and especially in their beaks. It reminds me of James’ metaphor of the bit and bridle guiding and directing the horse. There is a prayer inside which says, “May the Word of Christ be always in your heart, in your words, and in your actions.”

Those three aspects of our lives are brought into integrity as Christ speaks his transforming Word into our lives. Christ is already present with and within us,and by the power of the Spirit, we can  ask and receive God’s help: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach,” James says in ch.1. As we ask, receive and accept, lean into and depend upon the Holy Spirit that God has given us, Christ becomes the one who controls our speech and our whole bodies.

Friends, our speech has creative power. God gives us the freedom to use it for harm or for healing. Jan L. Richardson writes, “Offering a blessing is an act of profound hope. In blessing one another, we recognize and ally ourselves with the presence of God who ever works to bring about the healing of the world.” Let us invite God to shape us anew, that we may offer blessing.

Alleluia! Amen.

 

Sources:

Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, 67.

James Brian Smith and Linda Graybeal, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Jan L. Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010: 18.

Can Faith Save You? Sermon by Keith, 6.14.15, Pentecost 3

Scripture Reading: James 2:1-17

Is being partial a sin? That’s the question that came to my mind when I read this text from James. We all have to be partial at some point, don’t we? How many of you vote? That’s being partial to one candidate over another. In fact, we are expected to show partiality in an election. Is that bad? How many of you have a favorite sports team in college football or basketball? Is that wrong? Many times in our everyday world we show partiality, and showing favoritism is inevitable in human affairs. So is it a sin?

I think the answer is maybe and sometimes. Some types of partiality are expressions of participating and keeping the social order that I for sure wouldn’t put in the category of sin. We vote for the candidate that we feel will do the best job in living into our political viewpoint. Sometimes that candidate wins, sometimes he or she loses. Now, what that candidate does in office may be a sin, but that’s a different sermon. How about sports teams? Is God on the side of the Ducks or the Beavers? I guess it depends on which side you are rooting for, but my guess is God has an equal love for all animals, whether they quack, slap their tails, or throw the pigskin.

But I think James would want us to know that partiality becomes a sin when it breaks God’s intention for right relationships between people. When favoritism and partiality separate people in ways that elevate one group or make another group into second class citizens, a sin has taken place. And specifically James brings up the example of class distinctions within the Christian community. This scenario is a little more complex than just the initial reading might suggest. You might even go so far as to say James uses a parable to get his point across.

Here are two visitors that have entered the congregation. One has gold rings and is dressed in fine cloths, the other person looks like he has just got done digging ditches. The man with rings is treated with extreme courtesy while the bedraggled visitor is shuffled aside.

James is making his point by using an extreme example: This situation would probably never happen when James wrote this letter. In Roman culture, there was a very small, very wealthy elite, then a small middle class, then everyone else: the poor, those working to get by, those who didn’t have much more than their families and their faith. In our current economic world, you could say these are the 99%. And that’s who made up the communities James was writing to. There might be a few middle class people who are part of the community, but they wouldn’t be dressed the way James describes the first visitor. The poor man in dirty cloth fit the profile of the average member of the community.

But not so the rich man. One commentator even said that since James specifically said this man was wearing gold rings, the hearer would know immediately that this person was part of the Roman elite, the 1%. Christianity was still illegal and persecution was a real possibility. If this guy showed up in the congregation, he wasn’t there to worship: someone was in trouble.   Despite the special treatment, the guy with golden rings could still take them to court, get them locked up in prison, or worse have them thrown into the arena. That visitor would be the one dishonoring the name of Christ by using his power to make members of the community into criminals.

James not only uses this parable as an example of the follies of favoritism. First it can get you in trouble, and second it shows disrespect and harm for those who already part of the community. But James then teaches how it goes against what God wants as understood in the biblical principle of love. He explains the significance of the divine law in contrast to the Roman law. First, the writer reminds Christians of the “royal law” of Christ, which sums up the entire Law of Moses by saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Moreover, “acts of favoritism” are not to be dismissed as minor infractions of God’s command—little sins versus big sins. In order to underline the seriousness of showing partiality, James draws on the ancient Jewish doctrine of the complete unity of the law and contends that to violate the law at this one point is to break the whole law. To illustrate this point, James links partiality with the heinous sins of adultery and murder—sins readers would not fail to consider serious. Adulterers will not suppose that they should be excused of adultery because they have not committed murder.

James’ point is that the adulterer stands guilty before the law, as does the murderer—and as the one who discriminates and shows favoritism that causes harm. God who forbids adultery and murder also forbids discrimination. God stands behind every commandment. Thus, all three—the adulterer, the murderer, and the one who commits “acts of favoritism”—are transgressors of the law and are subject to God’s judgment.

So, where does that leave us? Well, James reminds us all that we are accountable to God for our words and our deeds. At the last day, every individual will stand before the judgment seat of God.

What will be determined at that point is not whether we are “saved”; we have already been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. When James asks, “Can faith save you?” I think, I hope, he would answer yes, but for him it depends on what you do with that free gift of faith. What the judgment we will face will reveal is whether or not we have misused the grace that is ours—whether or not we have embodied in our lives the possibilities the gospel offers.

The faith we receive in Christ is not only a freeing and saving faith for us, but also a freeing and saving faith for others. One commentator said that what James is calling for is “a practice of indiscriminate love toward all people.” And that indiscriminate love toward all people will reveal whether we have allowed the grace and power of God to produce a transformation in our lives. Faith is a free gift of God, and that free gift is transformative in how we live and act and deal with one another. Impartiality in all our doings is in no small part a sign of the integrity of our faith.

It has been said that this section of James speaks the strongest words of rebuke about discrimination and favoritism anywhere in the New Testament, maybe even the entire Bible. The fact that James speaks of “acts of favoritism” in the plural might prompt us to ponder all those experiences in which we have made snap judgments about others on the basis of outward appearance—perhaps on the basis of disability, or dress, or race, or class, or gender, or age. From James’ perspective, discrimination of any kind is simply inconsistent with the Christian faith.

I said last week that the book of James is hard, because he makes us face and think about not only the sin of our actions or lack thereof, but he also forces us to deal with the sin of our attitudes, our attitudes of prejudice and discrimination. Often, we excuse the sins of attitude. We typically judge the sins of actions with a harsh judgment, and let the sins of attitude off easy. But it is our attitudes, those attitudes in our hearts and minds, that give birth to our actions. This is why repentance is not only a change of heart, it is also a change of mind and action.

I leave you with a story. Any Dodgers fans here? Now, I don’t believe being partial to a team is sinful, but this story definitely gives us a small glimpse into the world James would want us to live. Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. While breaking baseball’s “color barrier,” he faced jeering crowds in every stadium. While playing one day in his home stadium in Brooklyn, he committed an error. His own fans began to ridicule him in ways they never would the white players. He stood at second base, humiliated, while the fans jeered.

Then shortstop “Pee Wee” Reese, a fellow white player, came over and stood next to him. He put his arm around Jackie Robinson and faced the crowd. The fans that had been jeering Robinson grew quiet. Robinson later said that arm around his shoulder saved his career.

Friends, you have the power to make a choice to reject the negative and harmful practice of showing favoritism. You can be someone who puts an arm around someone else’s shoulder, no matter their story, their background, their income, age, or race, and makes a lasting difference in their lives as they come to know the love and mercy of Jesus Christ through what you do for them.

Being Formed: sermon by Keith, 10.27.13 Pentecost 23C

Scriptures: 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:9-14

So, who are you in this story?  The Pharisee or the tax collector?  That’s part of the power of the parables, they allow you to step into the shoes of the people involved in the story.   And you know, when I stand in their shoes, I’m really not a big fan of either the Pharisee or the tax collector.  It is easy to point the finger at the Pharisee and say, “Bad guy!”  But I bet you would want him as your neighbor.  He was an upstanding citizen.  We want to be exalted in the eyes of the community like the Pharisee, but we also want to be justified in the eyes of God like the tax collector!

Here’s where my tension with this lays.  In the church, most of the time, a Pharisee-like person would never be scorned; he or she would be exalted.   This guy tithes!  You see his name on little plaques throughout the church and on scholarship funds.  She’s here in worship every Sunday morning.  She teaches Sunday school and is on three important church committees.  He’s serving the church and the world in so many ways.  The church and God are so lucky to have her on their side.  Tax collectors, well they are terrible church members.  Who wants humility when you have to meet a budget and pay the heating bills?  They show up, confess, and then go out living the same life of sin they did before, giving all good church members a bad name.

Do you feel the tension this story creates?  You can almost hear the collective mumblings through the crowd when Jesus finished this parable because it really turned everything upside down.  The one who was despised in the eyes of the community gets justified and the one who has been following the law, doing everything right, even going beyond the bounds of the law with his extra fasting, goes away with nothing, except his own self-justification.

I think it is very easy to fall into thinking ourselves as righteous. We do our duty, confess our sins each Sunday, and put our envelope in the plate as it passes.  We serve the world in so many ways, Hooray for us!  Boo for those who haven’t followed the rules like we have, boo for those who work is detestable.  We live in a world that expects us to size each other up based upon so many things, our looks, our jobs and income, our families, and even our religious affiliation.  It can be hard not to look at some with contempt when they haven’t lived up to the expected standards.

What Jesus is calling us and all believers is to avoid trusting in our own efforts at fulfilling the law to please God.  The Pharisee is doing and trusting, but doing and trusting in the wrong things.  Trust is called for, but not trust in ourselves or in our abilities to keep God’s law.  We can’t totally keep God’s law, but what we can do is trust in God’s mercy and love.  But then also nowhere does Jesus that we can ignore the law.  Following Jesus doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want.  So in some aspects, both the Pharisee and the tax collector got it right.  The Pharisee in following God’s law and the Tax collector in appealing for God’s mercy.  There is a balancing act when it comes to being Christ’s disciples.

We just watched the third video of celebrating the church’s mission [available at the First Presbyterian Church of La Grande, OR Facebook page] and its members and each of the ways that people can live into being fully alive in Christ.  Now, being fully alive in Christ could be its own sermon series.  And even the longest living Christian is trying to live into that calling, that identity.  But the video and the two texts deal we read just scratch the surface with what being alive in Christ can look like.  What you saw was a partial list on the video of what the Reformed/Protestant tradition has regarded as spiritual disciplines over the course of history.  The ones you saw were the easy ones to add a picture to.  There are a lot more that are a little harder to take a picture of, such as chastity or fasting.  But the point is why we do them.  If we are fasting, if we are tithing and giving, if we are confessing, or if we are studying scripture and proclaiming the Gospel to justify ourselves before God or the community, we are creating an island, isolating ourselves from God and the community.  What happens is I live in a ‘me’-centered existence, forcing God and everyone else off my island.  I become more concerned about my own righteousness than even my relationship with God in Christ.  Sadly, what happens in that case is my relationship with God in Christ gets boiled down to a ‘to-do’ list, a ‘to-do’ list that I’m trying to make more impressive than the rest of you in the room.

But if we are doing these practices to be transformed as disciples of the living God, then we will cross bridges, bridges that God in Christ by the Spirit has provided to strengthen our relationship with him and each other.  Our ego, our self-exultation gets knocked out of the way and God in Christ becomes the center of why we do them.  And that is when the Spirit can truly take hold of our heart and transform us.  I wish the parable continued on with how the tax collectors justification, the mercy he received from God, changed him on his walk home.  Tax collectors basically made their living by extortion.  They had a quota they had to collect for the Romans and everything above that was theirs.  And they would use whatever means possible to get as much as possible.  Some of the other stories in scripture of tax collectors, like Levi and Zacchaeus, talk about the radical transformed lives they have when encounter Jesus’ forgiveness.  Levi abandons his collecting, follows Jesus, and throws a great party to celebrate and Zacchaeus promises to repay anyone four times as much as he defrauded them.

So, who are you in the story?  Truth be told, we need to be a little bit of both the Pharisee and the tax collector, humbling ourselves before God but also responding to the love and mercy we receive from God.  My hope is that when you open your Bible to study, you aren’t doing it to check it off the list of the things you think God wants you to do, but you ask the Spirit to make the Word come alive in the pages as you ask, “What is God up to here?  How is Christ calling me to respond?”  When you confess the things you have done and things you have left undone, you don’t immediate plunge back into the world doing the same old same old, but cry out to God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!”  and let the Spirit guide you in ways to live afresh in the light of God’s love and mercy.  When you give, don’t compare it what your neighbor has given or not given, but give in response to the priceless and unending love and mercy you have been given in Christ.

Friends, we are no better nor are we any worse than anyone else.  We are all in deep need of the love and mercy that is found in Christ.  If we begin there, his Spirit will free us, free us to respond in ways we can only dream of as we encounter him in Scripture, in prayer, in giving, in singing, in worship, and in our engagement with the community.  His Spirit will free us to be truly alive in him.  Amen.

(Laura’s sermon on this gospel text is here.)