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. 

Monday, October 03, 2016

Sermon for World Communion Sunday, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens ... When We Gather at the Table," 1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 33-34

Sermon 10/2/16
1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 33-34

Church Happens … When We Gather at the Table

            Today we’re concluding our worship theme “Church Can Happen Anywhere.” We’ve been studying 1 Corinthians, both in worship and in Bible Study (which, by the way, will continue, and we’d still love to have you join us in it!), and learning some lessons from Paul and the early church. We started by talking about how we are all important parts of the body of Christ – and though we are many, we are one in Christ Jesus. We were reminded that church isn’t something we can do alone. It can happen anywhere – but only together, only with each other, only when we remember that we need each other. We talked about the passion that Paul had for sharing the good news of Jesus, a passion that let him cross boundaries and borders, getting to really know people, in order to better offer them the gift in Jesus that he’d experienced. Paul called the Corinthians – and calls us – to pour our whole selves in to the task of sharing the gospel – ready to bring church everywhere and anywhere. We talked love. Church can happen anywhere, unless we try to be church without love. Love and action go hand in hand, as we build each other up. We challenged ourselves to increase our ability to love one another by practicing some of the action words Paul used. And now, in a way, we find ourselves back at the beginning. We’re talking about the Body of Christ again. Specifically, Paul is writing to the Corinthians about how they celebrate together in the Lord’s Supper. And so as this particular worship theme comes to a conclusion, it seems only right that we hear Paul’s teachings about communion on a day we celebrate World Communion Sunday.     
World Communion Sunday was started by a Presbyterian pastor named Hugh Thomson Kerr nearly 80 years ago. He wanted there to be a way to celebrate Christian unity and encourage our ecumenical relationships, our relationships across different Christian traditions. He wanted something that would celebrate our interconnectedness. After all, there is so much more as brothers and sisters in Christ that brings us together, centers us, grounds us, than there is that divides us. What better way to symbolize our unity than at the communion table, where we recognize that there is only one body of Christ, even though there is such a wonderfully diverse collection of members that make up that one body?
I have found that celebrating the sacraments – baptism and communion – is one of the greatest blessings of ministry. There is nothing that compares with the blessing of baptizing someone, and there is such intimacy in saying, “this is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of Christ, poured out for you.” In The United Methodist Church, holy communion and baptism are the two sacraments we celebrate, gifts from God to the church, gifts Jesus called us to practice, gifts through which we can experience God’s grace, gifts that help us deepen our sense of belonging in Christ’s church. Sharing in Holy Communion, then, is an essential part of what it means for us to be church.
Children have some of the best communion theology I’ve heard. They’re smart. They listen. They participate. They learn as they share with us in the sacrament. At my childhood church in Westernville, my grandmother baked all the loaves of bread for our communion services. Often, on Communion Sundays, she would bake me and my brothers our own little loaves of bread to have. Once, Todd, my youngest brother, when he was about 4, was eating his bread in the backseat of the car on the way home from church. And he’s eating the bread, and all of a sudden says, “I’ve got the bones of Jesus back here!” He knew what it was about.
            I think of a family at the church I served in New Jersey. They had a little boy named Tristan, and the parents just didn’t want him to take communion yet. They thought he was too young. And Tristan would come up with his father during communion and instead of bread and juice, I would give him a blessing. But he was visibly disappointed every time. And finally, one time, when he came forward, he looked up at his dad with pleading eyes, begging, without words, to be allowed to have communion. And his dad looked a bit resigned and nodded his permission. And Tristan gave an excited “Yes!” and a fist pump, and received communion for the first time with a face lit with joy. He knew what it was about. I’ve already had lots of children here in Gouverneur ask for seconds at communion. “I want another piece” is not an uncommon statement. And I’ll give you a second piece if you want it. After all, communion is supposed to be a meal, a feast, right? These kids know what it’s really all about. Do we?
Paul was concerned that the new church at Corinth was completely missing the point of the communion meal, and he writes to correct them in some of his strongest words in 1 Corinthians. Remember, I shared with you a few weeks ago that early communities of Jesus followers met in the homes of the richest members, because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. And the church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. Worship time happened over the course of a meal. Worship was a feast – a full meal shared together, like our worship service and Fellowship Feast all rolled into one. The bread, the Body of Christ, was broken early on. The cup was given after the supper. But the meal, the feast, and the sacrament intricately tied to it, were the primary, central acts of worship.
            Paul is writing to address concerns he has about disturbing practices that have come up in worship and especially in sharing the sacrament. In Paul’s day, like ours, people came from many different economic backgrounds. But proper roles for people according to their classes were more structured. We still have plenty of class differences. But in Paul’s day, when people of all different backgrounds came together to feast and worship – things got complicated. In an early Christian household of a wealthy person, like at the home of Gaius, the host of the Corinthian church, a home would have an open air center atrium, and a room called the Triclinium – a dining room with three-sided couches, and an open side for servants to bring in food. There were places for about a dozen people to sit – to recline actually. Imagine meals taking place while everyone stretched out on lounge chairs. But worship feasts would bring in many more than a dozen people. So everyone who couldn’t sit at one of the dozen seats had to be served their food in the atrium. Guess who got the dozen seats on the couch?
Of course Gaius, the wealthy host, and his wealthy friends. Not only that, but Paul indicates that he’s discovered that those seated in the Triclinium were either arriving before the working poor or slaves who were members of the church, to start their meal early, or actually eating in front of them, first, while the others looked on. And further, food of different quality and quantity was served to the wealthy church members. So Paul says that some members are getting drunk on good wine, while others are going home from a worship feast hungry. Can you imagine, at worship, if we sat according to economic status, and served better communion bread to those of a higher status. Outrageous, right? What a horrible distortion of the beautiful meal left to us by Jesus! But we can’t blame the people of the Corinthian church too much. They were only replicating in their brand new faith community exactly what happened in the rest of the social lives. In the other clubs, organizations, and associations they were a part of, this pattern was exactly how things functioned. You might all be part of the same group, but the societal divisions were still firmly in place.
Paul writes to remind the community what it means to be the one Body of Christ. He is passionate about this. He can’t say enough about how important understanding what it means to be the Body of Christ is. He says that if the Corinthians continue practicing the Lord’s Supper as they have been – well, it isn’t actually the Lord’s Supper at all. You can’t call the practices they’ve engaged in the Lords’ Supper. Paul says, repeatedly in his writings, that when we are in Christ, we are new creations. They are baptism words – in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul means this with a sincerity, with an urgency that I find it hard to even convey to you. In Christ, we are new creations, and we are part of One Body. The power of belonging to Christ was real change in your life and in the world. Real change. Real transformation. For Paul, that meant that your identity, so entrenched in societal standards – your gender, your ethnicity, your status – it was nothing, nothing anymore, because of Christ. Paul wanted the community at Corinth to know that being a Jesus follower meant real, actual, concrete changes in the way you would live in the world and treat other people. If you come to the table together, if you feast together, if you share in the One Body of Christ together, you better expect some real changes in how you live. We are one body in Christ Jesus. We are part of each other if we are part of Jesus. And we can’t be part of Jesus if we won’t be part of one another, part of every other person in the body of Christ.
On this World Communion Sunday, as we think about what sharing in this meal means to us, I want us to think about what it would mean if every time we celebrated the sacrament, we remembered that if we want to be part of Jesus, we’re part of each other too. Not symbolically. Not to be forgotten as soon as we leave this building, or even just this time of worship. Not to be forgotten when we’re stuck in traffic, or in classes, or at work, or at the store, or confronted with racism or poverty or bullying or divisions, not to be forgotten when we want to put up walls between ourselves and those who are Other. Because of Christ, because we are One Body, there is no one who is Other. There’s only all of us. What if we remembered? I know I need to remember.
            Today, when I say the prayer of consecration as we celebrate communion, I’ll say, “Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the body of Christ.” We, the church, we are the only body of Christ in the world. Christ is alive among us, always, but we are the body of Christ on this earth. So we come to the table, ready to renew our commitment to embody Christ in the world as fully as we can. Seek each day to see with the eyes of Christ, so that when we encounter others, we look with the same compassion with which Christ looks. We are the hands of Jesus, reaching out to all the people to whom Jesus reached out: the unclean, the unwanted, the untouchable, the unloved, the unaccepted – our hands must take theirs. We are the feet of the body, and our feet must take us where Jesus’ feet took him. Among people who didn’t look like him or worship like him or practice the traditions he practiced. Into homes that no one else would enter. Into places where illness and disease left little hope.
We – broken, on our own, but together, Christ’s body – we are the body of Christ in the world. Teresa of Avila, a nun who lived in the fifteenth centuries, wrote this poem that has become one of my favorites:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

When we gather at the table, and when we are sent forth from it, into the world, we are the body of Christ. Amen.