Monthly Archives: August 2015

Faith Works

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:17, 22)

Joseph is a Christian. He came to accept Jesus as his savior during his teen years. He really can’t remember just when it happened, but he came to understand his need to rely on Christ and has worshiped every Sunday morning for nearly half a century.

Lately, Joseph has become disillusioned with society and his church’s response. The poverty roles continue to grow. Homelessness abounds. He can’t understand why people can’t seem to get a job and keep it, rather than living off government subsidies. Gays have come out of the closet. He’d like to see them get back in it. Crime is on the increase. He wonders what the police are doing about it.

Joseph has his own view of how the world should be. Too often, anymore, he finds himself in arguments with those who disagree with him. His temper mounts as he argues his point, and he can’t understand when people fail to agree with him.

“What’s happening to our world?” he wonders. “When did we become so polarized?”

Joseph loves to attend worship. He has his favorite pew and enjoys visiting with his friends. The minister delivers a nice message, most of the time. Sometimes, she gives one of her let’s-get-out-there-and-help-others sermons, but not very often. Most of her sermons speak of the love of God and articulate and strengthen his knowledge of the Bible.

He sees worship as a kind of weekly fill-up so that he can make it through the week. And, during the week, there are many things that come up to annoy him. Some days it’s enough to lose one’s religion!

He crosses the street when a dirty drunk comes into sight. He agrees with his boss even when he sees harm in the decision. He believes that tithing is Biblical and should stay there and shuts down when the church talks about mission. We have enough problems in our own church; we don’t need to spend our money on people we don’t even know, he says.

Lately, Joseph has been talking more than listening. He believes he’s right. He can’t understand why others are so misguided in their thinking.

“What’s happening to our world?” he wonders.

This is a story about a man who loves God. He’s trying to grow in his faith. He’s aware of our society’s ills and he’s concerned about how to fix them.

On the other hand, is he avoiding that drunk because he fears he may be violent or because he doesn’t want to get involved? When did he become a “yes-man” with the boss? And when did he quit listening to others’ points of view?

He’s just one of millions of Christians who struggle with their faith every single day.

After reading the scripture from James, we might we agree that Joseph could use a change of attitude. The writer challenges us to look in the mirror and not forget what we see. But, how many of us are willing to look into that mirror? How many of us have thrown up our hands in despair and crossed the street to avoid it?

I can relate to Joseph’s love of worship. I, too, love worship whether I’m leading it or sitting in the congregation. I love the music. I enjoy visiting with those I know and meeting new people. Worship can be in a tent or a cathedral; I love it. I soak in the presence of the Spirit and feel God’s grace forgiving me for all that I’ve left undone.

But, don’t we all miss the point at times? We promise to do something this week in response to that worshipful moment: use my money to help others;
listen more and talk less; stand up for injustice. We have the best of intentions. But, the minute that final chord of the postlude slips away into silence, We’re out the door. There are places to go and things to do.

Now, if this sounds as if I’m suggesting that works is more important than faith, please don’t shut down, yet. Let’s make one thing clear: we are justified by faith. Works doesn’t guarantee us a ticket into heaven.

Consider Elizabeth. She, too, is concerned with the ills of the world. You’ll find her serving meals at the homeless shelter every Monday and delivering Meals on Wheels every Tuesday and Thursday. Every year she joins a group of fellow Christians who journey to Mexico to construct homes.

She attends worship every week. The sermons are okay, but a bit light in her opinion. She can’t understand why the Minister spends little time on society’s ills and how we can help. Sermons about God’s love and grace are nice, but everyone needs to get to work. She can’t do it all, you know.

She tithes to the church. She raises money for charity, often using her own resources.

Elizabeth is tired, though. Her Minister reminds her, too often in her opinion, that she should rest from time to time. “You’ll burn yourself out,” he warns her.  But, that idea abhors her. There’s too much work to be done. So she signs up to work at the community food bank every Friday.

Elizabeth is involved in works. She has a heart for serving and many people have benefited from her hard work. I can feel her compassion and her sense of helplessness. There is so much to do and so few laborers. But, like Joseph, something is missing in her life.

Our scripture reading from James may appear to be simple, even simplistic. Some people don’t care for this book. It’s like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament: filled with pithy, but obvious, advice. Martin Luther referred to it as, “An epistle of straw.”

With all due respect for the great reformer, I believe it’s much more than straw.

The author cautions us to listen with our brains engaged. Listen more, talk less and don’t go getting all hot and bothered. It’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Try approaching some people and having a sensible conversation about a few of your own “hot” issues. Perhaps you’ve met people who hijack conversations simply because they have the loudest voice.

The writer further advises us to open our hearts to God’s word. Clear out hatred and bias and anger and all that “stuff” that blocks us from hearing the word in fresh, new ways. Look in a mirror, he challenges. Take a really hard look and ask, “Am I deceiving myself and, therefore, avoiding my vocation to God?” Another hard reality.

Joseph is right to ask, “What’s happening to our world?” If he’s courageous, he’ll discover that he can be a part of the solution. Opening his ears and unlocking his heart, he will begin to view his world through God’s eyes.

Elizabeth, with her heart for serving, may see in that mirror someone too wrapped up in trying to please God. She falls short when she can’t see the people she’s serving through the eyes of the one who ate with the poor and the tax collectors.

Being doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves is tough work. The author of James challenges self-indulgent religion that avoids the ugliness and shuts down wisdom.

John Calvin believed that the doer is someone who embraces God’s word from the heart and bears it out in his or her life. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who
hear God’s word and obey it.”1

Look at this passage again. It begins, not with challenges or exhortations, but with a message of love. “All that counts in this world is God,” the author writes.

This God, who “spins the whirling planets” and “molds the mountains” and “calls forth sunshine, wind and rain”2 is the One who calls us out of the old ways living.

This God, who blesses the wine and the bread and the waters of baptism, is the One who calls us out to life made new.

Pleasing God isn’t about works over faith, nor is it faith without a right response. Pleasing God is about our response to “God’s innumerable blessings, which we receive daily from [that One’s] hands.”3 When we become so affected by God’s love and mercy and blessings in our lives, we become spiritually grounded and our lives are transformed.

God is unchanging and God is all that counts. It is from God that we receive the gift of wisdom. It is from God that the law is written on our hearts.

Christ’s mirror can be difficult to view. But, it serves to remind us that our job, our mission, begins with our first step out the front door of our church. Perfect worship is complete worship. Complete worship is one filled with love for the God who cares for others. It completes our Sunday morning worship. It directs the right response to pleasing and loving God.

“The test for good worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here, during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week.”4

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

1 Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXII (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1999)
Luke 11:28 NRSV
2The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) Number 285
3Calvin’s Commentaries
4William Willimon “Doers of the Word” 8/31/97 http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=46

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Put on the Armor of God

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these,[b] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:13-17 NRSV)

Every Friday afternoon you can see them. They spend up to three hours walking to the prayer houses. These women are dressed in their own particular armor:

Black shoes: remind her that she walks in a dark world
Black skirt: reminds her of her own sinfulness
White tunic: represents the righteousness that Jesus brings
Belt: tied tightly to signify that she is ready for action
White collar: symbolizes Jesus covering all of her mistakes
Black collar: shows that even though she is a Christian, there are still struggles to come
The white hat: symbolizes the crown she will receive when she enters heaven.

These women are members of the Central Church of Africa Presbyterian and they live in northern Malawi. They are going to their Guild Meetings for prayer and Bible study and service. On Guild days and Sundays they shed their bright colors for the armor that reminds them who they are and to whom they belong.

They need this reminder. The forces of evil and darkness are alive and well in her world.

The thing people don’t get about Christians is that we are counter-cultural. We turn to God and check in with what we believe before we take action in the world. We dare to believe in the power of prayer over the might of evil. We take our salvation seriously. While the world would allow the survival of the fittest, we respond to grace by helping others.

Christians believe in the reality of the ever present evil. We attempt to see how it distorts God’s good creation.

When we are doing Christian faith right, we are a strange and quirky people.

For the Women’s Guilds in Malawi, their faith is clearly reflected in their lives. Theses gentle people have a spiritual nature honed by God in the trial brought on by poverty. They are strengthened by Christ and they demonstrate that strength and love in their service to humanity.

They pray and study the Bible. They teach their children life skills and they find time to share the gospel. They care for the other regardless of their faith tradition. They only see their minister on Sunday because he or she has a flock of well over 5,000. So they recognize their need for each other.

I can’t help but think that their armor is perfectly suited to the task. They awaken every morning prepared to live out their relationship with God and with others. They understand clearly that they’ll do battle with the forces of darkness.

Let’s look again at Paul’s analogy from the Roman culture. Stan Mast of Calvin Seminary describes the Roman armor as follows:

The wide belt was not only a place to hang his sword but it also provided a way for him to gather up his clothes for battle (as in girding his loins.) The belt held everything together, freeing him up to do battle.

The breastplate guarded the majority of his body, especially the vital organs. He wore hobnailed sandals that both protected and anchored his feet during battle.

The shield was 2 ½ feet by 4 feet. It was about an inch thick, wrapped in leather and edged with metal. They would soak their shields in water before battle and hold them up to defend against flaming arrows.

Their helmets protected their heads. All of these were defensive weapons. The only offensive weapon they had was their sword which they took in hand only when ready to do battle. (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-16b/?type=lectionary_epistle)

The analogy for us is a useful one.

All we know and understand is held together by the belt of truth. This truth isn’t rigid. Nor is it weak. This truth is valuable and reliable.

Evil has the power to hurt us deeply. It hurts us and, in turn, hurts others. Righteousness is what God does for us so that we can be in right relation with those we meet daily.

Shoes are the foundation on which we stand; we’ll need to be steady in order to proclaim peace (one of those counter-cultural ideals.)

The shield of faith quenches those arrows that the forces of darkness fling our way.

Take shelter in God’s salvation and be ready to proclaim God’s word.

Stand firm, the author tells us. Not rigid and stubborn and unbend-able. That position ends up breaking our spirits. Stand firm in the posture of one ready to receive and process new information. Stand firm as one who can accept new ideas and set aside the inappropriate. Stand firm as one ready to listen carefully, speak thoughtfully and ask questions in order to gain understanding.

Stand firm as one who abides in Christ as the branch abides in the vine. Live for Jesus. Live in gratitude for the grace given you every single day. Live out your salvation by fighting the forces of evil that cause injustice and addictions and poverty and violence. Live out your salvation by looking out for those who suffer in darkness.

Those are also counter-cultural ways of living. The world looks out for number one. We allow God to look after us while we care for the other.

We need God’s armor. We need it daily. It is armor that’s strong, and flexible. It is built on time spent with God: worship, devotionals, meditation, and Bible study.

God’s armor is what empowers us and protects us. God’s armor is a part of who we are in Christ.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Wise in the Spirit

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:15-20 NRSV)

Be careful how you live. Listen to God’s call on your heart. Do this in constant prayer to God who knows what it means to be wise. With God, you’ll gain wisdom. God will place wise people in your path from whom you can learn. Learn from your mistakes. Gain wisdom through your years of living.

Be careful how you live. Make the most of God’s time. Grab up all the opportunities you can to be a participant in Christ’s work on earth. Know that evil exists in the world and we encounter it daily. Evil comes in the form of greed and “me first” attitudes and hubris and lying. Evil dances before us, enticing us to put other things between us and our love of Jesus and his way of life. Evil cuts down life that is meant to be lived to the fullest. Evil sharpens its tools on the rocky debris of desperate living and the injustice of poverty and ignorance and oppression.

In the noise and chatter and bullying, find God in the silence. Look for God in the chaos. Wait for God in the messiness of living. Because when you do, you’ll know and understand how God is calling you to live and to be.

Don’t get drunk with wine. Wine deadens our senses to the unpleasantness in the world. Wine is anything that that closes us off from those who are hurting right in front of us. Allow God to open you up to the reality of evil in God’s good creation.

And though we live in evil times and we see evil get a stronghold in the lives that surround us; even though we struggle with God to gain insight and wisdom and often fall short; even though we sometimes accept worldly wisdom over God’s way, know that evil doesn’t get the final word. Know that God is ultimately in charge, and uses evil for good. God is in charge and “… all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God’s] purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

We are free to live in wisdom, discerning God’s call on our lives. We are free to make the most of God’s time. We are free to open our eyes to all the ugliness in the world that breaks God’s heart as well as ours.

In that freedom, we gather as Christ’s community called out of the world, “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing[ing] and mak[ing] music from [our] heart[s] to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father…” (Ephesians 5:19-20a NIV)

“Grow up in my son,” God tells us. “I’ll help you in the task. It’ll take a long time, so be patient. It’ll take your entire life to figure it out and even then you won’t have all the answers.

“Grow up in my Son,” God invites. “He’s seen the worst that this evil world can throw at us. In the end his love wins and you can count on this powerful truth.

“Stay in touch,” God admonishes. “Stay in touch with me and know what’s going on around you. Stay in touch with your fellow disciples, whoever and wherever they may be. Help them, love them, be kind to them and forgive them.

“Worship me,” God instructs. “For in worshiping me you’ll learn that I’m not the distraction from evil, but the way through these evil days.”

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Jesus, the Bread of Life

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:26-27 NRSV)

The Gospel of John is a strange and wonderful book. It is spiritualism to a high degree; it is deep and dense and difficult to understand. It has double-meanings and hidden messages. It is comforting and uplifting. We do well to read this Gospel with great care.

And in the spirit of great care, I write about John’s version of who Jesus is. To get a bigger picture, I point us to some of the “signs” of Jesus.

The first sign is the wedding at Cana. Jesus is an ordinary guest until the wedding party runs out of wine. At that moment Jesus is revealed for the first time: he brings life made new and spiritual life in abundance. We are called to share this new life with him.

Then Nicodemus comes to see Jesus in the dark of night. In this sign Jesus challenges us to come out of the dark into the light of a new understanding of God.

Next, we meet the Samaritan Woman at the well. In a long conversation, we meet the Jesus who breaks down barriers: barriers between men and women; barriers between Jews and Samaritans; barriers between “us” and “them.”

Recently, we viewed the fourth and fifth signs: Jesus feeds 5,000 people and then he walks on water. Jesus re-imagines the Moses story of manna in the wilderness and then he says, “Don’t fear. I am.” Manna comes not from Moses, but from God. It was “I Am” who provided for the Hebrews in the wilderness.

So far in John’s Gospel, five signs point to Jesus and reveal who he is. Slowly, the eyes of our heart are opened to see this man as the One sent by God. Yet, those who follow him around are easily confused. Their questions are based on their view of the world. Jesus speaks of the spiritual realm.

They ask a question, Jesus answers a question. Not necessarily the one they asked. The people are asking concrete questions. They’re receiving spiritual answers.

Bread of Life: he first fed their physical hunger. Now he offers them Bread of Life. Bread of life never perishes or goes bad. You don’t find mold or fungus on it. Bread of life endures. It’s stronger than any thing or any evil that the world can throw at it. It’s incorruptible. It’s alive and flourishing.

Bread of life continually comes to us from God. Bread of life is soul food that nourishes the emptiness. Bread of life doesn’t change. It’s the same bread that Jesus offered 2,000 years ago. It has nourished followers and disciples since then.

It nourishes you today. It nourishes us in the Eucharist, Communion.

Whether you’re able to come to the table or not, how will Bread of Life join you today? Will it be to fill the emptiness in your soul? Perhaps to stand with you in joy while you celebrate and remember the abundance? Do you need Bread of Life to remind you to whom you belong?

As you go out what will you take with you? Hopefully, an abundance of soul food. Enough for you and those you meet this week.

All glory and honor be to God. Amen.


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