Sunday, September 24, 2006

Tomato Flavored Sermon

This is the sermon my friend Mieke assures me will result in tomatoes being thrown at me this morning. I'm wearing a plastic tarp instead of my preaching robe.

I tried, really tried to write a sermon on Proverbs 31. But yesterday at about 12:30 PM I hated it, I was bored by it, and I found myself saying (in a transition that was supposed to take us to this piece of scripture) "Now onto something relevant." And I thought, well, sh*t. Might as well make the whole thing relevant. So I threw that one out and started over.

Note some borrowing from last week's sermon. You can do that when you're in a different pulpit every Sunday!

Note: the monastery story is adapted from M. Scott Peck. I think he got it from someone else.

“Show Me”
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
September 24, 2006

There is a wonderful scene in My Fair Lady. Eliza Dolittle, the newly educated, cleaned-up and beautifully dressed flower-girl, is being followed around by the wealthy and silly Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who is singing his heart out in a vain attempt to woo her. Finally, with the wrath of God in her eyes, Eliza whirls around and lights into him:

Words, words, words,
I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through,
first from him, now from you.
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don't talk of stars, burning above.
If you're in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams, filled with desire.
If you’re on fire, show me!

After this week, I will always think of Eliza Dolittle when I read the letter of James. I think James would understand her frustration. After all, that’s what James is famous for. This is the “put your money where your mouth is” epistle. This is the “You’ve got faith? You believe in God? Show me!” epistle.

The letter of James is a fascinating piece of scripture. I was thrilled to learn in my reading last week that at least one solid, well-known and highly-respected scripture scholar is out there making the case that the letter of James is the work of James, the brother of Jesus. That James. The New Testament tells us that James the brother of the Lord was prominent among early followers of “the Way,” as Christians called themselves. And I love the thought of scripture having been written by someone who grew up in the same household with Jesus. I imagine the boys, scraping their knees side by side, learning their father’s skill at the plane and the lathe, dipping their bread together at the table. I imagine a man watching from a distance as his brother is tortured and executed, and then standing in amazement as that same brother breathes peace and reassurance into a roomful of frightened followers. Imagine—that man, speaking to us now.

And don't you just have to love a piece of the bible that so ticked off Martin Luther that he called it "an epistle of straw"? Luther hated, loathed, despised and abominated this little gem because it seemed to veer wildly away from what he thought was the Main Thesis of the New Testament, i.e. Justification by Grace and Not Works.

And that is what James is famous for. Hear again his words:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
James 3: 13-17

When James gives the instruction, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” it helps to know exactly what lies behind those words. James is making an appeal to wisdom here, and a very specific kind of wisdom at that: the wisdom that comes from God. There are whole books of the bible devoted to the subject of wisdom, and we have just heard a passage from one of them, Proverbs. I know that what we heard sounded like a great and lengthy laundry list of the attributes of the woman of valor, but I would like to draw your attention to just one of her attributes. Near the end of the reading, we have these words: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The woman of valor is the one who fears the Lord, and as Proverbs tells us elsewhere, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Now, we should always be careful to explain exactly what it is we mean by that marvelous phrase, the “fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is simply this: the understanding that God is God, and we are not. It’s the understanding that all the power, majesty, glory, intelligence, justice, truth, and wisdom, are in God’s corner. It is the recognition that, by comparison, we are almost hopelessly finite and limited. The “fear of the Lord” is not about cowering in terror in the dark somewhere, although that would be one understandable reaction to being in the presence of all that power. It is really about knowing our limits, and where we stand in relation to God.

You can bet money on the fact that James, a devout Jew raised on scripture, knew this definition of wisdom, and that he embraced it totally. So when he says, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” he is speaking of the wisdom that “gets” the place of the individual in the grand scheme of things; the wisdom that arises in those who “fear the Lord.”

This seems like such a simple thing, but obviously it is not. Turn on a television, go online, open a newspaper, or just call a friend, and, more often than not, you will hear a story about people of faith—and let’s just limit ourselves to Christians, in the name of not being hypocrites—we will find stories of people of faith who treat one another atrociously, and who treat people of other faiths atrociously too. Ask any person who is a member of a church if they have ever seen instances of people being unkind to one another in a church setting, and most of them will look at you as if you are insane. Of course they have seen and heard and experienced terrible things at the hands of fellow church members. Of course they have. Those things happen all the time in church. People are mean to each other.

And I am here to tell you, my sisters and brothers, that that is a sad state of affairs. Later in Eliza Dolittle’s song she sings,

Never do I ever want to hear another word
There isn’t one I haven’t heard
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream
Say one more word and I’ll scream!

This is what is so sad about the kind of situation James is describing. Here we are together in what ought to be a dream: the Beloved Community, the body of Christ, in which we all know we belong, and where we all offer one another the same acceptance and love God has offered us. Here we are together in what ought to be a dream, James says, and look: it’s a nightmare.

This next part is the reason I love this passage so much. James, writing about 2000 years ago, offers insights into human psychology that are as modern and relevant as we could hope to read in any contemporary journal:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
James 4:1-2a

Have you ever heard of a MacGuffin? In movies, books, even video games, a MacGuffin is something that seems very important at the beginning of the story… and which, by the end of the story, is revealed as being completely irrelevant. The movie Psycho has a classic MacGuffin. As the movie starts, a beautiful young woman steals money from her employer. She’s murdered within about a half hour, and those looking for her suspect she was murdered for the money—the money’s the MacGuffin. But by the end of the film the money is all but forgotten as the audience has learned the truth about psyscho-killer Norman Bates.

Conflicts in churches almost always revolve around a MacGuffin. It seems that people are fighting over which hymnal to purchase, or how to redecorate a parlor, or whether the church should host this or that community group, or embark on such and such a mission. But the truth is that some churches that fight are simply churches that fight. They fight over whatever MacGuffin is at hand, because that’s not really what they are fighting about. They are fighting about power. They are fighting about influence. They are fighting about whether the church feels like the church they grew up in, because if it doesn’t, they aren’t sure they recognize it as church anymore. To be more precise, they are fighting about things that are internal to themselves—fear, anxiety, dread, loss.

James hits this nail on the head. The conflicts and disputes we engage in come from cravings at war within us. We are in need of healing. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask… Submit yourselves to God…Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

There is a story about a monastery. You may have heard it before, but some stories are worth repeating… the birth of a baby in a manger, the death of a man on a cross, the mutual love of a small band of believers. Maybe this story is just as important, and we can hear it just as many times.

There was a monastery, which had fallen on very hard times. Once upon a time it had been a home for many brother monks, singing together, praying together, working together. Now it was nearly empty. Just a handful of old monks were left, and they shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts.

One day the abbot decided to take a walk in the woods, and as he did, he came upon an old rabbi. The two men sat together, and soon, tears began to fall down both their faces. They sat together and they cried their eyes out. Finally, the rabbi looked at the abbot, and said, “I know why you are here. I have been given a teaching for you.” Then he leaned in very close and said. “You and your brothers need to know something. The Messiah is among you.” For a while, the two men just sat together in silence. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.”

The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back. The next morning, he called the monks together to tell them what he had heard. With eyes like saucers, the abbot told his brothers, “The rabbi told me that the Messiah is among us.”

The monks were startled, to say the least. “What could this mean?” they asked themselves. They looked around the room at each other. “Is brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Matthew? Or Brother Thomas? Am I the Messiah?” They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching, even a little skeptical. But no one mentioned it again.

As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a kind of tender and loving care, just in case one of them was the Messiah. Each man deferred to the wishes of his brother, and gradually their heaviness of heart lifted. Once again they found joy in singing together, praying together, working together. They lived with one another as men who had finally found something. And they prayed the Scriptures together as men who were always looking for something.

“You do not have, because you do not ask,” James tells us. “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” It seems so hard, but it is really so simple. Change is as near at hand as our next encounter with someone we can’t stand. The Beloved Community is already available to us, right here, all around. Here we are together in what ought to be a dream, a community filled with wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Why not make it so? Why not let it show? Amen.

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