Wednesday, August 22, 2012

August 19, 2012 - Doers of the Word

Doers of the Word
James 1.17-27


            One of standards for training pastors in the craft of pastoral care is Richard Lischer’s book, Open Secrets. In the book, Lischer tells the story of woman, Rose, whose husband was a drunk and physically abusive to her. Dr. Lischer was the young pastor of a rural Lutheran Church; Rose had come to him for help but seemed unable to act. This is the way he continues the story:
            “Early one autumn evening I picked up the telephone to hear Rose say, “Seth’s back. He punched me again. We’re scared.”
            I called the Sheriff, who agreed to meet me at the Barnes house outside Blaydon, but he said, “Unless he’s committed a crime, Reverend, there ain’t much we can do.”
            The sheriff and his deputy and I arrived about the same time to a disorganized scene. Rose was standing at the front door of their bungalow, the children grouped in a tableau behind her in the living room. Seth was pacing near the road at the edge of the front lawn, fiercely looking first toward the house, then down the road, but at no one in particular. His face was sweaty and bloated, his hair greasy. He had enormous mahogany-colored eyes. They might have one been his greatest assets in courting Rose, but now they were his most frightening feature. He appeared to view his adversaries out of the corner of his left eye.
            The Sheriff consulted with Rose, who complained that Seth was threatening the entire family. But Seth, who could pretend rationality for limited periods of time, dismissed her fears, reminding the lawmen, “Look, boys, I’m standing here on my own property. Nobody’s been hurt, I haven’t done nothing wrong. You can’t arrest a man on his own front lawn for not doing nothing wrong, can you?”
            The Sheriff was stumped. “I reckon he‘s got us.” Then summoning his full authority, he declared to Rose and me, “I cannot arrest a law-abiding citizen on his own land.”
            I said, “This man has used his fists on his wife and son repeatedly. Sure, he’s standing on his own property. And when you leave, he’s going to walk in his own house and beat the hell out of her. Can’t you see that he is menacing her right now? Sheriff, I am going to hold you responsible for this. By the way, did I tell you he usually carries a gun?”
            At this last revelation, the sheriff’s eyebrow twitched. “Now, look, Reverend, you can climb down off’n your high horse. It ain’t my fault that this little lady has four kids and a crazy man for a husband, but it ain’t no law against being crazy. If’n I arrest him for nothing, like you want me to, you won't bear the brunt of it. I will. Do you have a restraining order? Of course you don’t. The man ain’t trespassing on his own front yard.”//
            “What if he were trespassing?” I asked.
            “Then I could cuff him,” he said with a chuckle. “Let’s say he was at your house, and you didn’t want him on the premises, then I could take him.”
            “Then, let’s go to the church office,” I said, “and we’ll let him trespass there, and you, Sir, can arrest him.”
            Rose packed the kids into their old car, and pulled up behind my car. The sheriff and his deputy got into line behind them. To my amazement, Seth hopped into his truck and followed the patrol car. We formed a strange (and morally dubious) cavalcade as the four vehicles set off in a line for New Cana Church, the pastor taking the lead in an effort to entrap one of his flock and to have him arrested. By the time we turned off the hard road, night had fallen, and only four sets of headlights, proceeding with the gravity of a funeral procession, illuminated the last stretch of prairie road.
            At the church I hastily opened the sacristy and arranged the desk and the chairs as if for a counseling session, Rose quickly led the children into the parish hall and then entered the sacristy. The sheriff and his deputy stood to the side of the entrance. With Rose seated nervously in front of the desk, Seth, who by this time was focused like a homing device on his wife, walked up the steps and barged into the sacristy. “
            I said, “Seth, Rose and I are having a counseling session. It’s private. I’m asking you to leave.”
            Seth said, “This is my church, and this is my wife. I’m not leaving without her. What are you doing to do about it?”
            I stepped to the door, motioned to the sheriff, and said, “He’s trespassing. Arrest him.”
            The lawmen entered the church and took him without a struggle. Seth glowered at me. “You Judas, you set me up.” Then he added in a cloyingly exaggerated tone, “My own pastor betrayed me. Arrested for coming into my own church.” And they led him away.
            Exaggerated or not, his words were true enough to bother me. So much for the concept of sanctuary, I thought – and pastoral care. But Seth was a sick and violent man who was determined to hurt his family. By having him arrested, we were buying time and making certain that he would be given a psychiatric evaluation and treatment.
            Throughout the ordeal, the four children sat quietly in the parish hall. They were coloring pictures furiously when we came out of the sacristy, except for the eldest son, Tex, who watched the lawmen push his father into the backseat of the patrol car. He studied the scene intently, as if memorizing it, and then followed the car with his eyes through the darkened fields until it made the last “T” toward Blaydon and disappeared (1).//

            The Christian life is shaped by God’s Word; it offers us hope of eternal life, forgiveness of sin, along with godly wisdom and integrity in all that we do. This life as Christians is inspired by worship and music that lifts the soul to heaven. Each Sunday, we gather on our very best behavior in God’s house along with many others who are also on their best behavior. Church on Sunday is consistently the place where we get it right -- almost without trying.
            But, for most of us there is a lot of living between Sundays. The glorious hymns and visions of heaven on Sunday have to get practical Monday through Saturday. And this is the rub. Life, even for Christians, can get messy. Believing as I do that the Christian way is a life that is marked by integrity and kindness, how do we live this Christian way when we have no easy choices?
            James wrote to the church about getting practical with the Christian life. He reminds us that there is a definite connection between our Doxologies and our *everyday decisions*. Dr. Lischer struggled with that connection. My guess is that we struggle with it, too.

 [I.]  Most of us don’t embrace the *Book of James* very well. At a time when we believe that we have the right to do things our own way (as long as we don’t hurt anyone), James comes across as too direct, too judgmental, and burdened with an air of holier-than-thou about it. We do better with inspiring examples of wisdom and integrity than we do with direct instruction. Thus, the parables of Jesus are much more acceptable to our time than the Ten Commandments. Still, James is “in the book” as I tell folks around here. It is in the Bible, and thus we are constrained to hear it. Even if we cannot accept it with obedience, maybe we can accept it as the beginning of an insightful conversation. Such a conversation might prepare us for the day which lies ahead.

            [A.]  James is the most practical book in the NT. It does not allow Christians to hide in theories or theologies. It advocates a necessary connection between faith and everyday living. It is brutally honest and direct – allowing little room for the convenient disconnects between faith and practice that we all employ. I read James as that wise old mentor who is constantly calling us to be the best that we can be, and he is convinced that being Christ’s person is the best that anyone can ever be.
            [B.] The letter begins with the conviction that God is the source of all reality. Beginning here, James calls Christians into a life shaped into a community of mutual support rather than community of rivalry. The alternative to the conviction that God is the source of all reality is the idea that the world is all the reality we need.  But, James finds the world lacking. Looking to the world for our foundations just leads to all kinds of envy, violence, murder and war. In contrast, a life based in God’s reality leads to cooperation and peace.
            I believe that James has a point for us: when the world is our reality, then our foundation is constantly shifting, prey to the loudest voices or the popular trends. Often, the world is ruled by the conviction that “might makes right” or that “history is written by the victors.” God, in contrast, offers us liberty and wisdom and peace.

[II.] James begins: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.
[ILLUS: “100 YEARS”]
            There is a story of a Jewish rabbi who consented to take a weary traveler into his house for a night’s rest. After they ate, the rabbi asked his guest, “How old are you?”
            “Almost a century old,” the man replied.
            “Are you a religious man?” asked the rabbi?
            “No, I do not believe in God,” came the reply.
The rabbi was infuriated. He opened the door and said, “I cannot keep an atheist in my house overnight.”
            The old man hobbled out into the cold darkness.
            Later, the Lord spoke to the rabbi. “Why did you put him out?”
            The rabbi replied, “I turned him out because he was an atheist, and I cannot endure him overnight.”
            God replied, “My son, I have endured him for almost 100 years. Don’t you think you could endure him for one night?”

Certainly, it is a fine thing to control our anger. We can find all sorts of anger management techniques for getting along. We don’t need Christianity for that. But, the message of James is caught up in this old Jewish story. We don’t control our anger because we have cultivated patience; we control our anger because we have cultivated a sense of the presence of God.
+If God is among us, then God knows the other person’s heart better than we do.
+If God is among us, then God will give us the wisdom to handle every situation.
+If God is among us, then God is challenged by this adversary – not us.
If we are alone, then we stand alone against every adversity. But, if God is among us, then the way we respond to each challenge can be different, because we are not on our own.

[III.] “Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v.22). For faith to be real it must show in what we do. Great theology doesn’t matter much if it does not take root and shape our lives.
            John Wesley said in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, p. 363:
Beware of… crying nothing but “believe, believe,” and condemning those as ignorant or legal who speak in a more scriptural way” (2).

Neither James nor Wesley denies justification by faith; rather they simply insist that our faith show up in some way, for only then can it be considered truly alive. As Wesley said:
For that faith which bringeth not forth repentance but either evil works or no good work, is not a right, true and living faith, but a dead and devilish one” (3).                                                             

A. In many ways we are encouraged to see the work we do as isolated:
+separate from our life of faith,
+and perhaps separate from our home life,
+and separate from our social life.
+and every other kind of “life” we enjoy.
We go through our days and weeks stopping at one compartment after another.
+one where we work with our hands to make our living,
+another where we lift our hands in worship,
+another where we use our hands to play,
+still another where we talk with our hands as we socialize.
Often the people we work with all day have no idea how we live at home or whom we share our home life with; the people at home see none of the passion of our working hours. When James says, “Let all of your doing be the doing of God’s Will, he calls us to make the work of our hands into one whole – bound together with faith, bound together with the Word of God.
            What if we lived out God’s calling  in our lives and in all of life? Then, whatever we do with our days – at work, at play, at rest, or in study – all of it is our response to God’s call. God has called us to take up the ongoing work of creation, of justice, of the stewardship of the earth, of discovery and of hope-making as our own.
            [ILLUS: Tebow]
            Personally, I am not a fan of Tim Tebow; he embarrassed the Tennessee Vols repeatedly when he played at Florida. But, I do applaud the stir he creates in professional football by the way he lives as a Christian out loud. This week, there is a [G.Q.] picture of Tim Tebow going around that they call the “Jesus pose.” Tebow is standing bare-chested with his arms outstretched – roughly as a man might appear on a cross, I suppose. With this picture and many others, he keeps people wondering if he can play pro-football and be such an out-loud Christian. He is taking a risk. What if he can’t live up to the Christian thing and play pro-football at the same time?

This is the way all of life should be lived – as out-loud Christians -- that the work and the busyness of everyday are our gifts to God for the privilege of work and life.

            In James 1.25, the writer says this:
25 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.

Did you catch it: the “perfect law, the law of liberty.” Contrary to our first response to the bluntness of James, this letter promises that keeping this law offers real freedom under the watchful eye of God. And that, dear friends, lands in our laps not as a *have-to* but instead like “a promise.”

1. Lischer, Richard. Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church, pp. 132-134.
2. John Wesley said in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, p. 363:
3. Wesley, John. “Of True Christian Faith,” in Albert Outler, ed., John Wesley, A Library of Protestant Thought, p. 128. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

July 29, 2012 - Scarcity. Really?

           John 6.1-15 - Jesus feeds the 500
           Brandi Tevebaugh, Clergy Intern, Church Street United Methodist Church
          I have to wonder what our response would be if the question Jesus asks Philip were raised in a contemporary congregation.  He asks, *Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?*  I  have to believe that our responses would be somewhat similar to the disciples:  that our finance committees would calculate the expenses, as Philip does; that our missions team would note that this was not part of their original plan for the year and the resources simply are not there even after searching through congregation as does Andrew; that our discipleship and worship committees would be busy preparing for the upcoming festival, Passover in this case, and not say anything in response but simply be slightly annoyed that we have all these extra people here at an already busy time; that our properties committee would maybe help seat everyone but would all the while wonder what the impact of five thousand people would have on the grass out front, already dying because of summer heat.  Despite our desires to do more, despite seeing the need of the hungry, I wonder if we like the disciples would come up short, and say, “There’s just not enough, Lord.  Why would you even ask us to feed all these people when you know there’s just not enough?”
            I doubt that we would expect this question “Where do we buy bread for all these people?” to be anything more than a logistical conundrum.  The disciples didn’t really either, but when Jesus asked thisquestion, he knew what he what he was about to do and more than a logistical problem it was a question about who the disciples believed Jesus was and what they believed he was capable of.  I don’t think he wanted Philip or Andrew to solve the problem, but instead, he wanted them to remember who it was that they had been following around.
            I get the sense that as Christians we often do this.  We forget who it is that we follow, and when we run up against our own logistical conundrums, we throw up our hands and say there’s just not enough.
            We live in a world that is very aware of scarcity because we live in an information age.  We cannot escape the constant flow of images and news stories.  We watch a show and read the scrolling text underneath, we look at a website and see the ads on the side.  Information is everywhere, and what do we hear?  We hear that a shooting has occurred in Aurora, Colorado taking the lives of 12, that coaches and teachers that we should be able to trust are themselves broken people.  We hear that there are millions of starving children, we hear that water is the most precious resource we have and that clean drinking water in developing countries is a matter of life and death, we hear that tsunamis, tornados, and hurricanes have left people without homes.  In these instances, the mantra that knowledge is power does not necessarily apply.  The knowledge that these things are going on, that there are people in need, does not always empower us, but instead, many times, it paralyzes us.  We look around at our resources, and we throw up our hands and say as Andrew, “But what are they among so many needs?”
            Andrew finds a boy with five barley loaves and two fish that he is willing to give.  “There is not enough,” he cries, “there is only enough for the boy and you want to feed 5,000?  Jesus, are you crazy?  Not only is there not enough, but it’s travelling food for the poor.”  Barley loaves were cheaper than wheat, they contained fewer calories and had a lower gluten count, but they were a staple for the poor, constituting a major part of their diet.  The fish that he had were not the catch of the day.  They were more like sardines, small and pickled.  There was no other way to preserve them, and this was common fare in Galilee.  There simply was not enough, and to top it off, it wasn’t even the good stuff.  If you’re going to respond to a need, don’t you want to put your best foot forward?  You see, even in our knowledge of scarcity, don’t we want the best?
            I’m pausing right here, to stop and look you all in the faces, and change my tune just a little bit.  We’ve been talking in the abstract pretty much about there not being resources to meet the world’s needs, that there might be hungry, thirsty, and cold people.  I want to tell you all that I feel like I’m preaching this sermon a little differently than I originally intended to.  On Tuesday in worship planning, I said that in my study for this sermon I kept running across the idea of scarcity.  I obviously latched onto it a bit, but not to say that our growling stomachs would be filled, or our parched mouths wetted.  The reason my tune changed a bit was that I realized I would be standing in the Nave, a place that has been a central and loved part, but not a place where I feel comfortable talking about scarce resources.  Then I went and sat at my computer, to type my sermon, and it hit me that I only think my resources are scarce.  I have a computer, I have more than enough food on my dinner table, I have an education, I have a home, I have access to information about those in need constantly filling my ears with television, radio, internet.  I had no right nor did I feel comfortable looking at you all and talking about scarcity.
            You see, dear friends, I’m not really sure that we can be the ones that say we don’t have enough, and yet we are the ones who do not think we have enough.  There is not enough time for me to visit all the people in the hospital, we don’t have enough money in the budget to make that repair or change to the building, I don’t have enough energy to work on a mission project, or we don’t have enough people for that event.  We don’t want to give or commit to something unless we can give our all or our best.  Poor man’s travelling fare – bread and fish – simply will not do from us. 
            As Christians, we forget who it is that we follow. 
            This is not me trying to guilt you into giving whatever you have in your pockets or spending your last free hour on a church committee or feeling a bit more shame as you pass the homeless person on the corner in your car.  That’s not what’s going on here.  What’s going on here is that we are trying to confront the problem of scarcity for what it really is.  I know for many resources are indeed scarce, but I think the real problem lies in that sometimes there is not enough love, not enough hope, not enough peace, not enough joy.
            This Scripture is a miracle.  It takes our not enough, our poor man’s travelling fare, and places it in the hands of Christ.  In the hands of Christ, dear friends, not enough is never the final answer.
            We forget who it is that we follow, we forget that he takes whatever we give, we forget that he transforms our offerings of resources into means of distributing grace, and because we forget we wait till it’s safe to give or to go or to do or to build.  Here’s my challenge to you and to me: expect God to show up, expect the miraculous because in the hands of Christ our not enough are turned into abundances,
            He takes the loaves and fish, the poor man’s food, gives thanks and distributes them – to 5,000 people.  The Scripture says “as much as they wanted.”It wasn’t just a little taste of the goodness, it was enough to satiate their hunger.  It says “when they were satisfied.”  The crowd ate till they were full. 
            When even our smallest offerings are laid in the hands of Christ, big things can happen. 
            Mother Teresa began the Missionaries of Charity order to minister to the poorest of the poor.  She began with only 13 members.  That order now has of members, caring for orphans and working in charity centers.
            Millard and Linda Fuller began Habitat for Humanity with just a few tools and a handful of volunteers.   Today Habitat has built more than 500,000 homes, sheltering 2.5 million people worldwide.  Many of you are familiar with that organization.
            A little bit closer to home.  In 1984, Dr. Toombs Kay stood in this pulpit and challenged you to feed the hungry.  The first week the soup kitchen was open only 5 people came, but the last time I walked through Soup Kitchen we were serving WAY more than 5, somewhere in the hundreds for sure.  Walking through there and visiting with the volunteers is one of my favorite things during the week.  There is a sense of purpose and love in the faces of those volunteers.
            You know, this summer has been a fast one and a good one and one full of learning and one in which I have grown to love this congregation.  I have seen you raise money in the Hunger Helper market, love Sunday School members who have been ill, serve in the Soup Kitchen, roller skate with Wesley House kids (yeah, you can laugh at that one), collect school supplies, I even witnessed one UMW circle collecting plastic grocery bags for a company to make sleeping bags for the homeless, I’ve seen your youth covered in dirt, sack-crete, and sweat this week at Operation Backyard. 
            This church has shown me, not just told me, that in the crisis of scarcity, we have something to give.  Is it enough?  Dear friends, I have been challenged by this Scripture to remember who it is that I follow, to remember that our world of not enough is not the conclusion to this story.  There is still need, and we are not a people that doesn’t have enough.  We are a people that can see the world that has too much information, too much hunger, too much pain and not enough answers, not enough resources, and not enough bread, and respond.  Christ took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them.  We are a people in the hands of Christ. 
            In more ways than one, we are not a people that can claim scarcity.  Because in the hands of Christ, there is more than enough love, more than enough hope, more than enough grace, more than enough joy, and more than enough bread. 
            The conclusion of this story has the disciples picking up the leftovers, picking up more than they started with.  You see, even the leftovers of this meal were valuable.  Our leftovers – our people, our food, our resources – should not be discarded as worthless, but kept so that not a crumb gets lost or forgotten. 
            The miraculous has happened and not enough has turned into abundance.  Dear friends, it’s a miracle that reveals the power, the hope, the love of God.  So what are we to do with this story?  To sit and marvel at the miracle?  I think that’s part of it, yes, but more than that, I think we should expect God to show up in our lives and ministries to empower us to respond to the world’s scarcity of food, water, shelter, love, peace, knowledge of Christ, leaving behind our own feelings of not having enough time, money, or energy and resting in the faith that whatever we give is multiplied in the hands of Christ.  I think this story not only challenges us to more radical leaps of faith and ministry, but also, comforts us that as followers of Christ, we travel with one who makes sure there are even leftovers.  

            This church is a place of responding to the physical needs and spiritual needs of both its members and those outside its doors.  If you would like to join us in that endeavor and to be part of this community of faith or maybe you are professing for the first time that you want to follow Christ, we invite you to the front during the singing of the last hymn.  Please stand with us as we sing Hymn number 664 Sent Forth by God’s Blessing.
BENEDICTION: The hymn says “With your grace you feed us, with your light now lead us.”  Go from this place fed by the grace and love God – there’s plenty, and go from this place lead by the light of Christ so that you may share the grace and love of God that we have in abundance. Amen.