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!

Taming the Tongue

“Taming the Tongue”

James 3:1-12 (3:8) – September 12, 2021

            Who remembers the schoolyard saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” There’s a problem with that saying. We all know that words can hurt. And sometimes, people remember mean words, nasty words or harsh words years after they heard them. Sometimes even decades later. Words can come back to haunt us – either words we have said, or words we have heard. Internalized. Taken to heart.

            Our letter-writer James would whole-heartedly agree. Remember, in this letter the apostle James writes a manual of Christian living. A how-to book on how to live a life pleasing to God. This is the point in the letter where he talks about the tongue, and how powerful it is. James begins by comparing the small tongue to other small but powerful items. “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.” James does want to help us behave in a way pleasing to God. However, the tongue gets in the way of that, big time!      

            I am sure you and I know this, from long experience. Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a nasty argument, or angry words? We can use our tongues for positive words and kind comments, or for negative, hurtful sniping. This use of the tongue causes all kinds of bitter feelings and sometimes can escalate arguments and even cause fighting.   

            Who hasn’t experienced this negative use of the tongue? It’s no wonder that many people hesitate to jump in the middle of quarreling, arguing people. And, bullies? Gossips? Those who misdirect or misrepresent themselves or others? People who use particularly nasty or hurtful speech? Not positive ways to win friends or influence people.

Our commentator Dr. Derek Weber tells us that James wants to help us tame the tongue. It’s true that many Christians don’t take this recommendation of James all that seriously. However, “we’ve all experienced the sting of the tongue as we were growing up, and even as adults. We all know what it is to bear the brunt of rumors or misrepresentations or words spoken in anger. And just as likely we know what it is to watch our words bring pain to another, intentional or not. How can we get worshipers to take this text seriously?” [1]

I remember when I went to the circus with my children, when they were small. Watching the wild animals and their circus acts was truly amazing! Lions, tigers, other large animals – the oohs and ahhs coming from the audience were real, let me tell you! As often is said in YouTube videos and on reality television, “do not try this at home!” Wild animals are dangerous! It is so similar with the tongue! Trying to tame the tongue is often as difficult as trying to tame wild animals! (That’s why James uses this example in verse 7.)

We have talked about how dangerous the tongue is. Yet – is gossip THAT bad? Surely, a little gossip can’t hurt. Just letting people know the whole story. Just filling in the gaps. Surely, gossip isn’t as bad as murder, or stealing, or lying, is it? Is it? But, what would James say?

Instead of spreading gossip about people, how could we turn that around? How can you and I spread a good report about people? Sometimes, about the same people we gossiped about? Instead of saying something cutting or annoying, how can we say positive things? Have good, helpful words come out of our mouths? That would be kind, be caring, and even be forgiving!

I know it takes some time to correct bad habits. Perhaps our sometimes-bad, sometimes-mean, sometimes-thoughtless words are habits that many people need lots of help with.

Let’s face it, some do not want to start correcting negative words, malicious gossip, and rude comments. I can just hear some say, “Pastor, don’t we have bigger fish to fry? More serious sins to be concerned with?” Ahh, yes. But, a little thing like the tongue can be poisonous, hurtful, even mistakenly cruel and thoughtlessly punishing.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

I do not want this sermon to be all negative! So, “let’s talk about the good we can do with our words. Let’s talk about what it means to bless. The internet is full of lists of ways to praise a child [or young person], for example – the words we can use for encouragement and for building up.”[2]  How did you feel, deep down inside, when you recall how you felt when someone said good, positive things to you or about you? Just think hard about the impact of these words! What kind of words were they? How were the words said to you? A compliment, a kind, caring word, an encouraging comment – all these are positive uses of the tongue! We then understand how powerful words are!

Speak positive, kind, encouraging words. (Think those caring, kind thoughts about others, too!) Just like with toothpaste, after you squeeze it out, it is impossible to put all the toothpaste back in the tube. Just like our hurtful or thoughtless words. Once they’ve come out of our mouths, they’re so hard to take back. That is why we need to be super careful about how we use our words.[3]

With God’s help, we can tame our tongues. With God’s help, we can speak kind, helpful, encouraging words. Words that build up, rather than tear down. Positive words, instead of negative snipes or hurtful jabs. What would James say? More important, what would Jesus do?

Remember, in this letter the apostle James writes a manual of Christian living. A how-to book on how to live a life pleasing to God.

How would Jesus speak? Would Jesus speak kind, helpful, encouraging, positive words? Do that. And, God will be so pleased!

@chaplaineliza

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


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

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

[3] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/doers-of-the-word/sixteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-lectionary-planning-notes/sixteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-youth-lessons

All in the Family!

john-8-36-freedom-in-christ

“All in the Family!”

 

John 8:36 – October 30, 2016

Happy Reformation Day! Today is Reformation Sunday. When I say Reformation Sunday, what do you think of? “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God!” Or, Martin Luther, beginning the separation from the Catholic faith on October 31, 1517. What about a day to remember and lift up the Protestant Reformation? Or even all the faithful man and women of integrity through the centuries, who suffered and died for being true to their faith?

The Gospel reading for our sermon has a fascinating connection to Reformation Sunday. Jesus is teaching. And as often happens, His listeners do not understand what Jesus says.

All of this chapter of John—the eighth chapter—takes place in Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths. That is a yearly harvest-time celebration where the Jewish people commemorate God’s protection and accompaniment of the Jews on their wilderness wanderings; when they flee from bondage in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

I think Jesus said it clearly enough, but I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear His words, with first-century ears. And we all know about hindsight. Looking back on things past, hindsight is so often 20/20. Rewinding the tape, living life forwards, the Jewish audience in the Temple in Jerusalem wrangle over what Jesus means by His words. Some agree, some disagree, with contention back and forth.

What are the exact words Jesus says, again? “31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The listening Jews—who include the disciples—do misunderstand. Therein lies the source of a great deal of bickering back and forth.

The Jews listening to the Rabbi Jesus are—for the most part—really sincere. They really want to live righteous lives, pleasing to God. But—HOW to do this? That is the problem. And, competing teachers or rabbis had different plans, or step-by-step procedures to help people get closer to God. (It sounds pretty similar to today, doesn’t it?)

Let’s dig deeper, and look at the first phrase Jesus said: “If you hold to My teaching.” This is a phrase that can be translated in several different ways. A more literal way of translating it is “If you abide-dwell in My word.” Remember, we are talking about people who sincerely, legitimately want to get closer to God; see God more clearly, and follow God more nearly.

I suspect people have had difficulty in this area for centuries. Not connecting with God, I mean. Merely “teaching” sounds like it might be possible to get away with just having a nodding acquaintance with God. A kind of distant relationship where we might once in a while attend services, and think about God just a bit, and maybe drop a little money in the basket. But, not much more. Not get really involved.

What about the more literal translation? What was that Jesus said? “If you abide-dwell in My word—” Abide, or dwell. That sounds permanent. Moving in, and putting down roots! And, “in My word.” That is, digging deep! Learning more, and exploring the riches of God’s word. No surface stuff here. Not a nodding acquaintance only, as far as Jesus is concerned. He wants us to move in, lock, stock and barrel. Get to know God, really well, and get to know God’s word. That’s how to show we are really Jesus’s disciples!

Now, the second part of this if-then statement. Because, that’s just what it is. If we abide-dwell in Jesus’s words, then we are really Jesus’s disciples. If we know the truth, then the truth will make us free.

What on earth? Who is free? Who is a slave? What is Jesus saying here?

Can you see the scene in the Temple, here? The Rabbi Jesus makes an incredible statement, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Let’s quote the exact words, the comeback these people gave to Jesus: “They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

A Reformation Day paraphrase could be: “We are the theological descendants of Martin Luther, and have never been slaves to anyone!”

In other words, “What gives? Who are you calling slaves? Slaves to what? We are free-born people, not slaves!”  Jesus has a ready answer. Verse 34: “ Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

Did everyone here listen? Did you all hear what Jesus said? Sounds a lot like Romans 3. Paul quotes from Psalms: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; … there is no one who does good, not even one.’” And further on in chapter 3: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That does not sound like good news. But—does the Apostle Paul tell us that we are permanently worthless, and there is absolutely no way to reconcile to God? Does Jesus stop right there, and leave us enmeshed in sin? Certainly not!

Jesus “is not talking about physical slavery but a spiritual, even existential state of being enslaved to sin.” [1] The Jewish listeners in the audience around the Rabbi Jesus just did not understand. They could not wrap their heads around the concept of “slaves to sin.”

Quoting again from a commentator: “Further, one is not delivered from such slavery by either history or birth right, but rather by a present and ongoing relationship — relationship to the Son, the one who is in the bosom of the Father and makes the Father known (1:18). Only those who abide with, dwell in, and are in intimate relationship with the Son, the living Word, the logos of God, are free indeed.” [2]

This is exactly what Martin Luther was preaching, from the moment he posted those 95 Theses on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg. We are not hopeless slaves to sin. We are not people with merely a nodding acquaintance with God. Instead, we have an intimate relationship with the Son, with Jesus. Moreover, we are freed through our belief in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for our sins. That’s yours and mine. All done! All gone. Our every sin is covered, taken away, is no longer separating us from God.

That is not only good news, that is great news! Tremendous news! And the best news of all? If we abide in His word, Jesus says we are now in God’s family. Listen to what He says in our Scripture passage today: “35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Jesus lets us know that a relationship with God is not only a possibility, but a reality. And, the closest relationship of all! All in the family. We can call ourselves the children of God; sons and daughters of the Almighty. We can enter into intimacy with God. We have the right, the privilege to crawl up into our Heavenly Parent’s lap, and call out, “Abba!”

That freedom was what Martin Luther got excited about. That intimacy is the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. That relationship is what we are heirs to today.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=827 , Commentary on John 8:31-36, October 31, 2010, David Lose.

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)