When I was in 8th grade I discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival. Granted, Creedence had already been around a good thirty years by that point, but eighth grade was when I first heard them. And I loved them. I liked Put Me in Coach, I liked Proud Mary, but absolutely loved the song, Fortunate Son. Fortunate Son had just enough rebellion, just enough disgust and disdain with the status quo, to really appeal to my rebellious adolescent spirit. The lyrics proclaim that the singer is not a Fortunate Son, “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate Son, Oh it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senator’s son.” Not only is the singer among the unfortunate, he also heaps judgment upon the wealth and injustice of the fortunate: “Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, Lord, don't they help themselves, oh But when the taxman comes to the door, Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes.” The singer is upset, he’s angry at the injustice of some people, the fortunate ones, taking all they can, well beyond what they need or can create, and then refusing to contribute to the well being of all through the paying of their taxes. These fortunate sons take and take and take and when it is their turn to give, their turn to pull their weight, to take responsibility for their actions, they are nowhere to be found.
Amos, the Israelite Prophet of the 7th Century BCE, was decidedly not a Fortunate Son. Amos came from the small village of Tekoa, where he worked with his hands. He was not descended from a line of prophets, he did not grow up in a prophetic school, he was merely a common man, a laborer. Amos simply believed he had heard the word of God, and that he had been called to speak God’s word of judgment to the newly prosperous kingdom of Israel. God’s message to Israel was not good news for the fortunate of their society. Amos was a prophet with precious little good news to share, he was a prophet of doom.
Why? Why was God so upset with Israel? Why is God threatening them with annihilation? Isn’t this the same God of Jesus Christ, the God of grace, and mercy, the God whom John identified as love itself? How can such a bright, sunshiney, loving God be so eager to condemn, to punish, to take from the people their wealth and their security? What could the people have done to provoke the wrath of God?
Amos is not shy about publicly listing the sins of Israel; their actions which have brought about God’s wrath. The people have turned justice to wormwood, and they have righteousness to the ground. They have trampeled on the poor. They have built vineyards and houses and fortunes from the sweat of other men’s brows. They have pushed aside the needy, they have abhored the truth, they have taken bribes. What is worse, they have done so all while claiming God’s blessing. They have deceived themselves so thoroughly that they have come to believe that God has given them the wealth which they have taken from the poor. That they, the fortunate, are God’s chosen people.
Amos comes to remind them of their covenant with the One True God, the God who created the heavens and the earth. This belief in single God, a God not of a certain people, but a God who creates and sustains all of the Universe, was and remains the unique and special gift of Israel to the rest of the world. What made the Israelite belief in a single deity so significant was that it tied faith in God to ethical action in the world, it was and is, an ethical monotheism. The connection between belief in God and ethical action is all over the bible, it is most succinctly stated in the summation of Israel’s law, “To love the LORD your God with all your heart, and mind, and spirit, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” This two loves, that of neighbor and of God, are inseparable; for the God who created and loves you, also creates and loves your neighbor. To love this One God, requires loving what She loves, loving all the creation.
The wealthy of Israel have broken their covenant with God. They have not loved the poor, but exploited them. They have not sought the well being of the needy, but pushed them aside. Like any mother who sees an older son beating and abusing a younger, weaker son, God chooses the side of the oppressed and abused and meets the abuser with wrath. If the people of Israel continue in this oppression, “God will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.”
The message of Amos to Israel should hit us like a ton of bricks in our present situation. The wealth of our nation came largely from the sweat of other men’s brows: 400 years of slavery, a continued history of exploited immigrant labor, extraction of wealth and natural resources from the third world. Our political leaders have thrown off any semblance of shame and lie routinely and boldly to the nation, its people, and the world. They abhor the truth. The gap between the poor and the obscenely wealthy continues to grow, and there seem to be a never ending supply of preachers scrambling to bless the wealthy to declare their prosperity a sign of God’s favor rather than a sign of their hatred of justice and the poor. If Amos brought a message of doom and destruction to 7th century Israel, what message would he bring to 21st century America?
We may not need to wonder any longer. In the last week the United Nations released a report on climate change which states clearly that without massive and immediate government intervention the consequences of climate change will be severley felt by the year 2040. Coastal cities and communites will be washed away. Famine, drought, and flooding will ravage the globe. Plant and animal species will go extinct at alarming rates. Disastrous weather, hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes will increase in frequency and intensity. And all of this will happen, all over the globe, by the time our children are in their twenties. It would seem that God’s wrath is about to be poured out, or at the very least God seems to be leaving us to face the consequences of our sin. The coming disaster has been foretold. The question remains how will we respond?
Although Amos had a lot of bad news to give to Israel in the 7th century, he did hold out just the tiniest speck of hope for the people. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; And so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” In the face of a global enviornmental crisis, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. It makes sense to feel that their is nothing that we alone can do. In fact, that is precisely what the UN report says, volunteerism will not solve this crisis, it will take massive government intervention just to lessen the disaster. As people of faith, people in covenant with God, what should our response be? The new covenant, of which are a part, proclaims that through the power of God’s grace we can be saved, we can be set free to pursue righeousness, to seek good and not evil.
This is precisely where Amos locates hope, in the grace of God, “It may be, that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” God’s grace is what saves. God’s grace is what makes possible newness of life, and transformation. It is in the grace of God that we must put our trust and our hope for salvation.
Does that mean that we are passive, that we keep on living the same way we have been, hoping that God will miracoulsy save us? No. Grace is transformative. It calls us to new life. It makes it possible to seek good over evil. If we are to trust in God’s grace that requires that we begin living as a people transformed, here and now. In the face of the coming disaster, in the face of the consequences of our sin, we must begin bearing witness to God’s saving grace by our actions as the church. We must bear witness with our lives together to God’s saving power by changing our ways. We must seek to care for the creation, to live in greater harmony with nature and our neighbors. How can we as church live more sustainably, how can we limit our pollution, our carbon footprint? We must seek to care for the poor and oppressed who will face the worst of the climate crisis that the wealthy have created. How can we help refugees? How can we work for justice for the poor and exploited? We must seek to tell the truth, even the difficult truth of the coming disaster and our responsibility for it, in love. How can we as church bear witness to the importance of truth telling? How can we help people out of denial and into a new life of covenant responsibility? The Church can be that faithful remnant of which Amos spoke, the seed of a new world of justice, righteousness, and truth. We can bear witness to a more just world, to the world that God is calling us to be. But we will have to choose to do so. This transformation of our selves, our congregation, and our community, will not happen if we don’t work for it. It will require our generosity, our giving of our money, our time, our love, and our compassion, and it will require our trust in the saving grace of God. My prayer is that we may find renewed enthusiasm for the work and ministry of St. Paul’s UCC. We are called to be a light to the nations, to model the kingdom of God for the world, to be a people who seek transformation through the giving of ourselves and our gifts to God and God’s plan for all creation. May it be so. Amen.
Sometimes it's easy to miss the point. When I was in seminary I noticed a flyer on the wall of our cafeteria that advertised a preaching competition. I was taking a preaching class at the time, and had newly discovered that I had a bit of a talent for it. I was also flat broke, and the competition offered a $300 prize. Needless to say, I was intrigued. I picked up the flyer and looked it over and thought about entering. I thought about how I could probably win it, how it’d be fun to win it, how I could celebrate my win and my winnings with Shannon. Fortunately, I was busy with my other classes and with work and I actually had to think about if entering the competition was worth my time. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t. Preaching isn’t about being the greatest. You preach to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, not to win a contest. You preach to a congregation of sisters and brothers not to a panel of judges. Preaching is meant to uplift the people of God, not merely yourself. One might think that humility comes easily to clergy, it does not. We like all other human beings enjoy being good at something. We share that human tendency to make things all about us, to center ourselves and our need for importance. We also need to be reminded that life is not about how great we are.
When we encounter Jesus and the disciples in the 9th chapter of Mark, He has already told them once that he is to be betrayed and executed. Jesus tells the disciples on three separate occasions in Mark’s Gospel that he is going to be killed, and yet they are still shocked when it comes to pass. Some biblical scholars have taken the disciple’s surprise at Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion as reason to believe that perhaps he was not as explicit in his predictions of his death as Mark makes him out to be. Yet, that need not be the case. No special reason is needed to explain why the disciples struggled so mightily to understand that Jesus was to die. They believed that they had found the messiah, the one God had chosen to redeem Israel. As far as greatness was concerned, he was tops. He was to restore the kingdom of David, to reign over God’s people, death was simply incompatible with their understanding of his greatness. He was to bring about the glory of God and they expected plenty of greatness for themselves riding on his coatails. So Jesus 2nd prediction of his suffering and death went right over the heads just as the first had done. They did not understand and they were too afraid to ask, so they chose to ignore, to pretend he hadn’t said it at all. They continued thinking that greatness was the destiny of their leader and themselves.
As much as they wanted to ignore his odd predictions of his own humiliating death, the disciples’ must have known that Jesus’ own conception of greatness differed from their own. For when Jesus asked them what they had been discussing amongst themselves on the walk to Capernaum, they were silent. They did not wish to tell him that they had been arguing over which one of them was greatest. So Jesus, seeing that they were still holding to worldly measures of greatness, tries once again to instruct them on how greatness is to be measured in the kingdom of God. He stops walking there on the path. He sits down. He calls all the twelve to sit beside him. He says, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” As if to demonstrate the meaning of his words, Jesus took a child and put him in the midst of them. He took the child in his arms and he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
What does this mean to receive a child in the name of Christ? Certainly it means welcoming children into our communal lives. Certainly it means valuing them as individuals, meeting their needs, extending to them love and grace. But there is more to it than that, more humility to be learned from receiving a child in the name of Christ.
This Monday evening I witnessed the miracle of my son’s birth. This is round two for Shannon and myself and so this time I had some expectations about what was to occur. All seemed to be going well up until we got to the labor and delivery room. One of our nurses noticed that the baby’s heart rate had dropped substantially and she was trying to calmly deal with the situation that clearly disturbed her. She called in another two nurses and they helped Shannon to roll over, gave her oxygen, and soon the baby’s heart rate returned to normal. The nurses assured us that this was perfectly normal and everything was fine. However, about 15 minutes later it happened again. This time the nurse seemed a little more worried, and she called for the doctor. Once the doctor arrived their frenetic movements and curt hushed tones, told me that not everything was fine. The doctor announced that she would check to see how dialated Shannon was, and to her great surprise she had gone from 3 cm to 10 cm in less than an hour. The baby’s heart was down because he was coming out. He was being born right then, before any of us had expected. A great flurry of activity and three pushes later and out came baby Samuel.
In the unexpected rush I had begun to worry that things were not going well. And when Samuel came out he didn’t look like Ruthie had looked. He was all purple, almost blue. And for maybe two seconds he was silent. That moment was a long moment for me. My whole being, my whole life was completely invested in this moment. More than anything in the world I wanted that little baby boy to breathe, to make a noise, to be alive. I would have given my life and anything else that I could give for that breathe without a moments hesitation. In those two seconds it became clear to me how little I mattered. It became clear to me that this tiny, helpless, infant, was infinitely more important than I.
At the end of the two seconds, Samuel cried. A great relief, followed by immense joy washed over me. My son was alive and I could let go of that worry. I hope, however, that I will not as easily let go of that moment of clarity, that moment when it was so stark and obvious to me that I was not what mattered, that there was nothing more important than life and well being of this child. That I believe is the deeper meaning of recieving a child in the name of Christ; accepting so fully that how we treat the vulnerable is the measure of our greatness that we are willing to give our very lives for that of a tiny, helpless, infant.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, as a way of judging the justice of our society, often asks the question, “How are the children?” This is the gospel standard for the greatness of any society: How are the children? The children are those who are most vulnerable, those with the greatest need, those with the least to offer us. “If any would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” If we are to be great people, a great church, or a great nation, by the standard of the gospel we must be willing to accept that children are more important than any of us, and we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for our children.
How are we doing with this standard, with this measurement of greatness? In the United States, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, over 21% of all children live in poverty. Nearly one in four. When children come to this country with their parents seeking asylum and an escape from violence and poverty, do we receive them in Christ’s name? Is our greatest concern how we can sacrifice for their well being? When children have their homes and their families destroyed by wars in which our nation fights do we welcome them as refugees, granting them safe haven and new opportunities? By any Christian calculation the answers to these questions are far more important data points than our GDP or our military budget.
Unfortunately, the question of How are the children in our churches is a difficult and painful one to ask at present. The very instituition which preserved and passed along the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its unique standard for greatness has been guilty of living by human standards of greatness with horrific results. The sinsickness and evil that leads one to abuse a child are beyond the scope of this sermon. But the impulse to cover it up, to protect the reputation of men and the reputation of the institution, before the well being of countless children, this is the perverse desire to care more for one’s worldly greatness than life of a child of God. This is a whole hearted abandonment of the gospel and its standard for greatness. Although it has been systemic within the Catholic Church, we must not be so arrogant and naive to assume such atrocities are not committed throughout all denominations. Any clergy and any church which practices ministry in the name of Jesus Christ must be willing to constantly and honestly ask themselves, “How are the Children?”
We have chosen to make ministry to children the focus of our work here at St. Paul’s UCC. Its an honorable commitment and one that, should would adhere to it, can keep us focused on doing the will of God. Let us always remember that our care for children is not merely a feature, or a strategy for church growth, but is rather the purpose for our being in the world, and the standard of greatness which our loving God has given us. Let us seek to welcome all children in the name of Christ and let us live our lives together as though there were nothing in the world more important than so doing. Amen.
During college I had the unbelievable good fortune to take a trip to Israel. I went with the Classics department of my college to work on an archaeological dig at the foot of the Golan Heights. It was an incredible, life changing trip for me, and if you ask me about sometime I tell you some of the more important things I did, and some of the incredible things I learned. But not now. Now I want to talk to you about Ketchup in Israel. One of our group leaders was an Israeli man by the name of Gabe. One of our first days I got to talking to Gabe at the work site and we began discussing the cuisine of our respective homelands. Gabe said the one American food that baffled him the most was Ketchup. I found this difficult to believe, that someone could feel strongly about not liking ketchup, among the most bland of all the condiments. But that afternoon as we ate our lunches in the Kibbutz where we were staying, I got a big helping of fries and took several packets of ketchup with me. When I opened the packets and squeezed out their contents, I was appalled. I don’t know what that stuff was, but sure as heck wasn’t ketchup. It was like a salty, runny, tomato jelly. It was gross. When I asked Gabe if this was what he meant by ketchup, he said, “Yes. Ketchup is awful.” I lost touch with Gabe many years ago, but I wonder if he ever got to taste real ketchup, heinz 57 ketchup. I wonder if tasting the real thing could have change his mind.
After spending months with his disciples publicly teaching, healing, feeding and forgiving, Jesus takes them to the city Caesara Phillipi where he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” Apparently, Jesus had been causing quite a stir because all different kinds of people, had all kinds of different ideas about who he was. Some said he was John the Baptist, back from the dead. Others said he was Elijah, the prophet swept up in God’s chariot and due to return one day. Others simply thought he was another in the long line of Hebrew prophets. There was widespread disagreement about who Jesus was during his life.
Today widespread disagreement about who Jesus was, and who Jesus is remains. To some Jesus is wise old sage whose ethical teaching is extraordinary and worth following. There are those who believe that Jesus is a social and political revolutionary, subverting the power of Rome and of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. To others Jesus is the Son of God and True God, the incarnation of God’s love in the world. There are other questions as well, questions about what Jesus does. Does Jesus exclude people from salvation? Is Jesus particularly fond of America, does he put America first? Is Jesus Lord only over our religious lives, with no place in our social, economic and political lives?
Though not ultimately significant, what other people say about Jesus is important to all of us. For the way that we all begin to learn about Jesus, is by hearing others talk about him. We learn from Sunday School teachers, from songs like Jesus Loves Me, from books, from sermons, from our parents. One way or another we are always introduced to Jesus by the words, actions, and thoughts of others. For some of us, what we first learned from others about Jesus was helpful and healing. For others of us, what we first learned about Jesus from others was to fear His judgment, to hide from him our shame, to attempt to attain moral perfection in our following of him. These early lessons about who Jesus is have a way of sticking around, of becoming concrete in our minds. We may hold onto to the belief that Jesus is a demanding judge eager to punish as if that were all that Jesus could be. As though our teachers, our parents, had a monopoly on the understanding of Jesus. This is who Jesus is they say, and we accept it because we don’t yet know Jesus for ourselves. We have yet to taste Heinz 57 and yet we are already claiming that we hate ketchup.
Jesus is not satisfied to hear only what others have said about him. He asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Now is not the time fall back on blandly repeating ancient creeds, now is not the time to say what “those Christians say.” Now is the time for you, yourself, to decide what you think about Jesus. Who do you say he is?
The answers to this question have been as diverse as the people who have attempted to answer it. We each bring our own experiences to the question. We bring along lessons we have learned in childhood and life, our gifts and talents, our traumas and our baggage, and maybe even our hope, as we approach this question. As we are all different, so too will are understandings of Jesus be different. That is ok. In fact it is better than ok, it is good. It is good because Jesus is not a formula, he is not math problem, there isn’t just one right answer. Jesus appears differently to different people in different contexts. By hearing these other perspectives we can a greater, more profound understanding of what Jesus means for us. For ourselves.
However, being that I am a preacher of the gospel, I will suggest a broad understanding, a framework for our thinking about Jesus. Over centuries of debate, councils, conflicts, reformations, and even all out war over the question of who Jesus is, there is one answer broad enough to be inclusive of nearly every view of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. That is to say that for Christians Jesus is what God is like. We learn about God, about God’s love and grace, from the stories of Jesus. How we understand God, and how we understand Jesus to be like God, are ongoing questions, they evolve just as we do. What we believed about God and Jesus as children is likely different from what we believe today. That doesn’t mean we were wrong then, or that we are wrong now, it means only that we continue to wrestle with our faith, with our answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
We are starting our confirmation class this afternoon. Over the next year our youth will learn about the Bible, about Theology, about Church History. They will get to read and hear what other people, both dead and alive, have said about who Jesus is. But we won’t stop with them reciting other people’s opinions. We will ask them to state what they believe right now. How do they understand God and the world? Who do they say that Jesus is? We ask this question knowing full well that over the course of their lives these beliefs may change. They may find a new of thinking about Jesus during the course of their lives, they may discover that what they thought was ketchup was really just runny tomato jelly. They may stumble onto a new understanding that feels like Heinz 57 to them, like the real deal.
As for us adults, we too must continue to answer this question about who Jesus is for us. We are many different people, with very different backgrounds, and very different understandings of Jesus. I have no desire to create and enforce a singular uniform understanding of God and Jesus here at St. Paul’s. However, I do want us to create a safe space in this church and in our hearts to explore the question of who Jesus is for us. To do that we have to be willing to open ourselves again to the question. We have to be willing to have our hearts and minds changed. We have to brave enough to throw out ideas of Jesus that no longer serve us, ideas of God that have caused us trauma. We have to be willing to take up what heals us, and to always be trying to grow in spirit and in understanding. My prayer is that we not be content with what others have told us about Christ, but rather that we will find the courage to leave behind understandings that have become problematic, and to dare to answer for ourselves what Jesus really means for us. My prayer is that we grow together in our diverse understandings of God and Christ, so that we can get ever closer to experiencing the truth of Christ, ever closer to finding that real stuff, that Heinz 57 Jesus that is out there for all of us. Amen.
The other day, I was trying to get a little work done while I was hanging out with Ruthie. The two of us were in the living room, her playing with her toys and me reading and using the computer occassionally. During a moment when I was particularly engrossed in what I was reading, Ruthie knocked over her sippy cup of milk on the coffee table, the top popped off, and milk begin to stretch over the table, slowly approaching my laptop. The spill jerked me out of my book and back to reality and without thinking I reacted. “No Ruthie!,” I yelled. “No, no, no!” I repeated as I frantically removed my computer and books and everything else from the milk soaked table.
And then, I caught myself. After my initial reaction faded, I was able to see myself in the situation. I could see what I was doing, and what I was teaching my daughter to do. I was crying over spilled milk. Worse, I was scolding her for having spilled the milk. As though spilling your drink as a twenty month old is somehow beyond the pale of expected behavior. I was teaching Ruthie that her mistakes were not acceptable. I was teaching her that small accidents could provoke outsized reactions. I was teaching her that the proper response to spilled milk is to cry.
There is difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction is quick, instantaneous, instinctual. Reactions don’t involve thought and analysis, they simply let slip whatever is on the mind or heart with no concern for the consequences. A response on the other hand is slower, it allows for thought and consideration. A response involves choice, we choose how to respond, but not how to react. When Ruthie spilled the milk, I reacted. Without a moments pause I shouted my first thought, “No!” I might have acted differently. I might have paused after the spill, thought about how I wanted to respond, and then chosen the response I felt was best for the situation. I could have chosen to respond in a more gracious and kind manner.
There are days when I do I precious little responding, days when I can feel myself moving from one reaction to the next. These are days when I’m especially irritable, when it feels like everything is out of my control, that nothing is going my way, that I am fighting 100 different battles on a thousand different fronts, and losing them all. My first reaction on these days is to search for someone to blame: its the cable company, or the stupid computer, it’s the dog that’s driving me crazy, or its Ruthie and her reckless milk spilling. However, along my exceedingly slow journey to some semblance of spiritual maturity, I have learned that when everybody and everything is driving me nuts, the cause is usually to be found in me rather than anywhere else.
We recently welcomed a group of Alcoholics Anonymous to begin meeting each Tuesday evening in our sanctuary. There is phrase commonly used in AA circles, a question of whether you are spiritually fit. Spiritual fitness is meant to refer to the state of your spirit, how are you feeling inside? Are you bouncing from one reaction to the next, increasingly angry and frustrated and edging towards despair? If so, you are not especially spiritually fit. To become spiritually fit, is to make room for a pause, to allow ourselves to remember that we have entrusted our lives to a loving God, to invite the spirit of that God into us, and to attempt to respond with that same loving spirit. How one becomes spiritually fit will of course depend a great deal on the individual, but in general the idea is to do whatever it is that helps bring you into a closer relationship with God. Pray. Come to church. Go to an AA meeting. Call a friend. See a therapist. Exercise. Write a list of all you are grateful for. We all must find what works for us, what helps us to connect to a power greater than ourselves, what helps us to escape our anger and reaction and helps us to find serenity.
The letter of James in the New Testament treats just this topic of spiritual fitness. James writes that all good things come from God. He further counsels us, “Let everyone be quick to listen, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Be slow to anger. There may be situations of intolerable injustice, systems that degrade the dignity of the image of God in our sisters and brothers, and at such systems and situations anger may be a proper response, anger like that shown by Jesus when he threw out the money changers from the temple. But this is a slow rising anger, it is anger as an appropriate response, and not as a first reaction. “Be slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” If we want good to be in our lives it does not come from our anger, rather it comes only from God. It is God and God alone who produces God’s righteousness. Our angry reactions are futile attempts to control our surroundings, to change what has already happened, to reject our lot in life, and they keep us from welcoming a more gracious and loving spirit into our hearts. These are all a result of our lack of spiritual fitness. If we wish for good, for God’s righteousness to take the place of our anger, we must learn to pause, to ask for God’s presence, to welcome God into our lives, to allow the Holy Spirit a more firm grip upon our souls. As James says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” This is what is to be spiritually fit, to have rid yourself as much as possible of your self-centered wickedness, and to be able to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
When James refers to the implanted word, he is referring to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The content of this Gospel, this good news, is both so simple it can be understood by any and all human beings, and it is so infinitely complex that it has inspired and will continue to inspire countless minds to explicate it and investigate its implications. The simplicity of the Gospel is this: God has chosen to love us now in the present moment just as we are, despite all of our sin, our faults, and our shortcomings. The Gospel is the good news of the unmerited grace of God. James wants us to welcome this word into our hearts. James wants us to truly believe that we are loved and loved unconditionally. He wants us to be constantly reminded of the depth and breadth of this unconditional love. He wants us to allow that unconditional love to transform us, to lead us from reaction to response, he wants it to save our souls.
How might our lives be different if we took James’ advice, if we welcomed the unconditional love of God into our hearts and let it guide our responses? If I want my response to Ruthie to teach her of the unconditional love of God, I do not want to give her the impression that her mistakes are unforgivable breaches of ettiqutte, I don’t want to shout No Ruthie at her, I want to respond with grace. I want Ruthie to know that accidents happen, that we make mistakes, and that no mistake she could make would ever stop me from loving her. I want her to feel and know that she is loved without condition. This is what James means when he says that we must not only be hearers of the word, but also doers of the word. It is not enough for me to know that through God’s grace I am loved unconditionally, if that knowledge does not somehow transform my behavior towards others. The grace of God has transformative power, to truly hear it and accept it, is to have you life transformed. It is to live not from a place of reaction and insecurity, but rather from a place of abundant love and generosity. It is to live with a desire to love as freely as we have been loved.
Finally, I want to speak a word on James’ measure of religion that is pure and undefiled before God. At the very end of today’s reading, James claims that true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Certainly James believes that we ought to care for all people and not only widows and orphans, right? So why does he single them out? What is special about widows and orphans? The times in our lives when we most need love are not the times when we are doing the best. The times when we most need loving care and support are when we are in distress, when they’re is no one to care for us, when we have been abandoned, when we are in need, that is when we need love the most and that is precisely when the world makes it most difficult for us to receive love. Who needs love more than the abandoned child and yet who is less likely to receive it? It is always easier to love the people closest to us, it is always more materially beneficial to support those who are doing well. The world will always give us reasons to support those in power, those dripping with success. The world will also give us countless excuses not to care for those in distress. We can blame their distress on them, they are lazy, they should have stayed in their own country, they should have followed the rules and waited their turn. We can believe that to help those in distress will only ruin their personal responsibility and teach them to look for a handout. We can even decide that they are not the same kind of people as us, they are not Christians, not Americans, not law abiding citizens, and therefore not as deserving of our love and care. Yet what all these excuses not to love and care for those in distress have in common is that they place conditions upon the giving of our love. Though God loves us without condition, the world will always demand conditions for our love and care. If we are to welcome the implanted word that will save our souls, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the unconditional love of God into our lives, we must cut through every excuse the world gives to not freely love and care for others. We must seek not to react to people’s distress by finding fault in them, but rather respond to their distress with the unmerited grace and unconditional love that we were fortunate enough to experience ourselves. To love God is to love what God loves. God loves all of us, but God most especially loves those of us who are most in need of loving support and care. God most especially loves those that world has cast out and found excuses not love and care for. If God’s love is truly unconditional and truly for all, it must be lavished upon the widow and the orphan and all others the world has deemed unworthy. The test of our true religion is the unconditional love of God, a love that can never leave any out, a love that seeks out the lost, a love that especially embraces the widow and the orphan. Let us welcome this unconditional love into our hearts and let us share it as wildly and freely as it has been shared with us. Amen.
Laila is my 8 year old niece and she is a natural born leader. Laila is the youngest of her group of cousins, at least she was until Ruth came along. Yet when they are all together, Laila is remarkably successful at getting the older boy cousins to do her bidding. The games that Laila wants to play are invariably the games that get played. If she wants everyone to play Marco Polo in the pool, you can be sure that’s what everyone will be doing in a matter of minutes. One day, when we were visiting Laila and her family, one of her older boy cousins said to Shannon, “Laila is soo bossy.” Without missing a beat, Shannon answered back. “No she isn’t. Laila has terrific executive leadership skills.” Our language can be so telling at times. Girls are bossy. Boys are leaders. Assertiveness is a trait that we often praise in men, yet frequently criticize in women.
One of the central teachings of the Christian faith is the virtue of unselfishness. We hold up as the ideal behavior the self-giving love of Jesus Christ and we encourage one another to think more of how we can serve others than how we ourselves can be served. I believe in this virtue, indeed I preach on the need for empathy and service to others regularly. However, when this Christian teaching of unselfishness interacts with the patriarchy of our society it can produce insidious, toxic, results. In our broader culture, men are nearly always more valued than women. Men are thought to be ends in and of themselves, while women are generally thought to be means to an end, specifically the end of creating, nurturing, and supporting men. For this reason the contributions of men are sought out and applauded, while those of women are often overlooked and forgotten. Traits such as assertiveness, leadership, and ambition are compliments for men, while the same traits in women can be insulted and called loud, bossy, and controlling. Though men may hear in church that they are to be servants, that they are to be unselfish, and to think first of others, this is not the message that our patriarchal society delivers to them day in and day out. On the other hand, women get a double dose of hearing that they should be unselfish, that they should think first of others. The messages of the church and of our patriarchal society can overlap and converge and reinforce one another in such a way that women are taught in our society and our churches that they’re lives are not valuable in and of themselves. They can hear the message that their needs are not important, that it is only the needs of others, the needs of those more important than them, the needs of men, that truly
The story that we heard from the Gospel of Mark this morning begins when one of the leaders of the synagogue, a man named Jarius, comes to Jesus, falls at his feet and begs him repeatedly saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” Jarius fits the profile for our common conception of Christian virtue. He is not concerned for himself, but rather for the well being of another, in this case his daughter who is ill. Though he is an important man himself, a religious leader, he nevertheless bows before Jesus, humbling himself. Finally, he believes that Jesus can heal his daughter and he asks that she be made well. Jarius has faith, he humbles himself before Jesus, and he is concerned primarily for the needs of another. It would be hard to find a better role model for a Christian.
Jesus agrees to help and a crowd follows him as he makes his way to Jarius’ home. Within this crowd there is a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. It is difficult to imagine how terrible this ailment would have been, to be bleeding for twelve years; to be constantly weak and drained, to live with the mess and the never ending clean up, to have such an obvious and draining ailment consistently for 12 years; it must have been horrible. Yet, this woman’s situation was worse than just her physical ailment. According to the Jewish law, menstrual bleeding made a woman unclean for a period of seven days. This unclean status would have prohibited her from all religious, social, and public life. As a result of her illness, this woman has been a social outcast, a pariah, for 12 years.
This long suffering woman shares Jarius’ faith in Jesus’ ability to heal. That however, is where the similarities between them end. While Jarius came asking for help for another, the woman is seeking only healing for herself. Whereas Jarius humbled himself before Jesus, the woman actually elevates herself, daring to touch Jesus’ cloak even though she is ritually unclean and therefore prohibited from so doing. What is more, the woman interrupts Jesus in the middle of an important and urgent task. The daughter of an important man, the leader of the synagogue, is dying, and this woman asserts herself, places her own needs before those of another, and grabs ahold of Jesus without so much as asking if he is willing to heal her. This woman is assertive, ambitious, pushy all things our society, and theirs told women not to be. She prioritizes her own need instead of those of others; just as our faith so often teaches us not to do.
And she is healed. When she prioritizes her own need, when she asserts herself and violates the social norms and religious rules that would prevent it, when she grabs ahold of Jesus cloak without so much as calling his name; she is healed. Though Jesus is in a hurry to save a dying girl, the daughter of a religious leader, he nevertheless stops in his tracks. He asks who has touched him. That is the moment when the woman who has already shown herself to be bold and daring, does the bravest thing yet. “The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” She told him her whole truth in fear and trembling. How else could you confess your whole truth to your very maker, to the one who formed you in your mother’s womb, the one whose power has made you well, but in fear and trembling. We are not told how long her confession took, only that it was long enough for her tell Jesus her whole truth. The truth of her last 12 years of suffering, or misery, of isolation and loneliness and despair. The truth not only of her suffering, but of her sin as well, the truth that she like all of us, fell short of who she wanted to be, of who she could have been, or should have been. She told Jesus her whole truth. And Jesus, though another was waiting, was ill and in need of healing, Jesus stayed and listened to all of it. When she had finished, Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
How are we to reconcile this woman’s prioritizing of her own need with the Christian virtue of unselfishness? How could it be that Jesus stopped what he was doing for Jarius, who prioritized the need of another and humbled himself, to first heal this uppity woman whose concern was only for herself? For there is no mistaking the message present in Jesus’ action: in that moment there was nothing more important to him, to Jesus the Christ, than that woman, hearing her truth, learning of her suffering, and healing her illness. It is true that Jesus calls us to serve others, but never, ever, did Jesus say that we should consider ourselves less worthy of being heard, of being seen, or of being healed, than those we would serve. The lie of patriarchy is that only men are ends in and of themselves. The truth of the gospel is that women and men and every human person, are all valued by God and loved as ends in themselves. You are loved by God. God cares deeply about your suffering. You are deserving of healing and wholeness and community. There is nothing more urgent or more important to God than that You, you, are seen, heard, and healed. This doesn’t mean that it is all about you, that you are no longer called to serve others. But if you are to be of service to God, to another person, or even to yourself, you must first tend to your own wounds, your own needs. An empty vessel pours no water. Hurt people, hurt other people. God does not wish for you to suffer so that others may thrive. God wishes, and God works, that you might thrive and thereby bring light and love to others. May God grant us the boldness and the daring to assert ourselves, to prioritize our healing, and to know that what we believe God wants for others, She also wants for us. Amen.
I got one heck of a Father’s Day gift yesterday. My wife, Shannon, and my daughter, Ruth, have been gone for the past week visiting our family in Kentucky. So, I’ve been lonely and a little down waiting for them to return. And yesterday around 6 in the evening they returned. I was hanging out at the coffee shop down the steet, working on this sermon, when they pulled up in front of our apartment. As I walked down Magazine St. to greet them, I saw little Ruthie, standing on the sidewalk next to some luggage, pushing around her brand new toy stroller. And I as soon as I saw her, I swooned. I am head over heels, full on ridiculously in love with this little girl. All I can see is how wonderful she is, she is so strong, so big, she’s such a great little walker. Look at how she puts the baby doll in the stroller, she’s a genius! Every little thing about her is amazing to me. I cannot believe how lucky I am to have the smartest, most gifted, most beautiful child, in the entire world. As all of these wonderful, borderline delusional thoughts go through my mind, Ruthie sees me approaching and runs towards me. She smiles, she giggles, and she lets me hug her and shower her little face with kisses. Like I said, it has already been a great Father’s Day.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast