Sunday, September 16, 2012

September 16, 2012 - "Fractured Love, Harsh Words"

James 3.1-12

What’s the ugliest part of my body?

Easy now … be kind.

What’s the most beautiful part of my body?

Come on now … 

You got it … my tongue.

James writes:

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

We tell a child: Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt me.

A nice idea … but not accurate.

A broken leg … it heals.

A cut on our hand … it heals.

But words, negative words, go deep, really, really deep … a parent calls us stupid … a spouse embarrasses us in front of friends … a teacher ridicules our art work … a boss calls us out in front of co-workers.

We carry wounding words all of our life … pray as we do, the Spirit heals, but those ugly words never quite go away.

Thank God for beautiful words.

A teacher believes in us … a friend consoles us … a sermon opens up the heart, and God comes rushing in.

We remember those words, too - they carry us along; give us calm in the storm, peace in the night, courage to face whatever life throws at us.

All of this - from the tongue.

An amazing little critter.

James raises a tough question: Can we be consistent with our tongue? 

Recently, someone sent me an email with lots of lovely photos -  children, dogs, cats, whales, mountains and trees, and photos of our women and men in the armed services … beautiful pictures, portraying dedication, devotion, duty … and, then, in the middle of the pictures, as I’m scrolling down, a statement:

“ACLU has filed a suit to end prayer from the military completely. They're making great progress. The Navy Chaplains can no longer mention Jesus' name in prayer thanks to the ACLU and others.”

Just like that, a lie!

The American Civil Liberties Union has never filed suit to end prayer in the military … Navy Chaplains can pray in Jesus’ name any time they want, with anyone they want, anywhere they want.

In the midst of all those lovely pictures, an ugly lie … 

A spring cannot send forth both fresh water and brackish water … but the human mind can do it all the time.

James writes:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

Sadly, the internet is a breeding ground for half-truths, falsehoods and lies …

“President Obama is a Muslim.” No he’s not. He’s a Christian.

“President Obama was born in Kenya.” No, that’s not true. He was born in Hawaii.

Conspiracy-mongers believe that 9/11 was an inside job “arranged by our government,” or “planned by Jewish extremists.” Those are lies.

A story told by motivational speakers and preachers: “In 1953 a Yale University survey found that only 3 percent of students had long-term goals, and 20 years later, when the same students were interviewed again, the 3 percent who had long-term goals were not only happier and more productive but also had a net worth as great as the other 97 percent combined.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Only one problem … it’s not true. It’s a lie. These studies never took place.

Some of the worst lies ever told begin with, “The Bible says …”

People who held slaves quoted the Bible all the time; preachers and missionaries defended slavery … some of our Presbyterian ancestors wrote long and eloquent essays promoting slavery; Presbyterian preachers stood in their pulpits before pious congregations and proclaimed the rightness of slavery - “Slavery is God-ordained; it’s in the Bible, and if it’s in the Bible, it’s good enough for me” … and then said to their congregations, “Let us now bow our heads and say our prayers to the God who made us free in Jesus Christ.”

For centuries, Christians told lies about Jews and quoted the Bible … Christians killed Jews and quoted the Bible …  burned synagogues and forced Jews to convert at the point of a sword … and quoted the Bible.

Men who abuse their wives quote the Bible; parents who abuse their children quote the Bible …  people who believe in a flat-earth quote the Bible … people who believe in little green men from Mars quote the Bible … murderers and thieves and dictators and preachers and politicians all quote the Bible.

I quote the Bible all the time.

But quoting the Bible means nothing if we fail to preach the whole counsel of God … If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Without love, there is no truth … without truth, there is no love.

Sometimes love requires silence.

Ecclesiastes says: There is time to keep silent, and a time to speak.

Sometimes silence is golden … look before we leap, and think before we speak … words said in haste are like toothpaste - easy to get out; impossible to put back in.

The writer of Proverbs says: When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.

But most of the time, Jesus speaks out … so does Paul … so do the Prophets.

They speak out when others are getting hurt … widows, orphans, aliens … a voice for the voiceless … like the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, a defender, a shield for the vulnerable.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
      and what does the LORD require of you
      but to do justice, and to love kindness,
      and to walk humbly with your God?

Sometimes we get the “humble” part right … but too many of us forget how to “do justice” and what it means “to love kindness.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said: 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.

Ellie Weisel, a concentration camp survivor, said: I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

God is a God of Words.

With words, God creates the heavens and the earth.

God speaks to Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and Saul on the Damascus Road.

The disciples proclaim the gospel in many languages on Pentecost Day.

With words, peace is won, forgiveness offered, wrongs righted, the righteous made strong.

We pray the LORD’s prayer, seek the LORD’s blessing … sing our hymns … say to a loved one, “I’m sorry” … to God, “forgive me” … to the world, “Remember God your creator” … to our children, “Carry on and bring the world closer to God, closer to peace, with justice for all” - all of this with words.

Paul the Apostle writes: How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? How are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? How are they hear without someone to proclaim him?

Whatever the day, whatever the time, may our tongues be useful in the service of Jesus Christ our LORD.

To God be the glory!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

September 9, 2012, "Close Your Eyes Now and Then"

James 2.1-7

It’s been a quiet week for Calvary on the Boulevard.

Labor Day is done, and the dadgum calendar flips its pages at us with careless abandon.

Kids are back in school.

Days are getting shorter, and so are some of us.

Deciduous trees are losing their leaves, and some of us are losing our hair … which we don’t like … and what we’d like to lose is some weight, and that’s really tough.

Our choir had its first rehearsal this week, and here they are today, the first Sunday of a new season of song.

Our Designated Pastor Nominating Committee is awaiting its first list of candidates.

Soon we’ll be electing new elders and deacons, and filling out pledge cards for another year of mission and ministry at Calvary on the Boulevard.

We’ve welcomed new members in the last six months, and we’ve said farewell to others … some have moved to faraway places, and some are with the LORD, waiting under the alter, waiting for the Great Gettin’ Up Morning … time marches on.

If time teaches us anything, time teaches us humility.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Which reminds me, do you know why angeles can fly?

They take themselves lightly!

Time reminds us that time is valuable … we have but one life to live, and we hope and pray to live it well.

Friend of mine wrote: “If we approach life always trying to carefully avoid mistakes we will make the biggest one of all. God made each of us to cultivate a spirit of adventure. When that is squelched we die a slow death and miss out on the rarefied air of God’s provision and grace. Faith is a verb…”

Faith rolls up its sleeves and goes to work.

Faith isn’t afraid of long days and hard nights.

Faith tackles the big questions and the big issues of life.

And nothing bigger these days than money.

Money seems to be the talk of the town - and does anyone ever seem to have enough of it?

We dream of money … winning the lottery … we live in a world where everything has a price, and anything can be bought with enough money.

In politics these days, we hear a lot about the wealthy - Wall Street brokers, bankers, investment managers - the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson - massive donations to their candidates.

The influence of wealth is a big question in America right now.

And it’s is a big deal for James.

For the Apostle Paul.

For the prophets, and for Jesus.

It’s Jesus who tells us that that a person of wealth has a hard time entering the kingdom of God.

God knows how easily we fool ourselves with our eyes.

If it glitters, it has to be gold.

When I began my interim work here, Al Richards told me he’s a rock hound - a collector of rocks - he gave me a piece of fool’s gold - it sits on my desk.

A reminder - don’t be fooled by appearances.

Don’t be dazzled by glitter.

God knows that sometimes we just need to close our eyes.

Garrison Keillor tells a cute story of two friends, Bud and Bob, putting in a dock in early spring … Bud is in the ice-cold water, with hip waders; Bob is holding the other end of the dock on land.

Wouldn’t ya’ know it - an enormous fish swims right through Bud’s legs; scared the daylights outta him - he slipped and fell into the cold water, filling his waders … and with waders filled with cold water, we’re talking a serious situation.

His friend Bob asked, “Are you all right?”

Which is a dumb question to ask when your good friend is head over hells in an ice-cold Minnesota lake, flopping around with waders full of water.

Bob runs to get a branch, but by this time, Bud’s too cold to even grab on.

Bob runs into the house to call 911.

Meanwhile, the next door neighbor, Roy, who Bud has had run-ins with, again and again, over the years, comes out, walks into the water, grabs hold of him, gets him into the house, gets his clothes off and puts him to bed.

Bud is recuperating and thinking … when you almost die at the hands of your best friend, and it’s your life-long enemy who saves your life, maybe, when you’re selecting friends, competence ought to be a factor … maybe you ought to think about that a little bit, says Garrison Keillor.

There’s more to life than meets the eye … and that’s what James is getting at.

To look at people as God see us!

James writes to his community:

When a person of wealth comes your way, you fall down and make a fool of yourself … you invite them to sit in the best seat of the house.

When a poor man comes your way, you get snotty and uppity and tell the poor man he can stand by the wall, or sit on the steps by the feet of the wealthy.

And, then, just to drive home the point, James says, It’s the wealthy who make life difficult for you. They drag you into court. They have no regard for the name spoken over you in your baptism.

Remember the parable of the Rich Fool?

The rich fool surveys his fields and builds mighty barns, and says to himself, I built it.

I did it myself; it’s all mine.

No one helped me.

I owe nothing to anyone.

I’m in no one’s debt.

And I’m just going to keep on building bigger barns.

No humility.

No realization that God is the great decider on wealth.

The simple truth, the embarrassing truth:

The wealthy don’t work any harder than a man picking strawberries in the fields around Oxnard, or the woman waiting on our table at Denny’s … 

The wealthy are not any smarter than anyone else.

The wealthy play a lot, too … expensive toys, expensive hobbies, and lots of travel to expensive places designed just for them and their expensive tastes.

In the language of the world, The wealthy are just damn lucky.

In the language of faith: 

We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.

The wealthy have a hard time telling the truth their wealth - that’s why Jesus says they have a hard time getting into the kingdom of God.

If the wealthy tell the truth about their wealth, there is only one thing to say: God built it, not me!

If the wealthy tell the truth about their wealth, they have to admit: God gave every bit of it to me - God gave me my family, my values, my strength, my health, my opportunities, people who believed in me, teachers who taught me, bankers who loaned me money when I needed it, friends who stood by me, and a whole world around me.

If the wealthy tell the truth about their wealth, the wealthy have to say: I owe all my wealth to God … I’m not smarter than anyone else … I don’t worker harder than the guy mowing my law, the woman cleaning my bathrooms, the young lady walking my dogs, or the guy parking my Ferrari at the hotel. All of these people work just as hard as I do, and are just as smart as I am, and I owe them everything, because they work for me, and I am called by God to work for them.

I have known people of wealth … many of them grow hard and cruel toward others; sure, they love their families and treat their children well - great family people, they may be, but they expect the best seat in the house … often use religion and god-talk to mask their greed and pride ... like the Pharisee in the Temple, praying lovely prayers, eloquent prayers, beautiful prayers, but with a stone-cold heart - proud of himself and contemptuous of others.

I’ve known people of wealth who dare to be Christian … tender toward others; a deep sense of humility, gratitude … they use their power to change the world, to level the playing field, give everyone a fair chance; they respect the people who work for them, honor them with good wages, fair benefits; willing to enjoy a little less so that folks can enjoy a little more … they fly like the angels, because they take themselves lightly and take God seriously!
Wealth is a big deal for James … a big deal for the Bible … because the love of money is the root of all evil
 … these days, the world needs to hear the Christian gospel, loud and clear:

When it comes to people, close our eyes now and then - consider people from God’s perspective … a man wearing jeans and a stained t-shirt is just as glorious in the sight of God, and maybe even more, then a man dressed in the rags of the world, Armani suits and Gucci shoes.

Live the kingdom of God, says James.

Whatever the price.

Live for Christ.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September 2, 2012, "Careful Listening, Deep Loving"

First in a series of messages from the Book of James.

James 1.19-27

I have come to the Book of James late in my life.

I’ve quoted from the Book of James throughout my ministry - the famous line, faith without works is dead, but it’s only in the last 5 or 6 years that I’ve come to read and love the whole Book of James; to spend time with it … to appreciate the fullness, the breadth and depth, of the message of James …

It’s a small book with big ideas.

Wisdom - ask God for it, and God will give it to us.

Never doubt God’s good intentions.

Wealth - wealth is dangerous.

And to the wealthy, some of the toughest words in all the Bible.

Prayer is powerful.

Patience in hard times.

Be honest with ourselves and honest with one another.

Do not let anger take hold.

Watch the tongue … it’s small, and it’s mighty … like a tiny rudder on a large ship … or a small flame and a forest fire.

Be quick to listen, slow to speak.

Pure and undefiled religion: caring for widows and orphans.

My son tells the story of a 16-year old orphan boy - parents dead from AIDS … no one to pay for his schooling; schooling in Swaziland isn’t free. And he lives where he can.

He took art lessons as part of my son’s last project … the young man learned how to mix colors and use brushes, so he could do mural work on a social center.

Part of the training was to encourage artistic talent in a culture where art is largely missing; to encourage them use art as a profession, that it’s possible to make a living from art, and these lessons were given by professional artists.
Students were also given bristol board with supplies to take home for practice.

My son gave the young man a GI Joe comic book, and the young man did a large rendition of the cover - he had to mix his own colors, but he did it … Josh will show it to you now.

And, by the way, Josh will have a chance to chat with you after the service … and at a later date, will give a report on his Peace Corps work in Swaziland - many thanks to Calvary on the Boulevard and your generous assistance for my son’s work.

But for now, an orphan boy with talent.

And a reminder from James: pure religion, the religion God desires, the love God wants us to share - to care for orphans and widows in the their difficulty … 

Who are the orphans and widows in our world here and now … in Los Angeles … Southern California … the Southwest … or Chicago, Miami or Baltimore, and a thousand other places around the world?

In Los Angeles, how many children live on the streets?

How many widows live on a small Social Security check … eking by, day-by-day?

Some Christians say: Preacher, tell me how to get to heaven. That’s what I need to know. What will it take for me to get to heaven? What must I know? What must I believe?

James tells us:

We get to heaven by loving what God loves here and now … and doing what God does.

James knows full well that we CAN love what God loves … and we CAN do what God does.

Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the 16th Century, called James, an epistle of straw.

Luther doubted the book of James because James reminds us that good works are a reflection of real faith.

Faith in the LORD Jesus Christ, if it’s real, rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.

We have to be kind to Luther.

Luther suspected James because Luther saw what Medieval Christianity had become - a religion of works-anxiety - have I done enough to go to heaven when I die?

Medieval religion was all about going to heaven, and if you didn’t do things rights, you would go to hell, and if you didn’t go to hell, you would at least spend millions of years in purgatory, because even the really good weren’t that good, and fire-time in Purgatory was necessary to purify the soul so that some day the soul could get to heaven.

Life in the Middles Ages was short, dark and damp … so getting to heaven was everything … 

The church used this to manipulate people with fear.

Luther knew this firsthand.

His early spiritual life was filled with anxiety.

Have I done enough to merit god’s favor?

Have I confessed my sins, all of them?

Will I ever know peace with God?

Luther could see no way out … until he read the Book of Romans and learned that those who are right in the eyes of God live by faith … faith alone … faith in what Jesus has done … to cover our sin, and pave the way for our entrance into heaven, free and clear.

When Luther read the Book of James, Luther was suspicious of anything that smacked of law … anything that would compromise the power of faith.

We might well learn from Luther what troubled him about “good works.”

Luther saw folks trying to be good … not for the sake of being good, but in order to save their own necks!

Luther rightly understood - a deed done for another human being to further our own spiritual standing isn’t a good a deed at all.

The hungry may be fed, and that’s good.

The naked might be clothed, and that’s good, too.

But the giver is damned, for there is no love in such deeds … for the giver loves only herself … the hungry and the cold are used to further the spiritual status of the giver.

We can read James and grow in our faith-understanding … and realize, full and clear: Faith gives birth to works.

Faith in God is our love for what God loves.

Faith in God is our effort to do what God does.

To live a life pleasing in the sight of God!

Quick to listen, writes James.

Slow to anger.

Because anger cannot produce God’s righteousness.

Put away evil, says James.

And what is the evil we’re invited to put away?

Moral filth, as the Common English Bible says.

When it comes to filth, don’t be misled by the last 150 years of fundamentalist preaching.

It’s not about sex and alcohol or card-playing and dancing, or swearing and cussing - as some have preached.

It’s a failure to listen to one another.

A failure to care for one another regardless of social status.

It’s playing favorites with social status - give the wealthy man the best seat in the house, and tell the poor man to stand against the wall or sit at the feet of the wealthy.

It’s the adulation of wealth and the condemnation of the poor … a spirit of carelessness and selfishness.

To counter this moral filth … to resist the contamination of our spirit, James writes: Welcome the word deep inside of you.

And what is that word?

The royal law, says James: Love your neighbor as yourself.

James takes us to Jesus.

And it’s Jesus who takes us to the Father.

And it’s the Father who says to us, This is my son, the chosen one, listen to him.

James has listened well to Jesus.

And it does us well to listen to James.

For in James, we see Jesus.

In the words of James, we hear the Word of God.

Amen and Amen!