Draw Near to God!

“Draw Near to God!”

James 3:13-4:8 (4:8) – September 19, 2021

            Do you know people who quarrel a lot? I mean, a lot? Some people are not satisfied with anything. I am sure you recognize these people. They regularly moan and kvetch and sometimes outright quarrel about what they have or about what they don’t have. James tells us about these dissatisfied, disgruntled people in our Scripture reading today, among other things.

            We see two kinds of attitudes in our reading today. Two kinds of wisdom, and two kinds of people. One comes from earth, and is grasping, envious, with selfish ambition. The other comes from God, and is peace-loving, full of mercy, and considerate above all things! How do we come to terms with such a stark, black-and-white difference in wisdom? And in people?

            It might be repetitious to read these words from the end of chapter 3 again, but we really need to listen. Again. “if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” I know how seductive the features, things and practices of the world can be. God forgive us for being so distracted and fooled by the world’s wisdom!

            Who is brave enough to admit that they have envy in their hearts, sometimes? Again, who is forthright enough to admit they have selfishness in their character, sometimes? These worldly traits or features are sadly prevalent in this world. Every person alive feels these worldly emotions from time to time. I have, and I suspect you have, too. The problems these negative emotions can cause! They bring a lot of misery in the lives of many, many people, too.

            Let’s consider the worldly, flawed way of thinking and being, for a moment. (Actually, we all fall into this way of thinking and being, more often than not.) Carolyn Brown, retired Children’s Ministry Director, has written a prayer for this reading. Listen, if you would, and see whether these words from Ms. Brown do not resonate in our hearts.

Dear God, we want to look amazing.  

We want great clothes, cool shoes, a great haircut. We want our homes filled with our stuff.

We want all the best people to be our friends. We want to be the first, the best, the most, the greatest. So we grab and hold and demand. We even kick and punch to get what we want.

Forgive us.

Teach us to let go, to open our hands and hearts to others. Teach us to be content with what we have and to share it.

Teach us to think as much about what OTHERS want as what WE want. Teach us to be as loving as Jesus. Amen. [1]

In this reading, James also presents us a much more positive way of wisdom: Godly wisdom. We hear James describe this attitude, this way of acting and thinking, with God’s help. Let’s read the attributes James lists: “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” Who would not want to display these kinds of positive, caring, loving attributes? Living God’s way is a sure-fire way to show these kinds of character traits! At least, according to James.

What are the operative words that James tells us are essential? Even, imperative? Peace, mercy and gentleness. That’s what this short list of positive, caring, Godly attributes come down to. I know in this letter, this basic manual of how to live the Christian life, James talks a great deal about doing. How to do, what to do, and why we ought to do it, please God! Except – here James concentrates on the inner person. How do we live this way? What motivates us? What is the fuel that keeps us going? Peace. God’s peace. James says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” An internal reservoir of peace within each one of us that translates to an external harvest of righteousness. (THAT sounds like practical James!)

In the Gospel of John, in the Upper Room discourse on that last night before He was betrayed, Jesus gives us a great gift. He says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, but as I give it to you.” Maybe, just maybe, you and I just don’t understand the concept of peace. At least, the kind of peace Jesus – and James – talk about here.

“Maybe we’ve defined peace as the absence of something, of conflict, or worry, of trouble, of doubt; but Jesus wants us to define peace as a presence. Peace is not what we’ve emptied from ourselves, but what we’ve filled ourselves with. And what we’ve not filled ourselves with is ourselves – at least according to James.” [2]

            What – practically – can we take away from this reading today? Peace is the way OF God. Peace is the how-to of living a life pleasing to God. Peace is being filled with the presence of God.

            In this practical letter, this how-to manual, James advises his friends on how to live in a way pleasing to God. “Peace is possible, even while [you and I] are works in process. This isn’t about completion and the satisfaction of a job well done; it is about a journey of discovery and transformation. But peace can be our companion in the journey to keep our feet on the path.” [3]

            Practical James would wholeheartedly agree! Keep on keeping on. Live in God’s peaceful presence. It’s a sure-fire way to have God draw near to each one of us.  

Alleluia, amen!  


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2012/08/year-b-proper-20-25th-sunday-in_30.html

Worshiping with Children, Proper 20B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2012.

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/doers-of-the-word/seventeenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-lectionary-planning-notes

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Tell God All About It

Psalm 130:1-8 (130:1) – June 27, 2021

            Have you ever felt alone? I don’t mean alone in your house or apartment, where you can putter about, checking on things as you wish, sequestered from the hustle and bustle of daily life. No – I mean really alone. Desperately lonely. Do you feel so sad and abandoned that it seems like no one could ever come alongside of you – or me – ever again?

            I sincerely hope you have rarely felt such raw loneliness deep in your heart. However, many people have. The unknown author of our psalm has. Psalm 130 is a heartbreaking cry of loneliness and desperation. “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord!”

            Whatever type or category of deep emotion we may be feeling, chances are one of our psalm writers has already documented it. The Psalms talk about emotions and feelings all over the interior human map, and Psalm 130 certainly hits one of those deep, emotional troughs of loneliness and despair. Can you relate? Have you – or one of your family – ever felt this way?

            This past year and a half has been a roller-coaster ride all over the track of emotions. Frequently for many, many people across this country, a great percentage of these emotions have been negative. Loneliness, anxiety, fear, grief, despair. With the isolation the pandemic has brought into so many lives, these are sadly familiar emotions and feelings.           

            Isn’t it ironic that this particular psalm should be a Psalm of Ascent? A special psalm that pilgrims to the big Temple in Jerusalem would sing as they approached that holy place. At first glance, how odd that this special psalm would start off with a heartfelt cry of loneliness and pain! However, this Psalm of Ascent is a true, authentic cry from the depths of the heart!

            Yet, haven’t we experienced people often doing something inauthentic and false, today? I can remember friends and acquaintances from my church-going past who would slap on a “happy face” for show, on Sunday morning. Yet, they wouldn’t breathe a word about how sad or frightened or miserable they were truly feeling. I suspect you remember the same kind of people, who would wallpaper over their deep, internal emotions and simply put on a “happy face.” I sometimes think of that as people’s “church face.” Totally a false face.

            Instead, we could ask God, “Pay attention to my suffering, and for heaven’s sake, have mercy on me!” “Often such a demand issues from a sense of God’s absence in the depths. Pain, whether physical, psychological, spiritual, or some combination, can be so isolating that we feel abandoned to our misery, even by God.” [1]

Except, Psalm 130 is not just about loneliness and abandonment. As the psalm writer continues in this Psalm of Ascent, he moves to forgiveness. Our psalm writer today might say, “Gracious God, please. I’m so tired, and I really need You to listen to me. If You, Lord, kept track of all my sins, all of everyone’s sins – Lord, could anyone stand before You?” (That’s a rhetorical question, you understand.) Thank God, my sins are covered, and so are yours!

I have known a few people who never, ever ask for forgiveness. We might call that kind of emotion arrogance! Imagine, never seeking forgiveness! “The arrogant person thinks he or she is above it all. Seeking forgiveness is the way we step back from the arrogance of our self-centered universe and see ourselves as we truly are.” [2]

            How do we approach God on Sunday morning? Do we wallpaper over our true emotions and put on a nice, happy “church face,” or are we true and authentic? Showing our deep emotions as they are? God knows us better than we know ourselves, even if we might try to fool others at church, in our community, even our home.

            For that matter, how do we approach God the rest of the week? God isn’t just for Sunday mornings. The psalms over and over let us know that instead of hiding deep sadness from God, the psalm writers choose to tell God the truth about their feelings.

            Let’s consider at certain people who feel so rotten and so horrible that they think God could never forgive them. I met a patient years ago, when I was a chaplain. This dear senior was so fearful that she was never going to be good enough for God. She had thought for decades that God was going to consign her to the depths of hell itself. Thank God I was able to reassure her that God did, indeed, love her. And no, a divorce because of an abusive marriage almost 50 years before would not mean the difference between heaven and hell for her.

            The key to this loving understanding about God’s character is found in verses 3 and 4. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.” “Forgiveness, in other words, is who God is. This Psalm is about the very character of God, which remains steadfast even in the abyss. God is revered because “with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (v. 7). God’s unchanging love is the essence of who God is, and God’s power is precisely the power to redeem.” [3]

            Psalm 130 is gentle balm for battered and bruised souls. Yes, we can say with the psalm writer, thank You, O God, for forgiveness and mercy! Thank You, O God, for steadfast love and redemption!  

And most of all, as we pray to God about how we feel, honest, authentic prayer can help us remember God’s promises to love us and to be with us always—no matter how much in the depths we are feeling at any moment. For that, we can all say alleluia, amen!

(Thanks to Elizabeth Webb and her commentary from Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014. I took several extended ideas from that article. And thanks to Illustrated Ministries for their lesson for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost from Psalm 130, from their 2020 Summer Children’s series.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] [1][1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-psalm-130-4

Commentary, Psalm 130 (Lent 5A), Elizabeth Webb, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

[2][2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Compassion? Go and Do Likewise

“Compassion? Go and Do Likewise”

Luke 10-37 good-samaritan, line drawing

Luke 10:25-37 (10:37) – September 3, 2017

A good number of years ago, my husband and I attended a large church. This church had a great number of activities, classes and ministries. One of the classes that I enjoyed attending was one particular adult Sunday school class. In this class, there were a number of middle-aged and older adults, some of whom really enjoyed discussing and arguing together about the finer points of the Bible. Some of these people were really knowledgeable about Scripture, about archeology and about ancient culture, and they could argue their points to beat the band. Did I mention that a number of them were lawyers?  People who were well trained to argue and press their points firmly. Even pouncing upon and verbally trapping their adversaries.

While I enjoyed this verbal sparring on occasion, this got a bit tiresome. Instead of huddling together, talking among ourselves inside a church classroom, I wanted to go out into the community and talk with others about the love of God. I wanted to show people how much God loves them.

That’s the situation in the Gospel of Luke. The Rabbi Jesus was having another one of His religious conversations, about the finer points of the Mosaic Law Code. Yes, Jesus knew the Law of Moses backwards and forwards. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures intimately. Yet, so did many of the religious leaders who asked Jesus question after question. Especially this religious lawyer who asked Jesus several questions. I believe this lawyer was well trained to argue and press his points firmly. Even pouncing upon and verbally trapping his adversaries.

I love this compassion series that I have been using for our summer sermon series. The Illustrated Children’s Ministry has done a tremendous job of translating the weekly Bible passages into an understandable story that anyone can understand. I bet we all know passages from the Bible that are so difficult. Not these Scripture passages! These Bible translations are straightforward so that anyone from 5 to 95 can easily understand them.

Let’s listen to the beginning of Luke 10, starting at verse 25: “A man who knew a whole lot about religious laws came to Jesus with a question. He said, “Teacher, how do I really, truly, live with God?”

“Jesus asked him, “Well, what does God’s law say? How do you understand it?” The man answered him, “It says to love God, completely—with heart and soul and strength and mind—and to love your neighbor like your own self.” And Jesus said to him, “That’s it! Do that, and you’ll have the life you’re asking about.”

That’s the initial question the lawyer asks. How does he—how do we—really, truly, live with God? Jesus responds with the question, “What does God’s law say?”

I recently preached a sermon about this all-important two-part law: we love God completely, the vertical part of love, and we love our neighbor like our own selves, the horizontal part of love. That is distilling all of God’s many commands in the Bible down to the foundation, the very core of what God expects from us. That two-part command is enough for another sermon. Indeed, many sermons have been preached on this bible verse!

But, wait, there’s more. The religious lawyer wasn’t done with the Rabbi Jesus yet. He goes a step further, and asks another question. I am not certain whether he wanted to trick Jesus, and make Him trip up verbally, or whether the lawyer felt really convicted, and wanted to justify himself.

What does our Scripture passage say? “Still wondering, the man asked, “But who exactly is my neighbor?” And in response, Jesus told this story.”

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. A certain man—an anonymous, undefined man, so we are not sure where he fit in the social order—this man was beaten up and left for dead while he was traveling. He is identified only by what happened to him.

Two fellow travelers came upon him, on the side of the road. One was a priest, an important religious man. He looked at the hurt guy from a distance, and then turned and went on his way. The second was a Levite, another important lay leader at a synagogue. He also looked at the hurt guy from a distance. He, too, crossed to the other side of the road and passed by the guy who was lying in a ditch.

Both of these men were upstanding leaders in their communities. Both of them had significant stature. Both of them neglected this poor guy who was obviously in need of help. We are not told why, just that both of these very important people stopped, noticed the guy who was beaten up, and passed by on the other side of the road.

Now, the third man to pass by was a Samaritan. I don’t know whether you are aware of the fear and even hatred the Jewish people had for Samaritans. Think back a number of decades. Can anyone remember the fear and animosity parts of this country had for black people? How Jim Crow laws were firmly in place in large parts of the South? Let’s go back to World War II, and the perceptions of Germans, Italians, and Japanese in the United States. There was a great fear and animosity for these groups of people.

Now you might better understand the fear and hatred the Jewish people had for these half-breed Samaritans, supposed traitors to the people of Israel.

The third person to come upon the hurt man in Jesus’s story? He was indeed a Samaritan, and he did something none of Jesus’s listeners would expect. The Samaritan was kind to the hurt man.  As commentator David Lose tells us, “the Samaritan instead goes to him, and becomes vulnerable in that closeness. How often are we frightened to come close to others simply because we do not want to bear their pain, to be open to their need?” [1]

Most of the people listening to this story would have been enemies to the Samaritans, since Jews and Samaritans did not get along. How do you imagine the people Jesus was talking to felt when they heard this story of a Samaritan reaching out to help a Jew? Can we take this shocking story and move it to the present day? Are we shocked when we see a newspaper article or television news story about an observant Muslim man helping an elderly Orthodox Jew who has fallen and hurt himself on a busy sidewalk?

Again, are we frightened to come close to others simply because we are afraid of being open to their need? To their pain?

The Samaritan showed compassion by binding up the hurt man’s wounds, taking him to an inn and paying for the hurt man to stay there and recuperate. Compassion, indeed, is sympathy put into action. As I have been preaching each week this summer, God wants each of us to show compassion to others. Be kind, show mercy, be sympathetic. Just like the Samaritan.

We need to look at the end of the story from Luke 10. Then Jesus asked, “Who became a neighbor to the man who was attacked?” And the man with the questions said, “The one who had compassion for him.” Jesus said, “Go. Do that.”

I can just see the religious lawyer, shocked that the hated Samaritan is the good guy in this story of the Rabbi Jesus. His answer in response to “who became the neighbor?” The lawyer couldn’t even say “the Samaritan,” so he said “the one who had compassion.” Jesus speaks to us, just as strongly as He spoke to that lawyer so long ago. We are to have compassion, in exactly the same way.

“No one is beyond the reach of God’s love. No one. And so Jesus brings this home by choosing the most unlikely of characters to serve as the instrument of God’s mercy and grace and exemplify Christ-like behavior. That’s what God does: God chooses people no one expects and does amazing things through them. Even a Samaritan. Even our people. Even me. Even you.” [2]

What does Jesus say to the lawyer? What does Jesus say to us, today? “Go. Do that.” “Go, and do likewise.”

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-8-c-the-god-we-didnt-expect/  “The God We Didn’t Expect,” David Lose, in the Meantime, 2016.

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-8-c-the-god-we-didnt-expect/  “The God We Didn’t Expect,” David Lose, in the Meantime, 2016.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)