Changing My Mind: God Said It, I Believe It, Right?

As the world struggles with the effects of COVID-19, and as the USA engages in one of the most vitriolic election seasons in history, I’ve been taking stock of the ways in which my life of faith has changed/grown/matured in the past three decades. I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in October of 1990, and every now and then I wonder what that kid would think of the person I’ve become. This series of messages is not intended to twist anyone else’s mind into thinking exactly the way that I think, but rather to indicate my core belief that a faith that is alive and growing will, of necessity, evolve and change. My hope is that in this series of sermons, I can model the fact that change is typical and growth is the normative state for followers of Jesus. On Sunday October 18 we considered the ways in which we are called to receive the Word of God – how we understand the Bible to be authoritative.  In so doing, we dwelled with these scriptures: Numbers 21:4-9 and Matthew 5:17-20.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit

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[Singing]: The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me! I stand upon the Word of God – the B-I-B-L-E!

Did anyone else grow up singing that song?  I’m here to tell you that I love the Bible, and always have.  As a child I was told stories from the Bible, I was encouraged to respect it and even memorize parts of it because, well, the Bible is the Word of God, right?

When I was 14 and participating in the Confirmation Class, my parents got me a Bible of my very own – a genuine Morocco leather-lined, red-letter, King James version. I want to tell you that I was on that book like white on rice.  I mean, there are highlights, underlinings, and all kinds of markings that underscore my desire to find ANSWERS in that Bible.  I used the center column cross-references, I bought a concordance, and I honestly looked to find out everything I needed to know in this book which I perceived to be the inerrant, infallible, unchanging Word of God.

Maybe you remember back in the 1990’s there was a series of books entitled “Magic Eye”.  These contained images that, if you looked at them just right, you could see the one, true, hidden picture behind all the other colors.  That’s how I treated the Bible – I squinted and stared and underlined and pored over it so that I would know The Truth.

And it paid off in many ways.  When I entered Seminary, like all of my classmates, I had to take the “Bible Content Examination” – a 100-question test designed to measure whether students have a grasp of, well, the contents of the Bible. I scored so high that several of my classmates teased me that I must have cheated somehow.

And yet, even as I dwelt on the Word, there were cracks that had begun to appear for me.  In my senior year of High School the school districts of Wilmington, DE were ordered by the courts to desegregate by means of busing students from predominately Black areas into those that were White, and vice-versa.  I was shocked to see that people I loved were using Bible verses in arguments on both sides of that issue.

As a young man, I struggled to make sense of the sexual ethics in the Bible.  I was looking for some key verses that talked about purity, but the more I came to know about the lives of the folks that we call “saints”, the messier things got (more about that next week!).

When I rifled through the pages of the Bible to find safe and easy answers to some of my biggest questions – why did my friend have to die? What should be done about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor? Why have so many wars consisted of Christians from one place marching into another place and killing people there? – well, I found that there weren’t many easy answers in this book.

At the same time, I was advancing in my status in the Church.  I was ordained as a Deacon, and began to work as a “professional Christian”.  I was called as a pastor, and given flowing robes and colorful stoles and one day, I woke up and realized that if there was anyone with whom I ought to be comparing myself in the Bible, it was the established Religious Authorities – the people who had been trained and who were trusted; the ones, in fact, about whom Jesus warned his followers in Matthew 5.  The people who were in some ways my closest role models in Scripture were the ones who looked at this carpenter, this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth, and scoffed that he was soft on Scripture, that he didn’t value or recognize the commandments and the prophets.

I didn’t like that feeling, but the people who condemned Jesus were the ones who knew all the answers; who had all the commentaries; who could read a verse and then say, “Well, you know, in the original language, the implication was…”; these were the people who totally aced the Bible Content Examination (although, to be fair, is was shorter back then… I crushed it when there were TWO Testaments).

And Jesus looked at his followers, a motley group of fishermen, tax collectors, and revolutionaries, and said to them, “You have got to do better.  Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the religious leaders, you’re sunk.”

What does that mean? That all followers of Jesus have to go to Seminary, memorize the Bible, and quote it back on demand?  That’s not the strategy that the disciples and the early church employed.  Jesus seemed to be suggesting that perhaps there was a better way of reading, hearing, and knowing the Word of God.

You see, the Scribes and the Pharisees saw the Bible as a rule book or a checklist.  Brian McLaren talks about this as a “constitutional” reading of the Bible – we examine it for precedents, check for loopholes, and make sure that everyone is obeying the letter of the law.  Yet when we treat the Bible that way, we wind up finding it quite easy to enshrine the things that we appreciate and ignore those that are inconvenient; more than that, we are tempted to weaponize the Word of God – the strategy that led to the execution of Jesus, for instance.[1]

So I began to wonder, what if the Bible is not intended to be a rulebook or a judicial code telling us what we would and would not tolerate, and what we could and could not get away with?  What if the Bible is a story that invites us to consider who and whose we are and how to live in the world that surrounds us?  What if the Bible is an account of how people tried to hear the Word of God and to live into it in the midst of their own situations?

Look, I don’t want to brag, but I have to say that this is probably the best sermon on Numbers chapter 21 that you’re going to hear in 2020.  Let’s look at the text.

There’s a pretty clear description of both the Word of the Lord and human experience in these few verses.  God, as you probably heard, has acted by delivering the People of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt.  The people, on the other hand, don’t like everything that they perceive God to have done, and they start to bellyache.  Actually, the Hebrew word here means literally, that the people behaved like “chowderheads” (no, actually, it doesn’t – I’m just messing with you on that one).  But it’s clear that the people have left God’s intention and are walking toward death when they look up at Moses and say, “Hey, Moses, we’re dying here!”

God’s word could not be any more clear: Moses is commanded to fashion a serpent out of bronze, and put it on a pole, and instruct the people to use that serpent in their worship and daily lives. The people who believe what Moses says and who actually do this are the people who live; the folks who don’t trust Moses or ignore God’s word and refuse to look at the serpent are the people who die.  Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen a depiction of a snake on a pole painted on the side of an ambulance or out in front of a hospital, this passage is where that practice began.

I hope that you can agree that this is a pretty clear illustration of a place where God says, “Look – do this.  This is the right thing to do.  In fact, you have to do this thing TODAY in order to live.”  Does that make sense?

Great.  Now let’s fast forward about 700 years.  During this time our escaped slaves have arrived in the Promised Land, conquered it, and set up a government.  For a while, it’s rocky, and then they get on a roll.  But sooner or later things start to go downhill, and the leadership has abandoned its commitment to following the Lord.  The folks on the throne look less and less like David and Solomon and more and more like Ahaz and Jezebel.  But then, in II Kings 18 (by the way, when is the last time you heard a sermon on Numbers AND II Kings?  I mean, you’re going to have to tell your friends about this one), a new king arrives on the scene.  Let’s check it out in my Confirmation Class Bible:

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem…And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. (II Kings 18:1-3)

OK!  All right!  NOW we’re getting somewhere, aren’t we?  After a slew of losers, we’re getting a good king – a king who “does what is right in the eyes of the Lord”. So how do we know that?  Fortunately, the author of II Kings helps us out here:

He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him. (II Kings 18:4-5)

You see: the most prominent act by which Hezekiah demonstrates that he is a faithful leader who is attentive to the Word of God is this: he destroys the bronze serpent that Moses had been commanded to make.  Why did he do this?  Because this bronze serpent had become an idol that was killing the faith of the people.

So, beloved: what’s the Biblical position on bronze serpents?  Is this snake on a stick a symbol and reminder of a clear command from YHWH – “Do this, exactly this, and you will live” – and thereby a source of life?

OR is the serpent a threat to faithful living and an enemy of the truth and thereby an agent of death?

The answer, of course, is yes.  A literal reading of the Bible will give us answers that are diametrically opposed to each other when it comes to the question of what to do with bronze serpents.

But what if we read it another way?  What if the stories of the snake are the same, and in fact a single story?  What if in Numbers 21 the serpent is a symbol of trust and faith, and the people are encouraged to look to this symbol as a way of demonstrating their willingness to follow God’s leading?  And what if in II Kings 18, the snake becomes a warning against trusting in anything other than God – and in particular an indicator of the evil of worshiping a creature, rather than the Creator?

We can see this reading of Scripture fairly easily if – and only if – we are willing to step back from the words that are actually on the page and seek to learn the heart, spirit, and purpose of the One who inspired those words.

Listen: my call, your call, and the call to the entire assembly of God’s people is not to memorize a rule book and carry it around with us like some sort of ecclesiastical referees who will throw flags on people who deviate from our interpretation of that which someone understood God to be saying in his or her own context two languages, three continents, and two thousand years ago!

The call to God’s people now – as it was to those followers on the Galilean hillside in Jesus’ day is this: fulfill the Law and the prophets.  The role of the church is to make the Divine Intent visible, palpable, and present in our own day and age.  We cannot memorize it and pretend as if we live as a wandering group of exiles in the Bronze Age or a subjugated people in the Roman Empire.  We are called to discern where God is working in our own day and age and to bring the eternal truths of God’s purpose to light right here and right now.

The Bible is never a weapon, but it is always an invitation.  If I’m using scripture in order to beat someone up, then I’m using it incorrectly.

British theologian N. T. Wright has compared the Bible to the beginnings of a classic play by, say, William Shakespeare.  He writes,

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide…such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare…to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

…Among the detailed moves available within this model…is the possibility of seeing the five acts [of Scripture] as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well…of how the play is supposed to end.[2]

Do you get what he’s saying here?  That the Bible never pretends to tell all of God’s story – rather, it brings us up to where we enter into the story – and now it’s up to us to engage with both what has come before us as well as with what surrounds us and live with integrity and love.  We take the story that we have received seriously and lovingly, and then we live into our part of that story!

The Bible that I have loved for all my life is much more than a code of rules to follow or a script to memorize.  It is a story that engages me, equips me, challenges me, and transforms me. In reflecting on the power of story, one writer has said, “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”[3]

In thinking about the Bible this way, the late Rachel Held Evans said, “In those first, formative years of my life, before I knew or cared about culture wars or genre categories or biblical interpretation, this is what Scripture taught me: that a boat full of animals can survive a catastrophic flood, that seas can be parted and lions tamed, that girls can be prophets and warriors and queens, that a kid’s lunch of fish and bread can be multiplied to feed five thousand people.”[4]

The Bible isn’t here to make you feel bad about yourself or lead you to condemn your neighbor.  The Bible isn’t a self-help book that will tell me how to get to heaven in four easy steps.  The book that I love is a story – it’s The Story – that invites me to find new avenues to praise God and challenges me to look for places in our world where God is present and which calls me to live my life as an invitation to all of creation to live into God’s best each and every day.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] See A New Kind of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010), chapter 8.

[2] “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”, Liang Lecture at Regent College (Vancouver, BC, 1989) https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/0ec91-howcanthebiblebeauthoritative.pdf

[3] Neil Gaiman, Coraline (HarperCollins, 2002), epitaph.

[4] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nelson Books, 2018), p. xxi.

Changing My Mind: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

As the world struggles with the effects of COVID-19, and as the USA engages in one of the most vitriolic election seasons in history, I’ve been taking stock of the ways in which my life of faith has changed/grown/matured in the past three decades. I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in October of 1990, and every now and then I wonder what that kid would think of the person I’ve become. This series of messages is not intended to twist anyone else’s mind into thinking exactly the way that I think, but rather to indicate my core belief that a faith that is alive and growing will, of necessity, evolve and change. My hope is that in this series of sermons, I can model the fact that change is typical and growth is the normative state for followers of Jesus. On Sunday October 4 we considered the idea of the atonement – the death of Jesus. In so doing, we dwelled with these scriptures: Mark 14:17-26 and Hebrews 9:16-28.


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use this player:

To see the entire service as recorded on YouTube, please use this link:

https://youtu.be/24cok0hA1uo

In March of 1990, I was preparing for an examination known as the “oral parts of trial”.  Those who seek to be ordained as pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA) stand before a group of church leaders, read a statement of faith, and answer questions about it.  I was nervous – I’d been told that people were concerned that I was “too conservative”; there had been wrangling over some procedural issues as the Presbyterian Church was modifying its form of government, and I was anticipating a difficult examination.

The first question is the only one I remember.  A pastor stood and asked, “Would you please describe your theory of the atonement for this body?”  I couldn’t believe my good fortune!  This was a softball question – and in my haste to answer it correctly I tripped over my tongue.  “Why did Jesus have to die?”, I asked.  “I believe in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement,” I responded, knowing that I was in safe, well-defined territory.  That’s all I said, and it pleased the questioner.  There were other questions, and after about 20 minutes there was a vote, and, well, here I am.

As I mentioned last week, I’m inviting you to a series of messages I’m calling “Changing My Mind”, and any such conversation must include the ways that I have thought about the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Before I say more, I want to remind you that my goal here is to reflect on my own spiritual walk not because I expect your faith mirror my own, but because I am increasingly convinced that a stagnant, unchanging faith is a dead faith.  As we grow and mature as human beings the beliefs that we hold dearest will either inform and transform the people we are now OR they will be boxed up, lugged around for a while, and eventually ignored and forgotten.  To be blunt: this morning, I have no interest in seeking to convince you that I’ve got a corner on the truth when it comes to the theory of atonement or anything else.  I’m preaching these messages because it’s important for you to reflect on your understanding of the great mystery of our faith – to engage that mystery, and to claim the struggle as your own. 

Now, back to that day in 1990.  When I was asked to respond to the first question, I had a lot of theological cover when I cited the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.  For centuries, that has been a common, and certainly well-respected doctrine in the Presbyterian Church.  I’m sure that you’re familiar with it, even if you don’t recognize it by name.  It goes something like this: God created the world to be perfect and sinless.  However, human beings rebelled, and creation was marred by the intrusion of sin.  God, being perfectly and wholly good, cannot abide sin; because someone broke the rules and introduced sin, punishment must be inflicted.  After all, actions have consequences.  God punished the creation with death.

Jesus, the co-eternal child of God, was sent to step up to the plate and take the full wrath of God.  He, being perfect, did not deserve punishment, of course, but he willingly accepted it so that people like you and me could avoid the penalty of our own actions.  Jesus substituted his death for ours, and thereby satisfied the anger of God.  Now we are free to enter into eternal life.

This was not controversial when John Calvin was setting the foundations of the Presbyterian church, and it wasn’t controversial in 1990.  There was no way that the elders and pastors of New Castle Presbytery would pick me apart for that.  And, as I mentioned, I got through.  30 years ago this month, I was ordained to the ministry.  Yay.

But as I continued to walk with Jesus, at least three things started to get me thinking, and caused me to revisit my ability to embrace this penal substitutionary theory.

When I was ordained as a pastor, I started teaching confirmation classes to young followers of Jesus.  I have to say that is still one of my favorite aspects of ministry – spending time with people who are willing to ask big questions and engage in open-ended conversation.  Many of you have been in confirmation class with me, and you know that part of the drill is that students have to write a personal faith statement – a creed of their own – and read it to the elders.  

A few years after I was ordained, I had a class with seven confirmands in it.  When those young people went to work with their elder sponsors, they each came back with a draft creed.  You won’t be surprised to know that each of the seven statements included something like, “Jesus died for our sins” or “Jesus paid the penalty for our disobedience”.  Ok, that’s to be expected – it’s orthodoxy.  But I was dismayed to realize that not a single confirmand even mentioned the resurrection.  Were we, as a church, teaching that somehow the suffering and death of Jesus was more important than the life to which he guides us?  I was deeply troubled by a theology that emphasized punishment so strongly.

The second thing that shaped my thinking was the release, in 2004, of a movie entitled The Passion of the Christ.  My hunch is that you have heard of it.  This film, produced and directed by Mel Gibson, sought to portray the final twelve hours of Jesus’ earthly life.  It begins with the agony of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then depicts the betrayal by Judas, the scourging, imprisonment, and horrific death of Jesus on the cross.  The final scene indicates a resurrection, but that is clearly not the focus of the film.  The Passion of the Christ is the highest-grossing religious movie of all time.  According to Entertainment Weekly, it is the most controversial film of all time.  And it is also number one on Time magazine’s list of the most violent movies ever made.  

Like any good evangelical Christian in 2004, I went to see that movie.  And it raised huge questions for me – questions that climbed into the same sandbox as the questions in which my confirmation class experiences were already playing.

And the third major factor that contributed to my re-evaluation of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement was this: I started burying your children. There was one stretch some years back where I believe that I conducted nine funerals in a row for people who were younger than I was (I know I’m old now, but I was young when I started burying children).  These are kids who perished in fires, or who were struck by automobiles; young people who overdosed or who died by suicide; there have accidents and horrific diseases and suffering that I could not have imagined.

In the past thirty years I have spent a great deal of time with parents and grandparents who have been broken and shattered by grief.  While I have not known that pain as intimately as some of you, I have seen enough to know that it is excruciatingly unbearable, and that one would not wish such evil on one’s worst enemy.

And yet here’s the deal: the classic penal substitutionary theory of atonement is built on the idea that the most salient feature of God’s identity is his willingness to unleash his wrath on his own innocent son.  God is so angry about sin that somebody has to pay for it, and things won’t be right until that account is completely settled.  Jesus is such a good guy that he volunteers to take the heat.  God’s wrath is satisfied, your sin is forgiven, and now you get to go to heaven and be with God who, thankfully, isn’t nearly as steamed as he used to be.  

Do you see? After decades of standing at the graves of children who died violently, I cannot bring myself to worship someone who would do that to his own child.  And thanks be to God, I do not.

Elton Trueblood was a Quaker author and theologian of the last century, and one of his most profound insights was this: “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.”[1]

I have always been taught that Jesus is like God.  Jesus teaches me something about the character of God, and must resemble God in some way.  Like father, like son, right?  But Trueblood has helped me to see that it’s far more powerful, for me, to look in the other direction.  God is like Jesus.  Whatever there is that is lovely, true, amazing, and inspiring about Jesus – is in God, too.

Let’s talk about Jesus for a moment. The title of this message is a trick question.  Why did Jesus have to die?  He didn’t.  Jesus didn’t have to die.

Jesus was betrayed by someone whom he had counted as a friend and then he was murdered by people that he loved.  He didn’t just “die”.  He was killed.

And after this tragic event, his friends did what you and I have done far too often: they sat around and they tried to make sense out of it.  We know how this goes, beloved, don’t we?  Something terrible happens and then we retrace our steps, we re-think our narratives, and we try to figure out some possible universe in which this makes sense.

And the universe in which the friends of Jesus dwelled was one that was shaped by a culture of blood sacrifice.  The entire letter to the Hebrews is an attempt to look at the death of Jesus in the context of a culture that had been shaped by offerings and sacrifices and deaths.  They took this experience that they shared – the horror of Jesus’ death – and they used the words and ideas that they knew to find a way for it to make sense.

And because our culture is removed from theirs, when we read their words and their ideas, there’s a chance that we can take them out of context.  Beloved: pay attention: If there’s one thing I know – or anyone who’s ever heard me preach, for that matter knows, it’s this: I might be wrong.  

But here’s how I see it now: Jesus didn’t have to die.  Jesus sacrificed himself.  Jesus endured the death on the cross not so that God would like him, or you, or me any better, but as a way of demonstrating the bankruptcy of violence and power-mongering as the center of our existence.

Listen: God was not out in the streets of Jerusalem clamoring for a crucifixion. We were.

God did not require the blood of the innocent.  We did.

The God that I have come to recognize in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s child Jesus of Nazareth is a God who suffers, who forgives, who aches at injustice and cares for the poor and loves the enemy.  The God that I have come to love more deeply than ever is a God who is willing to suffer violence undeservedly.  Remember that as Jesus died, he whispered, “Forgive.”

The defining attribute of this God whom I serve is not anger or wrath: it is love. The message of the cross is not “I’m angry, and somebody’s got to pay for this”.  Jesus did not come in order to change God’s mind about whether to accept your miserable self.  Jesus came to reveal God’s heart of love and mercy to you and to me.

In his book A More Christlike God, Bradley Jersak invites his readers to a very helpful distinction.  He says that the crucifixion is “the sinful act of evil men who tortured and murdered the Son of God.”  The cross, on the other hand, is the “self-giving, servant-love of Christ, in which his blood symbolizes his mercy and forgiveness poured out onto the world.”  Jersak goes on to say that “the crucifixion is what we did to him – we took his life.  The cross is what Christ did for us – he gave his life.”

God the Father “is not a co-conspirator in the crucifixion of his own Son, nor does he get any pleasure out of betrayal, punishment, and killing.  Rather, the significance of the Cross is that [as Paul says to his friends in Corinth] ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself… by graciously, mercifully, ‘not counting our sins against us’” and by overcoming death and evil on our behalf.[2]  

I’m glad that I was in that room in 1990.  But I’m also glad that I’m not still there.  I’m grateful for the folks who have helped me to learn and my faith to grow.  And today it brings me incomparable joy to say to you that nothing you have ever done is beyond the resurrection reach of Jesus.  You are invited to the feast, set for you.  Come and share in the giving, sacrificial, sustaining, empowering love of God – the love for which you were intended and with which you are surrounded right now.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Quoted in Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2010), p. 114.

[2] From A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (Plain Truth Ministries, 2015), chapter 5.  https://books.google.com/books?id=1I2xDwAAQBAJ

Changing My Mind: The Job Description

As the world struggles with the effects of COVID-19, and as the USA engages in one of the most vitriolic election seasons in history, I’ve been taking stock of the ways in which my life of faith has changed/grown/matured in the past three decades.  I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in October of 1990, and every now and then I wonder what that kid would think of the person I’ve become.  This series of messages is not intended to twist anyone else’s mind into thinking exactly the way that I think, but rather to indicate my core belief that a faith that is alive and growing will, of necessity, evolve and change.  My hope is that in this series of sermons, I can model the fact that change is typical and growth is the normative state for followers of Jesus.  On Sunday September 23 we dwelled with these scriptures: John 12:20-22 and Romans 14:10-13.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use this player:

We experienced some technical difficulties during worship.  To see a YouTube recording of the first 40 minutes of worship, please use this link:

To see the balance of worship (after a few moments of frustrating silence…) use this link:

It was a long, long time ago.

There was a death in my community.  The person who died was not a particularly pleasant man; he was not known for treating his family well or for his service in the community.  I had never known him to speak an encouraging word about anyone else.  Mostly, it seemed to me, he was just mean.

And I was in an interesting and awkward place.  I was, in some ways, a “professional” Christian.  I was a spiritual leader, but I had not yet been ordained as a pastor.  When the death occurred, I got wind that someone had said, “Well, what about Dave? Let’s get Dave to lead the funeral.”

When I heard this, my gut response was, “No! No! A thousand times, NO!”  My unwillingness to speak was not due to nerves, or to an uncompromising commitment to church regulations.  I didn’t want to speak at that man’s funeral because I didn’t want to tell the truth.

I knew that the man who died didn’t believe in God and didn’t have time for the church.  He’d spoken dismissively of faith to me.  That being the case, it was obvious to my much-younger self that he was clearly rotting in the depths of Hell at that very moment.  After all, if there was one thing I “knew” back then, it was that people who die without believing in Jesus go to Hell.  How could I stand in front of that man’s family and the community I loved and pronounce a truth like that?  On the other hand, how could I stand up in front of a group and say anything other than the truth?

I’m not sure what was said at the funeral, because I made sure that I was unavailable for it simply to ensure that I would not have to speak.  I’m not proud of that.

You see, when I was a young man, I was convinced that the job description for every Christian, and particularly for pastors, was simple: learn the truth, know the truth, and then drill it into others.  Unflinchingly, uncompromisingly, we were called to proclaim all of the right ideas.  On top of that, if we had a sense that someone we knew had some of the “wrong” ideas, well, we were commissioned by Jesus himself to make sure that these lost sheep knew how wrong they were and the eternal implications of that wrongness.  Love meant badgering people to accept the one truth as I proclaimed it until they either came to accept it or they shut me out of their lives. If a friend came to agree with me, then I’d feel really faithful and a little morally superior for having “won them over”.  If someone began to shun me, then I’d shake the proverbial dust off my feet and remember that they persecuted the prophets of old and still find a way to feel morally superior.

Just to be clear: I don’t think like that anymore.

My mind has changed.  I think differently now, particularly when it comes to matters of faith and practice, than I did forty, or twenty, or five years ago.  There are a lot of reasons for that, and in the weeks to come I’m going to invite you to explore some of these areas with me.  I don’t intend to spend a lot of time cringing in shame or engaging in self-flagellation.  I sure don’t want to argue with, shame, or abuse anyone who disagrees with me (now or then).

No, the reason I’m going to have these conversations in the context of worship is because I’m still committed to honesty, and I think that I need to be transparent and articulate, to the best of my ability, who I am today, and why.  I want to walk down these paths because I must affirm that if the heart of the Christian faith is the ability to embrace a set of ideas or intellectual propositions, then I have failed miserably.

I believe that Christianity is a relationship in which one grows and develops organically.  If I’m right, then it would be logical to assume that stagnation is fatal.  If I can’t change, I can’t grow; if I can’t grow, then I die.

I was so committed to getting this Christianity business “right” that I didn’t want to go to school to be trained in the ministry.  Whereas many of the pastors you know find the path to ordination to be fairly straightforward – a three-year course of post-graduate study, this guy wound up enrolling in four different seminaries over the course of more than 8 years.  I did that because I was already engaged in ministry, and I didn’t want to stop what I was doing in order learn better how to do it.

In one of my introductory classes, the professor said that the purpose of theological education was to invite the student to unclench the fist that had closed around whatever the student’s idea of “truth” was in order to examine and explore that truth.  I remember mentally sneering at that man, thinking, “Not on your life, pal.  I know how you liberals operate.  I know what I believe, I know what’s true, and no new-age, wishy-washy relativist is going to talk me out of it.”

You see, I grew up thinking that the job description for Christians was to be a defender of the faith.  In a world where truth is always under attack and erosion of morals is certain, Jesus needs people like you and me to stick up for him.  Whether it’s the high school kid who argues with his science teacher about evolution or global warming or the middle-age parent who is concerned about “the kinds of people” who are allowed to teach school these days, Christians have to be vigilant against secularists because if we’re not, well, the whole enterprise might just crumble.

So I thought that when I became a pastor I would wind up acting much like a docent in the museum.  People come in and want to know the answers, and the docent’s job is to guide people from display to display, patiently explaining to onlookers what the diorama – the unchanging, immovable display behind the glass – is all about.  Docents are equipped to provide a great deal of detail, lots of answers, and to impart knowledge.  That was where I thought I was heading.

But I have to tell you that the more I hung around with Jesus – and I have to tell you, full disclosure, that I really, really love Jesus – the more I came to realize that Jesus didn’t see himself as a docent.  When his friends acted in this way, he challenged and corrected them.  When his opponents behaved like that in the name of God, he called them out on it.

And so gradually, I came to see my role, and the role of any Christian friend, really, to be less of a docent and more of a guide.  I’ve had the privilege of spending time with a great many guides in my life, but when I think of it in this way I am always indebted to a man named Fino – a young man from Brazil whom I met in Peru ten years ago.  My wife, daughter, and I were privileged to spend a little better than a week in the heart of the Amazon basin, and we canoed upriver with Fino to a small camp where every day he would lead us on a trek into the rain forest.  Now, make no mistake, Fino was a man who had done a lot of research; I’m sure that he’s forgotten more about birds than I’ll ever learn.  If we had questions, he would help us to discover some answers, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t learn a ton from him.

But here’s the deal: Fino’s goal was not to impress me with how smart he was or how ignorant I was; he wasn’t seeking to make sure that I knew that he was observant and committed and capable. No, it was clear that Fino’s main goal was to help Sharon, Ariel, and me to fall in love with the planet, including its birds, its fish, its animals, and its plants.

And so Fino showed me how to look.  He taught me something about listening.  He encouraged me to wonder.  He trained me in the proper use of my camera and other equipment.  He asked me questions, told me jokes, and forced me to learn new and sometimes uncomfortable lessons.  In short, Fino wanted to maximize my experience in the rain forest and not merely impress me with his, or somehow make sure that my time in the jungle was exactly the same as his time there.  Fino didn’t try to explain the rain forest to me – he invited me to walk with him through it.

The Gospels describe in significant detail the last week of Jesus’ life. From what we can tell, it would appear that on the Tuesday of that week, a couple of days after what we now call “The Triumphal Entry”, a couple of outsiders track down one of Jesus’ disciples.  These folks are described only as “Greeks”, and I’d like to suggest that they are given this identity because the author of John wants us to see them as being different in just about every conceivable way from the religious insiders and leaders who have scoffed at and dismissed Jesus and who, indeed, would eventually press for his execution.  These “Greeks” approach Philip with a simple request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

These folks didn’t ask for a doctrinal statement; they didn’t request a system of belief or a code of ethical conduct.  They wanted the opportunity to meet, experience, and connect personally with the Lord of life – they wanted to meet Jesus for themselves.

Philip immediately reached out to the only other disciple of Jesus who had a Greek name, Andrew, and they sprang into action.  Look at what they did not do: they did not tell these visitors a lot of Jesus stories, or sign them up to be followers of Jesus on Twitter or Instagram, or try to explain to them how difficult it might be to get a few moments alone with the Master.  No.  Look at what they did: the did all that they could to facilitate a meeting.  They sought to bring these “Greeks” into the presence of Jesus.

About two months later, Philip and Andrew and the rest of the disciples, except for Judas, were still in Jerusalem, reeling from the conviction, execution, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. While they were laying low, the Holy Spirit came upon them and filled them with words in languages that they didn’t know that they knew, and they were sent out into the streets to invite people who had never heard of Jesus to come and recognize him and meet him through the power of their own changed lives.

A generation later, as the first followers of Jesus are dying out either due to old age or persecution, one of the most articulate of Jesus’ apostles – a man named Paul – writes to a group of people in Rome who claimed to be followers of Jesus.  He is frustrated because in spite of poor treatment from the Jewish authorities, persecution from the Roman government, and other difficulties being faced by the young church, these folks in Rome were still finding the time and energy to argue about what kinds of meat a “true” Christ-follower should eat.  As if the source of protein intake was the most pressing issue that the church faced at that time…

And Paul writes, simply, to let that ship sail.  There are more important things to worry about, he says.  He points out that followers of Jesus are called to orient ourselves toward that which is Holy, and we are not called to sit in judgment on one another.

Oh, beloved, how I wish that Philip, Andrew, and Paul were here today.  How hard it is in the year of our Lord 2020 to see so much posturing and accusing amongst those who claim to love and follow Jesus!

Let me ask you to do this today, dear friends.  Think back.  What was it that drew you close to God?  Have there been times in your life when you have sensed the presence and the power and the love of the Christ?  I may be wrong, but I would suspect that your most intimate experience of the Risen Savior was not taking place while someone was explaining to you the only proper way to experience the fullness of God’s love.  Let me invite you to remember how it felt to be steeped in the awareness of the Presence, and then let me ask you to live invitationally.  That is to say, to seek to engage the world around you in a way that points to the depth of your experience with Jesus, and not to the philosophical or logical propositions that got you there.  The first followers of Jesus were called to be winsome and gracious and welcoming, and they motivated primarily by example rather than argument.

Don’t get me wrong: I have some rather strong opinions as to which policies and procedures and practices that I think are best to follow – but I do not want to judge you because you disagree with me.

And as we continue in this series of sermons for the next few weeks, I’d like to ask you to invest some time and energy pondering the question of how YOUR mind has changed in the past five or ten years.  How has your understanding of faithful discipleship and practice evolved lately?  Where are you growing, and how?  Or are you holding onto something that someone else handed you a lifetime ago, unwilling to allow anyone to question you and afraid to examine that faith for yourself?

If there has been no change in your life of faith in the past five or ten years, then I’d suggest that you give that faith of yours a poke.  If it hasn’t moved in years, then it might be dead.

If that’s the case – if you find that you’re holding onto a batch of ideas and a philosophical system that is crushing you, and not bringing you life – if you are afraid that maybe your faith is dead… well, I’m not entirely sure that I can tell you what to do.

If your faith seems stale and lifeless, there’s nothing I can say that will explain new life into your situation.

But I know a guy, and, well, resurrections are kind of his thing.  Let me encourage you to bring all of this to Jesus.  And see what he will do in you and through you.  Thanks be to God who does not call us to be defenders or describers or those who sit in judgment, but rather who invites us to follow, experience, and share in the new life that Jesus offers.  Amen.

Hanging In and Holding On

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through the the red-hot mess that is 2020. At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey has been the New Testament book of James, and we concluded that journey on September 20 as we heard James’ closing words for the church scattered around the world.  Our texts included James 5:7-20 and Isaiah 35:1-4

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

The entire worship service in which this message was preached may be viewed below.

Several years ago, a number of friends and I were invited to a party.  Do you remember those things? Back in the day, people sent out invitations and asked folks to come into their homes, in a group, and share food, laughter, and conversation.  Ahhh, good times.

Anyway, this particular celebration was an all-day, drop-in affair – an open house of sorts.  Because it was some distance away, a group of about 8 of us agreed to carpool.  As we drove to the home, we discussed the fact that each of us wanted to be there, but nobody wanted to be there all day.  I said that Sharon and I, having been married for decades, have developed a little code to signal each other when it’s time to go; I suggested that we try to figure out a way to communicate in the larger group when we thought it was appropriate to exit – but to do so in a way that didn’t offend or embarrass our host.  After a few moments, Carly said, “Dave, when one of us is ready to leave, we’ll ask you about visiting your grandchildren.  If someone says, ‘So, have you been to Ohio lately?’, that’s the clue to move toward the van.” It worked like a charm.

You have codes like that with people with whom you’re close.  You know when your friend is getting ready to end the conversation, or when your spouse is getting on their last nerve, or when the preacher is coming to the end of the sermon.  Everybody does.

And so you’re not surprised when I tell you that in the first century, when people like Paul and John and James were writing the letters that formed the New Testament, there were usually some common indicators that the author was moving toward a conclusion.  Paul often shifts from matters in the community he’s addressing and mentions his plans for the upcoming season; sometimes the author will call out certain individuals by name, or add a stylized farewell.

Yet the letter of James doesn’t have any of these indicators.  There are no signs of familiarity or personal PS’s.  And, if you stop to think about it, and remember what we said back at the beginning of this study, that makes sense.  Do you recall that we said that James is a “catholic” epistle?  That doesn’t mean it’s written only to Roman Catholics, but rather it’s addressed to everyone.  James didn’t know his audience personally – he just sends out this letter in the hopes that someone, somewhere will find it to be of encouragement in growing as a follower of Jesus.

So if James doesn’t use any of the “normal” tells, how does he wrap things up?  He moves toward his conclusion by seeking to echo some of the prominent themes with which he began his message.  In the last few weeks we read stern challenges from James on some pretty hot topics.  He warned the entire Christian community about dealing appropriately with conflict, seeking justice, and living gracefully; now he concludes by softening his tone and shifting to an empathetic voice.  He does so with a series of direct imperatives, saying essentially, “be patient, be trustworthy, and be connected.”

The first of these imperatives is emphasized in verses 7-11, where he highlights the importance of perseverance and endurance.  In using Job as an illustration, he is giving voice to the very profound cry of suffering people everywhere; each of us has faced the temptation to ask, “Does God even see what is happening here?” When times are difficult, it’s easy to wonder if God has forgotten us.  Sometimes, it’s even harder, and we (or those we love) ask, “What if God does see what is happening here, but just doesn’t care about it?”

In his exhortation to be patient, the author of James reminds his readers – whoever they may be – to take the long view.  He invites them to look back hundreds of years, and encourages them to trust that the same One who has guided the journey thus far has not left us.

James of Jerusalem

The next section of this chapter is fairly brief – a single verse exhorting those who would follow Jesus to be trustworthy.  The author of James makes the rather obvious point that if someone is in the habit of saying every now and then something like, “Look, I swear that this is true!”, that would seem to indicate that there’s a real possibility that some of the other things that person says are untrue.  It only makes sense, right?  If you have come to see me as someone who is a person of integrity, then I don’t need to say, “No, seriously, this is true.  I’m not lying.  Listen to this.”  Instead, you’ll hear what I say and it won’t occur to you to doubt my word.

Some people in our world have taken this verse quite literally, and when entering a public office or beginning service on a jury, these people refuse to use the words “I solemnly swear” and instead say, “I solemnly affirm…”  I respect that, but I’m not sure that the point of the author here.  Rather, I think that James is simply saying that it’s tough enough in the world without having to wonder if you can count on the integrity of the people with whom you’re sharing the journey.  His plea is simple: live like someone who can be trusted.

The longest exhortation in this section is a call for the church of Jesus Christ to remain connected one to another, even during difficult times.  Perhaps you remember that when we started this series of messages I told you that the author of this letter had a nickname: he was called “Old Camel-knees”.  This moniker came from the fact that James spent so much time in prayer that his knees developed callouses on them and reminded his friends of the joints in a camel’s legs.

Remember, we are assuming that James didn’t know any of the recipients of this letter – but he knows enough about the power of prayer and the nature of community to implore his readers to make sure that they were connected to each other in real and honest relationships.

And note that he calls the church to be in prayer in every season.  There are times when I ask someone, “How can I be in prayer for you this week?”, and my friend will look a little bit embarrassed and reply by saying, “Oh, no, Dave, I’m good.  I can’t think of anything I need right now,” as if prayer is sort of like your Amazon wish list.  If you have everything you need, there’s nothing on the list; but if you’re lacking something, then you throw it out there.

James highlights the fact that prayer is the appropriate response to every circumstance of life. Are you having a rough day? Then pray about it.  Maybe you can’t imagine life being any better right now. Then pray about it. Has your world been rocked by illness? Then pray about it.

James spends some time talking specifically about acts of confession – a suggestion that was just as countercultural then as it is today.  The wording here suggests that while it’s probably helpful to spend some time naming the specific sin that has damaged my life or my witness, it is as important, or even moreso, to recognize the ways that we participate in sin collectively.

I encountered, with great admiration, the practice of this discipline the first time I went to South Sudan.  We were visiting refugee camps and witnessing the horrors of war and slavery and tribalism and genocide, and the leaders of the church there began just about every worship service or prayer meeting with a public confession that these great evils did not occur in a vacuum, but rather they insisted that they, collectively, had settled for less than God’s best – and that had come to see the fruit that was killing them or those that they loved.

I see that same understanding in a recent book by Jim Wallis, in which he calls racism “America’s original sin”.  Yet so often when we are confronted with a structural evil, we flee to the land of individualism and we declare our own personal virtue in a land where other people are stained.  When I was a kid I went to camp where there was a game we played in the dining hall after meals where tables would challenge each other with chants and rhymes.  One that sticks in my memory is “There ain’t no flies on us! There ain’t no flies on us! There might be flies on some of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on us!”

That made for fun at camp, but it’s lousy theology.  There’s not a person hearing my voice who is unstained by the sin of racism, or sexism, or greed, or… well, you get the idea. And James says that growing in the practice of confession is one way to liberate all of us from the effects of those evils.

He goes on to expand this thought to make sure that the readers know he’s talking about praying together.  Again, he’s not knocking the folks who have a nightly ritual that may include “Now I lay me down to sleep…”, but he is affirming the fact that praying with other people is a way of empowering and encouraging each other in difficult times.  In a few moments, I’ll ask for prayer concerns, and some of you in the room may offer a name; others online may post a comment about a particular situation.  When we do this, as simple as it is, we are taking steps to break the silence and the isolation of those who may feel as though they are suffering alone.  When your community takes the initiative to reach out to you with prayerful concern, it’s a way of noticing your pain and saying that you matter; it helps each of us develop the empathy of Christ, and we can remember that we are all in this together.

In doing so, James refers to one of the most highly-revered prophets of his own tradition, Elijah (who is mentioned nearly three dozen times in the New Testament).  And he refers to Elijah by reminding his readers that this great prophet of God was a human being, just like us.  James seeks to make Elijah’s story more accessible to the “normal” people who are reading this letter by saying that the prophet was not some sort of a spiritual rock star, but rather an ordinary person who grew in his ability to be present to God and neighbor.  And I love the fact that the book of James says, “Elijah was a human being like us.”  Right there, the author is himself identifying with the reader of the letter; in simple and open humility this is a way of saying, “Look – never forget, and don’t allow each other to forget – that we are all in this together.”

And then there is the closing.  In the final sentences of this letter, James takes the reader all the way back to the first sentence. In James 1:1 we understand that “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” is writing to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.”  The letter begins by acknowledging that the world is a fragmented, lonely, and sometimes dangerous place – and we are often torn from each other or tempted to isolation.  The Christian community then – as it is in 2020 – was scattered, often uncomfortable, and sometimes maybe even unseen.  In his last breath to the churches of the first century, the brother of Jesus implores the followers of Christ to be on the lookout for one another. We have to find ways to stay connected, even when it’s difficult.  We must not give up on each other.

It’s easy – too easy – to think, “You know what? That guy has been on my last nerve one too many times.  I’m done with him.  He’s dead to me.  I am sick and tired.”  We delete, or unfriend, or block, or forget.  And in so doing, in many cases, we leave that person (or ourselves) hanging out to dry.  James calls us to remember that’s not how life in the Kingdom is supposed to be.

The church is not our idea. We did not wake up this morning and decide to get together with a bunch of people that we like, and with whom we agree on everything, in order to form a club and pursue the kinds of things that interest us.  We heard a call.  We received an invitation.  We showed up.

And when we did, we found the rest of this crew.  And, in lots of ways, we’re stuck with each other.

We don’t get to choose who’s in the church.  And yet each of us, every day, makes a decision about how we will treat each other.

Beloved, take it from “Old Camel-knees”: look for ways to engage with each other patiently, honestly, and prayerfully.  These days are long days, and the developing awareness of systemic racism, the implacable advance of the coronavirus, the vitriol surrounding the election, and the uncertainty of our economy are all making every day seem even longer.  And right now, I guarantee you, someone is asking, “Does God even see me?”  Or maybe even, “Does God see me and just not care about me?”

Remember that you are not alone.

Remember that you will not always get it right.

Remember that I won’t always get it right.

And remind the people around you of these truths, again and again.  In fact, I might even suggest that the one thing that the church is called to do is to become that signal or cue that lets the people around you know that you know where they are, and that God knows where they are, and that nobody is in this place by themselves.

Thanks be to God, who calls us together, and who sends us out – to each other, with each other, and into the world. Amen!

Lives That Matter

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through the the red-hot mess that is 2020. At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on September 13 as we heard James’ lament for his community in James 5:1-6. We also sought to be attentive to Proverbs 31:1-9.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below:

To see the entire worship service, please use the YouTube player, below

I preached my first sermon when I was sixteen years old.  I’ve been an ordained pastor for three decades.  And today, I’m breaking new ground in preaching from Proverbs 31.  I’ve never been here before.

There are a number of reasons for that, but to be honest the truth is that I’m not really crazy about this book.  In some ways, Proverbs is the “fortune cookie” book of the Bible. There are lots of wise sayings, an alarming percentage of which are about avoiding loose women and strong drink; most of the book is attributed to a man who’s the very personification of wisdom, King Solomon of Jerusalem… but my main reaction to Proverbs has been, well… meh.

And I surely wasn’t planning to preach Proverbs in conjunction with the series on the Letter from James, but I came across this passage from the last chapter in the book and I was captivated.

We’re told that these are the words of King Lemuel.  OK, that sounds good to me.  I mean, I don’t know who Lemuel was, but that’s a pretty Bible-y name for a king.  You’ve got Ahaz, Hezekiah, Solomon, Rehoboam… why not Lemuel?  It seems to fit.

Except that neither Israel nor Judah ever had a king named Lemuel.  There is some evidence that an Arabian people called the Massa were led by someone named Lemuel, but the Massa were descendants of Ishmael, which means that by Old Testament standards, anyway, they didn’t play for our team.

“Lemuel and his Mother,” by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1922)

So we’re not sure who Lemuel was, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter because the text that we have was not written by him, but rather his mother – a woman whose name has been lost to history.  Why does that matter? Because it is very rare for a woman to have an authoritative voice in the culture in which the book of Proverbs was written, but here she gets, essentially, a by-line.

The one exception to the “women should be seen and not heard” policy seemed to be when a queen mother was given a voice during a period of transition or disruption.  For instance, if the king were to die, and the child was not quite mature enough to rule, the child’s mother would be granted permission to help inform policy.  There are examples of this in several Middle Eastern cultures, particularly Egyptian.  The queen mother was invited or expected to make some comments of a didactic nature and that became a formal charge to the young king.

And here’s something else: Proverbs 31:1-9 are the only commands in this book to be directed to the leader of God’s people. The rest of the book is wise sayings from the king.  This is a charge to the king.

So here’s the deal: when the people of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, started sorting out what was scripture and what wasn’t, somebody went to great lengths to make sure that this wisdom from a woman who was outside of the community was incorporated into the Bible and passed down as a word from God.  Now, see, that’s saying something.  It is more than a little surprising to hear Lemuel’s mother’s voice as the Word of the Lord.  And yet, here we are.

So what does it say? You heard it: essentially this charge from Lemuel’s mother indicates that those who have more power, authority, and resources than others are charged to yield their privilege to whose who possess less power, authority, or wealth.

But there’s more.  There is a sense here that Lemuel’s mother is charging him to make sure that nothing so clouds his judgment that he forgets who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing.  If people in positions of power, authority, and privilege lose sight of their call to be godly, well, bad things will happen. Injustice will emerge.  Pain and misery will prevail.  The role of those with great privilege, according to the Scripture, is to stand in solidarity with those who are at risk, to amplify the voice of the marginalized, and to attend to those who suffer by addressing the causes of that suffering.

It’s important for us to remember this morning that all of this advice is coming from an unlikely source: a woman who, under normal circumstances, would not be heard for a number of reasons.  A woman at whom people would nod and smile… but to whom they would not listen.  However, because there is a season of change, or loss, or grief, or tumult, this woman’s voice is heard, her wisdom is recognized, and her warnings are recorded.

The “oracle that King Lemuel’s mother taught him” was born in what we might call a “liminal season” – a time between that which has been previously known and that which is still to come.  The Latin word limen means “threshold” – the strip of wood or stone that is underneath a doorway leading from outside to inside, or one room to another.  Liminality implies a crossing over; if we were to say that someone was experiencing a liminal season, we would be implying that they had left something behind and yet had not fully arrived in their new place.  You know something about liminal seasons.

You know that hardly anyone likes the feeling of liminality.  It’s exhausting.  Frustrating.  Chaotic.  And yet, it is often the space in our lives where it’s easiest to recognize and participate in the work of the Holy One.

And as we continue to read through the Book of James, we acknowledge that this book, like the book of Proverbs, belongs to the “Wisdom Tradition” of literature – and it is a voice that comes out of a liminal space.

Here’s what I mean.  The first followers of Jesus thought that because Jesus was Jewish, that they, too, were Jewish.  But as time went by, the leaders within the Jewish tradition looked at these Christ-followers and said, essentially, “not so fast.”  The early Christians, as we’ve heard in previous weeks, began to experience persecution and oppression from both religious and governmental authorities. James is writing to help them make sense of this, and to follow in the Jesus way in a time of uncertainty and change.  So far in this letter, he’s offered words of encouragement, compassion, and tenderness.  He’s issued teachings about responsibility and godly conduct as well as a call to humility and the avoidance of arrogance.  James challenges his readers’ selfishness and pride.

And in today’s reading, the author of this letter launches into a blistering condemnation of people who claim that they are following Jesus but whose conduct reveals an ignorance of the things about which Lemuel’s mother worried and of which Jesus taught.  He describes a reality in which some people have far more than they could ever use – the piles of clothes that are literally rotting away, the precious metals that are gathering dust and tarnish, and a general picture of people who dwell in superlative abundance, in ignorance, and in selfish bliss.

Verse 4 begins with an exclamation: “Listen!”  There is a warning for God’s people to pay attention to the cries for justice with which they are surrounded and to take advantage of the liminal season in which they find themselves as an opportunity to create new patterns of faithful living.  James echoes the words of Proverbs as he pleads for justice for workers and freedom for the oppressed.  He calls his sisters and brothers to recognize their positions of privilege and to yield that privilege for the sake of the larger community.

Perhaps this is one of the scriptures of which Pope John Paul II was thinking when he wrote that the goal of the Christian is not to have “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of many people, both near and far,” but rather “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, the good of all and of each individual, because we really are responsible for all.”[1]  He’s not wrong.

And that, beloved, brings me to today.  This week I was privileged to spend some time with a young person who was trying to process the train wreck that is the year of our Lord 2020.  This person moaned, “Why does saying ‘Black lives matter’ have to be a political statement?  Shouldn’t that just be obvious to everyone?”

Had my young friend possessed more patience and energy for a burst of Pastor Dave’s wisdom, I’d have explained that it is a very political statement because “politics” is simply the way that people who live in groups make decisions.  Politics is all about coming to an agreement about the way that we choose to live in our tribe, our city, or our country.  So yes, “Black lives matter” is a political statement.

And if I was granted even more time with this frustrated young person, I’d have gone on to say that while BLM – Black lives matter, blue lives matter, or babies’ lives matter – are all political statements, they need not be partisan statements.  As a body politic, we need to recognize the worth of each life.

And yet in this liminal season that is the great pandemic of 2020 it has become apparent that too many people, particularly people who have been invested with authority and power, have been living as if Black lives matter less than non-Black lives.  In too many places, Black and Brown life is cheap.  It’s not considered to be as consequential as White life. And that, my friends, is an abomination to the Creator and Author of all life.

This season of pandemic, tension, unrest, and dis-ease has opened for many of us who are not Black or Brown some glimpses into the struggles of those who are.  We have seen grave injustice and great violence in ways that are often horrifying.  And some of what we have seen and sensed has provoked even greater unrest, disorder, and pain.

This is, beloved, truly a liminal season.  Nobody wants to be where we are. We want to move.  We want to get out of this place… but to where?

The temptation to which many of my friends have given voice is simple: “Take me back.  Can’t we just go back to the good old days? A return to ‘law and order’, or ‘common decency’, or ‘respect’?”

Many of the people that I love dearly believe that our call is to return our nation, our culture, our polis to some former glory or state of being.  And I ask them, “How far back should we go?  To the days when women were prohibited from voting? To the years when entire communities were redlined, making it impossible for people of color to purchase their own homes? To the era of ‘Jim Crow’, where non-whites were expected to ‘know their place’? To the time – which happens to be today – when 30 states in the USA have no law against involuntary “conversion therapy”, a horrific attempt to use pseudoscientific practices to change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation?”

And if I ask that question, a look of shock and panic comes to my friends and they almost always say, “No, Dave! Geez, that’s not what I mean.  But it’s just so hard now.  It seems like everything is up for grabs, and it’s so hard to have to think through and decide everything.  I just want it to be back to normal.  I’m worn out, Dave.  I’m exhausted.”

Yes.  Yes, you are.  So am I.

And so are the women, the people of color, and the LGBTQ people whom God loves.  It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s not just to expect that my neighbor will want to retreat to my “normal” simply because I had grown comfortable with my neighbor’s oppression or dis-ease.

The call of the Gospel is to enter into this liminal space and to allow the new thing that Christ is doing to unfold, and to participate in that new thing to the end that the love, peace, grace, justice, and mercy of Jesus will extend more deeply into the lives of the people with whom I share my life.

Spiritual Director and author Richard Rohr puts it this way:

To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold”…where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence… It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.

Some native peoples call liminal space “crazy time.” I believe that the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time. Instead, religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old “normal” can occur. Much of my criticism of religion comes about when I see it not only affirming the system of normalcy but teaching folks how to live there comfortably. Cheap religion teaches us how to live contentedly in a sick world…[2]

Beloved, this has nothing to do with partisanship.  This has everything to do with politics – the ways we decide to live together.  Can we choose to listen, to learn, and to act with love?  Can we agree that we are going to treasure the lives that have been too often devalued?  Can we work to construct a society where the intentions of the Creator are evident by the ways that we treat each other?

Thanks be to God, who is merciful and just even as we struggle to find meaning in these confusing and liminal times. Amen.

[1] Sollicitudo rei socialis encyclical, 1987.  Quoted in Plough Quarterly, Autumn 2020 p. 4.

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), pp. 155-156, quoted in https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation–Liminal-Space.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=jd48qU30R0U

Civil War

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through the the red-hot mess that is 2020. At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and after a few weeks’ hiatus due to pastoral vacation, we continued that journey on September 6 as we heard the challenges contained in James 4.  We also sought to be attentive to Psalm 131.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, visit the sites below:

To see most of the service, including the sermon, it’s here

The remainder of worship is here:

As I begin the message this morning, I want to extend a special welcome to the members and friends from the McKeesport Presbyterian Church.  As I mentioned earlier, this congregation is in the midst of a pastoral transition and they’ll be joining our streamed worship services for a while. It’s been my pleasure to visit that congregation on occasion, but the last time that I was there was years ago.  It’d be a stretch for me to say that I’m deeply connected with what’s happening there, or intimately aware of people’s lives.

Likewise, it’d be absurd for anyone in McKeesport to hear anything that is said in this sermon and interpret it as a personal attack.  To be honest, I’m not sure who’s paying attention, and I don’t know enough about anyone’s situation to call out anyone individually.

I say all this because as we continue to read through the letter of James in the New Testament, we have to remember that he did not know his audience.  You might recall that we said that James is one of the “catholic epistles”, meaning that this church leader wrote down a few ideas and sent it out to as many communities as he could in the hopes of encouraging someone. It would be preposterous for someone in, say, Antioch, to read this letter and say, “Wow! Did you hear what James said about Sosthenes?  He totally ripped that guy apart!”  James doesn’t know who is receiving these words.

Instead, James is addressing what, in his God-given wisdom, he sees as a universal condition: each and every one of us is engaged, to one degree or another, in a great and intimate civil war.  Without knowing a single recipient, he starts this chapter by talking about “conflicts and disputes” and “cravings that are at war within you.”

His presumption is that we are miserable, and his assertion is that we are making ourselves that way. We are discontented, and we make other people’s lives difficult because we so often want what we cannot or should not have.  Whether it’s a food that is delicious but unhealthy, a sexual escapade that seems appealing in the moment but can destroy the bonds of a family’s trust, or a desire to be right and prove the other person wrong that becomes so pronounced that the community is torn apart – we all know how these stories play out.

A root cause of our pain, frustration, and anger is simply that we do not get everything that we think that we want, or need, or deserve.  We find ourselves falling in love with the thing that we do not, cannot, or should not have and that can lead us to despising the things that we do have and know.  It is a recipe for misery, discontent, division, and frustration.

And I don’t care if you’re from Crafton Heights, McKeesport, Antioch, or Timbuktu: you have known the pull of this temptation.  We all do.  I’ve never even met half of the people who are listening to me right now, but I guarantee that every person hearing these words knows what it’s like to burn with desire or greed or frustration because of something that we do not have.

And that is curious, because God created us for contentment.  God’s intentions are that the spirit that was given to us at birth should flourish and grow in ways that lead to peace and joy – the opposite of the civil war that so many of us experience every day.

What can we do? In our nature, we strive, compete, compare, envy, and desire. And yet we are created for wholeness, integrity, reconciliation, and even satisfaction.  How can we get from the place in which so many of us find ourselves to the kind of life for which God intends us?

Let me simply say that it’s a good thing that this is “Labor Day”, because we’ve got work to do!

Listen: some of you know that I am fresh from two amazing weeks of vacation at a lakeside cabin in Ohio.  I called it “Camp Grampy.”  My son-in-law was able to be there for five days.  My wife was there for a week!  My beloved daughter was able to spend twelve days.  But for fourteen glorious days, I was in the presence of my two granddaughters, ages 2 and 6.  In so many ways, it was a fantastic experience – just what the doctor ordered in this age of COVID and “social distancing”.

And yet, let me ask you this: in the fourteen days that I spent with those children, how often do you think I heard these phrases:

  • Why yes, grandfather, I was hoping that you would ask me to bathe and go to bed right now! Thank you!
  • Mother, I have enjoyed all aspects of this nutritionally-balanced and carefully-prepared meal, and have eaten my proteins and my vegetables. May I please be permitted to clear these dirty dishes to the sink?
  • As much as I have enjoyed swimming in the lake for the past three hours, I’m aware that my sister would probably prefer something else at this point. Can I suggest that we dry off and go back to the cabin for another, mutually agreeable, activity?

Yeah.  Crickets. If I told you I heard any of those things from a two- or six-year old, you’d call me a liar.  And you’d be right to do so.  One of the hardest things for children to learn as they grow up is how to get good at doing things that they don’t want to do.  Let me say that again: a central task of childhood is finding ways to be able to do those things that we’d prefer not to do.

We realize this, of course, and we accept behavior in toddlers and even older children that we find totally wearisome in adults.  And often, we echo the book of James (in what is admittedly a pretty free translation) in saying things like, “oh, for crying out loud, will you please get over yourself?” Or, “suck it up, Buttercup! We’ve got to get moving here…”

In a surprisingly interesting paper entitled “The Role of Weeds in Human Affairs”, horticulturalist LeRoy Holmes begins by saying, “more energy is expended for the weeding of… crops than for any other single human task.”[1]  And I am aware that there may be someone who is thinking, “Yes! I love to weed!  There’s no greater feeling in the world than getting a glass of iced tea and spending an hour on my knees in the flower bed.  That is sooooo satisfying!”

Yeah, well, that’s not what Dr. Holmes is talking about.  He’s describing his perception that on any given day as many as half of the human beings on the planet will spend hours in the sun, stooped over in the fields, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and holding an iron hoe of some sort, fighting to preserve their harvest from invaders that would choke out their livelihood if permitted to remain.  He’s describing the back-breaking work that nobody really wants to do, but that simply must be done if our species is to survive.  It’s got to be done, and while I’d rather be sitting in the shade with my friends, I’ll be over there pulling weeds for a few hours.

I’m suggesting that we need that same commitment in our spiritual and relational lives.  We’ve got to recognize the importance of deciding to act in ways that may not reflect how I’m feeling at this particular moment, but that are for my own good, or the good of my neighbor, my community, and the world.

James preaches against arrogance and pride and the destructive nature of self-centeredness, and says that an appropriate spiritual response to those dangers is learning to conduct ourselves in humility and with gentleness.

What does that look like in 21st century Pittsburgh?

Maybe it looks like shoveling my sidewalk after a snowstorm.  I hardly ever walk on the sidewalk directly in front of my own house; I’m more likely, particularly when it’s cold, to cross the street and hop in my car.  Yet I shovel the walk because I know that lots of people use that sidewalk, and if I can make it safer for them to do so, I want to.

That’s the same reason that I’m committed to wearing a mask when I go out in public during this pandemic.  Listen: nobody I know wants to put that thing on.  But the fact is that the virus is a new thing, and we don’t understand a whole lot about it.  There seems to be some pretty good evidence that it’s safer for you if I’m wearing a mask; if it turns out that isn’t the case, then I’ve endured a momentary discomfort while seeking to serve the greater good.  Wearing a mask is a way for me to express my willingness to do something I’d rather not in the hopes that something good and healthy will result.

One further example of what it means for me to try to live in humility and gentleness is seeking to grow in my ability to allow you to finish your sentence before I break in and explain to you the fourteen different ways that you are wrong. I need to develop the skill of really listening to you, and not simply preparing to deliver my own opinion as soon as you shut up.

And some of you might be saying, “Come on, Dave, this is all so elementary!  Do you really believe that little steps like this are going to have any effect on the way the world works?  You better get your head out of the clouds, Dave.”

And if you were to say that to me, I’d insist that any significant personal or cultural shift must be rooted in simple decisions that can lay the foundation for larger acts that will result in healing and hope for the world.

The Old Testament reading for today describes the Psalmist as one who is like a weaned child with its mother.  That is, for many of us, an odd image.  What does that even mean?

Well, earlier this week I had the great privilege of spending time with a two month old.  An unweaned two month old.  I’m here to tell you that as long as the formula was flowing from that bottle, we were both happy campers.  But when the nipple got clogged and the bottle eventually emptied, well, let’s just say the situation changed rather drastically for at least one of us.

A nursing infant is tempted, or perhaps only able to see its mother as a provider.  The child looks to the mother and says, essentially, “Look, human, I’m glad to be with you, because you are the one who provides me with that which I need: some warm milk, a dry diaper, and that will be all.  You are dismissed.”

The Psalmist does not describe a nursing child with its mother, but rather a weaned child.  A child who has matured to the point where it is able to take delight in the presence, comfort, and personhood of the mother for her own sake, and not for those benefits that she provides.   It’s not easy to grow to this point – I’ve often said that this transition is difficult for both the wean-ee and the wean-er, but the reality is that just as the child has to learn to stop regarding its mother as existing only to satisfy its immediate desires, so too we as God’s children are called to look at God as more than our eternal safety net or wish-granter.  We are called to grow in our ability to enjoy God for God’s own sake.

The letter from James offers a painful diagnosis: too often we fall prey to the tyranny of the self.  Fortunately, in the same breath, James offers a remedy: the challenge to grow in humility and love.

And if we are able to both accept the diagnosis and follow in the sometimes painful, often inconvenient regimen of treatment, then change can occur.

I can be free to grow to see myself as more than a consumer; to see others as more than mere rivals; to see God as more than the wizard behind the curtain.  If I can commit to this way of living, I can learn to appreciate your you-ness; I can celebrate the unique gifts and abilities that you’ve received without seeing them as a threat to who I am; I can embrace you as a partner who can help me grow in ways that I might not be able to recognize on my own.  If we are willing to move forward in humility and gentleness, together we can model a relationship based upon trust and the commitment to demonstrate God’s love in difficult places to the end that we are each mature, disciplined, contented children of the God who created us to share justice, peace, and reconciliation in the world.

It’s a tall order.  As I said a few moments ago, it’s a good thing that tomorrow is Labor Day.  Let’s get to work!  Thanks be to God, who reminds us that we are never in this alone.  Amen.

[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4041682

A Good Mensch is Hard to Find

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on August 9 as we considered the call to ethical living contained in James 3:13-18 and Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

To see the entire worship service, please visit the YouTube link below:

Do you remember when we used to get together for pot-lucks or game nights or just to sit around and shoot the breeze?  How we’d just gather in a room and talk for hours with each other?

One of the most entertaining ways to engage in discussion in those times was to ask “who’s the greatest?”  You could be talking about anything: who’s the most complete ball player you ever saw in person? Who was the greatest president? Who was the best lyric poet of the 18th century? (OK, some questions are better than others in this game…).

The thing is that when people get together, we talk about stuff like this, right?  We want to know what other people think, we want to express our own opinions, and we want to exchange ideas and maybe even change a few minds.  People play the “who’s the best?” game all the time; sometimes it’s played in bars or at social gatherings; at other times we ask those questions in the academic setting; and of course it’s been raised in church for thousands of years.

In fact, 2000 years ago Jesus was shooting the breeze with a group of religious scholars and one of them approached him with this question.  “Look, Rabbi, we all know that the scripture is filled with commandments.  Which is the most important one?  What’s the bottom line, here, Jesus?”

I think it’s worth noting that when Jesus engaged this question, it’s the only time in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus commends the questioner.  I think Jesus liked this game.  And, as you know, Jesus gave not only one, but two answers.

Pharisees, but Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1912)

First, he quoted the shema, the important passage from Deuteronomy that you heard earlier.  In Jesus’ day, reciting the shema was an important way of reaffirming one’s relationship with God.  Time and time again each day, people were invited to re-orient themselves around God’s presence, God’s grace, and the promise of God’s mercy and justice in the world.  To that answer, Jesus went on to add a verse from the book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus seems to be saying that the most important commandment is to remember the love in which we are all born and then to treat each other as recipients of that love.

And because Jesus answered this question so straightforwardly, any discussion in Christian circles on the most important commandment is usually pretty short.  I mean, which of us wants to argue with Jesus?

But the question continued to be raised in the years following Jesus’ life.  Late in the first century, a noted Rabbi named Akiva echoed Jesus’ words, saying, “’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is a great principle of the Torah.”

A disciple of Rabbi Akiva named Ben Azzai responded, seemingly out of nowhere, claiming that the single most important passage in all of the Torah was the beginning of Genesis 5: “This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.”

What’s happening here, of course, is that the Rabbis are doing what religious folks have always done: playing a little game of spiritual one-upsmanship.  However, I think a core truth of Ben Azzai’s response is worth noting: “though it is certainly praiseworthy to love your fellow as yourself, this might imply that you only need to treat your fellow as well (or as badly) as you yourself are treated. Ben Azzai points out that if we truly understand that all people are made in the image of God, we must accept that any time we shame, insult or abuse another, we do the same to God.”[2]  We violate the image of God when we dishonor or disrespect anyone whom God has created.

And you might be saying, “OK, Dave, I get all of this, but why are we talking about this when you’re already on page three of a sermon that’s supposed to be talking about the Book of James?”  Thanks for asking.

You may remember that in the introduction to this series we talked about the fact that James was often called a “catholic” epistle.  That means that it’s not written to a particular group (like, say, the Thessalonians), and it’s not written to a specific person (like, say, Timothy).  This is a message from a church leader to the whole, scattered group of those who want to follow Jesus.

And yet here, the author of the epistle begins to address a conflict in the church.  It’s not a particular conflict such as we often see in the letters of Paul; rather, it’s a general trend that the writer sees within the universal church.  So even though James doesn’t know the specific individuals who will be reading this note, he assumes that they will be well-acquainted with the sense of discord that is developing within the body of Christ.  The next verses in the epistle of James will speak to some root causes of human conflict and offer a way through them.

The problem, James says, is that we are constantly surrounded by the temptation to see others as less important than ourselves.  And when I can believe my self to be greater than your self; or my pain to be more excruciating than your pain; or my knowledge to be truer than your knowledge; or my faith to be more acceptable than your faith, that leads to ruin and chaos.

There’s a word that James uses twice in this reading that I find to be fascinating, especially in 2020.  He points out that humans are afflicted with “selfish ambition” in verses 14 and 16. In doing so, he uses a fascinating term: the Greek word is eritheia.

Originally, eritheia meant spinning for hire, especially when a woman would work to spin wool into yarn.  It became more commonly used to refer to any work for pay, and by the time that James was writing it had politically charged overtones.  Aristotle, for instance, uses eritheia to refer to the self-seeking pursuit of political office by dishonest means.  We are all familiar with candidates who have “spin doctors” on their payroll – people whose job it is to make sure that we interpret the facts of the day in ways that are only favorable to their particular side.

Do you know eritheia in 2020, church? Have you seen people spinning the truth so that they could continue to get paid? Do you see the commercials and the competing talking heads on the television? Do you have a social media account?  You know eritheia, beloved.  You know that it is within the human heart to be, as James says, “false to the truth.”

The fruit of eritheia is envy, disorder, and wickedness.  We know this, but how easily we are sucked into this world every single day.  Sixty years ago, William Barclay put it this way:

One of the most difficult things in the world is to argue without passion, and to meet arguments without wounding.  To be utterly convinced of one’s own beliefs without at the same time being bitter to those of others is no easy thing, and yet it is a first necessity of the Christian…[3]

James says that the world tends toward chaos when people give way to the temptation to act with eritheia – with “selfish ambition” – in our interactions with each other.

So what’s the answer?  How do we get out of that cycle?

James goes on to say seek the wisdom from above – to be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, merciful, impartial; to be people of integrity who are peacemakers.

Perhaps you remember when we began this series of messages that I said that James is often criticized because he doesn’t talk much about Jesus.  In many, many ways, however, he talks like Jesus all the time.  I want you to listen again to the list of behaviors that James asks us to model – to be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, merciful, impartial; to be people of integrity who are peacemakers – and then go ahead and pause this worship service to read through the Beatitudes as found in Matthew 5.  Is there any way that James could more intentionally echo the words of Jesus?

In her recent book, White Supremacy and Me, Layla Saad speaks of her passion for antiracism as being rooted in her desire to be an ethical person. She has said, “my life is driven by one burning question: How can I become a good ancestor? How can I create a legacy of healing and liberation for those who are here in this lifetime and those who will come after I’m gone? [4]

Do you see, beloved, that this is what James is writing about here?  He’s elevating the conversation among people of faith as he implores us to be people of substance in a place that seems to exist in shadows and vapors; to be people of integrity in a culture that is governed by those who practice eritheia religiously; to be people who are committed to holding onto and to sharing true worth in a world that is forever distracted by noisy, shiny, crap.  James says that the followers of Jesus ought to be known as those who live wisely.

There’s a Yiddish term for people like that: mensch.  A mensch is a noble, ethical human being; a person characterized by a fundamental decency and integrity.  One writer puts it this way:

There are few higher Jewish compliments to pay someone than to call them a mensch, though, of course, a true mensch would be too modest to want to be complimented.

A mensch is a person who can be relied on to act with honour and integrity. But the Yiddish term means more than that: it also suggests someone who is kind and considerate.[5]

The Book of James is often listed in the books of “Wisdom Literature”.  Like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and others in this genre, James is not so intent on telling a particular story, but rather in giving us insight into what it means to live into that story.

Today, let me charge you to seek to be a mensch in a world that has very few of those people.  Take advice from the Epistle of James and from the model of Christ, and live into a higher, deeper calling of life and faith.

“But Dave”, you say, “People are saying horrible things about me.  They are lying, Dave!”

I know that, and trust me, beloved, I know how that feels.

“But Dave,” you say, “They are wrong!  They are spinning the truth, and lying, and they know that!”

I know that.  But remember this, beloved: you cannot control them.

Your responsibility for today is to choose your behavior, your actions, your responses.  Let me implore you to act in love and to choose the path of peacemaking.

That does not mean, my friends, that we are supposed to tolerate mistreatment or to accept lies as truth.

It means that we are called to create a reality wherein each and every one of us is recognized as an image-bearer of the Divine. Listen: the slow, daily work of peacemaking and justice requires love, humility, patience, and mercy.  Again and again and again.  The only way to become a mensch is to walk the paths of righteousness gently and truly for a long, long time.

This may seem incongruous at this point in the message, but a core aspect of my understanding of this comes from that great theologian, Snoopy the beagle. In a panel years ago, Linus tosses a stick and Snoopy just stares at the boy.  Linus finally says, “You won’t do it, huh?”  “Nope!,” replies Snoopy. “I want people to have more to say about me after I’m gone than, ‘He was a nice guy…  He chased sticks.’”

Listen, beloved: In your daily interactions with people in real life and in social media, don’t fall into the trap of chasing sticks.  May we, together, commit ourselves to responding to God’s mission in Jesus Christ by being menschen: a league of decent, ethical, loving people who refuse to see anyone as less than the image of God.  In so doing, we will treasure life, we will honor our neighbor, and we will point to the author of all beauty and goodness. Thanks be to God, in whose image you, and I, and they have been made.  Amen.

 

[2] Rabbi Brant Rosen, “Beginning Again in God’s Image” https://rabbibrant.com/2008/10/24/beginning-again-in-gods-image/

[3] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) p. 108.

[4] Layla F. Saad, Podcast: “How to Be a Good Ancestor” https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2020/08/24c74-goodancestorpodcast-025sarahjones_edited.pdf

[5] Simon Rocker, “What is a Mensch?”, in The Jewish Chronicle (https://www.thejc.com/what-is-a-mensch-1.64427)

Watch Your Mouth!

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on August 2 as we considered the call of James 3:1-12 and Proverbs 10:18-21 to speak carefully and wisely.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

To see the recording of the entire worship, watch the YouTube video below.

Watch your mouth!

Bite your tongue!

Zip that lip!

Button it!

Put a sock in it!

Shut your piehole!

Loose lips sink ships!

My hunch is that you’ve heard these phrases before – they are sometimes useful, if violent, words of caution about the importance of restraining our impulse to speak at every turn.  And my sense is that if and when you have used them, you’ve done so because you thought that they were reflective of wise and sensible advice.

For many years, phrases like that have lingered in the back of my mind when I have read the third chapter of James.  As we have seen elsewhere in this epistle, this seems to be a plainspoken and straightforward prescription.

Like much of my own conversation, this passage is filled with illustrations and analogies.  Perhaps you noticed that there is an increasing order of magnitude in the examples that James provides for his readers.  Look at the relative size of the objects: a horse’s bit is about six inches or so, which is markedly smaller than the animal it’s used to guide.  A ship’s rudder, while typically larger than 6 inches, is much smaller in proportion to the large vessel that it steers.  And a spark is just about the tiniest source of energy we can see, yet it will lead to a huge conflagration.  Did you see how artfully the preacher – in this case, the author of the letter of James – has built his case?

And as I appreciate those illustrations, I am well aware of the many times that I have sat with someone and been on either the giving or receiving end of a talk that began, essentially, like this:

WHAT WERE YOU THINKING WHEN YOU OPENED YOUR MOUTH?

DON’T YOU HEAR YOURSELF?  HOW COULD YOU SAY THAT?

And, if I’m on the “giving” end of the talk, it will include a wise and timely reference to the book of Proverbs; perhaps the reading you heard earlier, or, if I’m in a hurry, the statement from Proverbs 13:3: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.”  That’s not bad.

And again, speaking as one who has been involved in many conversations like this, I know that there is a lot of wisdom here.

I wonder: how many of you have blurted out something that caused a lot of damage or heartache?  How often have you hit the “send” button, and then thought, “Oh crap! Can I take that back?”

This fairly straightforward and linear application of the book of James is often very helpful.  As James says, essentially, “How can we pretend to pray and praise and then curse those who are made in the image of God?”  Hard to argue with that.  James insists that we think about taming the tongue.

Let that sink in for a moment.  He doesn’t use language that speaks of removing, eliminating, or disempowering the tongue.  He uses the word damádzo.  Tame.

What does it mean to “tame” something?  Webster’s defines it thusly: “to reduce from a state of native wildness especially so as to be tractable and useful to humans.”  That makes sense.  Humans tame animals not so that they can cease being themselves, but rather so that those animals might somehow contribute to human welfare by sharing in work or offering companionship.

And, to follow through on James’ analogies, we “tame” or re-shape some natural material into a bit or a rudder not without reason, but rather so that the small part can play a huge role in directing a much larger animal or vessel.

This morning I am going to suggest that there have been times when we totally confirm this aspect of James’ teaching.  We unleash a torrent of verbal abuse or nonsense; we post and repost half-truths or outright lies, we witness and participate in smear campaigns, and more.  We know, I think each and every one of us, that we can hurt people with our words.  We know that our words can be weaponized.

And, faced with that knowledge, sometimes we think that the best response is to not use words.  We clam up and we don’t speak to anything serious.  After all, as the quote often attributed to both Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln says, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Yet somehow I cannot believe that a mute discipleship is consistent with James’ teaching or the life to which Jesus invites us.  The first followers of Jesus were not looking to create a church full of mousy, lifeless people who won’t say anything to anybody for fear of offending some of them.  I think it’s about taming our tongues so that they are helpful – and therefore neither silent nor violent.

On September 12, 2001, a New York City advertising executive named Allen Kay viewed the aftermath of the previous day’s terror attacks and wrote six words on a 3 x 5 card.  Those words were later used as a slogan by the New York Metro Transportation Authority and now feature prominently in the Department of Homeland Security’s public presence.  “If you see something, say something.

I’ll confess that I’m not really crazy about that phrase.  To be honest, it sounds a little Orwellian to me – there are too many echoes of 1984 in there, and I wonder if “Big Brother” really is watching me.

Further, I’m afraid that a callous or simplistic use or overuse of that phrase and the principle behind it will simply empower a legion of people who have unfortunately come to be termed as “Karens” or “Kevins”.  I’m referring to the ways that sometimes it’s easier, but often more inflammatory, to speak around the problem or complain about the problem to whoever “the manager” might be.  We talk at or over each other, but not to each other.

But what if the author of James is saying that a core component of Christ following is learning to tame our tongues so that they are, in fact, useful and encouraging?  I find some support for this idea in the fact that James talks about speaking after he stresses the importance of listening.  A huge part of learning to tame the tongue is a willingness to be humble, gracious, and teachable; and to seek to model honesty and courage as well.

What if instead of encouraging people to call the manager, or call the police, or call the homeowner’s association on each other, the thought behind “if you see something, say something” might be understood to be rooted in an appeal for us to speak directly, calmly, and lovingly to our neighbors.  Again, the Book of Proverbs can help us:

“Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.” (31:8-9)

You know that it’s wrong to beat someone up with your words; James is here to say that it’s also wrong to fail to lend your voice to those who are suffering.  As one of the great prophets of the 20th century, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, speaking to some white attendees at a meeting of the Montgomery (Alabama) Improvement Association,

“We yearn for brotherhood and respect and want to join hands with you to build a freer, happier land for all. If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”[1]

So today, sisters and brothers, let me charge you to pray for the ability to tame your tongues.  To seek to find ways to limit your ability to mock, insult, disparage, and attack others with your words.  That in itself is a noble goal.

But more than that, let me encourage you to seek ways to offer that tamed tongue in words of encouragement and support.  Let me urge you to look for ways to lift your voice prophetically for justice, for peace, and for reconciliation.

That means that if you hear racist, sexist, or demeaning language of any sort, you can point it out.  You don’t do so by attacking the speaker, or by demanding to talk with the speaker’s manager.  If you hear language that marginalizes or attacks someone, it’s all right for you to indicate that such conversation is neither true nor helpful.

If you do this, it will mean that you’ll have to learn how not to excuse your homophobic uncle’s cruel remarks.  It will require you to do better than simply giving a friend a “pass” when that person is using caustic language because, well, you just know that friend is out of touch.

The last time this building was closed to public worship due to a pandemic was during the influenza outbreak of 1918. While church services were not held in compliance with the Mayor’s decree, there were a few groups that met here.  The session appointed some men as a committee and tasked them with the responsibility to meet with those groups and inform them as to the kind of language that was acceptable in this building.  Maybe we need to think about that again – not so we can go around and shush our neighbors when they swear, but so we can covenant to cleanse our vocabularies of combative and unhelpful words like “libtard”, “sheeple”, “snowflake”, “conservaturd” and a score more that I will not even deign to pronounce this morning.  Language like this – spoken or tolerated – is demeaning, confrontational, dismissive, and combative.

Can we seek to learn a new vocabulary, and to wrap these tongues of ours around it? Can we raise our voices, and can we use our hands and feet to speak and pursue justice, peace, and reconciliation.

On the day of Congressman John Lewis’ funeral, his last words were published as an essay in The New York Times.  In this brief message, Representative Lewis, a devout Christian who demonstrated time and time again that he had indeed tamed his tongue, said,

 Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.[2]

Almost everyone who can hear my voice is a citizen of a great nation with a dramatic and powerful history.  A part of the call to faithfulness is developing the resolve and ability to use the voice you’ve been given.  To call or write our elected officials.  To show up at meetings.  To vote.  All with the intent of speaking truly, with love for our neighbor.  At this moment, I believe, the last thing that Jesus or James would want would be for us to remain silent.  Let us continue to speak as well as we can to and on behalf of one another.  And let us continue to hope.  For God’s sake, people, do not stop hoping.

Thanks be to God who made us, as God is, capable of speaking words of life and love and hope.  Amen.

 

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at the Fourth Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at Bethel Baptist Church (December 3, 1959) https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-fourth-annual-institute-nonviolence-and-social-change-bethel-baptist-0

[2] “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html

The Proof of the Pudding

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 26.  The scripture for the morning were James 2:14-26 and Matthew 7:15-23.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, click below.

I don’t know how it was in your house as you were growing up, but I know that my mom said a lot of things that sounded confusing to my eight-year-old self.  Whenever we were in the car and someone zoomed past us in what she thought to be incautious driving, she’d mutter, “Well, people who drive that fast usually don’t get there.” I wondered how she knew where that car was going.  Another phrase that sticks with me is, “if ‘ifs’ were fifths we’d all be drunk.” I mean, I get it now, but who says that to a kid?  Perhaps you’re familiar with a third expression she’d use: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

When I heard that, I assumed it meant, “the best part of pudding is when we get to eat it.” I later came to understand that it really meant “the way we’ll know the pudding is good, or that the story is true, is when we see that proven in the kitchen or in the real world.”  But really, in the 1960’s, when pudding came from a box and consisted mostly of sugar, what was there to prove?  It was always good!

I’ve recently learned that this proverb dates back hundreds of years, and I was a little grossed out to discover that the “pudding” to which it refers was not the sweet dessert of my youth, but rather to a concoction of animal parts and innards that was usually stuffed into a skin casing and fried.  When we understand that we’re being presented with a bowl of farmyard by-products, we can see that perhaps a taste test would be in order.  After all, if it’s not cooked right, that stuff can kill you.

As we continue to read through the book of James, we come this morning to a section wherein the Apostle offers his thoughts about the relationship between theory and reality, or between faith and works.  As you heard a moment ago, what we believe must be tied to how we act, or our beliefs are worse than useless. Faith without works, he says, is dead.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of it like this before, but bad theology can kill you – or worse.  Here’s what I mean by that…

When I was a kid, I heard a number of talks and saw some printed tracts that were titled something like, “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches.”  The thought behind those messages was fairly simple: there is a difference between being intellectually convinced of a fact and feeling that truth in the depth of your heart.  These teachings usually talked about the fact that it’s not enough to “know” that Jesus died for our sin and rose again, but I had to somehow move that knowledge 18 inches from my head to my heart.  The way to do that, I was told, was to accept Jesus into my heart as my personal savior.  When I converted my ideas about Jesus to trust in Jesus, I was told, eternal life was my reward.

My sense of the bible passages at hand this morning is that James is saying, essentially, “Look, that’s a start. But it just doesn’t go far enough.”  A faith that travels 18 inches from my head to my heart is insufficient.  For that faith to be effectual and have real consequences, it needs to go further.  In my case, it would need to go another 36 inches so that it reaches my hands; it would need to go another 50 inches in order to reach my feet; it would need to reach around my back about 23 inches so it could touch my wallet.  If I’m not doing anything in my life as a result of the faith that I hold, then in what sense can I say that the faith is meaningful or alive?

James, like his brother Jesus and their host of predecessors in the Old Testament (some of whom are mentioned in today’s reading), assumes that faith is a communally-shared practice and activity. All of these witnesses to God’s power and presence presume that what we think about God and what we believe concerning God will find its way into our daily lives, and the ways that we conduct ourselves in relationship with each other.

I’ll say it again: bad theology can kill you, or worse.

Now, hold on, Pastor Dave.  What could be worse than something that kills me?  Isn’t that about as low as we can go?

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Just like a batch of bad pudding in the Middle Ages could sicken the entire family or village, bad theology spills over into the lives of people around us.

When I’m talking about bad theology this morning, I’m speaking specifically about the tendency that some of us have to take one verse or one thought out of context and then absolutize it over the rest of what we know.  We find a verse that we like, or a notion we hold dear, and then we use it to prove our point or to justify our actions.  We see that in many ways.

For instance, who among us has not heard of a young mother who has gone through the unspeakable grief of burying her child, only to be faced with a “loving” Christian friend who says something like, “Well, you know, Susan, that God only takes the best.  He must have needed another angel up in heaven.  It’s all a part of God’s plan.” How is that helpful at all?  And in what instance is such a comment likely to bring about a situation where the grieving mother is more eager to trust God and God’s so-called “plan”?

Another illustration of bad theology bringing harm and pain pops up every couple of years.  There were faith leaders who assured us that Hurricane Katrina or the Australian bush fires were sent by God as punishments for the ways that our societies tolerate homosexuality or abortion or “loose living”.  Whenever I hear that, I wonder if such is the case, why in the world hasn’t the Almighty done anything about Washington DC? Presumably God is still irritated by greed, idolatry, lies, and pride, right?  Those are just not disaster-worthy sins?  These people are taking something or someone that they hate, and assuming that God hates it just as much.

You can see that kind of thinking in a particularly nasty batch of bad theology that’s been brewing for centuries.  In October 2018, Robert Bowers entered a worship service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and murdered eleven people.  His actions were the fruit of a theology that taught him that it was the Jews, and only the Jews, who killed Jesus, and that they had to be punished for that.  Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism have long been cloaked in religious-sounding language that has done nothing but bring pain and evil into the world.

The last example of bad theology being life-threatening is ripped from the headlines in our current pandemic, where a quick Google search will reveal far too many people who have taken a sliver of what is true (“God is loving and protective”) and then twist that into a theology that says “I don’t have to worry about the Coronavirus because God has promised to save me.  I’ll skip the masks, forget about the physical distancing, and do what I want to do because I am free in Jesus.”  Just this week I read of a pastor who claimed that the people of God were safe from the virus and held packed services of worship where he implored his congregation to hug and shake hands and sit closely together.  I’m saddened to say that pastor is dead now, one of nearly 150,000 people in the USA alone who have fallen victim to this disease.

Almost all bad theology starts with something good – God is the source of comfort, God implores us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday, Jesus was murdered by people he loved, and God’s intentions are for wholeness – we take something that is good and then we twist it to suit our own behavior or desire.  Such thinking often assumes, relies on, and even trumpets God’s grace while at the same time it rejects the means through which that grace can come.

Last week we were told that the calling of the Christian is to “fulfill the royal law of love”.  Fulfill the law of love.

How do we do that?  What does that look like?

It’s not just believing that love is a good thing, or by thinking that love is an ideal to which we all can aspire.  We don’t fulfill the law of love by singing songs about it or getting tattoos or putting up yard signs.  Not that those things are bad, but they’re just not actually doing what scripture calls us to do.

We fulfill the law of love by acting like people who have love to give.  We fulfill the law of love by talking about love a little less and giving away love a lot more.

What does love look like in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2020?  If I had to choose one practice (and you don’t, by the way), I would choose to say love looks like generosity.

Often when we use the word “generous”, we are implying that it has something to do with finances.  And that is surely the case here.  Many of your neighbors, and the non-profit institutions that serve them, are hard-pressed right now.  Folks who have never been poor before are struggling to get groceries or pay rent, and people who are, unfortunately, very experienced at being poor are pushed further to the margins.  So if you have what you need, you are blessed.  This is a good season for you to explore what it would mean for you to spread some of that blessing around in acts of generosity that are rooted in gratitude and love.

But it’s not just your money, you know.  You can also be generous with your time.  Are you the parent of a young child?  Then you know that you are being stretched a hundred ways right now.  If you are a person without young children in your life, perhaps this is a moment when you can be offer to step in somehow.  I realize that it may not be practical or even safe for you to offer to spend time with or tutor someone else’s child right now, given the precautions we need to take with the coronavirus.  But there may be a family or two for whom you can make that offer.  If you can’t be with them physically, perhaps you can offer to read a story over Zoom or Facetime.  Or maybe you can offer to help with the shopping or cut the grass or just call and check in with someone who is pushed to their limits right now.

Perhaps even more important than generosity with finances or time, though, is the opportunity that each of us have right now to show love through a generosity of spirit. Resist the temptation to dive more and more deeply into your own rabbit hole of opinions and preferences and take the time to listen to the stories and pain of others.  Seek an opportunity every single day to learn something new, and to offer truth in ways that are gentle and wise.  Give the person who just blew up at you for some perceived offense a break, realizing that many of us are past our limits right now.  Seek to live with others in mind.

When I read this passage in James, and the similar one in Matthew, I am reminded of a story told by former President Jimmy Carter.  He describes a church that sent out a group from their congregation in Georgia all the way to Pennsylvania, where they were to save the lost and convert the unbelievers.  The evangelists encountered an old Amish farmer out in the fields one day.  “Brother,” they asked, “Are you saved?  Are you a believer?”

The old farmer replied, “Do you want to know if I’m a Christian?”

The “missionaries” said yes, that was their question.  The man asked Carter for a piece of paper and a pencil.  He wrote something down and handed the tablet back to the evangelist, saying, “These are the names of the four families whose property borders mine.  Don’t waste your time asking me if I’m a Christian.  Ask them.  You can trust them.  They’ll tell you whether I’m a Christian because they see me.”[1]

May we seek every opportunity to be generous with our love, particularly during this difficult time.  And may every time we open our ears, our hearts, our mouths, our wallets create an opportunity for people not to see or notice or praise us, but rather to come closer into an appreciation for the Love in which the universe was born.  Let our expression of and commitment to live in the love of Jesus be more than “thoughts and prayers”; let it instead be not only non-toxic, but life-giving nourishing, to our neighbors.  Thanks be to the God who gives us neighbors, Amen.

[1] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith, (Crown Publishing, 1996) pp. 240-241.

The Old Song and Dance

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  One way that we did that this week was to celebrate the gift of God in the presence of a child presented for baptism.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 19.  The scripture for the morning was James 2:1-13

To hear the sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below:

To view the entire worship, visit the YouTube link below.

A couple of years back, our older granddaughter stayed with us for a week or so for what I like to call “Camp Grampy”.  One of the highlights of that week was what could be called “a perfect evening”. We made homemade ice cream with home-grown strawberries.  We spread a blanket in the den and put in the DVD of Cinderella that Danielle lent us.  Lucia was captivated and engaged and laughing… and then we got to the scene where the cat, aptly named Lucifer, was chasing the mice around, intent on devouring them.  All of a sudden my granddaughter clutched my arm and said, “Wait, Grampy – this is pretend, right? It’s not real, is it?” When we assured her that it was, in fact, pretend, and that the mice would eventually outsmart the cat, Lucia relaxed and regained her joyful demeanor.

I know that you have had an experience like that.  You’ve paused the movie or muted the set and said, “No, honey, it’s ok.  This is just pretend.  Nobody is really getting hurt.”  Maybe we talk to them about actors, or about fake blood or pretend hitting.  We need to let them know that it’s “just a story”.

It’s not just children who need to remember that, by the way.  If 1/100th of what we saw onscreen took place in front of our eyes for real, we’d be traumatized for life.  One study has indicated that by the time a young person finishes high school, they’ve seen 200,000 acts of violence in the media, including 40,000 dramatizations of murder.[1]

We have to turn off something in ourselves in order to digest all of that. Speaking for myself, I have no idea how many dramatic crimes I’ve witnessed – but I can tell you that the real life blood and brains and carnage and pain I’ve seen have been seared into my memory and psyche.

I’m bringing all of this up because in his letter to some of the world’s earliest Christ-followers, James asks, essentially, the same question that my granddaughter did.  “Is this faith of yours real?  Does it matter in your daily life? Or is it just pretend? Just for show?”

He then presents his readers with a case study.  “Hypothetically speaking,” he asks, “what would you do if a person of great affluence and a person stricken by poverty entered your assembly of worship?”  He wants to know if they think that it’s appropriate to fawn over the wealthy in ways that diminish the humanity of the poor.  James goes on to indicate that if his hearers think that is all right then they have simply joined the long line of humans who have learned the language of their former oppressors and are content to repeat it over and over again.

And as James writes, we can see that he anticipates some sort of a pushback on his question because, after all, it is a revealing one.  “No, no, no – it’s not like that.  You see, we did this thing… and this other thing… and we always do that special thing at Thanksgiving…”  And so James preemptively calls “shenanigans” (it’s an old Greek word…) on them for trying to give him the song and dance.

“The old song and dance” is an expression that dates from at least 150 years ago, and while it may originally described a scenario wherein someone was both singing and dancing (think about Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain” or Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”), now the phrase is often used to describe an elaborate story that is meant to confuse the listener in order to deflect blame or avoid punishment.

James points out the incongruity of a person who says, “I’m a follower of Jesus” but who then can’t be bothered to, you know, act like Jesus.

You might remember a few weeks ago, when we began this series of messages dealing with James, that I said some theologians have eyed this epistle with suspicion because it only mentions Jesus twice.  At that time I went on to say that James may not talk about Jesus all that much, but he sure talks like Jesus an awful lot. I hope you remember that, because you’re going to see that all over this passage.

In verse 8, for instance, he admonishes his readers by saying, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law…”  That’s an interesting word choice.  He didn’t say “obey”, which is what most of us think that we are under an obligation to do.  He said, “fulfill” the law.

Hmmm.  Where have you heard that before?  I’m here to tell you that I believe he is echoing his brother, Jesus, who said, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.” (MT 5:17)

Do you see how James’ word choice is consciously directing his readers to act like followers of Jesus?  And as the late-night infomercials say, “But wait – there’s more!”

In verse 10, James continues to surprise us with the words he uses in association with the word “law” by saying, “For whoever keeps the whole law…”.

Again, he could have said “obey” and we wouldn’t have thought twice.  But he didn’t.  He said, tereo – “keep”, and not hupakouo – “obey”.

What’s the difference?  Tereo, or “keep”, means literally to keep an eye on or to guard in order to prevent someone from suffering harm or loss.

Hupakouo, or “obey”, means to hear as a subordinate and then act in a way that conforms to the command of a superior.

Jesus, so far as I can tell, only used the word “obey” once in all of his teaching.  In Luke 17, he says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

In contrast, however, Jesus used the word “keep” a lot.  Just think about John 14, where in his last conversation with his followers he said, “Those who love me will keep my word…”

The difference – for Jesus and for James – is this: our response to the invitation to follow is rooted in love.  One cannot demand love; nobody can be told to love another.  Love grows where the other is honored, seen, heard, and kept.  When James talks about “keeping” the law, he is subtly reminding his readers that the law is not a tool to be manipulated in order to gain favor or escape punishment, but rather a gift to be treasured, honored, and nurtured.

OK, Dave, so what’s your point here?

It seems to me that throughout this passage James’ theme is this: “Are you really in this?  Do you want to actually be like Jesus, or do you merely want people to think that you are like Jesus?”  James doesn’t have time for the song and dance.  If you say that you want to follow Jesus, then act like Jesus.

I’m convinced, more than ever, that the world agrees with James.  I have met lots and lots of people who have horrible things to say about the church or about Christianity.  I don’t know too many people who are critical of Jesus himself.  A Hindu writer about a hundred years ago put it this way: “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.”  I’m sad to say that so often, that criticism rings true for me.

I think a part of the problem is that we spend way too much energy worrying about which laws those people are not obeying and we are not nearly as concerned with the ways that we ourselves are keeping the law of love.

As a result, we have politicians, celebrities, and preachers who have photo ops at churches, or who show up for prayer breakfasts, or who strap on a collar and march around all acting as if they’ve actually done something meaningful and the world keeps crying out, “Yes, but where is Jesus? What has changed? Where is the hope?”

The call of the gospel today is to keep the “royal law” of love.  We are invited to guard the words of Jesus in our hearts and minds and to be focused on finding ways to live  and love like Jesus did: wholly, sacrificially, gracefully, and humbly.  Oddly enough, the only way that we can “keep” the love of Jesus is to give it away freely and regularly and without keeping score.

And I know that today, as we celebrate Emersyn’s baptism, that I am preaching to the choir.  I have seen this family move in love and care for each other for a long, long time.  I have watched you honor and serve and respect each other.  I see how you pour yourselves out on behalf of your children and your grandchildren.  You love these kids.

The call of Jesus is for all of us to remember that each of us is somebody’s child.  Having real faith, says James, means that we will be especially attentive to the voices that have been crowded out or silenced, and to create wellsprings in our lives from which mercy flows in abundance.  Anyone who claims to follow Jesus is bound to live kindly, graciously, expectantly, and lovingly.

And it is not lost on me, beloved, that the overwhelming majority of people who can hear my voice right now are watching this service of worship on a screen.  Maybe it’s your phone, or maybe it’s the big flat screen in your family room. Regardless, you are participating in worship today using the same device that we use to amuse ourselves with Cinderella or Criminal Minds or Tiger King. That machine is now the vessel of this call from Jesus of Nazareth.

And so I wonder, if someone were to clutch your arm at some point during this hour and say, “But seriously – is this for real?”, what could you say?  If someone were to look at your story of faith, could they see evidence of your conviction that everyone is somebody’s child, and we are all children of God?

Let me implore you, friends, to live as though you believe this call to be real, and as though you know that it matters.  And let me implore you to do it even when no one is watching you. Because it matters.  And so do you.  Thanks be to God for words that shape and form us, amen.

[1] Dr. Norman Herr, California State University Northridge, “Television and Health.” http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html