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Sermon: Your Arm’s Too Short to Box With God

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 21, 2018, Pentecost 22B

Job 38:1-11, 34-41

Your Arm’s Too Short to Box With God

You know the saying “Be careful what you wish for?” Job is about to find out what it means.

Remember how Job was all agitated, in last week’s reading from chapter 23, to find God so he could plead his case in person, so to speak? After all his lamenting, his increasing distrust of God’s justice, and the ongoing berating of the three so-called friends, with a six-chapter interlude of more berating from a new character, Elihu, Job finally gets his wish: God appears, “out of the whirlwind” and challenges Job to speak. Except, no, God doesn’t really challenge Job to speak. To be blunt about it, God challenges Job to shut up and listen.

Job had imagined something like what we would call a courtroom situation, in which Job would argue his case and convince God that his suffering was not right and not deserved. Instead, God tells Job to get suited up, and takes him on what amounts to a field trip through creation, for most of chapters 38-41. Even when Job tries to back down in the early verses of chapter 40, God is having none of it. Somehow, God’s answer to Job’s demands for justification is a cosmic nature hike.

God first interjects Godself into the ongoing debate with harsh words: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” In truth that could be directed at any of those involved in the conversation thus far, but Job is the one out front, and Job is the one who is going to take the heat here.

After challenging Job to put on his big-boy pants and get ready to be cross-examined, God takes off. In the course of chapters 38 and 39 we are reminded in short order that Job has been neither present for nor involved in:

  • Measuring and laying the foundations of the earth, sinking the base of the foundation and laying its cornerstone, to the accompaniment of rejoicing from the stars and heavenly beings;
  • Sealing up the raging rush of the seas “when it burst out from the womb” (some serious feminine imagery applied to a part of creation!), enrobing it in could and mist and fog, and setting its boundaries;
  • Ordering the dawn and the morning;
  • Plunging down into the depths of the sea and knowing its mysteries;
  • Knowing where light itself lives, where the snow and hail gather to descend upon the earth, carving out the channel for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt;
  • Ordering the stars in their courses and constellations;
  • Calling forth the rain and lightning;
  • Hunt down the prey by which the lion might feed its cubs;
  • In chapter 39, knowing the ways of the beasts of the wild, hooved animals and birds and the whole lot.

The title of this sermon comes from a sermon/poem by James Weldon Johnson, “The Prodigal Son” from his collection God’s Trombones. Like that prodigal son, Job finds he cannot possibly contend with God, and attempts to back down at the beginning of chapter 40. God’s not done, though. picking up again in chapters 40 and 41 with a downright rhapsodic celebration of two particular beasts, Behemoth and Leviathan. While some commentators try to equate them to native animals of the nearby Nile delta – the hippopotamus and the crocodile – they frankly sound more like creatures that should be featured in the Fantastic Beasts movies than anything we see walking around on earth. (It is after this that Job’s final reckoning with God takes place, but that’s for next week.)

It is wild and wonderful poetry, brash and exuberant and, yeah, a little proud in a way that a deity has a right to be. Truly, I do recommend that at some point you read these four chapters for yourself – not trying to discern the mystery or unlock some secret that will tell you when the Rapture is coming or anything like that; just read them as you might read from a book of poetry for once, and let the sheer beauty of God’s good creation wash over you and overwhelm your senses in its wildness and over-the-top breathlessness.

Still, though, we are left hanging, or so it seems. Yes, that’s lovely and all that, one might ask, but what about Job’s suffering? It’s still not fair. What does all of this have to do with that?

Theologians have grappled with this one for centuries, sometimes ending up in the theological equivalent of throwing one’s hands up in the air in resigned despair of ever coming up with an answer. I have no intention of claiming to be smarter or more gifted or more Spirit-guided than they; I can do no more than offer up one possibility. It’s deeply unsatisfying in a way, and might even throw into question Job’s declared “innocence” in this whole matter, not to mention the our own.

It is possible, that in all of this dialogue and diatribe and accusing, Job hasn’t even come close to asking the right question. (His “friends” have been even worse.)

There are many, many possible interpretations of this monologue from God here in chapters 38-41, more than can possibly be attempted in one sermon. However, the following takeaways from this monologue might be suggested, as a means of ordering what all of this means for Job, and for us, in understanding a place in creation:

1) God orders creation for God’s own purposes and for the good of ALL creation – not just us humans.

This challenges us. This challenges how we read the Bible, and frankly how a lot of the biblical writers wrote. We tend to think that everything about creation is done for our own personal pleasure and comfort. We tend to sing songs and pull out Bible stories that make us the center of the universe.

We’re not, not by a long shot.

Look again at the creation as described here. It is broad and vast and unbounded and all the good words we say and sing about it without truly understanding what they mean. If we take this passage seriously, we have to understand that we are part of creation, and not masters of it.

2) God orders and controls creation. God does not, however, tame creation.

Wild things are meant to be wild. God made them that way. Based on how Behemoth and Leviathan are described, God seems to likewild things that way. Not just the animals; wild winds, wild seas, Wildness is a feature in the fullness of God’s creation, not a bug.

Also: remember The Lion King? The big hit Disney animated movie with all the creatures of the African savanna and the young lion with Matthew Broderick’s voice who had to learn to grow up and take his place as the head of the lion pride? Do you also remember the big song as this whole assemblage, this network of creatures, played out on the screen before us? What was it called?

[singing] Circle of Life?

Thing is, though, when you invoke that phrase – “the circle of life” – there’s something included in it that isn’t so much fun to think about. Part of the “circle of life” is no less than death. Death itself is programmed into God’s ordering and controlling of creation. As such, we should know suffering will happen, and not expect creation to get out of our way and avoid harming us at all costs.

This thought leads to two related ideas:

3) If our lives seem disordered, we may need to examine whether we are truly living as part of God’s creation.

Have we as humans lived our lives so determined on our own comfort and control that we have broken our relationship with God’s creation? Have we so separated ourselves from living with that creation, as part of that creation, that we do ourselves actual harm, set off illnesses and injury to ourselves and broken our very bodies and minds by our pursuit of dominance over and exploitation of nature?

And closely related…

4) If creation seems disordered to us, perhaps we need to look at someone other than God for a reason. Perhaps we should look in a mirror.

This is where it gets touchy for us, living as we do in one of those places where our relationship with creation, the struggle over living with creation or as part of creation against taming or dominating creation, is etched deeply within our very existence in this state.

In the John Sayles movie Sunshine State, a developer who acts as something of a Greek chorus commenting on the movie’s action makes a few trenchant observations about living here in Florida. People come to Florida, or at least some do, because of (what they perceive to be) nature, the “natural beauty” of the land.

Tricky thing is, though, if many of those people saw actual natural Florida, with swamps and wild grasses and prairies and mosquitoes the size of birds, they’d run screaming in the opposite direction. What they want is tightly controlled “nature,” highly groomed and manicured “nature” instead of the sheer wildness of God’s creation. That developer in the movie freely acknowledges that this is what he sells, describing it as “nature … on a leash.

Trouble is, as we see too often and too easily these days, our attempts to “tame” nature and put it “on a leash” only make things worse.  We tame and grow things with thoroughly unnatural chemicals and end up with red tide and toxic algae. We take out native plants and animals and bring in plants and animals that don’t belong here, and we end up overrun with the less desirable plants and invasive species (ask one of your south Florida friends about Burmese pythons). And yes, we overheat the earth so badly that, just for one recent example, the Gulf of Mexico becomes a tropical pressure cooker, turning a fledgling tropical depression into a nearly Category 5 monster (speak of a behemoth!) just in time for it to slam into the Florida Panhandle. Not to mention our nasty habit of thinking we tamed nature enough that we think it’s o.k. to build to the hilt right up on the coastline, right were those behemoth storms come crashing ashore.

If we think creation is disordered, yeah, we’d better look in the mirror. Norman Wirzba, now of Duke Divinity School, puts it this way in his comment on Job:

An adequate understanding of creation and an honest estimation of our place within it require that we see creation in terms of God’s intention and scale. Attempts to reduce creation to the scale of human significance invariably result in pain to ourselves and in death to creatures around us.[1]

Let us be clear here; Job’s moral universe, that which has formed all of his questioning and complaining, is being challenged for being entirely too small. And yes, Job’s presumed innocence is being questioned as well.

For example, what about those massive herds Job had kept before? “Seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys” just for starters in 1:3, with his ten children feasting regularly and Job praying that they didn’t do anything stupid.

I invite you to imagine the size of that farm. Imagine, if you dare, the smell of being anywhere near it. I learned enough living on the edge of the Plains that I can say that being anywhere near an agricultural operation large enough to manage or control that many animals is never more than a step away from an environmental nightmare. Was Job really managing those herds in a way that honored God’s creation? What was the effect of that massive operation on Job’s neighbors? Was Job really that innocent, in the full scale of creation?

And what, dare we ask, about us? What does our footprint do to others that we don’t even know of?

We may need, in the end, to quit peering through the microscope focused ever so tightly on our own desires and comforts, and to spend time looking through the telescope that opens up God’s full creation to us. We may need to think less about how the world is crashing in on us, and more about how we’re crashing in on the world. It may be time for us to change glasses, go outside, and look at … everything, and ask not if it is ours, but where we belong in it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #34, Bless the Lord, My Soul and Being!; #775, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me; #625, O Lord My God (How Great Thou Art)

 

 

[i]Norman Wirzba, “God’s Measure of Creation,” Christian Reflection (2002), 24-29.


Sermon: My Complaint Is Bitter

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 14, 2018, Pentecost 21B

Job 23:1-17; Hebrews 4:12-16

My Complaint is Bitter

One could preach two different sermons on this part of the Job story, and I’m not sure which one is more appropriate. In either case some catching up is required, so let’s get that done first.

In last week’s passage we heard essentially the prologue of the story, setting up the unexpected and seemingly undeserved suffering of Job, as first all of his possessions and children, then his own health are taken away, leaving him sitting in an ash heap scraping sores with a broken-off piece of pottery, cursing what he calls his wife’s foolish tongue.

The first thing that happens after this is that three friends of Job – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – arrive to see Job. So shocked are they at Job’s appearance and condition that they are unable to speak; they sit in silence with Job for seven full days. (Spoiler alert: this is the last good thing these friends do in this story.)

Job, in chapter 3, begins to let his steadfast guard down, cursing the day he was born. This is the trigger that sets off those three friends, who each in turn begin to insist that Job mustbe guilty of … of … well, of something to be afflicted with so much suffering. In turn, Job answers each with an avowal of his guiltlessness, mixed in with increasing laments of his condition and increasing indications of despair that God will ever hear his complaint. As we come to chapter 23, we can see how this pattern is playing out. Chapter 20 features Zophar insisting that wickedness deserves just retribution, and Chapter 21 offers Job’s reply that the wicked often (as far as humans can see) go unpunished; Chapter 22 brings back Eliphaz for his tag-team assault on Job’s innocence, insisting that Job’s wickedness must be truly great.

Chapter 23 brings Job’s reply, or part one of it. It is somewhat different, in that Job is less consumed with declaring his innocence to his friends than with lamenting that he cannot find God, in order to take his complaint directly to him. Chapter 24, following this lament, continues with Job’s observation that not all wickedness is evidently punished, seeing that violence and wrongdoing still proliferate on the earth. Bildad will then launch his next assault on Job, and the cycle will continue until Chapter 31, … but that’s for next week.

But back to Chapter 23. “My complaint is bitter.” That’s not really a typical phrase, is it? And it’s not exactly the way Job has been speaking in most of his defenses so far in the book. It’s an indicator – a small one, but an indicator no less – of the way that Job’s mind is turning. Most of his replies to his so-called friends so far have been defensive – “my complaint is just” – or lamenting – “my suffering is great”. Using the word “bitter” seems like a turn, and indeed the chapter is much concerned with what Job sees as the absence of God. “O, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. … There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Job is getting itchy. It’s no longer enough to protest his innocence to his friends; now he wants to find God and make that protest. He wants to convince God. He believes if he could just find God and make his case he would be vindicated. It’s really not a way we’re accustomed to thinking, is it? Most of us don’t think of approaching God as some kind of judge to plead our innocence – especially not descendants of John Calvin, he of the theological idea of “total depravity,” that all humans are enmeshed in sinfulness without exception, and that “innocent” does not apply to any human being save for the grace of Jesus Christ. But for Job, steeped in the belief that his former riches are verification of his goodness, God just has to be convinced.

So, about those two sermons that might be preached here: on the one hand, lamenting one’s condition is in fact a healthy thing, and the church needs to be a community that provides a space for those who are in sorrow or hurt or suffering to give voice to that sorrow or hurt or suffering without fear of being shamed or having their faithfulness belittled.

Let’s be clear; that lament is not necessarily about bemoaning how the suffering is “somebody else’s fault,” or seeking to blame everyone but oneself for mistakes one has in fact made. It’s not about blaming others for our own mistakes. What it does offer is the opportunity to lament those things that happen to us for no reason – the ancient question of “when bad things happen to good people” that provoked that popular book of some years ago.

Speaking of books, one of the most popular books in churchy circles right now is one with the provocative title “Everything Happens For a Reason … and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” The author, Kate Bowler, is a professor at Duke Divinity School. Fresh from an academic success in latching onto a dissertation topic that morphed seamlessly into her first book and a plum teaching position at her alma mater, with a loving husband and new son, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The book is by turns funny, poignant, maybe a little whiny at times, but mostly acting to give voice to lament that is not tempered or moderated. It’s honest and it’s blunt, and there’s no happy ending; the book ends with her admission that, in the end, the cancer will win.

The church needs to be a place where such lament can be voiced, and such bluntness can be heard without judgment and without being flooded with false promises. If we cannot be honest with our sorrow here among the body of Christ, we really are without hope, aren’t we?

But then, is there another possibility? What about that other sermon?

The blunt truth is that, no matter how we might try, we simply cannot listen to Job’s lament with the same ears as the book’s original readers might have heard it. No matter what tragedy besets us or how deep our despair, we are still the body of Christ. Today’s reading from the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we aren’t children of an indifferent God, no matter how much it may seem so at times. In verse 15 from that reading we are reminded that our “high priest” as the author has called Jesus is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but…in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” That certainly includes physical suffering – Jesus was killed by one of the most painful tortures ever devised by humanity; and also emotional loss – remember his tears at the death of Lazarus. This is not an indifferent God; this is a God who has been there.

Does that mean, possibly, that our reaction in time of suffering and seeming absence of God might need to be modified just a little? Maybe there comes a point when the crying out in grief and lament, as needed and inevitable as it is, needs to give way to something else.

Remember how Job’s friends initially sit with him in silence for seven days? We don’t necessarily get an insight into what’s going on in Job’s mind during those seven days, unless you take it that he spent those days getting ready to curse the day he was born. Maybe for us, whose theology must include a God who has suffered and grieved and lamented like as we, the task is to take those silences and do something different with them.

Maybe we need to listen.

Maybe we need to turn off the noise of our own crying and listen to God’s own tears.

Maybe we need to be reminded of the suffering of Christ – as innocent as possible, and yet crucified, tortured – when we begin to plead that we don’t deserve this.

That’s not a popular God. Let’s be blunt about it; we want our God to, in popular parlance, kick butt and take names.

Remember that memoir mentioned earlier, Everything Happens For a Reason … and Other Lies I’ve Loved? Kate Bowler’s highly successful first book was about the prosperity gospel and its adherents in the United States. After her cancer diagnosis Bowler was jolted to realize how much of that prosperity-gospel mindset had seeped into her own thinking. You see, it’s not just about God making you rich if you’re good; the opposite also holds true. If you suffer – whether by loss of that good fortune or by the advent of illness – it’s a sign of God’s disfavor. If something like cancer happens to you, it’s a sign that you’ve done something wrong and that God is punishing you.

Remember, this is the underlying mindset against which Job is struggling. I haven’t done anything wrong, Job insists. Why am I suffering so?

Let me be explicit about this: that’s not Jesus. That’s not gospel, not even a little bit. God is not a vending machine giving out goodies to those who insert the right coins or check off the right do’s and don’ts or butter up God to stay on God’s good side. Remember the words of Matthew 5:45, and how the rain is sent to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Job’s comeuppance is coming. For us, it is already here. God is not absent; God is not aloof from our pain. But God is not ours to manipulate. God is God, and we are not. Our suffering is an occasion for lament, but not for blame, and not for claiming God owes us.

So, which sermon is the right one – welcoming and receiving lament, or being silent and listening? I suspect the answer is “both.” There is a time, to borrow from Ecclesiastes, for both crying out our grief and taking in God’s answer, even if the answer is silence.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, Eternal God of Time (insert); #793, O Christ, the Healer; #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #724, O Jesus, I Have Promised


Sermon: Once Upon a (Really, Really, REALLY Bad) Time

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 7, 2018, Pentecost 20B

Job 1:1, 13-22; 2:1-10

Once Upon a (Really, Really, REALLY Bad) Time

“Once upon a time…

We know what that means. When we hear those words we know pretty clearly what we are about to hear; a fairy tale.

I think we’ve done this before, acknowledging how an opening sentence can tell us so much about what is to come. Think of:

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Or:

“Space…the final frontier…”

Here’s another one to add to your repertory of opening lines:

“There was once a man…”

In fact, even today that kind of gives away what is to follow; maybe not quite a fairy tale, but definitely some kind of folk story; a tale with a moral, possibly, or at least some kind of encouragement towards a particular behavior that is “right” in the eyes of the one telling the story. And indeed, to some degree, that’s what we get here; an ancient story, one that was probably in circulation long before anyone wrote it down to be included in this particular book of wisdom. This opening that we just read most of – perhaps best thought of as a prologue to the larger book – and the last eight verses of the final chapter of Job are part of this profoundly ancient folk tale, which has been adapted by the author of Job as a framework for a much larger volume, extremely different in nature – poetic, almost epic instead of folk tale.

And it’s not a particularly happy story, at least not the part we hear today – like the Brothers Grimm on about their bleakest, darkest day possible. To this “blameless and upright” man is directed as complete an utter a reversal as possible – a wipeout, really. All of his possessions are destroyed in the first sweep, and his own body is wrecked almost beyond livability in the second. [As to the exchanges between God and “Satan” – a word that translates as “accuser” and who seems to be functioning as some kind of roving heavenly prosecutor seeking to undo what he perceives as the façade of Job’s righteousness – it is best considered a plot device and not a genuine insight into the daily operations of heaven.] In all this, according to our author, Job still does not sin. His wife might disagree, given the particular harshness of his curse upon her, but as this prologue comes to an end Job has suffered about as much as a human can suffer, and has not abandoned God.

Before this downfall Job might have seemed almost the ideal of the more modern “prosperity gospel,” which holds that earthly riches accrue to the most faithful. Even without going that far, Job’s life as described before this reversal seems clearly connected to his steadfast, upright righteousness; it sure looks like he has been rewarded for his faith with material success, which was not an uncommon pattern of belief in the time in which this book was written. Furthermore, this kind of belief system tracks closely with other examples of Old Testament wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs, which at times can sound, if not read carefully, like a chipper little prescription for material success and happiness in five easy steps. What happens to Job, and how the rest of this book plays out, makes it pretty clear that this righteousness-equals-success formula is going to be challenged, and challenged hard, before this book is over.

But suffering is something we can all comprehend, because most of us have been there. Maybe we have not suffered anything like Job’s level of suffering, but then we wouldn’t generally claim Job’s level of righteousness either; at any rate we’ve known loss of family, friends, or possessions, and we’ve known physical hardship as well. We know loss, the kind of loss of loved ones that can leave us as what the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn called a “shattered heart and soul, held together by habit and skin*.” We know the kind of pain that is the whole reason the musical genre called the blues exists. We know suffering. We don’t have trouble identifying with it, even if it isn’t on the level of loss that Job experienced.

We’ve also known others who have experienced suffering, and known the challenge of being a supportive friend in Christ during those times. Sometimes this is the greater challenge. We fumble for words, not knowing what to say but feeling the need so say somethingin the face of so much pain. Sometimes we let slip some truly awful things in those moments, awful in theology and awful in sensitivity – please, pleasepromise me you don’t say things like “God needed another angel in heaven” at a time when that friend has just lost a loved one, OK?

But then there are the times we don’tactually acknowledge or respect the suffering of others. We cast doubt on it. We imply it couldn’t have been that bad. Have you heard in the last few weeks sentiments like these expressed?

*”She obviously had it coming.”

*”If the assault was that bad, why didn’t she report it when it happened?”

*”She can’t possibly be remembering it right.”

*”Somebody paid her to do this.”

We are perfectly capable of dismissing or belittling suffering when it is inconvenient for us. Job’s friends who appear in the chapters following today’s reading, who keep insisting that Job musthave done somethingto deserve all that has befallen him, have nothing on us when we get right down to it.

This sermon must necessarily remain unfinished. The book of Job does not, no matter how one tries, suffer any one portion of its lengthy substance to be summarized apart from the whole. Those so-called friends of Job are coming; Job’s patience and faithfulness are going to begin to show cracks, as he moves toward the believe that if I haven’t done anything wrong, there must be something wrong with God; God will in fact show up to answer Job by refusing to answer; and in the end (at the risk of spoiling too much) Job gets all his possessions back and a whole new family to boot. But along the way, Job’s whole ideology is going to be in for a rude shock; his belief that being righteous is principally about being rewarded is going to get shaken to its core; and the ever-asked question “why do bad things happen to good people?” will get a not-at-all satisfying answer.

And so, to use another one of those phrases that is oh-so-familiar and tells us exactly what to expect: “Tune in next time…”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #796, We Come to You for Healing, Lord; #508, Come to the Table; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing

*”Don’t Feel Your Touch,” from the album Big Circumstance


Sermon: Wisdom From Above

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 23, 2018, Pentecost 18B

James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37

Wisdom From Above

We have a funny image in our society that attaches itself to the word “wisdom.” You’ve probably seen some variation of it: a mountain; a man (somehow it’s always a man) perched at or near the summit, typically with a long or prominent white or grey beard and some kind of robe, typically sitting cross-legged, maybe in front of a campfire; and, possibly seated in front of the guru or possibly still struggling over that last ledge to get to the guru’s little plateau, a wisdom-seeker (or possibly two), most likely male also, burdened with a mountain climber’s pack and gear.  It’s an image that maybe owes its existence to old movies, and that nowadays seems to pop up most regularly in comic strips, in which some sort of humorous spin is put on the “wisdom” offered by the guru. (Such an image actually turns up in today’s comics, in the strip Frank and Ernest, where the guru ends up behind an airline ticket counter! It doesn’t go well. Believe me, I don’t have the kind of influence to pull that off.)

As much as the image may be played for humor nowadays, it does say at least a little something about how we view wisdom. For one thing, it suggests wisdom is hidden. You can’t just pull it down off the shelf; you have to go on an arduous journey to “find” it. Also, the image of the guru up on that mountain suggests that wisdom is restricted to a few enlightened souls who have to be sought out, possibly paid homage, and then solicited for their “wisdom.”

You can see these implications played out in more than a few ways in our society. For one thing, the word “guru” has become a sort of cottage industry unto itself; you can find, if you seek hard enough, people (who don’t look very guru-like) referred to as a “PR guru,” a “media guru” (or more precisely, a “social media guru”), a “tech guru,” a “love guru,” a “parenting guru,” or even, yes, a “church growth guru.”

For another, these modern “gurus” can get quite a bit of adulation paid to them for the presumed wisdom they dispense, as well as a great deal of cash money. It pays to be a guru; you get a lot of attention, your face can get on TV quite a bit, you can land million-dollar book deals…life is good, you know?

We mere mortals, on the other hand, are left with the burden of “seeking out” or “searching for” this wisdom. This can take the form of buying the pricey books these gurus publish, or turning on the Sunday news shows, or attending one of their lectures or (egad!) TED talks. It’s hard work seeking wisdom in this world.

By now, I hope you’ve stacked up all these images against the reading for the day from the epistle of James, and found them wanting. Clearly James is seeking to get his followers to think differently – more wisely, one might even say – about wisdom.

From the very first reading of this passage we see that James is about something else altogether. To speak of “gentleness born of wisdom” as this author does is to be clearly in another place where wisdom is concerned, a not-at-all worldly wisdom that we find sadly lacking in our lives. There’s a reason, for example, that the late Mister Rogers is, as they say, “having a moment” at this point in our culture; at a time when coarseness and hatred seem to run rampant in our public and private lives, the “gentleness born of wisdom” that was exemplified in his way with children seems sadly and sorely missing from our world, and all to our detriment.

And we would be remiss not to notice that, once again, this epistle is driving us towards a life that expresses wisdom, as well as faith, in the deeds we do and the ways we act in the world around us as well as the community of Christ-followers we call the church. If it doesn’t show, if it isn’t visible in our everyday moving and being, does it even count?

Now it isn’t as if James is unaware of the more typical wisdom we were thinking about earlier; he’s aware of it, and he doesn’t have kind things to say about it. “Earthly” is one thing; “unspiritual” is harsh enough; but “devilish”?  That’s about as harsh as you can get. The harshness seems a little more understandable, I guess, when you consider what James is calling out as identifying as the fruits of this worldly “wisdom,” and the effects that they have on the community of God’s people. When the community lives with “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in the hearts of its members, when “disorder and wickedness of every kind” becomes the observable characteristic of the community, then it certainly is not showing any wisdom in its deeds; its faith is clearly not showing in its works; and frankly, God is not to be seen; its witness is ruined if not outright destructive to God’s work in the world. We fail to do the thing we’re here to do.

Some commentators find it funny or odd that after such seemingly intemperate language, James pivots wildly to the encouragement that wisdom shows itself in being “peaceable”! Of course, that list of characteristics of “wisdom from above” does start with “purebefore going on to “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Perhaps it isn’t really right, just possibly, to be “peaceable” when the world you confront demands that injustice be named and called out, when the world or the community is not “pure” in the way that does show our faith in our deeds.

But look at these traits. Not many of them – none of them, if we’re honest about it – look anything like our stereotypical image of “wisdom.” Not many of our modern gurus concern themselves with those characteristics.

“Willing to yield”? Try “do whatever it takes to get what you want.”

“Full of mercy and good fruits”? You gonna run a cost benefit analysis on those good fruits before you just start giving them out all over the place?

“Gentle”? The word is “bold,” or “aggressive,” or “determined.” “Gentle”? Hah.

“Peaceable”? You gotta fight for it.

“Pure”? You gotta compromise.

So no, worldly wisdom just doesn’t intersect with this “wisdom from above,” wisdom from God; the kind of wisdom that cries out in the streets in Proverbs and sees the world as it is in Ecclesiastes demands here in James (the closest New Testament counterpart to those Old Testament books of wisdom) a life lived with humility and grace. It looks like welcoming the one who comes to us as a child, as in our story from the gospel of Mark, and that feels demeaning to us when we’re busy arguing about who’s gonna take over the movement when Jesus is gone.

That rankles. It goes against everything we’re taught by the world around us. It feels limiting, like we’re somehow cutting ourselves off from the good things in life.

Of course, that begs the question of what exactly we consider to be the good things in life. And perhaps we learn to re-evaluate that if we truly partake of that wisdom from above, wisdom from God.

It’s not what we’re accustomed to, and it’s not what we’ve always thought it is. But maybe, we just might find it is exactly what we need.

For wisdom, the real stuff, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #4, Holy God, We Praise Your Name; #839, Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!; #175, Seek Ye First; #702, Christ Be Beside Me


Sermon: Tongues of Fire (But Not in a Good Way)

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 16, 2018, Pentecost 17C

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

Tongues of Fire (But Not in a Good Way)

Seldom will you ever see the kind of convergence we have today, when a lectionary reading full of warnings about the power of the tongue and its capacity to bring harm and damage – not just to the individual, but to the whole community – is sprung upon us at the outset of what promises to be a heated political campaign. With the race for governor in this state already having witnessed some pretty awful language before it was even twenty-four hours old, it looks and feels like language and words are going to be thoroughly weaponized  this time around.

If anything can speak to the double-mindedness of speech, political discourse certainly fits the bill. Lofty, inspirational rhetoric somehow comes from the same mouth that utters point-blank slander (or, increasingly, outright racial slurs) against an opponent. As James says in verse 10, “my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

Still, if we are honest about ourselves, we can’t really push that kind of behavior off on bad politicians, not exclusively. We’ve been on the receiving end of words that damage, and if we’re really deep-down obvious, we’ve dished them out too. And James, with his epistle-full of exhortation that our faith show itself in works, clearly counts the words we let loose in the world as “works” in the broadest sense.

As he did in chapter two, James sneaks up on his subject juuuuust a little bit here, seeming to go in the direction of a warning against too many people seeking to be leaders. Leaders are, he says, judged with “greater strictness” than others. (Don’t think this passage doesn’t give pastors occasional nightmares.) As he works through the examples of a bit for a horse and a rudder for a ship as small-but-powerful controls on the direction of each, he finally arrives at the true subject of his concern here: the small, sometimes mighty, sometimes destructive tongue.

How destructive? Think massive wildfire – “how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” And the tongue, says James, is a fire. Now that metaphor might put in mind those “tongues, as of fire” that appeared above the apostles’ heads on the occasion of Pentecost. You could argue that those “tongues, as of fire” turned out to be powerful, sure. You could say they turned the world of the apostles upside down, sure. But it would be just wrong to suggest that those tongues were destructive. They were instruments of creation, really – the “birth of the church” as it is sometimes called.

James has no such thing in mind here. His warning is dire to the point of exaggeration: “a world of iniquity,” “set on fire itself by hell,” “no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” No one can tame it, James? Not even you?

In the end, though, James’s final point here is compelling; how can such destructiveness and curse come from the same mouth that professes Jesus as Lord? Should we find both fresh and brackish water coming from Ichetucknee Springs up the road? Should apples and oranges be found growing on the same tree? And the Gulf of Mexico is much more likely to yield toxic algae and red tide right now than anything like fresh water, but even at its best it’s still salt water, and you’re not going to find fresh water there.

It isn’t as though words have to be specifically hateful to create destruction. Simple dishonesty, even sweetly and endearingly uttered, is destructive, corroding trust and leading to broken relationships and worse. Words spoken in ignorance can still crush souls. Even what seems an innocent joke can become a piercing arrow, cutting through to the very soul and causing unspeakable pain. Then, when we, because we’re obviously good people who would never do such a thing on purpose, insist “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “don’t take it so seriously” or something that dismisses rather than listens, well, we’re only making things worse, aren’t we?

James would have absolutely no patience for such defensiveness. “The tongue is a fire,” he’d remind us, and rebuke you for not taming that thing before you set it loose.

So what does it mean to “bridle the tongue,” as preachers of my youth used to put it? What tames this untamable beast? What neutralizes the poison or extinguishes the flame?

It isn’t really any one thing. Rather, a cultivation of habits that slow down our speech and engage our minds with those around us seems the only really fruitful path. Remember the saying that goes something like “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”? Y’all know that one, right? Keeping silence, and even more so practicing active listening, are still the most effective ways to put a check on the tongue and its sins.

That doesn’t come easily for many of us, does it? But if we truly seek to show our faith in our works, even the works of our tongue, that’s going to need to be a starting place, to turn our attention towards the other.

Of course, the cultivation of wisdom – memorably depicted as the woman calling out in the street in our reading from Proverbs – is also a pretty effective “bridle” for the tongue. It’s not an accident, is it, that wisdom and quiet are often found in the same place? And the opposite – the utter garrulousness of the unwise – also seems to be pretty pervasively true. Seeking wisdom – not merely knowledge, but genuine wisdom – seems almost inseparable from a controlled tongue. James will have a little more to say about this in the verses following this reading, but that’s for next week.

When you get right down to it, though, living in love towards one another is going to be the indispensible thing for controlling that fire.  If that’s not there among us, there’s very little to be done to rein in the destructiveness of the tongue. Our willingness to live in genuine, Christ-like love with and towards one another is indeed irreplaceable as the beginning of relationships marked by wise, thoughtful speech towards one another and towards the world around us.

The thing is, sometimes when all these things come together, the tongue – our words – can indeed produce incredible beauty, passion, and joy. The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner – practitioner of two vocations in which words are obviously important – had this to say about the power words can have for good:

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words: that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.

Oh, yes, Buechner reminds us of one other thing about words: remember the beginning of the gospel of John? “In the beginning was the Word…”? Our very Savior is identified as the Word! Clearly our abusiveness and destructiveness of tongue cannot be reconciled with being worshipers of the one called the Word???

No, it really doesn’t work to be indifferent to the destructive power of words, nor especially to blame others for being too sensitive, particularly when we in our relative security and safety have no idea of the struggles and oppressiveness others may face. It doesn’t do, not at all. That is not the way of wisdom or love.

Control your tongue. Maybe that’s not the sweetest sermon ending possible, but what else is there to say?

For the wisdom of silence and the bridled tongue, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #451, Open My Eyes That I May See; #693, Though I May Speak; #722; Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak; #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song

 

*Buechner quote from the essay “The Speaking and Writing of Words,” originally published in the collection A Room Called Remember.


Sermon: Favoritism and Faithlessness

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 9, 2018, Pentecost 16B

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 146; James 2:1-18

Favoritism and Faithlessness

Favoritism. It’s not usually thought of as a nice word, is it?

Say someone gets promoted over you at work, especially if that someone is related to the boss, for example. Pretty quickly the assumption is going to get around that the boss showed favor towards that relative, no matter how well-suited that person might be for the new job. It just sounds ugly.

That’s often the kind of context in which “favoritism” gets invoked. The context James invokes in our reading today is perhaps not so dramatically different from that as it might seem. Two people enter the church’s meeting place, one clearly rich and the other clearly … not. The congregation is rather obsequiously fawning over the clearly rich guy, and the other is more or less shunted off to the side. And James makes it clear that’s not how the community is supposed to receive people.

Now this isn’t just James talking off the top of his head; scripture is practically doused with the theme of showing favor to the poor. You might remember from last week’s scripture the reference James makes to caring for “widows and orphans” as the ultimate expression of the community’s doing of the Word, as opposed to being merely hearers. As noted then, that phrase echoes through scripture, not just in the edicts of the Law or the fiery denunciations of the prophets. Even in today’s responsive reading of Psalm 146 that phrase happens, in reverse order: the Lord “upholds the orphan and the widow,” with the strong implication being that we’d better imitate the Lord in that respect.

That’s not all. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament picks up the theme of God’s favor to the poor as well, as our selection of verses from Proverbs 22 illustrates. Here the Lord pleads their cause, and what the Lord does to those who harm them is pretty extreme – “despoils of life those who despoils them”! And there are plenty of quotes in the Gospels where Jesus expresses similar ideas – you might look at the Beatitudes, for example.

So no, James isn’t saying anything new here; if anything he’s taking a fairly easy shot. Favoritism on that basis is not right, and is not how the community of Jesus’s followers is to react to those who come to them. When James speaks in verse five of God choosing the poor to be “rich in faith” and “heirs of the kingdom,” he’s tapping into this particularly rich and fertile vein of scripture. We don’t really have any wiggle room with this part of the scripture; if that’s how the community reacts to newcomers, then the community is in error.

James follows this with a rather interesting point in verses six and seven, one that we in the American church might have trouble understanding. With a few exceptions (the church at Corinth that so vexed Paul being one), the earliest communities of followers of Christ mostly consisted, not necessarily of poor people entirely, but of persons who were not wealthy, and who were not generally of great status in the community. There might be one member who was wealthy enough to have a house large enough to hold the community for its gatherings, but most of the community wouldn’t have been terribly well off.

James points out that not only were his readers not rich, but that they were actively harassed by the rich. Why, James wonders, would you be so eager to fawn all over the people who “oppress you,” who “drag you into court,” and who – worst of all – “blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you,” that is, the name of Jesus?

We have trouble with that because, to put it bluntly, in the United States the church pretty often is rich people. We’re not really in a great position to understand all these scriptural references to God’s favor to the poor, because we can’t really understand why God would favor the poor when we – most of us being, if not rich, definitely not poor – such nice people, such good church folk? God can’t really mean us, can God? But the teaching of scripture remains firm on this one. I suspect very few of us have any clue how the lives we live, the resources we consume, the privileges we claim without even knowing it affect the lives of those less wealthy than we. Yes, God does mean us, and we’d better get to adjusting our lives accordingly.

We’ve so far come through one of the three parts of this passage, and it might seem that the next two really don’t necessarily relate to this discourse on favoritism. Not so, says James. Indeed all of what follows, really does follow from this discussion.

First of all, this favoritism that James criticizes runs afoul of what he calls the “royal law,” a command first found in scripture in Leviticus 19:18. It’s far more familiar to us from Jesus’s citation of it as the second of the two great commandments, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Matthew 22:37-40 version is particularly illuminating for our passage here, not only for the ‘what’ of its usage but the ‘why’ as well:

He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It isn’t about one commandment or another superseding all the others: it’s that these two commandments (the first is found in Deuteronomy 6:4) are the foundation on which all the commandments are based. Everything in the ones we know as the Ten Commandments and all of the other teaching found as “Law” in the Torah is founded in some way in these two. By this standard the partiality that James is calling out among the churches is, in his word, sin. Those who do it are “convicted by the law as transgressors.”

James then engages in a bit of out-there comparison to make the point that the Law isn’t a cafeteria of suggestions for living your best life now. You transgress the law in one point, you are in violation of it all. James’s point isn’t to accuse his readers of adultery or murder (two of the “big ten,” as you’ll recall); his point is that it’s pointless to boast about honoring one of those commandments if you’re violating the other – that’s how it is with the Law. Aren’t you better off, as he says in verse 12, to “speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” – especially if we are to have any hope of mercy for ourselves?

With this we now (finally) return to one of those themes James threw at us in last week’s reading: faith being reflected in our works. When we show this favoritism, we are transgressing against the Law and setting ourselves up for judgment, yes; but even worse we are trying to claim to have faith when our deeds say otherwise.

Is the kind of faith that doesn’t show in your actions the kind of faith that saves you? Is the kind of faith that you have to keep yammering on about because nobody can tell you’re a Christian otherwise really going to save you? Is the kind of faith that does nothing to meet the need of the one in crisis, but merely dismisses the needy or the wounded or the grieving with “thoughts and prayers” – is that faith real?

James is pretty insistent that it isn’t. The kicker is the challenge in verse 18: “show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” You say you have faith; how are you going to show it? Are you just going to talk people to death to show off how righteous you are? Is that faith? No, no, no.

Faith acts.

Faith does.

Faith moves.

Faith gets up and goes out and lives out loud.

Let it ever be so with us.

For faith that acts, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #610, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing; #848, Trust In God; #762, When the Poor Ones; #766, The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound


Sermon: Hearing Isn’t Enough

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 2, 2018, Pentecost 15B

James 1:17-27

Hearing Isn’t Enough

Actions speak louder than words.”

Surely I’m not the only one who remembers growing up with this maxim? In my childhood this saying flew around with such regularity that I might have been confused enough to think it was in the Bible. In fact, according to those who study such things, the phrase as we know it appears to date back to the year 1628 (at least that is the earliest it can be documented), and its first verifiable use in the United States is in a quote by Abraham Lincoln in 1856.

The phrase itself – “actions speak louder than words” – is not in the Bible, no. However, it is not a bad summary of much of the content of the epistle of James, the slender book towards the end of the New Testament to which we turn our attention for the next few weeks. More than once in this letter that idea – that our actions matter – will be pushed very hard by this author.

Speaking of the author, we don’t know exactly who it is. The only description offered is that this James is a “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are a lot of possibilities – “James” is a fairly common name even in the New Testament itself. We can probably rule out the James who was one of the disciples and the brother of John, since he was martyred relatively early in the life of the church. One of the lists of disciples in the gospels refers to another James among their number (called the son of Alphaeus), and one of the brothers of Jesus who became a leader in the early church was also named James. Most scholars suggest that the latter James is the most likely author, but we’re not going to be able to establish that for certain any time soon.

If the author was really a brother of Jesus, you might find it odd that James doesn’t mention his brother all that much in the letter! Jesus himself isn’t mentioned all that often in the epistle, though much of the teaching contained in it is quite clearly echoes or is connected to Jesus’s teaching. The other criticism leveled at the letter – most fiercely by Martin Luther, perhaps – is that the letter is legalistic, an example of “works righteousness” at its worst as opposed to Paul’s (and Luther’s) emphasis on salvation by grace through faith. As we’ll see later in the letter, this claim doesn’t really hold water, but once such an argument gets a head of steam it’s hard to stop it.

The reading for today seems to start in the middle of one idea – the unchangeable nature of God and the gift of giving – and almost immediately jump into another. In fact, this relatively brief passage hops through a number of ideas, some of which will be treated more thoroughly later in the letter. Perhaps most unusual of all, this brief passage early in the letter seems to end with the ultimate conclusion or at least the desired outcome of the letter; what “true religion” looks like in action.

Perhaps most important for understanding what’s going on in this epistle is that, unlike most of the New Testament, James’s letter is not particularly evangelistic. It isn’t written to convert people; it is written to those already converted, charging them (or us) to live like it. And let’s be honest here; plenty of “Christians” need to be reminded about this key point.

Since a couple of the points made here in this passage will be addressed more fully in coming weeks, it’s o.k. to hit the highlights for now, so to speak:

–verses 19-21 counsel the follower of Christ to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” They do not counsel, however, that one never speaks or that one never gets angry. Listen first, then act or respond in the way that our faith demands, even if that means following Jesus’s example and upturning some tables in the Temple on occasion.

–verse 22 is probably one of the two most famous verses in the whole letter, and it can get interpreted badly as well. “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Again, note: he says “not merely hearers,” but the presumption of this statement is that you area hearer of the word. I don’t know what Martin Luther was thinking, but this is not an invitation to “works righteousness” in any way, shape, or form. Your hearing of the word is presumed in the call to do the word.

–James will have a lot more to say about the tongue in chapter 3. For now let’s merely observe that there are an awful lot of unbridled tongues out there, including in the church, and James says their religion is worthless. Ponder that for a couple of weeks.

–and in the end, what is “true religion,” that is “pure and undefiled before God”? Something the Old Testament and the gospels both had so much to say about; care for “orphans and widows” – a long-used catchphrase in scripture for the poorest and most oppressed in a society. In short, “doing the word” looks like showing up for or cooking for St. Francis House or Family Promise, or any number of other missions our little church participates in and supports. James isn’t preaching anything radically new here, and his letter is not going to get us off the hook. We’re still called to serve the “least of these.”

For the call to do the word and the letter that won’t let us forget it, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #744: Arise, Your Light is Come!; #61: Your Law, O Lord, is Perfect; #529; Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether; #708: We Give Thee But Thine Own