Those Who are For us – Lectionary 09/26/2021

Mark 9: 38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Sermon Text

            The scripture which we read a moment ago immediately follows the scripture which we read last week. Jesus, having walked along a backroad with his disciples, came to rest in a home in Capernaum and began to teach them. The teachings are all in response to a conflict which happened along the way. Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and killed. They responded by debating who among them was greatest, perhaps even with an eye to replacing Jesus in his ministry. Jesus knew about this argument and confronted them about it, asking them to realize that to be great in the Kingdom of God was to be a slave to all the world and that to resemble Jesus was to be a welcoming, loving, suffering presence.

Jesus’s teaching concluded with him embracing a child he had brought into the midst of the disciples. Last week we did not talk much about this gesture but let’s take some time now. In Jesus’s day, we would be wrong to say people did not love and cherish children just like we do now. We can read letters between parents and to their children that show that human beings have always doted on their children. However, socially, children were toward the bottom of the hierarchy. In ancient household there were strict understandings about who was most honored and who was least honored. Children ranked just above slaves, and even in their low position, they were further ranked based upon birth order and sex. A first-born son had more honor than a second born and both had more honor than a daughter.

Jesus called his disciples together and picked the lowest member of a household to lift up and praise. He told the disciples to welcome children as though they were welcoming him, to serve people who could do nothing for them. If you welcome a child, says Jesus, then you will begin to understand what it means to follow me, then you will know what it is to be part of this mission I have to all the world. If only you can serve those who offer you nothing.

John’s statement at the start of our reading for today then seems to interrupt the flow of Jesus’s conversation. Jesus returns to talking about “little ones,” after answering John’s inquiry, but he has to address something that John has brought to his attention. We might be tempted to see the two conversations as unrelated, a retelling of a moment John butted into Jesus’s words mid teaching. However, Mark in writing the Gospel was purposeful in lining up this conversation as it is recorded. We are supposed to see John bringing up the exorcists that they had met as part of the lesson the disciples need to learn about servanthood, and it is only by taking this section as a whole that we can begin to see exactly what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus speaks strongly in this passage. He goes immediately from telling his disciples not to stop those doing work in his name to warning them about the dangers of Hell. The passage ends with the ominous truth that “all will be salted with fire,” and we are left to really examine ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. What do all these moving parts have in common? Children we must welcome, sin we must avoid, work that we must not inhibit, and Hell we must avoid at all costs. I would argue that the central theme of this passage is about how we welcome God into our life and how we often choose not to welcome God any further.

Jesus is told by John that there are people working wonders in his name, and John proudly tells Jesus that they told them to stop. John saw these outsiders as working across purposes to Jesus’s ministry. It was, after all, the disciples who were being taught how to bring about the Kingdom. If people started seeing others doing good work in Jesus’s name, they might be confused who was really the authorized leadership of the Church. How disappointed John and the other disciples must have been when Jesus turned the issue around and said they were the ones in the wrong for stopping the men from doing what is right.

Returning to the child he had before him, Jesus asks the disciples to examine their conduct. What are they doing that might cause this child to stumble in their pursuit of God’s goodness? Whatever it is, it has to stop, if not for their own sake, then for the sake of the children they will teach in the future. Jesus tells them to remove anything from their life that causes them to sin, more specifically I would say, any evil that they commit that other people might feel inclined to emulate. As much as this warning of Hell and an incredibly hungry worm is a personal matter, it cannot be denied that Jesus is speaking to a group about issues that effect the group. “If you wish to follow me, you have to be fit for purpose and you cannot be a career sinner and call yourself a saint.”

Jesus here does something we are terrible about doing in the modern era, and probably have struggled with long before that. Jesus asks the disciples to shift where they see threats to the Church coming from. They have revealed in their discussions that they saw people doing good in Jesus’s name and thought they were causing trouble, yet they are unwilling to see how they are harming Jesus’s ministry and by extension the community of the faithful through their own actions. Just a few moments ago, Jesus had them all come to terms with the fact they were discussing who would take over when he had died, and now they wanted to look at outsiders doing God’s work and judge them on whether or not they had good intentions.

The Church has often applied harsh criteria to those outside of it. More than that, cultural units within the Church add their own rules and regulations so as to make the pews of a sanctuary nearly impossible to properly enter. We look at the vast mission field around us of people who have yet to enter into God’s kingdom and we try to pick out those who are most like us. Those who are most willing to go along with what we are already doing. Those who might serve us, rather than those we might learn to serve.

Jesus was antithetical to this in how he taught. We see Jesus going into the world to find people not like himself. Samaritans who worshipped the same God, but with different scriptures. Gentiles who, though not his main focus, always tracked him down and sought his grace. The poor who could offer him nothing. The people with bad reputations and worse behavior who ultimately were just as beloved by God as any well-to-do member of the local temple. Jesus finds these people and preaches to them about a coming kingdom that will change everything. The poor will be lifted up, the rich cast down. The repenting sinners will be honored above even the most righteous of priests. There will be life, and life abundant for all people who wish to join into the community which God has begun.

Yet, to those who were in the community already, Jesus had harsher words to say. His disciples, perhaps more than any other group, were constantly given stern warnings about what they needed to do to truly be part of his Kingdom. Hell, or as Jesus called it, “Gehenna,” was a place that you could only fear if you truly believed in it. Despite what we might presume, it was not universally held that such a place existed in Jesus’s time. Sadducees, for example, held to the orthodox belief that death was the end of all life, and that you ceased to exist when you stopped breathing. It was only among Pharisees and other prophetic groups like those who surrounded Jesus that Hell was taught, and even then, views on what it was differed.

What stands out about Jesus’s teachings is that Hell was not something he used to scare people into joining his movement. As he says elsewhere, it is God’s righteousness that brings us to repentance, not God’s judgment. Hell was instead, almost whenever he spoke of it, a warning to those who should know better. The rich who tithed heavily in the Temple but did not care for the poor outside their doorsteps. The Pharisee who prayed loudly in public but could not keep away from his many affairs. The Disciple who gave up everything but could not part from their pride.

We do not use Hell in discussions of our own sin because we have presumed for far too long that Hell is just something we talk about before people get in the Church. Once we are in, we believe that we are saved without a question, and that any speculation on our own salvation somehow doubts God’s efficacy. I do not believe that to be the case though. It is the doctrine of the Methodist Church that a person may lose their salvation if they cast God aside, if they recant their baptismal vows, if they are unwilling to live as God has called them to live. Not because we are saved by works, but because our works necessarily flow out of the position and attitude of our Spirit. If we wish to engage in any sort of Hellfire and Brimstone preaching, it must begin by preaching those words to ourselves.

There are two forces at work within us, alongside the general inclinations to good and evil which are obvious to all of us. These are our assurance that we are truly saved through faith, and our contrition that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The one brings us to praise God for saving us from ourselves, the second acknowledges that we have not fully given ourselves over to what God would have us do in this life. One allows us to be confident that we have been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, the other instills a healthy concern for what it would ever be like to lose that blessed state. Hell, aside from all fire or torment it might contain, is ultimately the separation of a soul from God. Sin is what separates us from God. We must hate our Sin, we must be better than we are now, because if nothing else it puts a wedge between us and God. Why should we tolerate any distance between ourselves and God when all that is in the way is our own unwillingness to change?

Today when we come to our time of prayer, I invite you to take a moment to really think. To look at your life as it is and decide if you are happy with it. Is the money you have comforting you more than helping those in need would? Is the lust of your eyes as comforting to you as genuine relationships might be? Is the anger and fear and resentment worth it or is it time to give love a chance to reign in your life? The fact is that we all need to repent throughout our lives. More than that, repentance is not just saying “I did something bad, forgive me!” That’s confession. Repentance is actually changing that behavior, and we all have something we have held onto far too long I’m sure.

There is much to be said about what it means for “those who are not against us [to be] for us.” When I set out to write this sermon I meant to do so with a focus upon the divisive nature of our modern culture, the unwillingness of us to work with people who differ even slightly from ourselves. We will have time for that I think, but the Spirit moved me differently as I sat down to write. They asked me to write of Hell, not to scare any of us into anything, but to remind us that we must come together as a Church and fix ourselves – each individually – if we wish to fix the world around us. There is a gulf between us and God, one that Christ has placed a bridge over through his work on the Cross. We choose everyday if we want to keep walking across that bridge or if we are content to sit as far as we’ve walked and no further. However, I hope we all cannot tolerate any longer and distance between ourselves and our savior.

Let us examine our hearts, let us be ever more invested in our service to God and one another, and in so doing let us be better at being friends to all people whom we meet. – Amen.

Afraid to Question – Lectionary 09/19/2021

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Sermon Text

            I like questions. I like to ask them, and I like to answer them. Curiosity is how we learn and inevitably curiosity leads to questions. When we go into the world and look around, it is best that we let our mind wander to the things we see. The bird that flits from one tree to another is amazing. The dog barking far away from us is a suddenly attracts our interest, and the flower blooming between two fence posts speaks to the power of life itself. These sights all produce wonder in plain ways. The miracle of creation as expressed through the living things within it are among the first things to call us to look toward God. Those experiences of nature, those first furtive questions which we allow ourselves to have, are often lost to us as we age.

The ability to question naturally extends beyond how we react to nature and into the relationships we have with one another. It is all well and good to ask about birds and dogs, its even better to study them and see how they come to be in the way they are, but it is in conversation with others that we truly learn. More than simply speaking, we are able to join together to perfect two senses within us. The first is our sense of hearing, or more specifically, the ability to engage with what we are told as we are told it. Secondly, we engage with our sense of Wonder, the awe that comes when we meet something new, or that is somehow different than us.

When we speak to one another, we convey more than just information. The tone of our voice, the volume of our speech, and even the particular words we choose, all carry a great deal of meaning beyond their literal definitions. When we really listen to one another, we are not just picking out words and running them through a dictionary. Instead, we are engaging with a person’s soul. As we said last week, our mouth and our heart are closely intertwined, and if we allow ourselves, we can learn a lot from just shutting our mouth and opening up our ears. Whether we are seeking to know nature, one another, or God, we will always find that reaching out beyond ourselves produces some amount of wonder – the realization of a world beyond and bigger than ourselves.

In our scripture today, like so many describing Jesus’s ministry, we see that the truth of Jesus’s teachings are often sidelined because his audience is unwilling to really listen and, as a result, unwilling to question. The path Jesus takes from Galilee to Capernaum is meant to be a long way off from the crowds that usually surround Jesus. As many of us have done in our life for people we care about, Jesus is taking the backroad so that he can spend a bit more time with his disciples. This is not just sentimental on Jesus’s part, but also allows the disciples to have unrestricted access to Jesus. Yet, when given the chance, we are told that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus anything.

It is impossible to say why the disciples were afraid to question Jesus. I think Mark may be purposely vague here, hoping for us to see ourselves in the petrified disciples. Perhaps they, like us, were afraid that questioning Jesus would set them up as outsiders among the disciples – as someone who did not “get it.” Maybe they were once confident they knew Jesus well, but this most recent teaching hit their ears and made them doubt their knowledge of God. Most dangerously of all, the disciples may have reached a point where they were confident they knew everything about Jesus and simply ignored the possibility that he had anything new to offer them.

This teaching in particular would challenge people at any level of faith in or knowledge about Jesus. If Jesus really meant what he said, then this whole countrywide ministry was going to end with Jesus dying by public execution. Even with a promised, almost immediate, resurrection, this would have lodged in the pit of the disciples’ stomachs and left them perplexed. There was no single idea about what the Messiah was going to be like in Jesus’s day, but none of the differing perspectives included death on a cross. To die in such a way was shameful, not the work of a victorious savior! If Jesus really meant this, then the Kingdom was not to be found in crushing Judea’s enemies, but in something else. To question Jesus here would shatter everyone’s world because the question, “Do you really mean it?” Would necessitate a “Yes.”

Whatever fears we have in questioning something, it is seldom worse to know an answer than to not know it. “In much Wisdom is much vexation,” (Ecl. 1:18,) yet that vexation is worth more than ignorance. The more we learn about the world around us, the more troubled we will become. There are a lot of things wrong with the world and the deeper you dig the more tangled the roots seem to be. Yet, at the same time it is only in digging through those roots that we begin to find the real fruits of knowledge. Adam and Eve erred by seeking knowledge from a goodly looking fruit on a high branch, if only they had sought something more terrestrial, we might still be in Eden.

When we begin to learn of God, we usually experience something similar. We initially rush into the Kingdom when we see the salvation we are offered, but then we get caught up in the muck and mire of this life. We study scripture and find ourselves confused by its teachings, or perhaps disturbed by some of the history it records. We live in the Church and find that the people inside the walls are often as broken as anyone outside of them. We experience the raw pain and frustration of life, and we realize that there is more to life than singing, “Trust and Obey,” on a Sunday morning. Yet, even in the midst of all that, the light of God shines through. As we learn more, as our heart is grieved by the brokenness of the world and the challenges we face, there is always hope that God can explain things a bit more clearly or that our tears may turn sooner than we expect into laughter.

Sometimes, all the same, we do not want to dig any deeper. We become content in what we know and look at these difficulties we face and try to cram them into the worldview that has served us just fine until now. For the disciples, this meant denying a suffering Messiah by arguing amongst themselves who would be greatest – not only in the world to come, but in their imitation of Jesus. If they were really imitating Jesus though, they would be seeking to live a life like his – a life that ended on a cross for the crime of loving others too much. The disciples were so sure of themselves that when Jesus told them he must suffer, they could only think of what that meant for their own good fortune. They were not listening anymore, they did not allow themselves a single question, because they knew everything they cared to know.

Today we have a term for this sort of intentional ignorance that comes from an over estimation of our knowledge and abilities. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a theory that describes several stages of knowledge. People who know nothing about something know they are ignorant, and those who know a lot tend to be realistic about what they don’t know. Yet, there are two dangerous points on that progression from one to the other, the first being a state of extreme confidence, and the second being a complete lack of the same. The high point of our confidence at the lower end of our actual capabilities is often called “Mount Stupid.” This term is a bit critical, but effective in what it conveys. It is here where we make a lot of ill-informed statements or give simple answers to complex questions. The second low point is sometimes called, “The Pit of Despair,” and is where we are likely to give up questioning for a different reason, out of the desperation that we will never truly be able to learn about a subject.

Both these places are dangerous to be in as we pursue any subject in life, but especially in our pursuit of God. From the height of one extreme, we command those around us to see God exactly as we do, to do and speak and act as we do. From the depths of the other extreme we abandon God except in rote repetitions of old prayers and creeds. At one point we are the Sanhedrin condemning God to die for supposed sins against our sensibilities, at the other we are Job finally throwing up his hands and giving up his interrogation of God. Neither is a good place to be, although I think one is more dangerous than the other. A person who is convinced they know nothing causes harm to their own wellbeing; a person who thinks they know everything harms anyone who listens to them.

What would the world look like if we allowed ourselves some honesty about what we knew and did not know? More than that, what if we remained inquisitive all the way along the paths of life which we take? There is something beyond the heights of pride and the depths of self-doubt and that is the humility of true knowledge. Beyond those hills and valleys is the understanding that we do not know everything and that that is ok. It is also the knowledge that we can have questions, we can ask them, and that by asking them we will find some kind of answer to see us through the struggles of this life.

Primarily, we learn about God through scripture. As daunting as these pages can seem, they are a source of knowledge which we can always depend upon. When we are unsure what the scriptures mean, then we turn to scholars, commentators, and pastors to help us understand what they have for us. Sometimes finding honest examples of these is difficult, but if you ever have a specific question or interest, let me know and I will try and find out. Beyond these two textual sources, there comes the knowledge we gain together. As we share our troubles and our joys, we hopefully begin to see God working in the community of faith we call our own. In the moments we find that nothing seems to have a satisfactory answer for us, we can at least rest in the knowledge we have one another, and we have God to sit beside us in uncertain times.

The key to all our pursuits is to take hold of the opportunities we have to learn, whatever form they take. Together, that means listening carefully to one another. With God that means studying scripture carefully. In prayer, it means being unafraid to ask, “How Long O’ Lord.” At every turn we must see the way from where we are to where we must be as it is presented in our scripture today. We walk alongside Christ and one another. Do we take time to argue and elevate ourselves? Or do we seek after God and ask questions of God and one another that lead to us all growing and flourishing? Today, let us commit to question everything, not out of mistrust, but trusting that we will receive an answer. – Amen.

With Many Words – Lectionary 09/12/2021

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 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.

Sermon Text

           To speak is to wield a deadly weapon. Our tongue is an implement sharper than any sword and its reach stretches far beyond its simple frame. To open our mouth ant to pass air through our larynx is to make a large move toward either goodness or evil. No pitfall is dug more quickly than the one we dig with idle talk, and no mess is harder to clean up after than the mess left in the wake of hurtful words.

The dangers of speech should be plain to us. James spares nothing in how harshly he expresses their effects here. More than just what we have read, we should see how much of our own lives are consumed in the outcome of words. The serpent in Eden did not conquer us through force, but by a few spare words. The pages of a few telegrams were enough to launch a world war. Marriages end, friendships crumble, and even Churches fall when we let our words get way from us. Though actions speak louder than words, it is the multitude of our words that ultimately sinks us. Perhaps that is why Jesus taught us as he often did, not only in simple parables, but in admonitions against wordiness.

To our tendency to tell tall tales and make false promises, Jesus forbids oath taking (Matt. 5:33-37.) The words we speak are lifted up as one of the fruits of either a good or bad life (Matt 12:33-37.) The Lord’s prayer is taught to us so that we do not overcomplicate our prayers, but keep them brief, earnest, and to the point (Matt. 6:7-8.) Jesus builds upon a wealth of wisdom from scripture to make clear time and time again that we are to guard our tongue. It is, perhaps more than any other tool we use in life, the most closely linked to our heart – for good or for ill. The things we say, and how we say them, matter.

There is a tendency for us, when we begin to study passages that speak about how evil roots itself down into our hearts, to respond in one of two ways. Either we direct its lessons outward and try to attack others or we over emphasize our own fallenness to the point of absurdity. The former looks like the impulse many of us likely had as I read our scripture. This impulse take the form of a long list that populates the moment we hear about gossips and people who speak carelessly. We think of them with a dismissive chuckle and thank God we are not nearly so sinful.

The second impulse is antithetical to the first, and more subtle in its danger. We sometimes hear of the wickedness of our heart and decide that we must be completely evil as a result. We decide that, since we are really so dirty and sinful, then there is no meaning to us trying to be good, and all that matters is that we can acknowledge how bad we really are. Yet, the reality sits somewhere between these two ideas. In every person is both good and evil, two trees that feed off of very different streams. As se inspect our own souls, we cannot presume either tree is greater than the other, but we must seek the truth honestly.

The difference between appearing to have found the truth and actually living into is demonstrated, I think, by a Facebook post I saw long ago. The author was responding to someone else they did not name, about how foolish it was to try and be “authentic.” They described what it would mean if they were authentic in their thoughts and feelings. The listed about how they would yell at people who made them angry, that they would tell people they looked ugly when they asked how he liked their hair, and that he generally would be vicious to anyone and everyone he met. To be authentic, he argued, was to be cruel, and we were better off pretending than acting in a way consistent with our hearts.

In a way, he was correct. It is better to not say something cruel even if we think it. However, I hope we can see in his self-examination, an example of something that straddles both extremes of our less productive responses to our own sinfulness. On one hand, the author successfully identified that he was a mean person, and so living into the meanness would be more hurtful than it would be helpful. However, his conclusion was not then that he should change that disposition of his heart, but instead pretend it did not exist. Thus, he could triumphantly say those arguing for “authenticity,” were the real fools, because lies alone preserved society.

We must be more nuanced in our self-examination. Everyone here is a sinner, myself included. Yet, no person here is completely evil, myself included. We all have good and we have bad, the good which God grows within us and the evil we have grown up ourselves. If we are honest when we look in the mirror, we will not think too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but honestly assess both our strengths and our weaknesses. Returning to the idea of “authenticity,” the authentic Christian is not someone who tries to be the best version of who they presently are but is constantly in a state of becoming. We are presently both good and bad, but we must seek to be more good and less bad as time goes on. This goodness and badness is something, again, which we must see in how we speak just as much if not more than how we act.

It is appropriate to draw my example from Facebook, because social media is where much of our daily conversation happens these days. Not just on Facebook, but on Twitter and Tiktok, and to a lesser extent Snapchat and Instagram, we are constantly broadcasting speech to the world. It is in these places that we see ourselves in our most idealized and raw states. On one hand the keys on our phones and laptops give us distance to manicure an image. Our photos can be of us and our things at our best lit and most put together.

We share and write posts that put forth an image of who we hope people see us to be. Contrarywise, that same distance makes those we disagree with seem unreal. Suddenly, the well manicured image we have made disappears as we remove the mask to yell at strangers across cyberspace.

Entire online industries depend on this outrage. Videos of one person “destroying,” another are shared with incredible ferocity. We love to see our opponents humiliated by people we agree with. Every comment and share is an affirmation of the violence which our words work in the world around us. I think that much of the perception which people, especially older people, have of a more sensitive world is actually an acknowledgement of a more aggressive one. Our words cut deeper, our actions that follow likewise are intensified. We go for the jugular of one another the moment the chance presents itself, often to the harm of all parties involved.

These issues are not limited to violent or cruel language, abut also to dangerous falsehoods. Lies spread quickly these days and the faster they fly the harder it is to untangle or stop them. Sometime last year in the midst of one of the many popular scandals that was flying around, I had a loved one say something to me that I knew was untrue, but that I could not satisfactorily debunk at the time. Digging into the matter took me several hours. In that time I found the original quote that was then misquoted elsewhere, then misrepresented somewhere else, that was then lied about in yet another place.

By the time I knew the cause of this lie, I had a full plate of evidence. Yet, in that time those lies solidified in the mind of my relative, they were now part of their worldview. No amount of evidence could change that.

This weekend we observe a solemn remembrance of the September 11th attacks. Much has changed in the two decades that have passed since then. Most striking of all is the change in how we speak of things, sometimes for good and often for bad. I think that our response, literally how we talked about the attacks and what followed, has revealed a great deal about ourselves. To articulate what I mean a bit more concretely, I want us to look at a medium most of us can relate to on some level – namely country music. Though I am personally more a fan of alt-rock and metal, I am too much a West Virginian to not have some affinity for Alan Jackson and Reba.

Alan Jackson is one of the musicians to respond to the tragedy with his song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning.)” The song is a ballad that captures how it felt to live in a world that suddenly changed faster than anyone could respond to. It captures feelings of sorrow and anger and fear, but it rests on a thoughtful refrain asking us to really think about what it means to live in a world that has been shattered. The other song that was archetypal of our speech following the attacks was Tobey Keith’s, “The Angry American.” Keith had written a battle hymn that dreamt of a fiery revenge against America’s enemies, and glorified those attacks that had already been launched against Iraq and Afghanistan. These two responses capture a variety of valid emotions, but one is rooted in thoughtfulness and carefully chosen words, and the other puts emotions before anything else. For myself personally, twenty years later having only the slightest sense of a world before the attacks, I take much more from Jackson’s words than I do Keith’s. In particular, it is Jackson who quotes scripture, saying that though he knows nothing else, he knows, “Faith, hope and love, are some good things [God] gave us, but the greatest is love.”

Despite my own predilection, I think Keith and his style has won out in modern country and in our disposition as culture. We are more combative than ever and Country music, and indeed most genres of music, now are confrontational when they are not vapid. There is much to critique in Country music, and in rock and pop and any other kind, but perhaps the most distressing thing our musical tastes show is our continued willingness to fight with one another. Though Keith wrote “The Angry American,” about revenge, his later songs were more pointed towards those he disagreed with generally. That tone, dismissive at best and violently oppositional at worst, defines how we speak to one another. Exacerbated by tragedy, our words have torn each other apart more and more over the years.

Before I pontificate on “cultural issues,” or become just another minister complaining about “today’s music.” I want to return to more obvious ways words affect us, but looking at a case study of when my own words got me into a bit of trouble. Once a dear friend of mine and I had a falling out because of five words I spoke without thinking. I was working at WVU, sitting at the Bennett-Lyon residence hall desk, and after a few hours on duty a coworker came down to speak with me. After a bit of back and forth, she shared concerns that my friend was mistaking her friendliness for romantic interest. I shook my head and told her not to worry because, “He thinks everybody loves him.”

Fast forward almost a year. My friend decides to ask a different woman we worked with if she has feelings for him, afraid that she was going to be hurt when he did not reciprocate. She snapped back at him for this. In her response to his question she said that she had heard about him, and the fact that he “thought that everybody loves him.”

It did not take long for him to track those words back to me, and he was rightfully angry. He did not speak to me for several months after that, an impressive feat because we lived in the same building and worked together. The silence broke when he asked me to help him at a food bank. We went and worked and, on the way back, he said this to me (slightly edited to avoid colorful language.) “John, there are a lot of crappy people in this world, but I guess you are one of the least crappy.”

These words, backhanded as they were, began the process of healing. Several months would pass before our friendship looked even passingly like what it once was all the same. The story, unfortunately, does not end especially well. We both went on to separate callings, moved away and fell out of touch. Distance and circumstance worked into the cracks of what we had rebuilt and pushed apart the ruins into nothing. I still think of him, and a few others I’ve hurt in my short life, and the weight of what was and could have been sits heavy in me.

The image of fire that James uses is appropriate because when fire burns a forest down, the same trees that burned are seldom what grows back. When we speak without thinking, we hurt others with wounds we cannot just take away with apologies or gifts. The damage is done and even if the earth should heal, something else must grow in the place of what once was. Our words matter because they are deadly in a way weapons could never be. Lies, insults, even just inconsiderate speech, these all burn away the bonds of love faster than anything else ever could.

What then is our cure? Can there be hope for us? There is always hope, hard won though it may be. Firstly, we must be honest about the damage our words have caused in the past. If we confess our sins before God and one another, we can identify the wounds they have caused.

Next, we must not simply ask for forgiveness, but offer penance for the wrong we have committed. How can we trust those who have hurt us? By seeing them prove they are committed to repairing the damage and healing the relationship that was severed. Absolution is only complete when the damage that was done is healed to the satisfaction of those who were wronged. Sometimes that means things go back to how they were, sometimes that means that they must sadly end, and sometimes that means something new and in-between must take that place.

As a confessed sinner by way of my words, I must acknowledge how James begins our passage. Not all should be teachers, for we are held to much higher standards, and we should be. As your minister, I seek in all things to speak truly, but also kindly and considerately. If I ever breach my responsibility to any of these callings, keep me honest. If you do not wish to speak to me directly about something I have said or done, go through the PPRC, they exist to mediate such trouble. While I strive in all things to be compassion, considerate, and to listen more than I speak, I still a sinner with a speech impediment dependent on God’s mercy. Correct my wrongs.

If we do this together, then we will see growth. If you keep me in line, I’ll try to the same for you. We all must work together to grow, to mind our tongues, and to learn to bless rather than curse. We must reach out to one another and to the world with love and peace on our lips more often than anything else. We will still fight, we will still disagree, but we can do so with love and respect for one another.

That respect means honoring one another feelings, opinions, identities, and backgrounds. That love means seeking one another’s good above self-interest and self-satisfaction. We must avoid petty fights, because we all must agree, it is easier to prevent a fire from happening than try to put it out. Let us seek together to be better in controlling our words and through this exercise together let us someday learn how to perfect every aspect of our conduct toward one another. – Amen.

A Table Set for All – Lectionary 09/05/2021

James 2: 1-17

            My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2: 5-7, 14, 17

5. ἀκούσατε ἀδελφοί μου ἀγαπητοί οὐχ ὁ θεὸς ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ πλουσίους ἐν πίστει καὶ κληρονόμους τῆς βασιλείας ἧς ἐπηγγείλατο τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν

6. ὑμεῖς δὲ ἠτιμάσατε τὸν πτωχόν οὐχ οἱ πλούσιοι καταδυναστεύουσιν ὑμῶν καὶ αὐτοὶ ἕλκουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς κριτήρια

7. οὐκ αὐτοὶ βλασφημοῦσιν τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς

14. τί τὸ ὄφελος ἀδελφοί μου ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν

17. οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ ἔργα νεκρά ἐστιν καθ᾽ ἑαυτήν

Sermon Text

 Preference is a dangerous word. I have many things in life I prefer over another thing. I prefer my coffee sweetened with cream, or in the case of espresso, cut with just a little milk. I prefer the BBC and NPR to other news sources. I prefer hot mix pepper to sweet. All these simple statements of “This, more than that,” make up the basic inclinations of a person’s life. It is natural to develop predilection, but it is also one of the most dangerous tendencies of a person’s soul. This is often the case, something natural and even good can easily become twisted. Beatitude and curse living shoulder to shoulder.

The preferences with which we mark out our life are meant for these small things. They become dangerous if they go beyond the way or substance of how things are done or made and become the feelings we have toward people or groups. Preference is the word we use for things, but the only English work that can convey the same idea toward people is prejudice. Partiality toward one group over another, if it goes beyond matters of taste or honest disagreement, can only be negative. If nothing else, partiality for one thing is nearly impossible to exist without animosity for another.

This does not mean there will not be natural things that endear some people more quickly to us than others. The nature of friendship is often found in a moment of realization which C.S. Lewis captures in saying, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”[1] Shared interests, similar backgrounds, all manner of life experiences, all of these can start us off on a better foot with those around us. The end result of that initial impression is a jumpstart to relationships, it is the ability to hit it off with people we can relate to. It is, all the same, another dangerous precipice of a gift we are given. The allure of people who are too like us creates insular communities; we become unsure how to reach out because all around us are mirrors reflecting our own views backward.

Next month we will look into some of our more destructive habits associated with the preference we show toward certain groups as we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Today, we look at one of the more subtle ways we contribute to prejudice in life – namely, through our tendency to show preference to those who have something to offer us and our ambivalence or outright distain for those with nothing to give us. This is what James highlights directly in our scripture and what we, 2,000 years later, have not gotten much better at rejecting it now than we were then. Our preferences in much of life are rooted in self interest and none are clearer than our preference for the “right,” sort of people.

The early church was initially a group made up almost exclusively of the poor. The disciples were all poor by birth or by choice, and while it did not take long for some well-to-do individuals to join their ranks, the central identity of the Church was impoverished, marginalized, and powerless. As time went on this make-up fluctuated back and forth. While the poor made up the bulk of membership throughout history, the leadership of the church shifted into higher socio-economic levels. This disparity could be remedied by humble ministers and elders, but it had a definite impression on the culture of the Church.

Lest we let ourselves see this development as a purely systemic problem of the church, I invite us to turn back to James and his words, just a handful of decades after Jesus’s ministry. James looks at his audience and sees them giving preferential treatment to the rich in their community. These are not just wealthy church members, but anyone in the community with wealth and power. James points out, bluntly, that the well connected and well off are the same people who actively persecuted the church. Those who were given the place of honor at a Sunday brunch were the same people to litigate the church at the next civil court date. The people of God were chasing after the powerful, the wealthy, and the influential because they saw something “in it,” for them.

Perhaps, I am not being generous enough to our first century siblings. There were likely those in the early church who saw their neighbors with influence as good people to have on their side. Money can pay for a lot of things, filling bellies and providing for those without. Similarly, a high rolling community member joining the Church could solve some troubles of reputation. A local politician or businessperson would normalize Christianity for more people and in a way distinct from others with fewer connections.

These inclinations, though rooted in good intent, ultimately betray those who get out to act upon them. Firstly, wealth and power corrupt more than they heal. To chase after the rich and see them as a means to an end is to invite them to rule over the Church, to recreate society within sanctuary. Power enables those who have it to pursue what they want, and all but the strongest people can resist that. Beyond any negative impact these good intentions might have, to chase after the approval of the rich in this way, ultimately objectifies them. They cease to be people and become line-items; we fail to expand a community in exchange for refining a program.

This all played out on a grand scale in the fourth century when the newly crowned Emperor Constantine legalized all religions in the empire and especially elevated Christianity. Though never fully converting, the emperor gave fortunes to the church, his Christian mother traveled the empire to collect relics, and he gave bishops room to speak in the public square. He was even the one to call the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council since Jerusalem and the moment that marked an imperial Christianity that was intimately tied to money and power.

We today live in a waning period in the history of the Church. As religiosity largely decreases and the size of churches stagnates, we must go back to basics and ask, “What went wrong?” If we look at some of the most common reasons given for people leaving the church, we will see no small part of our troubles coming from who we have shown partiality toward. Since Constantine, and perhaps even before, we have looked to power and money and seen them as the way out of our troubles. We say, “If we only had a bit more money,” or “If only I was the one in charge.” We take these “what ifs,” and pursue them through worldly means.

The purpose of the Church is not to be in charge. Nor to have a great deal of money. It is to “[preach the] pure word of God… and [to see] the sacraments duly administered,”[2] and to gather all the world together in service to one another. Does this sometimes require interacting with secular authority? Yes. Does it require money? Of course! However, neither of those are to consume our focus. They are only truly important to us as they augment our mission. We cannot bring heaven to earth by inviting the ways of the world into the Kingdom of God.

James lays out the situation we find ourselves in plainly. When we deny a spot at God’s table for the poor and those who can offer us nothing in exchange for those who have money and means, we are sinning through prejudice. When we look into our community and see liabilities, strangers, and expenses rather than our siblings, we sin through our lack of moral vision. When our only hope is to stumble upon a wealthy donor to magic away our troubles, we sin through idolatry as blatant as any Asherah.

The truth is that the Church has been trying to be a political organization on one hand and a business on the other for too long. While we must be efficient, responsible, and transparent in our administration of the local church, we must not see it as anything but a mission center of Christ. Here work is done, and people prepared for the Kingdom, little else matters than that. Likewise, though members of a church must be active in politics so as to promote the common good, we are not a partisan institution. Neither should we strive to dominate through legislation when the Spirit provides more power than Babel ever could.

By posturing itself as the worst parts of society, the Church in America has fallen from grace alongside those other pillars. We don’t trust those in political office, nor the Church that often serves their interests in an attempt to gain favor. We don’t trust businesses, they only want to make money, not even usually to render an honest service. The American Church, not quite a political lobby and not quite a business empire, has suffered as much as either in recent decades.

Yet, hope remains. In the same way we as individuals are never beyond God’s grace, so to is the Church universal never broken beyond repair. We have to push beyond where we currently stand into new territory. What would it look like if we privileged the poor around us over the rich among us? What if we, blessed with abundance as we are, truly gave all we could to those who struggle around us? What if the mission of the Church was centered once more on feeding and doing and moved away from simply thinking and praying? A truly alive faith does the work of God wherever the Spirit calls and the Spirit calls from every empty cupboard and rundown house around us.

James asked a difficult thing of his audience all those centuries ago and the same hard work is still in front of us. Can we ignore what people have for us and instead simply see them as they are? The discomfort this lodges in our gut is rooted in a simple realization. The journey from well off church goer to just another person seems like a much further drop to us than we imagine it would elevate those who are unlike us. We see ourselves standing on mountains and all other people standing in deep valleys. Yet, James offers us a means to get over this perceived inequality.

In the midst of his petition for the people to cease their privileging of the rich, James goes on a quick tangent to discuss how judgment and mercy interact in God’s economy of Grace. James says that partiality is a sin in violation of love of neighbor. To sin in this way equalizes us with any other transgressor. This is said, not to excuse the villain, but to convict the saint. We may see ourselves as greater than the least of these, but as James puts it, God has chosen the poor to be heirs to the Kingdom. We are no better than the needy and in truth, we must step down from the crude throne we have made for ourselves if we wish to draw near to the throne God has made among them.

We prepare now to share in the table of God’s grace. Hopefully, the full weight of its observance sits upon us now. We prepare to take thin wafers and sour juice and see in it the body of Christ. We will leave this place invigorated by the Spirit to be the body of Christ. The real test of our faith will be in how we live out our life in the time from now till we next take part in this meal. Will we have seen the face of Christ in those around us? Will we invite them in to sit beside us at this table, not for want of attendance or tithes, but to fulfill God’s will and turn the kingdom over to those it is promised to? The table is set for all, let us see to them receiving not only their invitation, but their full due. – Amen.

[1] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves.

[2] The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church. Article XIII