Sunday, September 20, 2015

Grace for People Behaving Badly: James 3:13 - 4:3,7-8 - Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

harvested by Indigo Skies Photography.  Creative Commons Image on flickr
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.4:

1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8a Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (NRSV)
This past summer at Lutherlyn, I overheard a conversation between two teenage campers.

It began at the breakfast table, as a young woman opened a black canvas kit the size of a book, and began injecting herself with insulin. 

The male camper sitting across from the table asked her, “how long have you been a diabetic?”

She says, “I’ve never been a diabetic.  But I’ve had diabetes all my life.”

As the conversation continued, I was amazed by how gracious these two young people were to each other, because this encounter could’ve gone far differently…

Surely, the young woman had every right to be fed up with answering questions about her ailment.  You could, perhaps, say that the young man was being insensitive or nosy toward her—though he could’ve spoken out of pure compassion.  Conversely, the young man could’ve interpreted her answer to his question as rude.  But they were gracious to each other—and that’s not something you see too often in this world…  What you do see is people behaving badly towards each other.

I could stand here for hours telling you stories about the obnoxious behaviors I’ve witnessed working 8½ years in retail.  I could go on even longer sharing stories about road rage, horrible bosses, lazy and incompetent co-workers, gossipy friends, schoolyard bullies, contemptable customer service, and scam artists. 

It’s a sad fact of life that you have to put up with these people every day, all the while you struggle to make ends meet, care for your families, and deal with your own pains. 

At the same time, our society continues to perpetuate injustices against people on the basis of race, age, gender, or any number of other factors that are beyond a person’s control.  These injustices deprive our neighbors of basic human dignity and a fair shot at the American dream.

Then you have 24-hour cable news reminding us of global terrorism, climate change, recession, mass shootings, and violent crimes.

Put it all together, and you see that we’re living in an age of climbing anxiety that’s bringing out the worst in all of us.  Truly, we are a people behaving badly.

In the New Testament book of James, God’s Word goes straight to the heart of the matter: “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
Fear, envy, bitterness, pride, ambition—these are all conditions of the heart.  Yet we act them out against each other. 

We act as if the whole world should revolve around me.  We become vicious about getting what we want.  What’s more is that we treat people according to how we perceive and judge them.  A neighbor will be a neighbor, if and only if they measure up to me; if they look like me, think like me, live like me, struggle like me, and believe like me.  Otherwise, they’re below us—and we’re right to treat them that way…

But Jesus comes into our world—and not to be served, but to serve by giving himself away to sinful yet beloved world.  His life, death, and resurrection liberate us from life’s two greatest enemies: death and the devil.  Whatever our situation in life may be, we trust that our sins are forgiven; God hears our prayers; and come what may, Jesus will never leave us or forsake us.

If you do not have, you can ask God!  And this is how God will respond:
1.      If you are asking anything of God out of fear, envy, bitterness, pride, or selfish ambition—the Holy Spirit will act to put these desires to death, lest they wreak destruction on you and your neighbor.
2.      If you trust that your needs and your pains matter to God, God will prove faithful—somehow, someway.  God will draw near, and you will be okay.
3.      As your eyes are opened to the abundance of God’s graciousness to you every day, God will draw you nearer to your neighbors in need.  Hurts are healed and needs are met as we belong to one another in Christ.

So ask yourself: who or what makes you angry and gets your blood boiling?  In what ways do you believe that you’ve been wronged, by the government, by society, by the economy, by God?

Ask: who or what are the greatest threats to your safety and well-being?

And conversely, what are you most passionate about?  To what people or causes are you most passionate in serving?

To put it simply, what do you want?

The Christian life is not a fight for what’s right and beneficial for you.  It’s not about winning grace and favor from God or anyone else.  It’s not about proving ourselves right and others wrong.  It’s not even about winning people over so they’ll come to church.

It’s about serving, plain and simple.  Serving without partiality or preference; giving no thought as to the worthiness of others or what we might get in return.  You put listening ahead of speaking; mercy over judging, understanding over assuming; serving over being served—even in our consumer-driven culture.  For all there really is to envy is Christ—and that his gentleness, patience, and peace draw us all together; to put an end to envy and human need alike.  

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Speak Life: James 3:1-12 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

swing by Thelma Felix.  Creative commons image on
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (NRSV)
You don’t have to know me well to know that I have allergies.  It only takes a little bit of dust, pollen, or animal dander to start me sneezing…

Even while I take two medications, people are always giving me advice on how to manage my symptoms: “Sleep with a humidifier in your room.”  “Drink tea with local honey.”  “Buy a Neti-Pot.”  “Take Quercetin.”

But there’s one piece of advice I’ll never forget: one of my former co-workers suggested hypnosis.  His brother, who owned a landscaping company, suffered terrible outdoor allergies that made his work miserable; the worst being his allergic reactions to bee stings and poison ivy.  After a few sessions with the local hypnotist, his allergies were gone. 

I’m happy for his brother—but the thought of hypnosis absolutely scares me. 

Words are tremendously powerful—more than I ever think we realize. 

Whether they are spoken or written, words influence our beliefs and convictions.  They influence our behavior. 

There’s nowhere you can go to escape the words of advertisers, convincing you that we can’t be somebody without their products. 

The words of parents, teachers, friends, and role models go a long way to shape who we are.  So do the words of bullies and adversaries…

For better or worse, words move history forward.  They give birth to political, economic, social, and even religious movements.  Words get politicians elected.  Words may even take them down. Words start wars; words end wars. 

Words create life; words destroy life. 

Sadly, as a fallen humanity, we use our words for evil instead of good. 

James writes that the human tongue is aflame with the fires of hell; a deadly force that cannot be tamed. 

None of us need any reminders of this. 

Every day, our souls bleed from the wounds inflicted by others’ words.  They adhere themselves to our minds—because you can’t unhear them.  Once you speak them—you can’t unsay them…

You don’t have to be a vile, hate-filled person to speak deadly words.  You need only be stressed, exhausted, and in pain.

Right now, there are bitter wars of words being waged among political candidates and movements, all vying for power.  Wars are being fought along lines of class, race, and religion. 

Boldly, we defend the freedom of speech even when it denies the humanity and dignity of those persons it is spoken against. 

Even while we’re all guaranteed freedom to speak, not all possess the freedom to be heard. 

All told, we’re not saying what God wants us to say—nor are we hearing what God wants us to hear.  This is very dangerous—because the well-being of our souls and the well-being of our society is at stake.

With so many voices calling out for our attention, there is only one voice of truth: the voice of Jesus Christ.   Today, the Holy Spirit is opening our ears, as God fulfills the promises that have been spoken to us in the Word.  Our sins are forgiven.  We are liberated from death and the devil.  We are accepted and claimed by God just as we are.  Our prayers are being heard.  God is in control. 

And we are called by Jesus Christ to proclaim throughout the world that he is the Savior.  We’re sent not merely to be talking heads, but real-life embodiments of Jesus is.

The beginning of discipleship is listening: listening to God, but also listening to God’s people who cry out beneath the burdens of sorrow, oppression, and need.  We need the Spirit to give us the ears of Christ, because we are far more inclined to judge and ridicule others instead of offering the mercy of listening.  We’d much rather assume we know the truth about someone else instead of seeking to understand.  We’d much rather give advice and work a quick fix, instead of accompanying that person.   Truth be told, God can work amazing things through us, sometimes without us saying a word…

When we do speak, we need the Spirit’s guidance: to help us pray; to use our words to both lift up and build up…  It’s not unusual for the Holy Spirit to take our humanity and our gifts of time, talent, and treasure and translate them into saving grace.

All of this happens because the Holy Spirit implants God’s Word into our hearts, even as they are aflame with the fires of evil.  Christ comes alive as our tongues and hands bless the Lord, nurture life, and enact God’s love.

This is why it is so important to receive the Gospel—and not just with our ears, but with our eyes, our mouths, our hands, our hearts…  For as God’s Word comes to fulfillment in you, it will be coming to fulfillment in the world.  Warring peoples are reconciled; the cries of the poor are heard and their needs met; the kingdom of God takes hold in lives and communities were God’s will is done. 

Tongues are set aflame not with bitterness and hate but with the love and mercy of our God.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Grace Beneath the Table: Mark 7:24-37 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

March 27, 2011 by Jeremy Jenum.  Creative commons image on flickr
24[Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
There was a time in my life when I didn’t use a broom for at least a decade…

The reason why: there was never any need to sweep up crumbs from beneath the kitchen table.  The family dogs more than took care of that for us.

Thankfully, there was never a shortage of dog food or people food in the house.  Yet the dogs were never content to settle on the little brown pellets of Hill’s Science Diet that daily filled their dog dish… 

Any time we ate a meal or got a snack, the dogs were right there, ready to snatch up whatever crumbs would happen to fall from the table.  Our Lhasa Apso had a way of snatching whatever food she could from the tabletop; especially dinner rolls…

But can you imagine having to survive only on crumbs? 

Sadly, 800 million people in the world don’t have to imagine—because it’s reality.  A sad fact about our world is that there are some who get to enjoy the absolute best of everything—careers, homes, food, clothing, cars, schools, hospitals, entertainment, vacations, you name it…  Then there are those who must survive on or even beg for the crumbs and leftovers that trickle down from the tables of privilege.

Yet this struggle is not limited to the social and economic realities of our time…

This can also be a person’s spiritual reality: you see some people feasting at the table of God’s goodness—but you’re under the table, begging for a few measly crumbs of grace…

This was the situation for the Syrophonecian woman in today’s Gospel.  Her daughter was demon-possessed—which was, by far, the most horrific thing that could ever happen to a person.  To put it bluntly, your body and soul are completely controlled by evil.  When Jesus comes to town, she falls at his feet and begs for mercy. 

Jesus’ response is a bit surprising: he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not [right] to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  In other words, Jesus’ priority was to serve the children of Israel—of which she was not.  She was a Gentile.  Now it’s really hard to imagine Jesus rejecting anyone in such a way—but I wonder, since he knew people inside and out, if he spoke these words in order to draw out her faith? 

She claims no sense of entitlement, either for herself or her daughter.  All she claims is her desperate need for a few crumbs or grace in her desperately graceless situation.  With that, she holds Jesus to be true to who he is—the gracious and merciful Savior of not just the children of Israel, but all people.  God’s grace immediately breaks and destroys the bondage of evil.

What Jesus teaches us is that none of us have any rightful claim upon him or anything he would have to give us.  All that we have to claim is our brokenness and desperate need.  But thanks be to God, Jesus comes to us.  He shows up, to draw out our God-given faith.  It is by faith that we awaken each morning with a bold and daring confidence that Jesus is going to meet us in our graceless situations.  It is by faith that we receive amazing grace in what would look like mere crumbs to the world.  It is by faith that we take Jesus’ hand as he invites us to sit at his table and eat and drink the best of what he gives us: his very own body and blood

Faith is not just a set of intellectual beliefs.  It is living by the expectation of grace to meet our every need.  But it’s not just about me or you…

These are troubling times we’re living in right now—and there’s no escaping the fact that the devil comes right into our struggles to survive.  You see it everywhere, in the greed, hostility, and violence that pits neighbor against neighbor as we all strive to give the best possible future to our children.  What’s more is that the devil exploits our sense of pride and self-importance, turning us so far into ourselves that we are blinded not only to the hunger of our neighbor, but even to our hunger for God.

Yet, by faith, Jesus takes us below the lofty tables of the American Dream to where brokenness, suffering, and need are literally ruling over people’s lives.  The Spirit brings to life the love of Jesus within us that we serve our neighbors—not with crumbs and leftovers, but with the best of who we are and what we have in Christ.  We are turned inside-out, so that God may work within us and through us to bring about the redemption of others.  We become God’s amazing grace in a graceless world.

How beautiful it is, that in a world so full of death, Jesus gathers us in to eat and drink the bread and cup of life.  He comes to set us free not only from the demons of sorrow and fear, but the demons that turn us in on ourselves and make life into a war to gain and maintain our own happiness.  How beautiful we are empowered to be, to bring light into the shadows of pain and human need; to be grace in a graceless world.