Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon for First Sunday in Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Wonderful Counselor," Isaiah 9:2-7

Sermon 11/27/16 Isaiah 9:2-7

His Name Shall Be Called: Wonderful Counselor

            Today we begin the holy season of Advent. Advent is a four week time of preparation for Christmas. It’s a time when we prepare our hearts, our spirits, our homes, our place of worship, our lives, for the coming Christ-child. It’s a time when we practice the holy discipline of waiting. Jesus is coming. Jesus will be born among us – but not yet. It’s a tension we live in as a people of faith, even as we are always Easter-people, people who know the mystery of faith that Christ has come, and died, and risen, and will come again. We live as a people who know the story already, and yet still spend this time waiting and longing for Christ to be born among us again.
            Advent is a counter-cultural season. Christmas, the season in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, begins on Christmas day and lasts twelve days – the twelve days of Christmas –from December 25th- January 5th, the day before Epiphany. We’ll talk a lot more about that later, at Christmastime. All around us, the world is saying that Christmas is now, already here. But our focus will be on preparing. When a child is to be born, it’s best to prepare and learn as much as you can to make sure you are ready for the baby. When a guest is coming, you clean your house and get things in order. And when the Christ-child is coming, we prepare our hearts, and make room in our lives for God to dwell among us in the flesh. During Advent, a season of longing, we pray that the longing that fills our hearts is a longing for Jesus to come among us.
           This year, our Advent theme is “His Name Shall Be Called.” Each week, we’ll think about one of the names for the Christ-Child, and we’ll particularly be focusing on the names that we heard lifted up in our scripture text today from the prophet Isaiah, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” What does it mean when we say we expect the Christ-child to be these things? How is Jesus a Wonderful Counselor? How is he Mighty God? How is God’s son the Everlasting Father? How is the child in a manger the Prince of Peace? Each week, we’ll try to answer those questions in depth.
            Our text comes from the prophet Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is written over a long span of time, in the days leading up to, and during, and after the time the kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Assyrians, and when the people were exiled to Babylon. The book is a mixture of warning, despair, and hope. In the section we read today, written before the fall of Judah to Assyria, Isaiah is hopeful. King Ahaz’s son Hezekiah has been born, and there’s a great deal of hope pinned on Hezekiah that he can save Judah, restore Judah, return Judah to days of peace and prosperity. Hezekiah does seem to be a good king. But, he’s only human. He proves no match for the powerful nations seeking control of Judah. Isaiah eventually turns his hope not to a specific ruler, but a vision of a future time of peace and hope. When we read the words we’ve shared in worship today, we’re hearing from a prophet writing in the midst of an incredibly chaotic time as a nation, a time when people were full of fear and doubt, wondering how they could possibly live through the terrible scenario unfolding before them.
            In this context, we hear Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah imagines a ruler who conquers oppression, and he envisions the tools of war being stamped out completely. This will happen, Isaiah writes, because “a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This child will rule with authority that grows continually. He will usher in an endless peace, a kingdom marked by enduring justice and righteousness.
            The passage gives me goosebumps, it is so inspiring and hopeful! Of course, followers of Jesus read this text and think: I know who this is about! Of course, it is Jesus! But on the other hand, as we talked about last Sunday, Jesus was never an earthly ruler in the way of a king of a nation. A ruler, yes, but of a completely different kind. The Judeans were looking for someone who would save them from being wiped out by invaders, not a child born to a carpenter and a young woman. So how is it that we read this text and see in it a description of the very Jesus for whom we are longing this Advent? That’s the focus of our worship and study in these weeks. 
Today, we’re thinking specifically about Jesus being a Wonderful Counselor. The word counselor in particular is used in different ways today than they were when Isaiah chose them centuries upon centuries ago. In his book Names for the Messiah, Walter Brueggemann writes that “counselor” in this sense refers to “the exercise of governance, the capacity to administer, to plan, and to execute policy.” (3) When Isaiah talks about a wonderful counselor, he’s saying that the new ruler he longs for will show “extraordinary wisdom and foresight about planning” or have “royal plans and policies [that] will be of exceptional quality … that goes beyond all the usual conventions of political power and practice.” (3-4) Indeed, God’s people continued to picture and long for an earthly ruler who would be an exceptional king, wise and just, a strong leader, someone who would defeat the power of Rome and Rome’s Caesar, the emperor.
And so, when Luke writes his gospel, and he writes about the birth of Jesus, the story with the shepherds and angels that we know so well, he makes sure to start by setting us in the context of the Roman Empire – “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The Christ-child will be born where there is already a king, a governor, an emperor – and Jesus will be something very different from that.
 How is Jesus a Wonderful Counselor? We know from the gospels that his uncommon wisdom was something of much discussion. Repeatedly, the religious leaders and the crowds wonder about Jesus. They want to know where he came from, and how he got his authority. They marvel at his clear authority and power, which stands out as different from the authority of both the scribes and Pharisees and the political leaders of Rome.
            In Genesis, when God promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a child, even in their old age, and Sarah laughs at the impossibility, God says: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (18:14) Somehow, though, we forget that, or we stop believing it – that there is nothing too wonderful for God, nothing outside of God’s power and ability, nothing that is impossible with God. When people are oppressed, when they’re hungry, when they’re marginalized, when we are divided as a nation, when we spend so much time tearing each other down, it’s hard to remember the wonder of a God who makes the impossible possible. Jesus is a living reminder for us. Writes Brueggemann, “The teaching of Jesus attests to the possibility of God that the world has long since taken to be impossible. That is what is wonderful about his teaching. His teaching evidenced a kind of wisdom that was unusual. He is wise beyond explanation! … He is wonderful in his teaching because he opens up new possibilities that were thought to be impossible. The foolish rulers of the age did not want such impossibilities to become possible, for such possibilities would override and displace all present power arrangements … [but] the old limits of the possible have been exposed as fraudulent inventions designed to keep the powerless in their places. Jesus violates such invented limitations and opens the world to the impossible.” (10-11) Jesus, wonderful counselor, is “ruler of the impossible.” (15)
             As his followers, our job is to be like him. Brueggemann says, “The ‘increase of his government’ will not be by supernatural imposition or by royal fit. Instead, it will come about through the daily intentional engagement of his subjects, who are so astonished by his wonder that they no longer subscribe to the old order of power and truth that turns out to be, in the long run, only debilitating fraudulence. It requires an uncommon wisdom to interrupt the foolish practice of business as usual.” (17) In other words, we’re called first to remember that nothing is too wonderful for our God. And then, we’re called to start living like we’ve remembered, like we believe, and like we need to make sure everyone else knows too! We, Jesus’s followers, are called to turn the world upside down like Jesus did, to shun business-as-usual that prioritizes wealth and power and status, and choose instead that which exalts the humbled, and puts the last one in first place.
            As we wait, in this season of Advent, we can reflect on the unique wisdom of Jesus. Reflect on the wonderful works of God. And then we start dreaming with God for how we can be part of making the impossible a reality. United Methodist pastor and author Mike Slaughter talks about having a “B-HAG” – that’s a “Big Hairy Audacious God-Purpose.” I’ve got to tell you, I hate that acronym. But it is certainly memorable! He says we need to think about what it is that God is calling us to do, something which “will honor God, bless others, and bring us joy.” He encourages us to get rid of all the lame excuses we come up with for not dreaming alongside God, and get to living out our dreams, using all the tools with which God has equipped us for just the purpose to which we’re called. (Dare to Dream, 16) And he urges us to make sure our dreams with God are big enough, hairy enough, and audacious enough to be our God-purpose. After all, is anything too wonderful for God?
In Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, we have our answer to that question. If we have God-with-us, God-in-the-flesh in Jesus, then nothing is impossible with God. As we wait, we don’t sit back idly. We wait, and we dream, and we plan, and we get ready to respond to the wonderful work of God. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sermon for Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, Year C, "Jesus, Remember Me," Luke 23:33-43

Sermon 11/20/16
Luke 23:33-43

Jesus, Remember Me

Singing: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (488)
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian Year, which is also known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. How many of you know what Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is? It’s not one of our major holy days. In fact, often, Christ the King Sunday gets a bit neglected, because most years, it falls on Thanksgiving Sunday, which isn’t technically even part of the liturgical calendar, but usually takes precedence for Christians in the United States. If we have to choose between Thanksgiving as a focus in worship and focusing on “Christ the King,” we usually choose Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is important, and indeed, that’s the direction I had planned to go today. But as I was preparing for worship this week, I just felt drawn to the themes that come with this Reign of Christ Sunday. I was thinking about what my Uncle Bill said at the end of his sermon last week, when he was reflecting on the election. He said that whatever happens, our call as the church of Christ is unchanged. Our allegiance is to God, and Jesus asks for our obedience. With those themes in mind, we come to this Christ the King Sunday.
It’s a relatively new addition to the Christian calendar actually. In 1925, Pope Pius XI announced a new feast day, the Feast of Christ the King. He said that he felt that the rise of atheistic communism and secularism were a direct result of people turning away from Jesus’ sovereignty, and of people denying the authority of Jesus and the Church. So, this Reign of Christ Sunday is about reclaiming Jesus’ place of authority in our lives. But what does that mean for us?
I think it is a particularly interesting and challenging question in our American context. After all, as a nation, we rebelled against having a king. No longer wanting to be under the absolute authority of a monarchy but desiring instead to participate in a democracy was a primary component of our founding. We fought wars over it, this right not to be ruled by a king. Sure, maybe lately, with the stylish, young, and admirable William and Catherine marrying, and the birth of their children, people are suddenly a little more intrigued by the idea of royalty. But mostly, we seem, as a society, to be more into Disney princesses and their costumes than in submitting to the authority of a king.
Still, we all have to submit to forms of authority, right? Even if we don’t have a king, governments still exert authority over us. We pay taxes, right? We follow laws, or are punished or fined for our failure to follow. And we have authority figures in many other places too. We have bosses – or bishops! We have teachers and principals. We have parents and grandparents. All these people might be in positions of power over us, at least in some matters, able to tell us what to do. They have power. They have authority. We can push the boundaries of that authority – can and do. We can reject it, but usually not without major consequences. And we have presidents, don’t we? And other elected officials. Clearly, given the build up to and the aftermath from our election earlier this month, we pin a lot of hopes on the leaders of our nation. So when we talk about Jesus as a King, when we celebrate this day – what does that mean to us? How do we, independent people, private, prizing our individualism and autonomy, let someone be our king? What does that mean, exactly?
Let’s take a look at our text: Although next week we suddenly find ourselves thinking about the coming Christ child, a tiny baby at the center of everything, today we are inserted abruptly into the midst of the crucifixion scene. Our reading today takes us to Golgotha, which means “the place of the skull.” Here, in Luke's account, the actual process of crucifying Jesus merits just a passing phrase: "they crucified Jesus there with the criminals." But the details come from those who watch Jesus dying: the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the two criminals with whom he is crucified. From most, there’s a repeated refrain: Why doesn’t Jesus save himself? “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!” from the leaders. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” from the soldiers. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” from one of the criminals. Only from the other criminal do we hear anything different. He declares that the two criminals are only justly paying the price for their crimes but that Jesus "has done nothing wrong." He then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, and Jesus responds that truly that day the man will be with him in Paradise.
We have here a Jesus who seems most un-kingly. He's mocked, beaten, suffering, harassed, murdered. How is Jesus a King? The inscription that was placed above him – his sentence, the crime for which he was being crucified read, “This is the King of the Jews.” But it was meant as a mockery. A man being crucified with criminals was hardly a king. The sentence poked fun at Jesus, at his disciples and followers. But yet, we believe Jesus reigns. Why? How? How is Jesus king? I think it is about putting the emphasis in the right place. This Sunday is perhaps not about the fact that Jesus is King, but about the fact that Jesus is King. (1) This Sunday is not about the fact that one characteristic of Jesus is his Kingship, his divine royal status, one characteristic among many others. Instead, this Sunday celebrates the fact that it is Christ, Christ above all others, who is the highest authority in our lives. Not King Herod. Not Pilate. Not Caesar. And not President Obama or President-Elect Trump, nor Congress, nor the Supreme Court. Not the stock market. Not the dollar. Jesus is king.
So if we claim Jesus as our Ruler, what exactly does that mean? It means that we’re choosing a leader who rejects most everything one might traditionally associate with good leadership! David Lose writes, “Jesus, to put it [pointedly], would not have won last week’s election. But let me be clear: this is not a political statement as much as it is an existential one. We seek out those things and people who grant us a measure of security and who affirm our values. And, it turns out, when we are frightened or feeling particularly at risk or left behind, we may even accept someone who we profess decidedly does not reflect our values but who we believe will offer us security against our enemies abroad and prosperity at home. We vote for someone, that is, who promises a better tomorrow, and the candidates of both parties tried to offer themselves as the one who best fit that bill. Jesus doesn’t do that.”
We have a repeated phrase in our scripture passage today – Jesus, why don’t you save yourself? The religious leaders, the soldiers, the criminal – they all say it. Instead, Jesus saves us. We long to be safe and protected. Instead, Jesus demonstrates a risk-taking, vulnerable, literally life-giving way of being that saves us, all while refusing to save himself or promise us safety in exchange for our discipleship. Lose continues, “He refuses to come in power but instead appears in abject vulnerability … He does not come down off his cross to prove his kingly status but instead remains on that instrument of torture and humiliation, the representative of all who suffer unjustly. And he does not promise a better tomorrow but instead offers to redeem us today.” (2)
Claiming Jesus as our Ruler means aligning our values with his values, our priorities with his, our ways with his ways. Karoline Lewis writes, “First of all, in Jesus, we have a king who is crucified. Second, we have a king who forgives the very people who have secured his death. Third, we have a king who, while hanging on his cross, grants salvation to the criminal on the cross next to him … and fourth, we have a king who brings the condemned into Paradise with him rather than bring upon them further condemnation.” (3) Lose writes, “… While Jesus was not running for president, he does call leaders of all kinds – and, indeed, any who would call him “Lord” – to join God’s insistent, consistent, and persistent solidarity with the weak, the oppressed, and the forgotten of this world. In short, the church of Jesus Christ reveals itself as faithful to its Lord only in so far as it stands with those who are most vulnerable … God calls us not only to identify with the weak and dispossessed, but to lift our voices on their behalf, calling leaders to care for them as parents care for their children.” Is Jesus our Ruler? How are we working to make his ways our ways? How are we prioritizing the most vulnerable in the work of our church, the work of our community, the work of our lives?
Activist for the poor Shane Claiborne started a campaign during the 2008 election season, calling for “Jesus for President” as a way to call attention to God’s values, God’s call, God’s hope for our world. He wrote, “We may vote on [election day]. But we will also vote today, and tomorrow, and the next day. We are convinced that change is not confined to one day every four years. Change happens every day. We vote with our lives. And we are convinced that voting for a new President may be little more than damage control. For Presidents and Caesars do not save the world. But there is a God who can. Enough donkeys and elephants. Long live the Lamb.” (4)
Typically, the subjects of a king don’t get to decide whether or not they want to follow that person, have that person as their ruler. But God wants us to choose. God gives us the freedom to decide whether we will be disciples or not. But if we’re choosing Jesus, if it is Jesus who rules in our hearts and our lives, we should know who we’re voting for. Our leader is one who offers vulnerability and humility, not might makes right. Our leader is one who keeps company with the least and lost and last, rejecting offers of power and position and status. Our leader is one who will not save himself, but will instead offer his life for others, and ask us to do the same. Jesus is a Ruler like no other. Thanks be to God! Amen. 

Singing: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (488)

(1) Jenee Woodard, The Text This Week Weblog,
(3) Karoline Lewis, “Who and What Is Your King,” Dear Working Preacher,

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Thankful People: Idols," Exodus 20:1-5a, 22-24, Matthew 6:24-25

Sermon 11/6/16
Exodus 20:1-5a, 22-24, Matthew 6:24-25

Thankful People: Idols

            I’ve mentioned to you before that one of the things Jesus talks about most in the gospels is money: our stuff, our things, what we treasure, what we do with what we’ve been given. Perhaps up to 40% of the teachings of Jesus relate in some way to our wealth and what we do with it. But throughout the scriptures as a whole there’s a broader, recurring topic that takes us from one end of the scriptures to the other, and that’s idolatry, the practice of making and worshiping false gods.
            Today when we hear the word idol, we don’t usually think of worshipping false gods. Without a little context, that concept is kind of hard for us to get our heads around. What pops to our mind is American Idol, celebrities, sports figures, people we put on a pedestal, people we want to be like, people we admire. But I don’t think we’d say we want to worship those people, right? I think when we think about idolatry, we maybe think about the golden calf that Aaron and the Israelites made and worshiped, and we can’t picture ourselves ever doing anything like that, and so we’re pretty sure idolatry isn’t something we have to worry much about.
            In the scriptures, most of the story we get of God and God’s people finds God’s people living in an extremely multicultural society. The Israelites were a tiny people, relative to the size of other nations, and they often found themselves living and moving among peoples of other nations and cultures, surrounded by people who practiced different faith traditions, worshiped other gods. And so, when God gives the law for God’s people to Moses, the very first of all of them is the one we read in Exodus in our text for today: “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Instead, God says, at the altar, make offerings to me from your life, your livelihood. And I will bless you. Time and again in the scriptures, God and God’s servants demonstrate that God, creator of the universe, is not a god who can be contained, boxed in, controlled. And making idols is something that makes a deity small enough to be controlled by the one doing the idolizing, even though it seems like an act of adoration.
            Our gospel lesson is two short verses from Matthew, and Jesus’ words demonstrate that idols are more than images of other gods. Idols are whenever we’ve let something else be master of our lives besides God. “No one can serve two masters” Jesus says, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
When Jesus talks about worry, the word means literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s not speaking of the mild anxiety we might have about our upcoming to do list. He’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is describing something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Are you absorbed by something other than God? Letting your life revolve around that which is not God? You can never serve two masters, Jesus says, and doing so is putting your very soul at risk. If we don’t want to end up serving a master other than God, we must stop letting our lives be absorbed by things that aren’t God. Idolatry, then, is the thing God and the writers of the scriptures warn most against from one end of the Bible to the other.  
            Today I talked with the children about putting God first. It isn’t that God doesn’t want us to have the other good things that we enjoy in our lives. But we’re meant to put the things in our life in the right place, the right order, giving priority and weight to what matters most. God first, and God most and best, and then everything else. How often, and how easily, though, do we find that we’re trying to put everything else in and squeeze God and God’s hopes for our life in with the little bit of leftover room at the end!
            When I was first in ministry, and making my giving commitment, I have to admit I did something like this. I’d make my budget and budget in what I wanted to give as my tithe – but I wouldn’t give it right away. I’d wait, because I considered it sort of a cushion of money if something went wrong during the month. Inevitably, things would come up and I’d spend a little more here and a little more there than I meant to, and the portion I was giving to God got smaller and smaller, and sometimes it disappeared altogether. After some time, I decided I needed to make a change, and I started having my tithe withheld from my paycheck. I’d never even see the money, so I couldn’t forget to give it first, and I couldn’t play around with the amount, and I couldn’t use it for other things. It was a hard change, but I learned to make do, and more than that, I felt like I was putting my life in the right order. God first, everything else next. And our financial resources are just a part of it. Who gets our time first? Who gets our energy first? Who gets our heart first? Getting your life in order, with God in the right place, the first place, isn’t a magic plan that will make you rich or make things trouble-free, or make things easy. But reordering our lives with God first will bring us deep peace, unfailing hope, lasting joy. God promises. Next Sunday we’ll celebrate Consecration Sunday, as we make a financial commitment to God for the year ahead. It’s one way in which we are called to tangibly reorder our lives with God first.
            Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It’s not a day that we’re celebrating idols that we’ve put up on pedestals, as much as we loved the people who we’ll name today. That’s not what All Saints is about. In the scriptures, the word we read as “saints” literally means “holy ones.” Saints are people who are being made holy. Remember, last Sunday we talked about how God makes us holy, when we ask God to consecrate our lives – to take our ordinary selves and make them holy. When we have opened our lives to God’s work in us in that way, when we’ve committed to a life of allowing God to work in us more fully and completely all the time, when we’ve committed to reordering our lives so that God is first, and center, that’s what God does in us – make our ordinary lives holy, makes us holy ones, makes us part of the communion of saints.
We can be disciples of only one teacher. We can serve only one master. Only one thing can have first place in our lives. What are you putting first?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sermon, "Thankful People: Gifted and Talented," Matthew 25:14-30

Sermon 10/30/16
Matthew 25:14-30

Thankful People: Gifted and Talented

            Two weeks from today, we’ll celebrate Consecration Sunday, and have a Celebration Dinner afterwards, as we gave thanks for all that God has given us, as we offer a commitment of giving for the year ahead out of the abundance which God has given us. You’ve heard Lauren last Sunday, and today Vicky and Steve talk about giving, and thinking about how we give, not because of what the church needs, but because of what our generous God inspires in us. We give as an act of faith, an act of thanksgiving, as a spiritual discipline. For the next few weeks, we’ll be thinking together not so much about budgets and spending plans, as we’ll be thinking together about our generous God, about what God is up to here in Gouverneur and how we can be part of that, and about how we can grow spiritually as we cultivate thankful hearts and lives.
Our gospel lesson today is a parable, one of the stories Jesus uses to talk to us about what the kingdom of God is like, what it’s like when we experience God’s way, God’s reign, on earth. This one we know as the Parable of the Talents. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables, some of the last of Jesus’ teachings before his arrest and trial and crucifixion. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one two, and one five, each according to their ability. Talents were the largest unit of money, and each one was worth a significant amount. It’s hard to calculate in terms of our money today, but even conservative estimates suggest that an individual talent was worth at least a few thousand dollars. (1) Even the slave who receives the one talent is being entrusted with a significant amount of responsibility.
The slaves who receive two and five talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who receives just one talent digs a hole and hides the money. When the master returns, he praises the faithful slaves for their stewardship of his talents, and says, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” But the third slave returns the single talent to his master, explaining that he thinks his Master is harsh, taking what is not rightfully his. So the master rebukes the slave, calling him wicked and lazy. He tells him that at the least he ought to have put the talent in the bank so it could earn some interest. He banishes the slave, and takes the one talent from him and gives it to the slave who already now had ten talents. And so, Jesus concludes with a strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”
There’s a couple of troubling things in this parable. We typically hear these parables and think of the master figure as God. But the one slave describes him as harsh, taking what doesn’t belong to him. Does this sound like God? And then there’s that concluding sentence that’s so hard to process at first. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? So what sense can we make of this parable, and what does it tell us about being generous, thankful people? I think the parable helps us think about how we see God, how we see ourselves and what we have, and how we respond because of what we see.
Is the master in the parable meant to be God? We know what the third slave says about the master: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.” But we have to ask: Why does the slave think this? The other two slaves don’t express any such feelings. Their master praises them and invites them to be part of his “joy,” calling them good and faithful. If the master in the parable tells us something about God, either Jesus is telling us that God is harsh and selfish, which seems unlikely, or the slave has a very skewed picture of the master.
How do you see God? Is God generous? Giving? Does God pour out blessings? Is God loving and kind? In the parable, the master makes the slaves stewards of the things that belong to the master. A steward is someone who cares for something on someone else’s behalf. In biblical times, most homes would be run by the steward of the household, who would manage all the affairs of the house for the owners. God has made us stewards of the earth and all that is in it! So, on the one hand, we remember: everything that we have really belongs to God! We’re caretakers of what God has given us, and that requires our responsibility and attention. But on the other hand, we have to remember: God has let us take care of everything that belongs to God! To put someone else in charge of your household, to give someone else authority for all that is yours – it requires a deep trust. Think of all that God has entrusted to us!   
Author and advocate for the poor Shane Claiborne once shared this story: “I will never forget learning one of my best lessons … from a homeless kid in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids … 8-10 years old who were homeless, begging … to survive … One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday. So I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself.” Claiborne concludes, “That’s what this whole idea of generosity is all about … It’s about realizing the good things in life – like ice cream – are too good to keep for ourselves.” I see God that way – so much goodness that God just had to share it with us!
But the third slave didn’t see things that way. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Author Luther Snow focuses on this particular troubling verse, writing, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compared to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (2) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they’ve been given nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.
How much do you have? Something? Nothing? An abundance? I sometimes like to joke that I’ve never met a rich person – because no one will ever admit to being rich. Rich people are always people who have more than you have. I’ve read that most people say they would be happy if they had about 20% more than they have right now. The only problem is that we always say we’d be happy with just 20% more, so that whatever we have now is never enough. Jesus tells us that he comes so that we might have life and have abundant, full life. Do you feel like you’ve received that gift? How rich are you? What do you see when you look at what God has given you? Are your hands full? Or empty? Are they open to others to give? Or tightly grasping?
Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents inspires a response in us. In two of the slaves, their response to what the master had given them was to work hard, to use their talents well, to make sure they could give back to their master even more than what they’d started with. The slaves could have lost everything they’d been given by the master – but I suspect the master would have been ok with that – as long as they had been using the talents, investing with the talents, trying to make something of what they had responsibility for. One slave’s response to what he received was to do nothing. To bury the talent. To hide and respond in fear. To expect what he’d been given to be taken from him. How about you? How do you respond to what God has given you?  
Adam Hamilton shares this story: “[Years ago], our family took a camping trip to the Grand Tetons. We arrived on my birthday and set up our little pop-up camper. After we were settled, we told each of our daughters that they could have $20 spending money for the three days we would be in and around Jackson Hole. We then went to the gift shop before heading out on a walk around a small lake. We had no sooner walked into the gift shop than Rebecca started looking at ball caps. She found one, tried it on, and said, “Dad, what do you think of this hat?” I said, “Becca, it’s really cool. But all you have is $20, and that hat will take all of your money. Why don’t you wait and make your money last for the next few days.” But she said, “Dad, you told me it was my money and I could get whatever I want. And I really want this hat!” As hard as I tried to talk her out of it, and to convince her that she would have other opportunities to buy a cap in town, she would have no part of waiting. Finally, exasperated, I said, “Okay, Becca – but this is it. You’re not getting any more money the next three days.” I gave her her $20, and she bought the hat.
            “We went for a walk around the lake, and then came back to watch the sun set from a park bench. That’s when Becca handed me the hat and said, “Daddy, I bought this for you. I love you. Happy birthday.” I sat on the bench, took her in my arms, and started to cry. That hat is among my most treasured possessions, my most often worn hat to this day because every time I wear it, I think of Becca’s sacrifice for me. All these years later it still touches me to think about how my little girl gave up all her spending money because she wanted to tell her daddy that she loved him.
            “That’s how God looks at our acts of generosity.” When we share with God, our gifts are a way of saying, “God, I’m returning to you a portion of what I have … to say thank you and I love you.” (3) When we give, we don’t give because God needs what we have. We give out of love, and God who loves us, loves our gifts because of what they tell God about how we feel, because of what they say about our desire to be in relationship with God, because of what they say about how we want to care for others.
             We’re preparing for Consecration Sunday. Here’s what that means: The word consecrated means “to make something ordinary into something sacred or holy” – Con means with and sacre means sacred. Make the ordinary into something holy. That’s what we ask God to do with all manner of ordinary things in our lives. And indeed, God makes our ordinary stuff holy – from the bread and grape juice when we celebrate communion, to pieces of colored paper and shiny metal circles that we put into offering plates, even to our very lives. On Consecration Sunday, we’ll ask God to take our commitment of giving and make it holy. We’ll ask God to make our financial contributions into something sacred, so that God can help us bless others through our gifts. And we ask God to take our very lives, and make them holy too. Take our lives God, and make them holy, as we offer them as a gift, as we act as your stewards in the world of all that you have put into our hands.
Please, don’t bury your blessings, your gifts, your talents, all that God has given to you. Don’t live like our generous God has been stingy with you. Instead, offer it to God. Offer it to your neighbors. Offer it to the waiting world around you. And God will consecrate your life, and your cup will run over, and your blessings will be too sweet not to share. Amen.

(1), post on 8/7/14
(2) Snow, Luther, The Power of Asset Mapping
(3) Hamilton, Adam, Enough.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Sermon, "James: Prayer and Healing," James 5:13-20

Sermon 10/23/16
James 5:13-20

James: Prayer and Healing

            Some of you know that I own my own home in Liverpool. It served me well while I was pastoring in the Syracuse area at a church without a parsonage, but now I find myself in a different situation, and I’ve been looking at my home with an eye toward selling. Thanks to a thoughtful parishioner here, I have some folks from Gouverneur, actually, renting from me for a while, and in the meantime, it is giving me time to slowly begin making repairs. I have to admit, that when I look around at the house, I have a tendency to get overwhelmed with the things I think need fixing up before it’s ready to sell. I need a new front door. Some landscaping. The porch needs to be painted. There’s that spot where my brother Todd tried to hang a rack for pots and pans, but did it wrong, and tried again a couple of time before getting it right. The pet door we installed that never closed quite completely. And everything I try to repair seems to take twice as long to fix as I hoped for and cost twice as much as I budgeted for. So overwhelming, and that’s just a sliver of the to-do list.
            For some reason, this is what popped into my mind when I was thinking about what needs healing in our world, in our lives. Sometimes, I think the need for healing can overwhelm us. Think of those who are struggling physically – with illness, with cancer, with disability, with some persistent ailment. I think of the people I know who are struggling with addiction of one kind or another. People who are trying to absorb the grief of a tragedy, who are mourning and grieving and broken from loss. I think of the struggles of our community – unemployment and poverty. Children in need. I think of our nation – there’s so much fear that is driving us as a country right now. Around the world, war, and refugees, and disease.
            In the face of all that we might say needs healing, it is easy to get overwhelmed, isn’t it? The list of broken people and places and situations can seem just – too much. Too much.  So what do we do, as people of faith, when we’re overwhelmed with looking at the hurt of the world, or the hurt in our own lives, the lives of the people we love?  
            Recently, I’ve seen some pushback when people offer their thoughts and prayers after a tragedy. It’s not uncommon, after a national or international tragedy, for social media and news sites to be filled with images and facebook statuses and tweets and blogposts all saying: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” After the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, after the bombing in Paris, after the hurricane and floods: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” We say this because we really are thinking about and praying for people caught up in tragedy. And we say this because we feel helpless. What can I do about a hurricane? What can I do about gun violence? What can I do about a war in a far off country? And I’ve seen people push back a little, saying, “We need more. We need more than thoughts and prayers. We need action. We need people working for change. We need strategies and solutions.”
And I think: Yes – yes to all of it. We need action and change and strategies and solutions – and thoughts and prayers. We need a way to experience and be part of healing in people’s lives, and in our world. We need to pray for God’s healing action, and be part of God’s healing action. I think trusting in God’s healing, and believing that God has a place for us to be part of the healing of the world is the only way we can keep from being overwhelmed, crushed under the weight of our troubles, offering words that are empty, instead of full of promise, in the face of hurt and pain.
            I think that’s where James comes in. We’ve taken a very brief walk through the book of James. There are other great passage in the five short chapters that make up James’ letter, but we’ll have to save that for our next time around. In today’s text, James talks mostly about prayer and healing. Suffering? Pray. Cheerful? Praise. Sick? Let the church community prayer together, anointing with oil in the name of Jesus. A prayer of faith “saves,” says James, a word that means healing, being “made well.” It gives the sense not just of mending a wound, but of complete health, wholeness. Prayers of faith also bring about forgiveness. So, James says, confess your sins to each other, and pray for each other, because the prayer of the righteous – that is, the prayer of those who are in right relationships with God and one another – is powerful and effective. James gives some examples, including the profound significance of someone being brought back onto the path of discipleship because of the actions of a brother of sister in the faith. There’s another whole sermon series waiting for you eventually on prayer. And a study group or two. My heart’s desire is that prayer, which is just fancy-church language for opening our hearts to God, would be as easy for us as breathing. We get so scared of it, as if God will reject our words. But I think God is waiting for us to strike up more conversation. When we open our hearts to God, James says it is powerful and effective.
            Today, after the sermon, we’re going to spend some time in prayer, praying for healing. Whatever healing you need in your life right now, and whatever healing you see that the world needs right now. You’ll have an opportunity to receive anointing oil and a prayer if you choose to come forward, or if you ask for someone to come to you in your pew. Praying for healing, using anointing oil, which has long been used as part of rituals of faith – these aren’t magic words that we say, magic ceremonies. Praying for healing doesn’t mean praying for God to fix everything. Ask anyone who has healed from an injury, recovered from surgery, had a wound slowly heal – they’ll tell you it is a process. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once, and doesn’t always happen in a smooth, orderly way, and doesn’t always happen how you want it to.
            We’ll pray for healing, and healing means that we have to be vulnerable. We have to offer ourselves for healing. To be healed, we have to be willing to go to the doctor sometimes. To be healed, we have to be willing to share with others what is hurting us. To be healed, we have to be willing to accept help. We’ll pray for healing, and that means that we’re responsible for each other and for our world. James tells us this means sometimes we have to confess to God and one another – sometimes we’re broken because we’ve participating in breaking ourselves, and breaking others. We have to share with each other, share with God, in order for healing to take place. We have to be invested in each other’s healing. Healing isn’t a solo act. It’s an act of community. In the gospels, when Jesus healed people, he’d usually send them to the religious leaders, who would confirm that a healing had taken place. Why did they need to do this? Wasn’t just being physically healed enough? No – that was only part of it. To be healed would mean to be reconciled to the community. People who were ill, or diseased, or otherwise struggling would have been apart, separate from the community. After Jesus healed someone, visiting the religious leaders would be the formal step of being reconciled with the community. James never talks about praying for healing on an individual basis. His assumption is that healing is something we experience together.
            How have you experienced healing? I know we long for God’s healing to be at work in our lives, in our community, in our world. Our thoughts and prayers, and the actions and responses that spring forth from them, mean that we can work with God for healing, as we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, as we lift each other up and hold each other accountable, and as we make ourselves vulnerable to God, letting God work on mending our hearts.
            The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. And the prayer of faith will make us whole. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sermon, "James: Taming the Tongue," James 3:1-12

Sermon 10/16/16
James 3:1-12

James: Taming the Tongue

            Once upon a time I was a little girl going up front for Children’s Time at my little country church in Westernville, NY. I can’t tell you that all the message and lessons stuck with me. But I still remember one very well – the pastor was asking us to guess what the strongest muscle in our body was. We all tried to guess, but were surprised when the pastor told us that the tongue was actually the strongest muscle. So strong, he said, you have to be careful, thoughtful, about the words you say, about how you speak. That message has stuck with me. Now, eventually, I researched a little to figure out – is it really the strongest muscle? It isn’t. It was a bit of a hyperbole. But the gist is true. It’s a small part of us with incredible power – power to build up, to heal, to strengthen, and power to hurt, and tear down, and destroy. How do you use your words? How do use the muscle, the power that you have in the way that you speak? What words are you sending into the world?
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This phrase seems to have appeared sometime in the mid-1800s (1), perhaps meant to be a way to help people withstand verbal mistreatment. But anyone who’s been on the receiving end of consistent bullying can tell you how wrong this little saying is: words are powerful. Immeasurably powerful. Words can do a great many things, and certainly, causing harm is one of them.
            Words are powerful, and have consequences, even when we speak them quickly, thoughtlessly, without much intent behind them. I think, for example, of my grandmother. Her sister told her, when they were children, that she couldn’t sing – she didn’t have a nice voice. My grandmother took those words to heart. They worked deep down into her soul. Decades later, when my mom was a girl, and the family would sing songs in the car on trips, my grandmother would never join in. My grandmother was shaped by those words, which in turn shaped the childhood experiences of my mother. I’m sure my great aunt never imagined that her words would cause such a permanent, lasting feeling. But the words caused hurt. Powerful, the words we speak.
            Words are powerful. When I was in high school, I was part of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries – CCYM – our conference’s team of youth leaders from area churches. We’ve had some folks from this church participate in CCYM over the years and attend CCYM events. At a CCYM event at Casowasco one year, Rev. Rebecca Dolch was our keynote speaker. She had us split into two groups. One group sat in a circle on the floor, and the other group stood in a circle around them. In the outside group, each person had to think of an encouraging word or phrase to share with those in the inside group. And then, as music played, the outside group rotated around, sharing their message in a whisper to each person on the inside group. So if you were sitting on the inside, as people moved around the outside, you’d hear a string of affirmations: “You’re beautiful. I love you. You’re a gift. God loves you. God calls you. You’re special. I care about you. You’re made in God’s image.” Then inner and outer circles switched, and the process was repeated. It is still, all these years later, one of the more meaningful experiences I’ve had – both when I was sharing words of affirmation and receiving them. Powerful, the words we speak.
            I’m guessing that you can remember, if you think over your life, times when words had an amazing impact on your life – some good, some bad. I can remember words spoken to me thirty years ago that hurt my feelings. And thankfully, I can also remember words that made my heart swell with joy. What words do you remember hearing that shaped your life? What words do you remember saying – words of affirmation, or words that caused harm? I’ve been wrestling recently with words that I said about someone that were unkind and hurtful. And indeed, my words, comments made by me without much thought or intent, without much time or energy put into them – led to a series of events that have caused considerable pain. I know I won’t forget. Powerful, the words we speak. In our world today, we produce more words than ever, but more than ever, our words are disconnected from our person – we speak at a distance, through our phones, through email, through text, through facebook. Online, we don’t even have to claim our words, and the power of being able to speak anonymously online seems to have unleashed our desire and ability to say the worst things we can think of saying to hurt each other. What words do you speak online that you would never speak face to face? We must claim those too! Powerful, the words we speak, in whatever medium we speak them.  
             We’re continuing on in our study of the letter of James this week. Nearly half of what James writes in this short letter is tied in some way or another to how we speak, how we interact with each other. Throughout the work he calls for us to speak truthfully, to be careful of speaking judgmentally, to be quick to hear and slow to speak. He calls on us never to speak about each other falsely. And here, in today’s passage, are his most direct, compelling words about how we speak. He starts by saying that not many of us should become teachers, because teachers are judged with greater strictness. Anyone here agree with that? Teachers have authority over others, and certainly in spiritual matters, those who teach others about God and what God is like and how we are called to live – that’s a serious task that requires us to take serious responsibility for our work.
            James says that the tongue, our mouths, our words – they’re like the bit one uses with a horse – a tiny piece that steers the whole direction of the horse. Our tongues are like the rudder on a ship. Proportionally small to the whole – a rudder is responsible for directing the whole boat. The power of our words, says James, is like the power of a small fire, which can burn down a whole forest. Humans have managed to tame whole species of animals, whole segments of creation – but have failed to tame the tongue. The result? “With [our tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so,” James writes. How compelling, how meaningful are our words of praise, our words of thanksgiving, our words of prayer, our words of love, if we also use our words to hurt and harm? How can we praise God and curse what God has created in God’s very image?
            Think about the power of words that shape our Christian identity. We’re bound together by the scripture, words that describe the story of God and God’s people. God created with words. “God said let there be light … and there was light.” We call Jesus the Word too – in the gospel of John, John says that “the word became flesh and lived among us.” The Word in human form in the person of Jesus. I think of the words Jesus speaks. Teaching and preaching. Words that heal, literally. Words that set people free from sin. Words that forgive. Words that challenge. Words of love. I think of the words of our community of faith. The words we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The words of the hymns. The words of our sacraments – “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” “This is my body, broken for you.” Powerful, the words we speak.
            So what do we do about it? Knowing our words are so important, what do we do? It’s tempting to think that it’s only what we do, not what we say that matters. But like we talked about with faith and works last week, we can’t really have just one or the other. Our words shape us and shape others. So how do we, as people of faith, become more thoughtful, more faithful, in our speaking?          
            When we need to, we start by using these powerful words: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” These words, offered with sincerity, can change everything. Sometimes I think about all the ways we try to avoid having to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” We say, “I’m sorry, but…” and follow with basically an explanation of why we are not sorry at all. Or “I’m sorry that you got upset with me.” This is another non-apology, basically a criticism of the other party, rather than a sincere admitting of wrong. How about the phrase, “My apologies.” I find myself slipping into that phrase when I’m telling someone that I’m sorry I haven’t emailed them back more promptly. “I’m so sorry. I was wrong.” Words to offer to God and one another.
            We’ve talked a lot about building each other up as the Body of Christ, and that’s another thing we can do with words. I remember as a child attending our church camps, a camp rule was that there were “no put downs.” And if you did put someone down, you had to apologize by giving “two put ups and a hug.” In other words, you had to find two ways to build the person back up that you had just knocked down. How can you put someone back up who has been knocked down by words – your words, or someone else’s? On my desk in my office, you’ll see a big plastic jar, full of little slips of paper. My home church gave that to me when I started my first church. They wrote on index cards words of affirmation, and told me that when I was having a hard time in my ministry, I should open the jar and read some of the words. I’ve added to it over the years, if someone sends me a note that touches my heart. The words on those cards mean so much to me, and they remind me that I am loved and cherished. They give me strength and encouragement. I don’t even have to read the cards most of the time – I can just look at them sitting in the jar, and remember.
            I challenge us to remember that our words are powerful this week – even when we think we’re in places where our words don’t “count” as much – when we’re driving, when we’re interacting online, when we’re anonymous, when we’re speaking with people who are serving us – wait staff, cashiers, customer service, someone who’s kept us on hold for thirty minutes. Let us remember our words when we’ve been hurt, and our first impulse is to hurt back. We are all teachers, friends, in so far as our whole lives are witnesses to the work of Jesus in the world. And so we have a great responsibility. What do our words tell others about who Jesus is, and who his followers are? I hope our words tell the story of God’s amazing love and grace in a powerful and convincing way.
 “Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.” Amen.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sermon, "James: Faith and Works," Jame 2:14-26

Sermon 10/9/16
James 2:14-26                                                                                                      

James: Faith and Works

            Have you ever listened to a person talking on the phone? You can hear only one-half of the conversation. Sometimes, you can tell exactly what the person is talking about. From just one-half of the story, you can figure out the whole. Other times, you might realize that you have no clue what the conversation is about. You know you are missing too much to get it – the part of the conversation you can hear leaves you too little to go on. The worst, I think, is when you’re hearing only part of a conversation, and you are convinced you can understand everything from what you’ve heard, but you’re completely wrong about the conclusions you’re drawing. The part of the conversation you can’t hear holds crucial information, and without it, you jump to all the wrong conclusions.
            I think that’s the kind of situation we’re in danger of running into in our scripture lesson today from the book of James. We’re spending three weeks looking at the epistle of James, this letter that James writes. Who is James exactly? We encounter more than one James in the scriptures. One of the twelve disciples is James, and one of Jesus’ brothers is named James. We don’t hear much about Jesus’ brother during his life, but after Jesus’ death and resurrection, James becomes a strong leader in the early church. It seems the events of Jesus’ last days on earth have such an impact that James becomes a most devout follower of Jesus, an apostle who gives the rest of his lift to sharing the gospel. This letter is written in the name of James, brother of Jesus. Biblical scholars disagree about whether it is James himself who writes, or whether it is someone later who writes under James’ name – a common practice in ancient times if you wanted to sort of ground your writing in the authority of a particular teacher or school of thought you admired. Either way, what we get in this letter is the work of someone meaning to ground themselves in the kinds of teaching we would hear from James, brother of Jesus.
            Another question we need to ask is: Who exactly is James writing to? All the letters we have from Paul are named not 1 Paul, 2 Paul, and so on. For one – there are too many letters from Paul! And second, it is clear in each of his letters who the recipient is. He tells us that he is writing to the Corinthians, or to the Galatians, or so on. James is different – we have only one letter in the name of this author. And also, James has no clear recipient of his letter. In chapter one, he says he writes “to the twelve tribes in Dispersion.” In other words, James is writing to particularly to the Jewish followers of Jesus who are spread throughout the Roman Empire. So this isn’t actually a letter in the same way Paul’s letters were. This isn’t a letter with a specific recipient in mind. Instead, this is like we might read today on the internet when someone crafts “An Open Letter.” People might write an “open letter” in a blog spot or on facebook with a specific target named, but in actuality, the target is everyone the author can get to read the “letter.” This letter from James is basically an open letter to any faith community, any followers of Jesus who will read it.   
            It’s also an open letter that James writes in response to some apparent beliefs of the early churches that were spreading, that James wanted to correct. But without getting the whole picture, it can be easy to misunderstand what James is saying. What we find in this particular passage in James is a response from James to people taking the teachings of the apostle Paul and misapplying them, misusing them, twisting what Paul has said. James writes as a corrective. But we can learn the most about what James is writing about if we know about all the parts of this conversation.
            Particularly in the epistle to the Romans, a letter written to a group of faith communities made up of a mix of Jews and Gentiles, Paul spends time writing about, teaching about one of the topics most dear to him – how the message of Jesus is for both Jews and Gentiles. Paul wants his readers to know a few things: First, the Israelites still have the gift of beings God’s chosen people. To the Jews, God’s law was entrusted. A covenant was made. That’s the story we find in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament – God and God’s people, and the gift of the law to God’s people. Second, Paul wants his readers to know that there is a place for the Gentiles, too, even though they weren’t a part of that covenant with God. They’re a part of the story too. And how can they be part of the story? Paul writes that Jews and Gentiles are both a part of God’s story because it is our faith that brings us into a right relationship with God, rather than our adherence to the law. Paul called adherence to the law our “works.” Paul uses the figure of Abraham in the book of Genesis to show that is it Abraham’s faith and trust in God, rather than any deeds that Abraham had done, and devout adherence to the law, that makes Abraham blessed. In fact, Paul says, if it is just adherents to the law that are truly children of God, then God’s promises made through Abraham are void. It is our faith in Christ that matters, and therefore, Paul concludes, God’s promises and blessings are extended to take all of us in – not through the law, through works of the law, but through faith.    
            Somewhere between the time Paul wrote his letter, and the time James writes his letter, it seems things had gotten very twisted around. Apparently, some people, interpreting Paul’s teachings, believed that as long as you had faith in Jesus, you could call it a day. As long as you expressed faith in Jesus and understood the gift of the cross, your newfound freedom in Christ made everything else ok.
            James disagrees, vehemently. The result of such a black and white conclusion, he says, is that people are cold and hungry and in need with no one ready to help, because they feel they don’t need to – they’re already saved by their faith, and don’t “need” to do good works to be square with God. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
            He continues, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” James continues by citing some passages from the Hebrews scriptures – pointedly, in fact, using the same example of Abraham – to prove his point. Yes, Abraham believed in God – and that belief spurred him into action of carrying out God’s will. Abraham’s faith was expressed and demonstrated in faithful action.
Can we relate? Is our faith alive with good works? To me, it is easiest to understand James’ arguments when I think about love. We might say we love someone, but if our actions are hateful, or neglectful, or hurtful, the person we claim to love probably won’t believe us. They’ll be on the lookout for our loving actions, which will probably be as convincing as any words we say. I think of my mom trying to tell my two younger brothers when they were teens: it was great to hear from them that they loved her – truly, meaningful to her. But gosh – if they would clean their rooms and do the dishes and pick up the living room and put away their laundry simply because they knew it was important to her – that demonstration of love, those works of love – doing chores they found unappealing – well, that would be love demonstrated in action – convincing and compelling.
Or I think of the musical My Fair Lady. Many of you are probably familiar with the story of Eliza Doolittle, the unrefined flower seller with a heavy Cockney accent. She’s taken on as a project, by a snobby professor, Henry Higgins, to see if he can convince others that she is an upper-class educated woman. Along the way, though, a thoughtful suitor named Freddy Einsford-Hill falls in love with Eliza, and serenades her outside her door. Freddy sings, “Speak, and the world is full of singing/And I am winging higher than the birds/Touch and my heart begins to crumble/The heaven's tumble/Darling, and I'm …” but what he is, we don’t find out, because Eliza, frustrated with the men in her life, cuts him off, singing: “Words, words, words! I'm so sick of words/I get words all day through/First from him, now from you/Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars, burning above/If you're in love, show me!/Tell me no dreams, filled with desire/If you're on fire, show me!” Eliza Doolittle has had quite enough of words. She wants to be able to really see if Freddy loves her. She’s looking for action that supports his claim of love.
James wonders what could be the depth and power of our faith in Christ if it doesn’t evoke a response in us. If we have faith in Jesus, but nothing in our life changes, if it doesn’t change how we live and serve in the world, what does it matter? This might be faith, James says, but it’s dead faith. True faith and that faith expressed in loving, faithful action are inseparable. Full faith, true faith, could never be satisfied to sit back and rest in the face of brothers and sisters in need.
Does that mean we have to earn God’s favor with our good works? Does that mean that if we don’t accumulate a certain number of good deeds, we lose God’s love? Over the centuries, misreading both Paul and James, that’s how some have misconstrued what James is about. We can never earn God’s affection. It isn’t even an option, and any “good works” we do because we’re trying to earn God’s affection may be work but they aren’t very good if being rewarded is our motivation. Thankfully, what saves us, what redeems us, what makes us whole is not our doing, but God’s doing. God’s love and grace is ours, free. What’s up to us is how we respond. God’s grace offered to us is so amazing that it moves us to react! We respond with our faith, our commitment to following in the ways of Jesus. And we demonstrate that faith by living as Jesus lives, walking as he walks – a faith that works to serve others in love, however we can. “[Some] will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” What shows your faith? Amen.