Sunday, September 23, 2012

The War Within

James 3: 13 – 4: 8, pages 230-231 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that God has made to dwell in us”? But God gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and the devil will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Sermon It’s been another exciting week in the news, and most interesting to me have been the stories of public people having their private life exposed. It’s not easy to be royalty, especially when someone is watching all the time. Despite considerable pressure to stop it, personal pictures of Princess Kate Middleton have been taken, sold, and distributed, proving that the world wants the image of the Princess in her finest evening wear, but even more wants to see her dirty laundry. To some degree, the image of who the world thinks she ought to be – refined, composed, and proper – comes into conflict with who she actually is. The same may be true for Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney who has been facing a similar challenge this week. It began on Monday when a video aired in which Mr. Romney describes 47% of the United States population as entitled victims. "[M]y job is not to worry about those people,” Romney said. “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." For the Democrats these remarks were an opportunity to expose their campaign opponent as the candidate for wealthy businessmen who plans on ignoring half the country, just as they claim, but for Mr. Romney these were off the cuff remarks, neither well thought out nor clearly understood by the media. I see a theme here, for in the first case everyone saw something they weren’t meant to see, and in the second the world heard what only a small group was meant to hear. I can relate to both the anger of Princess Kate Middleton and the frustration of Mr. Romney because I, like many of you, don’t always dress ready to appear on the cover of a magazine, nor does every word that I say make any sense, and that’s OK most of the time because there aren’t television cameras following me around everywhere I go. Because of that luxury I have a private life. I can be relaxed at home. There are parts of my personality that you see here in this pulpit and there are other parts that you might see at the grocery store or the farmers market. And certainly, the way I preach at a tent revival is different from the way that I preach here because we all make adjustments in how we handle ourselves depending on where we are and who we are surrounded by. While it’s still true for us, to an even greater degree it was true for the Christian community that James addresses in our scripture lesson for this morning. To live as a minority within the majority, to adhere to a belief system strange and foreign to their neighbors, to simultaneously claim that Christ is Lord in a culture that pledged its allegiance to Caesar – these Christians had to learn how to be faithful while not raising suspicion, how to keep a relationship with Christ without jeopardizing their relationship to their neighbors who had never heard of him, these Christians had to learn how to be Christian at home, at the church, around their family of faith, while acting differently, acting like everyone else on the street, at the marketplace, and at work. They were faced with a challenge that we all know too well – they were forced to act without losing themselves in the process. This is a challenge that should not be taken lightly. We are led to ask, who is Kate Middleton really – which one is the real Mitt Romney – but more importantly, who are you, really? Are you truly the person you are at home, or are you most yourself at school, at work, or at the gym? The reality is that we are faced with the same struggle that Christians of every time have faced – to remain true to what we believe even in a culture where we often have to adapt to survive. These adaptations must not be taken lightly, for truly there is a war within your very self as each aspect of yourself struggles to define the essence of who you are. Sure you never hang around her at school, but she understands that you have to act one way around them but that’s not really who you are. You are still an honest person surely; it’s just that to play the game you have to play by their rules. It’s not dishonest if everybody does it – right? It seems as though it should be possible to work according to the rules of business, supply and demand, focused on the bottom line rather than the least of these – Jesus wouldn’t have been profitable in the world of business so why not adhere to capitalism during the week and the Gospel on Sunday? And of course you don’t really mean all of what you say in private conversation – it’s just talk and it doesn’t mean anything because they weren’t meant to hear it – but if they weren’t meant to hear it should you really have been saying it? “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Last Monday morning a surgeon gave Mrs. Peggy Fleming a pacemaker to better regulate her heartbeat. That heart of hers has been ticking just fine for a number of years – but just how many years isn’t for just anyone to know. That afternoon I visited her with her son James, and as is always the case with Mrs. Fleming, she did more caring for me than I did for her. On my last visit she shamed me into exercising more often, and this time she recited me a poem that she taught all of her children, James included, by Rudyard Kipling and she told me to look it up and read it, which of course I did because you have to do whatever Mrs. Fleming tells you to do. The poem is called simply “If”: If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies, Or being hated don't give way to hating, And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise; If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much: If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! The title seems appropriate: “If.” If you can do it – if you can live in a world where you may be lied about, but not let that world corrupt you – if you can live in a world of kings and commoners without giving way to thinking that one is more important than the other – if you can talk with the crowds and keep your virtue, only if. Though it must be done, do not be so bold as to believe that living in two worlds will be easy. While there is no other way, do not be so bold as to believe that you can keep one foot in both places without losing your heart to one over the other. Instead “submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and the devil will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” And above all remember that “God yearns jealously for the spirit that God has made to dwell in you.” Amen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Religion that is pure

James 1: 17-27, page 229 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Sermon This is a strong metaphor about the mirror: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” It’s wonderful to have an ancient metaphor that makes sense to modern readers like this; whereas not all of us have seen the things that Christ used to explain himself, a mustard seed or a buried treasure in a field, every one of us has a mirror and knows what it is used for. The mirror has been a fixture in human civilization since 5000 BC, although it’s only been relatively recently that glass mirrors have been used. The Apostle Paul talks about seeing in a mirror dimly, which makes sense as ancient mirrors were mostly made of polished brass and the very best you could hope is to see your reflection dimly. Regardless, mirrors have been a big part of human civilization, to the point that in the story of Snow White the mirror is not a prop but an important character. The evil queen goes to her mirror for affirmation: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” But when she doesn’t hear what she wants she is enraged calling a woodsman to murder the woman fairer than she. We all look in the mirror, and maybe ask the same question, using the mirror not just to admire our greatest physical features, but to consider just how great those physical features are. So we look to the mirror to compare how we look with how we think we are supposed to look, determining whether we measure up to the image we have in our head or not. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” In a way, it might be nice to avoid this question – it might just be a gift to walk away from a mirror and forget how you compare, to stop worrying about it - to go away and immediately forget what you were like. Unless forgetting what you were like means seeing that piece of spinach stuck in your teeth, but not doing anything about it, instead seeing it and upon walking away forgetting it was there. But this metaphor isn’t about spinach in teeth, our passage doesn’t say, “for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what was in their teeth”. It says instead, “for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” – not just their appearance, but their selves, their essence, on going away they immediately forget who they are. This kind of forgetfulness is common enough – kids go to school and act so uncharacteristically that when the teacher calls home to report on bad behavior their child’s actions aren’t just out of character, they’re unrecognizable. “That’s not my son you’re talking about, there must be some mistake. My little Miller would never draw a red Rudolf nose on his face with a permanent marker!” Kids go off on their own, get around a different group, and suddenly it’s as though they become different people, doing things you’d never imagine possible. Kyle Kilgore’s bald head is a case in point. Unfortunately, adults are guilty of the same thing – mild mannered dentists buy a Harley Davidson and suddenly become a do-rag wearing biker gang. Las Vegas markets itself based on the assumption that we’re all looking for a place where we can go and act completely out of character without any damage to our reputation back home with the slogan: “What happens here stays here”. Then there’s Atlanta, Georgia, who during the past decades, has worked to rise in status as a convention city where business men and women come for big meetings and expositions, but with this rise in convention status came also a rise in prostitution – for too many people, when away from home, away from the mirror, forget who they are. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Do not be one of those who deceive themselves into thinking that who they are is separate from how they act, for it is your actions, even your actions away from home that more than anything else defines who you are. And who you are – that’s not something that you can see or know by looking at your reflection in the mirror, and maybe that’s why so many find it so easy to forget. To really know who you are you must look into the perfect law of God. When you look in the mirror, maybe what you see is what’s not quite right, what could be better, and what needs to be fixed, but when you look into the perfect law of God you see grace, and define yourself not by shortcomings, but by God who calls you beloved despite all that. Coming to terms with who you are, not in the eyes of the world who desires your anxiety and self-dissatisfaction, but in the eyes of God who desires that you live in peace and security demands that you live differently. So while you can look in the mirror and choose what to see and what you ignore, choosing to see only today putting aside whatever happened last night, life as a child of God demands that you take seriously the gift of your salvation, the gift of Christ’s sacrifice for your sake, and the implanted word that dwells in you not only when you want it to but all the time and everywhere. For you are more than you think you are. You are worth more than you realize. Therefore you cannot live a haphazard life but must be deliberate in what you say and what you do for you represent the God who saved you. Back in High School, every summer my church’s youth group would go to Mexico to build houses. Every year the night before we left I was often too excited to sleep, and I know that the leaders of our group must not have slept too much the night before either, as the reality of taking a large group of teenagers to Mexico must have been terrifying. Anything could go wrong, and often it did. In high school I had a problem with sleep walking, and late one night I woke up, only to find myself in my pajamas, a group of Mexican men laughing at me, just outside my hotel room locked out. That’s a helpless feeling right there – no keys, no knowledge of the language, and no appropriate clothes, but some helpful adult leader helped me settle back in for the night, and while I was embarrassed sleep walking is nothing compared to the trouble we all had the potential to get into there in the land of cheap cigarettes, drug cartels, and no age restrictions for the purchase of alcohol. Every year, before we were allowed to board our bus and start off on our trip, the Senior Pastor of my church would address us all, and it’s easy to remember what he said to us every single year, “ladies and gentlemen, know that while you leave this place you go representing your church, your families, and your faith. What you say and what you do will represent where you come from and what you believe, so remember who you are, and remember whose you are.” Religion that is pure, that means something, that matters, is a life lived in response to the grace we all confess God has given. Religion that is pure honors the one who we worship in spirit and in truth. Religion that is pure not only thinks good thoughts on Sunday morning, but on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, is mindful of orphans and widows, in their distress, concerned not only for your personal needs, but the needs of all God’s children. Let your life represent the God who saved you, and may everyone who listens to your words and watches your actions be amazed by the God who you serve. Amen.