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. 

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