With the church around the world, 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 racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this month. On July 5 we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith. Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and the scriptures included James 1:1-18 and Psalm 46.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
As I begin, I want to acknowledge the fact that I’ve been absent from the pulpit for two weeks, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunities that the time away afforded me. I was able to connect in meaningful ways with people who are really important to me; I was able to tend my garden; I was able to disengage. I am deeply grateful, and want to offer my thanks to my colleague and friend Laura Strauss and to our amazing worship team for putting together a couple of beautiful worship services. It is so good to have friends!
As we enter a new month, we’re going to begin a series of messages around the theme of faithful living in stressful times. Perhaps you can relate to this: have there been occasions in the last, say, four months, where you felt as though someone was on your absolute last nerve? Times when you felt as though you just couldn’t make it through?
Less than one year ago, the British telecom called O2 commissioned a survey in which they asked folks in England what they found annoying. “What gets on your nerves?”, people were asked. The results were published as a list of “The 40 Most Annoying Things About Modern Life.” Here are a few of them – and remember, this is less than a year ago:
- The number one problem people cited: an intermittent or slow wifi connection. That was, according to this survey, the absolute WORST
- Number two: calls from unknown numbers. “Who are these people and why do they want to talk with me?”
- Interestingly enough, #35 on this list was “People who won’t answer my calls when I’ve deactivated caller ID”
- Others on the list included food deliveries that take more than 30 minutes or not enough leg room on the subway or a plane.
Can you believe it? Those were the most frustrating problems people thought about less than a year ago. I am reminded of the joke that Jerry Seinfeld told decades ago about our priorities:
I’m very impressed with this seedless watermelon product that they have for us. They’ve done it. We now have seedless watermelon. Pretty amazing… How does this work? And what kind of scientists do this type of work? I read this thing was 15 years in development. In the laboratories with gene splicing or, you know, whatever they do there… I mean, other scientists are working on AIDS, cancer, heart disease. These guys are going: “No, I’m going to devote myself to melon. I think that’s much more important. Sure thousands are dying needlessly but this… that’s gotta stop… I really think we should devote the money to these studies.”
My point is that I am not sure exactly what stresses you are facing right not, but I think that it is safe to say that we are living in a time that is rife with anxiety and stress. There are many, many things about which to worry in July 2020, and we’re going to talk about the intersection of faith and stress in the weeks to come.
Our guide for this journey will be the book of James. This is a brief letter that’s tucked into the end of our Bibles, and it has not always received a lot of attention. Unlike most of the other epistles, James is what we call a “catholic epistle”: meaning that it was not written to any one individual or specific congregation, such as, say, Titus or Romans, but rather to those who had come to believe in the message of Christ and were trying their best to live it out in their varied contexts around the Roman Empire. The author says that these words are to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion”. So his letter is for those who grew up as Jews as well as for those who did not; it will be received by the wealthy and the poor, the slave and the free, the employed, the insured, the privileged – and those who lacked those advantages.
Folks inside the church have had a “love-hate” relationship with this letter. Martin Luther, a 16th century reformer of the church, tried to have this book removed from the Bible. He called it “an epistle of straw”, and said that it was full of bad theology. Others however, including your pastor, believe that this letter is filled with practical and pragmatic advice about how to live into the message of Christ. It’s true that this letter doesn’t tell us much about what Jesus said or did – because the author assumed that the recipients already knew those things. And while this letter only mentions the name of Jesus twice, I’d suggest that you’d be hard-pressed to find a part of the Bible that sounds more like the Sermon on the Mount than these words. He’s not talking about Jesus, he’s talking like Jesus.
And who is this “he”? Who is the author of the book of James? Most scholars have attributed this work to James of Jerusalem, a younger brother of Jesus who rose to prominence in the early church after the death of the Lord. There are a lot of things I could tell you about James of Jerusalem, but let me simply give you his nickname. He was known as “Camel Knees”. He had a reputation for praying for other people, and it is said that his knees were actually hardened and calloused – like a camel’s – as a result of long hours in prayer.
I will encourage you to remember his reputation for humility and love as we hear his words not only in the weeks to come, but today. The beginning of his letter may be enough to make you throw your hands in the air in frustration. “Who is this guy?”, you may want to know. “He is out of touch and delusional!”
Really, friends. How did you react when you heard verse two: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy”? Seriously? Isn’t that the biblical equivalent of “Oh, cheer up, pal! Turn that frown upside down!”?
An uncritical reading of this text may make it seem as though James is dismissive of pain and trauma in human existence. I can see how one might hear what he’s written as meaning hard times are only blessings in disguise and people who go through difficulty are really lucky!
And then, if we’re not careful, we’ll read the next few verses as adding insult to injury. Is he saying that if you don’t pray correctly, and if you don’t have enough of the right kind of faith, then you’re just screwing things up and you don’t have a right to expect anything from God? “So, you prayed for a friend to recover from illness and it didn’t happen? Well, you must not have had enough faith. You’re a lousy pray-er.”
I know that many of you have had that feeling – that there’s a “right way” to believe, or to have faith, or to pray, and you don’t know that way or aren’t good at it.
Let’s walk back from that a little bit. He does write, “consider it joy”. What does that mean to you? How would you define “joy”? Most of our dictionaries say that word means an emotion of great happiness, or keen pleasure, or elation. That’s how it’s used in the 2015 Disney/Pixar film Inside Out. Listen to what the official Disney biography has to say about the character named “Joy”:
Joy’s goal has always been to make sure Riley stays happy. She is lighthearted, optimistic, and determined to find the fun in every situation. Joy sees challenges in Riley’s life as opportunities, and the less happy moments as hiccups on the way back to something great. As long as Riley is happy, so is Joy.
We tend to define joy as happiness and elation. Yet the biblical understanding, particularly the one associated with the Greek word chara, is much more nuanced than mere happiness.
Joy – chara – is an attitude that people adopt not because of their happiness in their current circumstances, but because they trust that the God we serve is a God who keeps promises. Viewed in this light, joy is not an emotion that is reflective of how a particular event or incident has made me feel. Instead, it’s more of a decision that I’ve made not to allow my current situation to define my reality.
The Apostle Paul uses this same word when he is writing to the church in Corinth. Listen to what he says:
as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
When James and Paul write that we can be joyful in trials, they are not suggesting that our problems make us happy. Rather, these men are reminding us that we have the opportunity to make a decision to trust in our Creator and that our current losses do not define who we are. If we lose sight of what is ultimately and eternally true, then no matter how we might feel in the particular moment, we will be lost.
In the spring of 1982 I had applied for a job working with kids at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights. In those pre-GPS days, my 21 year old self and my new bride were given directions to get to this building from the East End. In addition to crossing the Fort Pitt bridge and finding our way through the West End Circle (which looked totally different before they “improved it” several times in the last forty years), these directions told us to “head north on PA 60”. We got through the circle and Sharon pointed to a road. “Route 60 north! There it is!” I put the car in that lane, and then looked at the compass. I freaked out. “No, Sharon, this is wrong. We are supposed to be going north on route 60. We are driving due south.” My wife countered by pointing me to the roadside sign that clearly indicated 60 north. I had become convinced of something that was not true, and had allowed the momentary misalignment of the compass and the road map to cause me stress.
Oh, by the way… I got the job.
Hear me, beloved: I guarantee that you will feel stress and anxiety in the days to come. In fact, you might feel that before the end of the day… Heck you might experience it before the end of the sermon (“when is this guy going to shut up? Can’t they bring back the band? Where’s the worship team?”)
We cannot deny the realities of our present circumstances. Yes, I am here to tell you that for a couple of hundred yards, Pennsylvania route 60 north travels due south. That’s true.
The coronavirus is a scary thing, and it’s made worse because we may be in conflict with our neighbors and family and friends as to how we deal with that reality. It is wearisome.
Our current political climate is at what I would call an unknown level of pain and anger and frustration.
The tension and pain surrounding the American experience of systemic racism and white supremacy contribute to these feelings of anger, guilt, and frustration.
And it’s not like any of these things stand in isolation, right? Everything is wound together in a web, and this is a time of deep stress and profound anxiety. That is simply the air we are breathing right now.
But the virus, and the political mess, and even the tensions associated with racial injustice do not define who we are, how we are growing, and where we are called to be.
Listen: the fundamental narrative of scripture is that we are in a place that may be less than good, and we are invited to grow and develop and imagine and follow into a new and better place. Things began in chaos, and God called forth order. We were slaves in Egypt, and God led us out; we were wandering in the desert, and God provided a haven; we were like sheep without a shepherd and God sent us Jesus. Time and time again we are reminded that the expectation of the faithful life is a willingness to trust that God will keep God’s promises and that we are to do what we can to grow and shape our lives so that they better reflect that eternal Divine Intention tomorrow than they did yesterday.
There’s one other aspect of the Greek word chara that deserves mentioning before I close. There is often, as there was in the words of Paul, above, a suggestion of gratitude in the character of joy. In fact, one might actually translate chara as “rejoicefulness” – if that were really a word. I think that the chara to which we are invited to grow is an ability to reflect on the things that have brought us to where we are and then consider those things around us that point in the right direction even if we can’t fully realize them yet.
Today, as you confront the unrelenting stress of your life in the age of coronavirus and political and racial division, let me invite you to explore that stress with the tool of gratitude. Don’t be grateful FOR the virus, the hatred, or the pain… but look for ways to see through and past those things to the person you’re supposed to be and the community we are given.
One more story: On the day we buried my mother we arrived home and a freak winter storm had knocked out our power. I was 30, and my brother and I were angry. “It’s 1990!”, we said. “How can it possibly be that there’s no electricity in this house for three hours?” The next generation up – my mother-in-law – was worried. “Oh, we have all that food in the freezer. What will we do if it thaws?” And my grandmother – my mother’s mother – said simply, “You know, we take so much for granted. I lived a lot of years without electricity and I guess I haven’t thought lately about how much I depend on it. It is a gift.”
Nobody in the room was glad that my mother had died, or that the power had gone out. Yet my grandmother modeled for me a sense of rejoicefulness: a decision to live in a posture of trust and hope, even if the current signs are not all aligned.
This week, let me charge you to seek to be anchored in the reality that God is here and active. Let me join our brother James in reminding you that God is for us. And let me implore you to look for ways to participate in the life-giving, affirming presence of God, and to offer that hope – in joy – to your neighbors.
 Comedy Special, “I’m Telling You For the Last Time”. Transcript from https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2018/01/07/jerry-seinfeld-im-telling-you-for-the-last-time-full-transcript/
 II Corinthians 6:4-5, 8-10 NRSV
Here is the YouTube Link for the entire worship service.