Friday, September 21, 2012

Tongues Starting Fires

James 3: 1-12

Raise your hand when you recognize the song:

Now I know that I had to borrow, beg and steal and lie and cheat, Trying to keep you, trying to please you, ‘Cause being in love with your face ain’t cheap
Now I pity the fool that falls in love with you, well, I’ve got some news for you; Oh, I really hate you right now.
I see you drive around with the girl I love, and I’m like, Forget You; I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough, I’m like forget you, and forget her too

This is a pop song by an artist named Cee Lo Green; if you watch TV talent competitions, he’s the African American guy with the bright glasses, on The Voice. It’s a song about after a breakup, when someone is angry, and someone is disappointed, and someone is hurt. Essentially, the singer has been jilted because the other guy can spend more on her.

(Note: I am not posting the video, because of the chance you might inadvertently receive the "other" version of the song, which has slightly different language. If you know the song, you know what I mean!)

Words can hurt, but words can also lift you up;

Baby I’m Amazed at the way you love me all the time/Maybe I’m afraid at the way I love you.
Baby I’m Amazed at the way you pulled me out of time, hung me on a line/Maybe I’m Amazed at the way I really need you.

Both of these songs are made up of words, words that come from our minds, and are physically shaped by our throats, our teeth, our lips, and yes, our tongues. It could be said that they are just words, yes, but what is intended by them is what causes that great forest fire.

Words, and the manner in how they have been presented in a film, made in California a year ago, with the trailer to the film languishing on YouTube for a year, when translated into Arabic, became powerful enough to kill four Americans in Benghazi last week. Others of various nationalities have died as well. The words denigrated the central figure of one of the major world religions. And whatever you may feel about Islam, whatever you may believe about Christianity in relation to Islam, I would hope that we could all agree, that nothing we say is worth the loss of life.

Words carry weight. How many different ways can you mean the phrase “I love you”? “I love you” to sons and daughters, “I love you” to siblings, “I love you” to parents and grandparents, “I love you” to spouses and lovers; “I love you” to friends whom you’ve known for 30-35 years or longer, and know every single skeleton in your closet. They all carry different connotations.

All of them are appropriate uses of those words. But they can still sometimes breed confusion. If you say that phrase to someone, and they mean it differently than you do, they everyone’s confused, twisted up. On the other hand, when you don’t say it, or show it, for a long time to someone, problems inevitably result.

What James is saying to us today is not for us to avoid speech; no vows of silence here today, thank you very much! But if the tongue is the rudder of a ship to use James’ image, then the brain and the soul is the pilot of the ship. And just like a pilot, we want to steer ourselves clear of dangers, shoals, sandbars, and other hazards, and arrive safely into harbor with just as many passengers and crew as what we left with.

The rudder can only be used for certain uses. It can’t see storms; it can’t see rocks, it can’t decide how to turn into the wind. Our brains and spirits are what are in control. It’s more than just speech, too; it is our brains and spirits that decide whether to post or pass forward inflammatory or hurtful words on the internet.
This is also controlling the tongue. We all have political opinions in this room, some of them strongly felt and held. If we are to air them all without thought or care, we’d all have black eyes! What keeps us civil in this room, this sanctuary, isn’t our tongues; it’s our brains. The tongue is the tool. This is what James means-drive the ship properly.

“Maybe I’m Amazed at the way I love you” is a much better thing to say than “Forget You”. Let us be people of “St.” Paul McCartney. While Cee Lo is talented, the ethic of that song is not how we should live.

Our spirits and our brains drive the rudders that are our tongues. Let us drive responsibly, in the name of Christ.


Pastor Drew, 9/16/12, Throop UMC

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Going to the Beach Without Any Money

Mark 7: 24-30

As you read this text, it is a source of some uncomfort, because it seems that Jesus is actually being corrected by someone. And not just anyone: someone who is not a Jew. Someone who is not a member of the “Chosen People”; this woman is a gentile. Add to that, Mark’s description of her as “Syro-Phoenician”; it meant that one of her parents was from Syria, and one was from Phoenicia.

In our culture, we’d call her a mixed child; perhaps a mixed race child.
She was not Jewish, and there was no claim of “pure” blood of any sort at all.
Jesus has gone to Tyre, along the Mediterranean coast, outside of the boundaries of Judea, maybe to catch a little beach time, certainly to escape from the pressures of his ministry; maybe somewhere that his cellphone signal won’t work, and it’s foreign enough that it’s an expensive call internationally by land lines. He’s not taken his iPod, so he doesn’t have to worry about email.

But this woman knows about him, and hears he is coming. She finds him, as asks him to heal her daughter.

Now whether you believe in demon possession, or rather, that what this woman is describing as possession is really what we would call mental illness, it really doesn’t matter; This woman is looking for a supernatural cure for her daughter from this stranger who has a reputation as a healer.

And what does Jesus say to her when she asks?

Let’s get the words exactly right: “He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27, NRSV)

It’s very hard; as much as you may want to, it’s very hard to take this as anything other than ugly. He’s calling the woman a dog.

Now, if you tell me how you interpret this passage, and I’ll tell you who your Jesus is. There are two basic ways you can go here. Some say that this an example of Jesus’ struggle with his human side, struggling as the son of God with the prejudices and biases he was surely raised with as a member of the Judean culture of the first century toward their neighbors, especially neighbors of mixed culture. And his comment is an example of the bigotry that the Judeans saw their neighbors through.
The other way this could go is sort of the same way that he’s portrayed in the Gospel of John, where he will intentionally say something, so that someone else will say something, and then he’s presented with a teachable moment. This method allows us to believe that Jesus is completely in control of the situation. (Problem is, John always tells us that this is what Jesus is doing, and Mark doesn’t here.)

His statement is that his gifts and graces, his call, his vocation, is to only serve the Chosen people. They are the children of his statement, and they are, as he says, to be fed first.

What happens next, however, is the crux of the story. The woman refuses to give up. She’s a feisty one! She’s quick, she’s smart, and she’s desperate to help her daughter. Her attitude is “are you really going to come in here, to our land, which is NOT yours, and not give us even a little of the gifts you have? Do you often to go the beach and not spend any money? Really?” She says that “even dogs can eat the crumbs from the children’s table.”

Now here is where whichever version of Jesus you prefer comes into play; does he then save her daughter because he’s changed his mind at her argument? Or has he, according to some, made the trip into Tyre for the express purpose, besides picking up some beach fries with malt vinegar, and some saltwater taffy, of spreading the gospel to those who are not of the chosen people, and this woman is the linchpin of that effort? Does he say the ugly prejudicial thing just to get a reaction, just so he may then present the gifts of God?

You tell me about your understanding of this passage, and I will tell you about your Jesus.

She gives her tart reply, and Jesus either says “excellent, here’s my opportunity”, or “oh, my. I have acted shamefully! I must address my own biases.”?

Either way, whichever way his internal monologue goes, the lesson of the text is that, to be a follower of Christ, our gifts are not to be withheld from ANYONE.

Imagine someone like the Syro-Phoenician woman in our time and place. Not only someone who is of mixed race or culture, and female, but a little insistent and assertive and bossy. Your first impression isn’t going to be that positive, is it?
But the gifts of God that we have been given are not to be withheld, not even from the people who work our last nerve. The people whom we don’t trust; the people who smell funny; who speak a different language, who have another color skin.

So when you go to Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and he has that sign that says you can only order in English; that attitude is exactly the opposite of Jesus’ teaching here.
As followers of Jesus Christ, as people of the Way, our blessings are for the whole world. No exceptions.

Our blessings are for Iraquis. Our blessings are for Iranians. Egyptians and Libyans. They are for Chinese. But they are also for the Poles who live next door to us on the one side, and the stuffy Welsh on the other side.

Our blessings are for the whole world. And that moment when you feel like it’s just too much? That you just can’t go that far, however far that is? Just remember, Jesus had that moment too, and look what he did to overcome it.

The Christian model is to struggle and to finally overcome and defeat our prejudices.

Xenophobia, Sexism, Racism (though I don’t like to use the word race, it’s an artificial structure anyway, we are all one race, the same way that Dalmatians and Chihuahuas are both of the same race)

Our call, our vocation, is to overcome it all, because we are to share the love and the blessings of God with the whole world.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Runners' World

James 1: 17-27

I was reading an article last week from a magazine called The Christian Century. In it, the author was writing about a childhood memory, one that meant a lot to him growing up.

In it, he says that he remembers her offering envelops in her church having six boxes to check each week. They were: worship attended, Bible brought, Bible read daily, Sunday school lesson studied, prayed daily, gave an offering. For him, growing up, faith was a matter of making sure each box could be checked every week.

He writes in the article that as he remembers this fact from his childhood, he also thinks about how many adults, people who have had every opportunity to have a living, organic breathing faith, still live their spiritual lives as a matter of making sure their boxes are checked every week?

How many of us live our lives with the belief that; if we have read our chapter of the Bible every day, or read today’s Upper Room devotional, or some other sort of devotional, that we can now go on with our days? "Whatever else happens to me," we may think, “I’ve prayed, I’ve read, and I’ve had my coffee.”

What James is telling us in this Scripture passage is that it is not enough to be able to check the boxes. If you read a chapter of Scripture, read your devotional, maybe even sit in silence for a bit, and then go on with your day, it is not enough. It is, he says, like looking at yourself in a mirror, and when you step out of its view, immediately forget what you look like.

It may seem hard to believe, but it can happen. You can be distracted with worries about children, or money, or other matters, and absent mindedly look at yourself, and miss the bit of omelet that stuck to your beard after breakfast, and walk away. You may not feel it either, so then you literally end up walking around the rest of the day with egg on your face!

What James means by this is that it’s going to happen to the best of us, the deepest of us. We all lose momentum. We all can forget, sometimes, who and whose we are. If we do our devotions, but do not take that lesson or idea into the day with us, we are forgetting who we are.

The old Benedictine rhythm of prayer 7 times a day was a corrective for this. If monks, spiritual giants as we see them, needed 7 times a prayer a day, balanced with work and study and rest, how much more do we need that reminder?

James says that the best way to remember who we are isn’t to go back and pray again and again; prayer is important. Reading Scripture is important. But just as you do not keep yourself healthy merely by going to the table again and again and again, because we need food, reading Scripture and devotional texts alone does not keep us spiritually healthy.

In fact, if it is our only practice, it will actually make us unhealthy, just like eating too much, even if it is the best organically produced, complex carbohydrate, lean protein food you can buy. Yes, the monks prayed seven times a day, but they also worked in the fields or in support of the monastery creating items for sale. And they also studied.

James is calling on us to do the same thing. We need balance. Reading about it isn’t enough. I subscribe to Runners World magazine, and it is a great source of inspiration, food tips, training ideas and injury treatments. I could rub the magazine all over my legs and everywhere else, but unless I am running, it isn’t doing me a whole lot of good.

We need to be experiencing ministry, working for it, finding the setbacks and then returning to our devotional lives to see about how to handle issues.

We are not Christians because we read. We are Christians because we do.

We are Christians because we serve, we share. Religion that is pure, according to James, is that which serves widows and orphans. Not what we read. What we do.

You hear sometimes the phrase “spiritual, but not religious”. It’s a reaction to religion being seen as an exercise in standing up, sitting down, giving money, singing boring songs, whatever. That’s just not what brings them to God.

But what religion really is, when it is good, or “Pure”, to use James phrase, is spiritual practice that works for people.

Church in many ways, is like going to the gym. It in itself is not the point of the game. Neither is a devotional. All of it is like practice, or training camp; what we hear in here and in these books prepares us for what is out there. For where our Christian identity really means something.

Church isn’t the goal, it isn’t the point. Church, bible, prayer, they are all the means, they are all the preparation for what we are truly called to do.

To share God’s love, to share the good news.


Pastor Drew
Sept. 2, 2012