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  • Forgetting Your Reflection – 2015/08/30

    Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
    James 1:17-27

    Sermon:

    Sorry – no video this week. We were outdoors at the park and since it was wet, we didn’t bring the camera. Hope you enjoy the text version this time!

    Have you ever forgotten what you look like? I think this happens to most of us as we grow up. When you’re young, maybe you get used to looking at a certain spot in the mirror, only one day you realize you’re looking at your neck and not your head, because you’ve grown.
    My junior year of high school, I was in Fiddler on the Roof, and I had a great big, bushy beard. I grew it for over three months, without even shaving once. Then, the night of our last performance, I cut the whole thing off. All of it. The next morning, I woke up, and I looked in the mirror only to have to stifle a scream. I didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. I’ll tell you: that was probably the single scariest moment of my life. After a second, I figured it out – but that initial glance was a shock.
    Today, we begin a four-week exploration of the book of James. James is one of my favorite books of the Bible, because James is a really interesting guy. Paul, I’m sure you know, wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else. Most of the letters in there are his. Paul was an itinerate preacher, meaning that he roamed around from place to place telling people the Good News of Christ and winning converts to Christianity.
    James, on the other hand, was really different. James was Jesus’ brother. First of all, that has got to give you a bit of an inferiority complex. Regardless, following Jesus’ death, James was put in charge of the early church in Jerusalem. Since there were more Christians in Jerusalem than anywhere else, it’s fair to say that James was probably, in many ways, the most important Christian in the world at this time. He was basically the head of the Christian church. What he thought and believed were extremely important.
    James was also extremely sharp. You can see this in the book of James. His writing is excellent. I think it would actually be fair to argue that, of the New Testament letters, James is probably the best-written – and we can be relatively sure that James was only marginally educated. He was just a smart fellow who happened to write well.
    Anyway, Paul and James, who lived at the same time, were often at odds with one another – not because one was right and the other was wrong, but because they emphasized different things. Paul was all about winning converts among the Gentiles. James was all about serving the people who were already believers. Both are valuable and necessary goals.
    But the most important conflict between the two of them revolved around faith and works. For many centuries, Paul has been read as saying that faith alone gets you “in” with Christ, while James has been looked at as the “works” guy.
    Unfortunately, this is unfair to both of their positions – but especially to James. See, Paul does emphasize faith, but to the exclusion of having specific “requirements” for believers. Particularly, he referred to Jewish dietary laws and circumcision as things which were no longer necessary for new converts to Christianity. I think we have to remember that, in the time of these two men, no one was born into a “Christian home” – that simply didn’t exist yet. Everyone came into the faith as a convert.
    James thought that faith was important, too. The thing is, James’s point is the one that, in our society today, probably needs to be the louder voice. It’s a topic that’s going to come up multiple times over these next few weeks, and that’s because it’s so important. James sees faith, not as an intellectual exercise, but as something we do.
    To that end, James begins the passage we read today by talking about how all good things come from God. I think that’s pretty standard Christian theology. Paul would certainly agree with James on that. I think they’d agree on the next part, too. James moves on to discuss moral choices that we make. He talks about how important it is to remove from our lives those things that cause us to do the wrong thing. He stresses the importance of making good choices by emphasizing the things that are good in our lives, and letting God’s word move through us.
    Specifically, he calls out three traits, and they’re traits that are really hard in our modern world. James says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Wow, are those three hard. In a world that always churns faster and faster, how are we called to slow down to react? The only thing James asks us to be quick to do is to listen.
    I have to be honest, when I moved to South Dakota, I was shocked by how much slower things are here. People talk more slowly and they like visiting more than I’m used to. I’ve actually come to enjoy it a lot, but it’s very different from what I was used to, especially in Chicago, where people never slow down.
    But even here, I think the command to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger is a tricky one. I mean, who here can watch the news for more than 10 minutes without getting angry? I think no matter what your political or social or moral beliefs, you will hear a story within the first 10 minutes of watching the news that will make you livid. And our first reaction to such stories is almost certainly to speak about them. We leave the listening behind as soon as we’ve heard enough to make up our minds.
    But James encourages something else. He is encouraging hearing the full story, all sides of it. He encourages us to keep our passions in check, and to let our ears do the work, while our tongues take a break.
    My dad and I have both always been pretty good at getting people to listen to us. I do it by talking so much that you can’t help but hear me. My dad is the type of person who says little, so when he does, people take notice and listen. He’s also a very patient and even-tempered person, so he does well with this particular command from James. For so many of us, though, it’s a struggle.
    After that little discussion, though, James shifts gears. He has been talking about how faith impacts our lives, but now he’ll get to the central theme, both of this passage, and of the entire book of James – the doing of faith. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers of the word,” he says.
    One interesting and bizarre quirk of English is that we can’t use the word “faith” as a verb. You can have faith in something, but you can’t “faith” something. That’s not true in Greek, though – in the language of the New Testament, faith can be an action. An English-language Bible will often translate the word “faith,” when it’s used as a verb, to the word “believe.” But there’s a difference. “Believing” something just means knowing it exists; “faithing” something means that we build our lives around it.
    And that’s why there has historically been a difference between the theology of the book of James and the various letters of Paul in the New Testament. Paul talks about faith alone, while James talks a lot about action. In reality, though, they’re really saying the same thing, because faith is about action.
    James says that to be a person who says that have faith, but then to not live it out, is like a person who sees themselves in a mirror, looks away, and forgets what they look like. In other words, we are forgetful. We say one thing, and we do another; we are hypocrites.
    That’s James’s primary point. We claim to have these beliefs, but often our lives don’t reflect them. So James rounds it out with this little number: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
    The “unstained by the world” part at the end, I think, goes along with the ideas about self-control I mentioned earlier. But the whole thing about caring for orphans and widows always sounds strange – why just those two?
    Well, orphans and widows had no legal rights in the Roman Empire. Since your status is determined by the status of the pater familias – the “man of the house” – living in a family without a man means living without status. You’re a nothing. So James calls on Christians to specifically be looking out for these most vulnerable members of society. We show our devotion to God through how we treat other people; our lives reflect what we truly believe. That’s the gist of James’s letter.
    Since I often like to end sermons with a call to action, this week is a tough one. This reading from James isn’t the kind of thing you say, “Focus on this this week.” This is the kind of thing that we’re supposed to do with our whole lives.
    Nonetheless, I think what we should try to spend this week doing is taking James’s advice and being slow, careful, and thoughtful. Instead of trying to fix our lives right away, I’d encourage you to take this week to ask yourself, “How do I spend my time, and what does it say about my faith? How do I live?”
    Since we’ll be in James for the next few weeks, we’ll have plenty of chances to revisit these themes. But this week, instead of trying to “act,” let’s take a moment to “listen.” Figure out what message our lives are sending to the world. Worry less about changing things, and more about figuring out who we are. Let’s learn who we are in the mirror so we can change it, rather than just forget as soon as we walk away. And as we try to make ourselves more like Christ, we know that God will be with us. Amen

  • Forgetting Your Reflection – 2015/08/30

    Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
    James 1:17-27

    Sermon:

    Sorry – no video this week. We were outdoors at the park and since it was wet, we didn’t bring the camera. Hope you enjoy the text version this time!

    Have you ever forgotten what you look like? I think this happens to most of us as we grow up. When you’re young, maybe you get used to looking at a certain spot in the mirror, only one day you realize you’re looking at your neck and not your head, because you’ve grown.
    My junior year of high school, I was in Fiddler on the Roof, and I had a great big, bushy beard. I grew it for over three months, without even shaving once. Then, the night of our last performance, I cut the whole thing off. All of it. The next morning, I woke up, and I looked in the mirror only to have to stifle a scream. I didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. I’ll tell you: that was probably the single scariest moment of my life. After a second, I figured it out – but that initial glance was a shock.
    Today, we begin a four-week exploration of the book of James. James is one of my favorite books of the Bible, because James is a really interesting guy. Paul, I’m sure you know, wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else. Most of the letters in there are his. Paul was an itinerate preacher, meaning that he roamed around from place to place telling people the Good News of Christ and winning converts to Christianity.
    James, on the other hand, was really different. James was Jesus’ brother. First of all, that has got to give you a bit of an inferiority complex. Regardless, following Jesus’ death, James was put in charge of the early church in Jerusalem. Since there were more Christians in Jerusalem than anywhere else, it’s fair to say that James was probably, in many ways, the most important Christian in the world at this time. He was basically the head of the Christian church. What he thought and believed were extremely important.
    James was also extremely sharp. You can see this in the book of James. His writing is excellent. I think it would actually be fair to argue that, of the New Testament letters, James is probably the best-written – and we can be relatively sure that James was only marginally educated. He was just a smart fellow who happened to write well.
    Anyway, Paul and James, who lived at the same time, were often at odds with one another – not because one was right and the other was wrong, but because they emphasized different things. Paul was all about winning converts among the Gentiles. James was all about serving the people who were already believers. Both are valuable and necessary goals.
    But the most important conflict between the two of them revolved around faith and works. For many centuries, Paul has been read as saying that faith alone gets you “in” with Christ, while James has been looked at as the “works” guy.
    Unfortunately, this is unfair to both of their positions – but especially to James. See, Paul does emphasize faith, but to the exclusion of having specific “requirements” for believers. Particularly, he referred to Jewish dietary laws and circumcision as things which were no longer necessary for new converts to Christianity. I think we have to remember that, in the time of these two men, no one was born into a “Christian home” – that simply didn’t exist yet. Everyone came into the faith as a convert.
    James thought that faith was important, too. The thing is, James’s point is the one that, in our society today, probably needs to be the louder voice. It’s a topic that’s going to come up multiple times over these next few weeks, and that’s because it’s so important. James sees faith, not as an intellectual exercise, but as something we do.
    To that end, James begins the passage we read today by talking about how all good things come from God. I think that’s pretty standard Christian theology. Paul would certainly agree with James on that. I think they’d agree on the next part, too. James moves on to discuss moral choices that we make. He talks about how important it is to remove from our lives those things that cause us to do the wrong thing. He stresses the importance of making good choices by emphasizing the things that are good in our lives, and letting God’s word move through us.
    Specifically, he calls out three traits, and they’re traits that are really hard in our modern world. James says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Wow, are those three hard. In a world that always churns faster and faster, how are we called to slow down to react? The only thing James asks us to be quick to do is to listen.
    I have to be honest, when I moved to South Dakota, I was shocked by how much slower things are here. People talk more slowly and they like visiting more than I’m used to. I’ve actually come to enjoy it a lot, but it’s very different from what I was used to, especially in Chicago, where people never slow down.
    But even here, I think the command to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger is a tricky one. I mean, who here can watch the news for more than 10 minutes without getting angry? I think no matter what your political or social or moral beliefs, you will hear a story within the first 10 minutes of watching the news that will make you livid. And our first reaction to such stories is almost certainly to speak about them. We leave the listening behind as soon as we’ve heard enough to make up our minds.
    But James encourages something else. He is encouraging hearing the full story, all sides of it. He encourages us to keep our passions in check, and to let our ears do the work, while our tongues take a break.
    My dad and I have both always been pretty good at getting people to listen to us. I do it by talking so much that you can’t help but hear me. My dad is the type of person who says little, so when he does, people take notice and listen. He’s also a very patient and even-tempered person, so he does well with this particular command from James. For so many of us, though, it’s a struggle.
    After that little discussion, though, James shifts gears. He has been talking about how faith impacts our lives, but now he’ll get to the central theme, both of this passage, and of the entire book of James – the doing of faith. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers of the word,” he says.
    One interesting and bizarre quirk of English is that we can’t use the word “faith” as a verb. You can have faith in something, but you can’t “faith” something. That’s not true in Greek, though – in the language of the New Testament, faith can be an action. An English-language Bible will often translate the word “faith,” when it’s used as a verb, to the word “believe.” But there’s a difference. “Believing” something just means knowing it exists; “faithing” something means that we build our lives around it.
    And that’s why there has historically been a difference between the theology of the book of James and the various letters of Paul in the New Testament. Paul talks about faith alone, while James talks a lot about action. In reality, though, they’re really saying the same thing, because faith is about action.
    James says that to be a person who says that have faith, but then to not live it out, is like a person who sees themselves in a mirror, looks away, and forgets what they look like. In other words, we are forgetful. We say one thing, and we do another; we are hypocrites.
    That’s James’s primary point. We claim to have these beliefs, but often our lives don’t reflect them. So James rounds it out with this little number: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
    The “unstained by the world” part at the end, I think, goes along with the ideas about self-control I mentioned earlier. But the whole thing about caring for orphans and widows always sounds strange – why just those two?
    Well, orphans and widows had no legal rights in the Roman Empire. Since your status is determined by the status of the pater familias – the “man of the house” – living in a family without a man means living without status. You’re a nothing. So James calls on Christians to specifically be looking out for these most vulnerable members of society. We show our devotion to God through how we treat other people; our lives reflect what we truly believe. That’s the gist of James’s letter.
    Since I often like to end sermons with a call to action, this week is a tough one. This reading from James isn’t the kind of thing you say, “Focus on this this week.” This is the kind of thing that we’re supposed to do with our whole lives.
    Nonetheless, I think what we should try to spend this week doing is taking James’s advice and being slow, careful, and thoughtful. Instead of trying to fix our lives right away, I’d encourage you to take this week to ask yourself, “How do I spend my time, and what does it say about my faith? How do I live?”
    Since we’ll be in James for the next few weeks, we’ll have plenty of chances to revisit these themes. But this week, instead of trying to “act,” let’s take a moment to “listen.” Figure out what message our lives are sending to the world. Worry less about changing things, and more about figuring out who we are. Let’s learn who we are in the mirror so we can change it, rather than just forget as soon as we walk away. And as we try to make ourselves more like Christ, we know that God will be with us. Amen

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    Wednesday Youth Service: 6:30 pm

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    PO Box 8
    Marion, SD 57043

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