Tag: James

Live Like You Are Dying

Mark 10:35-4571o-YNZUNNL._SY355_

Hebrews 5:1-10

Kid’s Moment – play follow the leader. Good leaders. Bad leaders. Who will you follow?

Sermon:

Christianity has always had a predicament with our Savior – he doesn’t look glorious, or act it, or appear ir, or advocate great glory.

We picture a grand and glorious military leader, coming with an army of angels, to vanquish all enemies and sit on a throne of glory forever.

But scripture gives us a backwoods carpenter, with a ragtag bunch of rejects and fishermen, inviting children, thieves, and our enemies to come eat dinner with him.

We picture a miraculous birth, with kings bowing down and crowning an infant with precious materials. We picture angels filling the skies and a supernatural star pointing to the glowing child.

But that’s the story of  a baby born to an unwed teenage mother. She is homeless and giving birth to her boyfriend’s son crouched in a barn among the animals. Dirty, rough shepherds welcome the child.

We picture a child who grows strong with God, who impresses all those around him, who – so say some stories – speaks wisdom before he can even walk.

Yet that child is a refugee, moving place to place with his parents, and siblings, seeking somewhere to call home.

This tension is in the Bible. It is in our tradition. It is in our lives. Theologians call it High Christology versus Low Christology – focusing on the divinity of Jesus versus focusing on the humanity of Jesus.

It is very hard to follow a suffering, nailed, murdered, weak God. It is very hard to follow a God who is found in fallible flesh, who tells us to meet peace to violence, who welcomes in enemies and friends alike, who is poor, powerless, and a slave.

Slave.

The stigma of that word is fading as we forget what slavery is like. Recall in your minds stories you read or heard of about the slavery of Africans – the long, laborious days in fields or houses without pay. The starvation. The beatings. The abuse of body and soul and mind. Recall modern slavery – found in human trafficking. Where little children are used for sexual pleasure. They do not have any rights. They do not have security and family. Recall slaves were bred like animals, sold on auction blocks, and branded like animals. Like animals they lived. Like animals they died. Like animals, their owners buried or refused to bury them.

Our God identifies, places God’s self, with slaves.

“Whoever wishes to be first among humanity must be a slave to all.”

Who is the first among all humanity? Jesus. A slave to all.

“Who wants to be great among humanity must be a servant to all.”

Great humans are servants. A step above slaves in our mortal world – and step below slaves in God’s world. Servants retain some autonomy and respect.

Slaves do not.

James and John, humans just like you and I, picture Jesus regally. They have heard several times now that he will be going to Jerusalem for his glory. He will die, yes, but the brothers have either ignored that part or they are already rushing past the messy death into the resurrection. They are picturing Jesus as King – with a throne, and lesser thrones on his left and right for his two main assistants. They’re picturing a glorious time and day. They’re picturing our same world where Presidents are above the law, clergy get away with child molestation, and billion dollar arms deals are more important than the genocide of Yemenis. They’re picturing Jesus as the new King over all of this – this same world we know – and they want to be on top with him.

The brothers haven’t realized that this hierarchical world is not the world God is making. This is our human world. God’s reign is a reign unlike that of the governments we see now. God’s reign is reversed… with the most important person being the slave – and the most slavish of all being God, God’s self. Servant-leaders are the great. People who love deeply, serve humbly, inspire others to works of kindness and justice, and who do this without seeking reward and lauds.

Jesus looks at James and John, and I think he has to speak sadly, “You do not know what you are asking to sit at my right and my left when I am in glory. Can you drink the cup I drink – and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

The brothers assert, “We are able!”

Do they know what they have asked?

They have asked to be at Jesus’ left and right when he hangs on the cross. To be crucified with him. To be scorned and rejected and murdered with him. They have asked that the cup Jesus prays over in the Garden of Gethsemane not be passed, as Jesus wishes were God’s will, but to let them drink it. To drink the toxin of the world and the sins of our violence, selfishness, and cruelty. The brothers have asked to be baptized — to be submerged — as Jesus will be again. To go into the grave, dead, cold, and without proper burial rights.

“You will get the cup, and the baptism.” Jesus replies. You will get the woes of the world and you will die. You will get the hope of new life after the grave… but they won’t hang with Jesus on the cross.

The other disciples hear James and John are going to get the cup and baptism, and are angry. They want glory too! They’ve left everything for Jesus, too! The disciples, including James and John, still don’t get it. How often WE don’t get it today! “Jesus, make us great rulers over others!”

But Jesus replies… “Those you recognize as your rulers lord it over you. Your ‘great ones’ are tyrants.”

Tyrants. Most people who are rulers, government authorities, or who have power one way or another… are tyrants. You’ve heard it said before that absolute power absolutely corrupts. Jesus is saying just about as much here, too. The more power and authority someone has, the greater the temptation to use that power for personal gain.

When the Devil tempted Jesus, he tempted Jesus with saying ‘Use a little power to turn these rocks into bread.’ For Jesus was so hungry. Just a little power. And Jesus refused. It was just a little wrong use of power for a little bit of immediate good. Grey area. The devil then told Jesus to step off a high spot and let the angels save him. A bit more abuse of power – but for a much greater good. Let God prove to you, Jesus, that God is with you. Finally, the devil offered the world — all the world. Its kingdoms and countries. Its cities. It citizens. Its animals and plants. All the power. All Jesus had to do was worship the devil.

So many in power get there because of the being they are worshiping: worshiping money, or strength, or themselves.

If you are worshiping the God who said, “Be a servant, be a slave, walk humbly, do justice, love God and your neighbor,” you are not likely going to make it far in most of politics. It is hard to be humble when you need to raise money for your platform. Hard to love your neighbor when you’re publishing and speaking bad things about them. It is hard to do justice if you, yourself, are cheating the very laws you are supposed to enforce. It is impossible to be a servant of the people without true love in your heart. 1 Corinthians 13!

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Without love, a leader is a tyrant.

There are good politicians. There are good leaders. There are good clergy. But being in a position of power is an immediate temptation to use that power for evil.

And far, far, far too often… we succumb to leading without love.

Jesus says he comes to be served. To lead with love. Not to have servants and slaves. Not to have people waiting on him hand and foot. Not to continue the human story of those in power abusing, harming, taking advantage of those with less power. But that Jesus comes to be a “ransom” for many.

Ransom. Liberation. Jesus comes to liberate many. To liberate us from thinking violence is the only answer to violence. To liberate us from following tyrants. To liberate us from the sinful systems of our world. To show us that it IS possible to life a moral life, it IS possible to receive God’s forgiveness and turn your life around, it IS possible to live a different way than the world around us.

Jesus liberates us from assuming business as usual, with tyrants abusing slaves, with governments being uncaring and having deaf ears, with our leaders failing us — Jesus liberates us from thinking this is the only way the world can be.

Dream bigger. Live more fully. Love deeper.

Tim McGraw sings a song called “Live like you are dying.” He sings about a man who realized, after looking at x-rays and talking with his doctor, that “This might really be the real end,” of his life. How do you handle news like that? You know the lyrics to the chorus:

I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying.”

That is the life Jesus invites us into now.

To live because we are dying.
For tomorrow IS a gift.

“What you’d do with it
What could you do with it
What did I do with it?
What would I do with it?”

We do not have to live dead – live in slavery to a cruel world, live in fear of tomorrow, live in bondage to sin and live thinking this world is beyond hope, beyond repair, and cannot be changed into the reign of God.

We can choose to live into our life of dying – and to embrace the liberation Jesus offers us. We can live each moment for the precious second it is. We can live in the new reign of God that God gifts us in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus that shows us the New Way. Shows us the Way of Peace. Shows us the way of Forgiveness. Shows us how to live while alive.

We ARE the great leaders among humanity if we CHOOSE to live and love boldly – as servants, caretakers, and neighbors of all people.

Go and be the church – the hope and liberation for many! Go and be servant leaders!

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Why?

Children’s Chat: Super Why! jesus

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

As a child, I learned the secret answer in Sunday School… I bet you did, too. It goes like this:

“Who walked on water?”
JESUS!
“Who cured the blind?”
JESUS!
“Who loves us?”
JESUS!

The answer to everything was either Jesus, God, love, or Jesus’ love for God. You get the idea. Our faith is simple, and boils down to love. But there’s an issue with this Jesus answer for everything… Sometimes, Jesus doesn’t fit the question.

“Who broke the vase?”
JESUS!
“Who gave you detention?”
JESUS! No – it was God?

As we experience more of life, the questions get harder, and the answer “Jesus!” or God or love fits even less.

“Why do I have cancer?”
Jesus. … Or God…
“Why is there evil in the world?”
… Jesus. God… love?

Our lives get more complex as we experience more, and satisfying answers get more complex. The simple answers don’t just cut it in the face of years of depression, years of feeling isolated, years of chronic illness. “Because Jesus loves you” is a terrible answer to why children die of starvation. Because Jesus loves you, he sent a drunk driver to kill your family. Because God loves children, God sends shooters into schools to kill children and make new angels for heaven. Because of love, our Sunday School theology applied to experienced life does so much harm.

In the words of Dr. Linda Mercadante – bad theology kills.

Bad theology kills our faith. Once we get to the notion everything is caused by God, and everything happens because God or Jesus loves us, we may come to the conclusion God is pretty evil. Or we don’t want Jesus’ love if this love looks like starvation. If God’s love is torture, who needs God? If Jesus’ love is hate, who wants to be a Jesus follower? The simple theology of Jesus is the answer to everything works when life is simple. And it kills faith when life is complex.

Bad theology kills.

It kills faith, but it also kills people. If the reason everything happens is because of God’s love, then any bad fortune is because someone has lost God’s love.

A woman on welfare must be lazy, sexual promiscuous, a thief, and not a good Christian woman. She is poor because she isn’t living virtuously. Her sins are why she is poor.

A man addicted to narcotics must be weak willed, violent, a thief, and not a good Christian man. He is addicted because he isn’t living sinfree. If he just confessed, he’d be clean and back in God’s love.

This theology kills. It denies food and shelter, love and education. It makes a class system when the least are treated as second class citizens – as left-overs – or as unwanted ‘undesirables’ of society. It also directs our public policy and research.

((Many are ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous even through there is no evidence it actually helps people. Oh yes – people leave alcohol there. But just as many do not. The only successful intervention scientifically proven is medication to help rewire the mind after the alcohol has wired it for addiction. AA is a great support network… but it doesn’t touch the physical addiction side of alcoholism. But our bad theology says the flesh is nothing, and the spirit everything. It says just confessing the sin of alcoholism will put you right with God again, and then, you ought to have no more issues.

But that’s not how our bodies work.))

This is bad theology.

Simplistic, early-learning theology.

And bad theology kills.

Jesus’ disciples began with simplistic theology. He told them do not fear, just have faith. And they got this. And it works while their mission is simple. They are simply curing the sick, helping the poor, and speaking of God’s love for people. When life is simple we need simple theology.

But then the disciples get more complex experiences, and Jesus begins to tell them the Messiah will be denied by organized religion, and killed by the government, and be resurrected by God. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Because the answers are terrifying.

Based on simple theology applied to a complex question – ie, bad theology – the reason Jesus will be murdered terribly is because of God’s love. I bet you’ve heard this.

How different is this reasoning than “divinely ordained child abuse?”

How different is this than adults telling little children they are abused out of love?

These are terrifying answers. These are answers that kill my faith and kill people.

If you think these are going to be the answers to “Why did Jesus die?” why would you ever ask the question?

And if you did ask… who would you ask? And when? Where?

Once we know Jesus is the answer to everything, and God is love, then it’s like… we’re scared to be seen as foolish by questioning these simple answers. So we bottle up the questions instead of asking them. Bottle them up because we don’t want judged by our fellow family, friends, and congregation members…. Bottle them up because we don’t really want to know the answers…. And bottle them up because we think we’re Christians and this is our faith and we ought to get it.

The disciples literally walked with God Incarnate and didn’t get it.

They were scared to ask the questions, too.

But the questions are… liberating. They let our faith grow more complex to answer our complex lives.

I am guilty of hiding my questions like the disciples. Before I found the United Church of Christ, I sat with a Buddhist who didn’t know anything about Christianity. I could tell her all my questions around Christianity and she wouldn’t try to give me the simple answers because she didn’t know them. She wouldn’t say my soul was in danger for questioning the goodness of God, or the divinity of Jesus, or the reality of the Holy Spirit because soul isn’t really a concept in Buddhism.

She didn’t feed me answers at all. She sat with me in the questions.

She didn’t FEAR the questions.

And so I asked.

Of course, she had no answers. Christianity wasn’t her faith! But the answers weren’t as important as vocalizing the questions, looking at the questions, and considering the various answers. The journey into the questions was more important. And we journeyed in them together.

Jesus offers his disciples to ask him the hard questions. He doesn’t promise answers – he tends to answer in parables anyways – but he promises to stick with them through exploring the answers.

That is what living faith is about.

Exploring. Moving. Changing.

Our lives are not static. Our lives are dynamic. We gather more and more experiences. Our faith should be the same. Dynamic, growing, changing as we change.

The simplistic theology is important, and good, for when we are drinking the infant milk of our faith. But as infants age, they need solid food. They need carrots to crunch and meat to tear. As we grow into mature lives, we need a mature faith that is crunchy and has substance we can bite into. We need a faith that is satisfying to our more complex needs.

That faith can only come from permitting our faith to be exposed to life. The moment you feel you need to defend your faith from life is the moment you’ve outgrown your faith. Let her out! Let her stretch and grow and yes, pick up some bruises, but grow into the faith you need for your adult life!

The disciples have stopped growing in our reading today. They’ve begun to protect their concepts of Messiah from life. Jesus has been telling them of the bad fate for himself when he returns to Jerusalem, but they are scared to ask what this means. Instead, they focus on their simple faith in the messiah. The simple faith says the messiah will be a military warrior, go to Jerusalem, be crowned king, and toss out the Romans.

The simple faith says your lot in life is based on how much of God’s fortune you have earned. The simple faith says Jesus is a pretty amazing guy, so God’s going to reward Jesus with everything.

So they look at themselves who are also healing the sick and walking with THE Jesus, and they say – hey! We’re pretty amazing guys ourselves. Who is going to be the second most awesome person in the land and the second in charge for Jesus? Who has the most miraculous power, who’s cured the most ill, who’s preached the most good news? Let’s rank up!

And Jesus looks at them, hears their concerns, and realizes they have not grown into the new experience of a servant messiah at all. He realizes their faith is not ready. And we know Jesus is right. They all will desert him in the end.

And “It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?

The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.” ((Amy Oden https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356))

Faced with the terror of a suffering God, arguing over a victorious god’s right hand man is much easier. Faced with the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the world is much easier. But it leads to infighting, and all the other woes James writes about. When we avoid the hard questions, our faith doesn’t grow, and the small answers don’t satisfy and cause more issues. Remember, bad theology kills.

Jesus won’t abandon these disciples in their fear. He calls over a child. A child – who has not done a single miracle. Who cannot read or write. Who didn’t see the bread broke and the fish shared. A child – likely not baptized. Maybe not even Jewish. A child – someone wholly dependent on others for protection, food, and clothing. A young child who has no wealth, no status, nothing but themselves.

And Jesus says, “This is the greatest here.” Not any of the disciples, but this unnamed child. “Whoever welcomes the least, such as a child, in my name, welcomes me.”

Jesus is found in the lowest.

“Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

God is found in the lowest.

“The greatest among you will be your servant.”

Not kings. Not princes. Not the best Christians. Not politicians. Not the rich. Not the sinless. And especially not in the person who says they have all the answers. But in children and those like them.

The greatest are the servants… the ones who are humble, low, don’t know better, and not scared of appearances. The ones with curiosity, who are growing, who are changing, who are embracing life as it comes.

The disciples are scared to ask Jesus questions. They want to look like they know it all to each other. And they don’t want their simple theology challenged.

The woman at the well asks Jesus lots and lots of questions. She doesn’t care what others think of her. And she hasn’t a simple theology to be challenged.

We, ourselves – are we scared to ask our hard questions? Do we fear what one another will think of us? Are we scared of how our faith may be changed, or challenged?

I’m guilty of this at times. At times it hurts to grow and the unknown is scary. It is painful to be vulnerable and suffer your friends, family, and congregation’s judgments (perceived or real.) It is terrifying to consider whether or not God is all good, all powerful, or all knowing.

But we’re a denomination of godly wisdom, not worldly wisdom. We’re a denomination of questions. Some of our mottos include

Don’t leave your brain at the door.
Never put a period where God has put a comma, God is still speaking.
Our faith is 2000 years old, our thinking is not.

Our roots are the Puritans who dreamed of free public education for every child, so that every person could read the Bible for themselves. Our roots are the Protestant Reformers who dreamed of a Bible translated into local languages and a physical copy there for each person to read. Our roots are roots of asking the questions and exploring answers.

How would our story of Christianity be different if the disciples had asked their hard and scary questions?

How will our faith be different?

How will our congregation be different?

This is a safe spot. We are on a journey together. We are asking the questions together. It is a journey, where sometimes we will find an answer to our questions that satisfies awhile, or satisfies one or two people but not all people. It is a journey where sometimes we won’t find answers at all… but we can live into the questions.

We can live into the faith.

We can live into the mystery.

There are no stupid questions. Carl Sagan once wrote, “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”

A question asked might risk you looking foolish for 5 minutes.

A question not asked may leave you foolish for 55 years.

Do not be afraid – ask!

Amen.

Call to Worship: Prayer

Call to Worship
(Based on James 5:13-20)
One: Are any among you suffering?
Many: We pray for one another wholeness.
One: Are any among you cheerful?
Many: We sing songs of cheerful praise!
One: Are any among you sick?
Many: We anoint one another with prayers and oil.
One: Are any among you wandering into sin?
Many: We confess our sins to one another, and are forgiven.
One: My brothers and sisters, our prayers are powerful and effective!
All: We gather to pray, to praise, and worship in the name of Christ!

If you want a friend, tame me

petit-prince-630

YOUNGER SAINTS AND YOUNG AT HEART….

There is a classic book, and now a movie, called The Little Prince. In it, a Little boy travels the cosmos to visit planets and learns life treasures, life lessons, along the way.

In the beginning, The Little Prince loves a rose and believes her that she is the only rose in all the universe. But when The Little Prince visits Earth, he finds a whole garden of roses. He falls into despair, for his rose is not unique in the least.

Although it is marketed towards children, it is actually a book of parables for adults. Listen to this one about the Little Prince and the Fox.


“”Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”

“I am a fox,” the fox said.

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”

“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

“What does that mean–‘tame’?”

“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”

“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean–‘tame’?”

“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”

“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean–‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”

“Please–tame me!” he said.

“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . .”

And so the little prince begins to tame the fox by spending time with him. The fox tells him not to speak, because “words are the source of misunderstandings. They just sit near one another, closer and closer, over a great period of time.

“After the fox is tamed, it is time for the prince to leave, and the fox is about to cry. Because of this, the prince worries that the taming has hardly done any good. But the fox says it has done him good “because of the color of the wheat fields” The golden wheat will remind the fox of the prince’s golden hair, which will make the wheat fields a source of happiness to the fox – until he was tamed, the wheat fields meant nothing to him. Thus, according to the fox, it is our relationships that make the world around us significant and meaningful.” (https://www.shmoop.com/little-prince/fox.html)

The fox then shares three secrets, or treasures, with the boy:

1. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

2. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.

3. “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.


SCRIPTURE

Mark 8:27-38
James 3:1-12

In our kid’s chat, I read a portion from the Little Prince. Remember the three secrets to the fox’s life…

1. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

2. It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.

3. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

After hearing and understanding these, the Little Prince is able to return and love his rose not because she is the only rose in the universe, but because she is HIS rose. What is essential isn’t that she’s a rose… it’s what’s invisible about her. Their time together has tamed one another – established ties with one another – and that is what makes them unique and important to one another. And once you have ties with someone, you’re in covenant with them. You’re responsible for that relationship.

Pretty heady stuff for kids, right? It’s why I advise reading this book as an adult, too. In many ways, it’s a retelling of the stories from our Bible. The fox could almost be a retelling of our section of James today.

James writes about teachers and words, horses and boats… but what he really is drilling down to is taming – is establishing ties.

James explains that a boat is tamed with a rudder. The little thing allows the boat and its riders to then tame the wind, and glide across the water safely.

A horse is tamed with a bit in its mouth. And this tiny thing takes control of its hold body and tells the horse where to go.

These little things have big effects.

Now, a little spark is what starts a wild forest fire that burns everyone and everything in its path.

Your tongue, writes James, is a little thing. Does it spark fires that harm, or does it work like a horse bit or a ship rudder and make something tamed?

James argues that our tongues are wild, untamed, and don’t have those established ties with us or others. Tongues speak curses and blessings both. If we get used to speaking bad about people, we’re like brackish water and unable to speak blessings of living water. Or we’re plants trying to produce fruit that isn’t native to us… because we’re used to producing the fruit of curses. So we should practice giving forth sweet, fresh waters and good fruits – then those things come more naturally.

What we spent time on is what is important to us. Think of that horse James describes… it wasn’t actually the BIT that tamed it. Someone established ties with that horse over time, teaching it to respond to the bit, building up a relationship. Little things, over time, built up between a trainer and that horse until the horse and the trainer were trained to one another. Knew one another.

And think of that boat – that rudder was learned by the captain over time. Over time, the captain learned how to watch the sails and wind. This wasn’t simply a matter of putting a rudder on the boat and suddenly it is tame… time, energy, thought, and patience had to be invested.

And think of the fox. He says he is same as 100,000 other foxes… but with established ties, he will be unique and special to the little prince… who, until the little boy is tamed, is just the same as 100,000 little boys to the fox.

Time invested, words spoken, meals shared, prayers over one another – these are little things that tame us to one another. That establish ties with one another.

Our tongues, our words, spoken or typed on Facebook, or instant message, or signed, or communicated in any way – are us investing time into someone or something.

They are little things with big effects.

Is that effect a blessing, bringing forth the uniqueness of each person, bringing forth positive ties, taming one another into a meaningful relationship?

Or is that effect a curse, spreading negativity and sin like a wild fire, burning bridges and scorching hearts and refusing to spend time to know someone or something?
That is the tension with the word tame… tame can mean control, to be docile… but it can also mean to establish ties, to invest time in, to be friends… in what sense of the word is your tongue tamed or are you tamed by your tongue?

Jesus and Peter get into an argument with their tongues today. Jesus has spent SO MUCH time with his disciples. Like the Little Prince, he invests time in his disciples and they invest time into him. He guides them from knowing Jesus is just one of 100,000 men to knowing he is something so much more… and he asks them today: just who do people say I am?

We, the listeners, hear the disciples call back to all the other motifs, themes, Jesus has fulfilled. He has been like Elijah, and like John… But Jesus presses them for their own secret, their own life truth. Who do YOU think I am?

We listeners hear Peter proclaim the truth: You are the messiah! But then Peter rebukes Jesus for saying the messiah will suffer, be rejected and murdered.

Peter wants to tame Jesus in the control sense of the word. Taming as control is not the same as taming to establish ties. Taming to control is trying to dominate the other. It would be like coming to the fox with a tranquilizer dart; or the horse with an electric prod. Yes, you’ll establish ties… but they won’t be good ones. The other will obey, but not be tame.

Taming, in the sense of establishing ties, is to approach one another with respect. Giving room for the other. Learning who the other is, and appreciating that. It is coming a little closer to the fox every day and starting the horse on bridle or a training snaffle. This lets us know the horse, and the horse know us, and trust to be built. Not fear or control.

Peter wants to control Jesus. He argues the messiah should be the one who doesn’t suffer but relieves suffering. He isn’t rejected, but welcomed as the new king and throws off Rome. He also isn’t murdered – he rules!

Jesus wants to tame Peter in the establish ties sense of the word. He wants Peter to realize that the divine will isn’t set on killing Romans and military conquest. “What is essential is invisible to the eye” – the essentials are divine things. Essentials – love, forgiveness, reconciliation, time ‘wasted’ on others. Essentials – spending your life not focused on how to get ahead, or how to preserve what you have… for it is not living to be in fear of loss. Instead, you gain your life by giving your life away and ‘wasting’ it on invisible, but so essential, things like love.

Like being tamed.

Like spending enough time with your messiah to know why he is different than all others. Like spending enough time with your brothers and sisters to know what makes them unique. Like ‘wasting’ enough time sitting in prayer, and meditation, and scripture reading to know that your invested time makes these things all the more precious.

What profit is there to gain the whole world…?

To have everything? To never waste a moment? To never pause to smell the rose or tame the fox or pray with the stranger or speak with the messiah?

… But forfeit your life? Give up the opportunity to establish ties, make things important, and care for one another?

No one can tame the tongue. We will make mistakes. We will say the wrong things. Sometimes things just slip out! We will have moments when Jesus ought to yell at us “Get behind me, Satan!”

“Words cause misunderstandings…”

But we are more than our words. We are more than our thoughts and prayers. We are also actions. Jesus doesn’t toss Peter out. Jesus invests more time into him. Jesus has a tie with Peter, they are tamed to one another, and therefore, in covenant… responsible…to one another.

When you disagree, it’s okay if you’re in covenant with one another, if you’re in committed friendships and relationships, congregations and families. It means the harsh tongue can be forgiven with time invested back into the relationship. It means the wildfire can be snuffed out. It may mean much time of silence, and getting to know one another again. It may be for the best that, after reflecting, you part ways much as the fox and the little prince did…

But their relationship was worth it “because of the color of the wheat”, now wheat is a constant reminder of the good times with the prince for the fox.

I’ve had friends and family come and go over the years. But they were all worth it – because of how we tamed, established ties, with one another and changed each other’s worlds. I see symbols that remind me of these good times and memories, much like the wheat reminds the fox of this time with the boy.

The things that remind me are as varied as a song, a scent, a particular restaurant, a food.

Some of these people passed away. Some of them passed to new cities. Some them passed on to new phases of their lives.

But they were worth it because of 4th of July cake, lavender pillows, LiveJournal, glow in the dark markers, and spiders… just some of the many things that make me remember fond times with other who tamed me, and I hope I tamed them – established ties with them – and they think of our time together fondly.

So if you want a friend… tame one another. Waste time on one another. It is the language of love – a language without words. God is investing God’s whole life, and more, into you.

Amen

Angry Christians

angerEphesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

I get irrationally angry sometimes over the most silly, trivial things. I was parking the other day. There were only 2 spots left in the little lot. One in front of the other. A car went down the first lane, I went down the second. Now we’d both have the last two spots.

The lady decided to pull through – and take both spots.

I was more angry with her than the situation called for. I broke into tears. I usually cry when I’m angry. And my body tenses up. Sometimes my body shakes as my blood pressure rises. My heart beats fast and I get a sweat. I feel it all over me – do I fight, or do I flee?

It’s like I’m threatened.

I feel threatened and angry. Threatened not by the other person – they bothered me – but threatened by my own body.

My own body is betraying my emotions. It is threatening to make me yell. Threatening to make me cuss. Threatening to — I don’t know. Explode? Roar?

Lose my smile, I think. And lose my calm exterior. And lose my control.

That’s it.

I can’t control my feelings.

I get angry! And then my body reacts, and I can’t control my body. My body betrays my emotion of anger! With one unthinking park job, this woman ripped all this control from me.

I can’t be Christian and be angry, can I? For Jesus in Matthew says, (5:21-22) “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

I’m liable to judgment for being angry. And it would have been better to give her a one-finger salute than to have called her a name like You Fool, You Pea-Brain, or You… [ fill in your favorite insulting title that I’m not going to say from the pulpit.]

Even today Paul tells us in scripture to put away our wrath and anger, wrangling and slander, and malice. That these things grieve the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 4:30-31).

So what sin have I done in my anger by sitting in my car staring at that woman, angry, crying, and asking, “What in the world is wrong with you? Learn to drive, you fool!” Am I going to hell?

Maybe I should have picked up my cross, kept my mouth shut, not gotten emotional, been serene, and kept it all inside. It would be torture. It would be somehow mastering feeling only the emotions I want to feel. I think it would be dying to myself.

I know plenty of Christians who try to live this way, and teach others to live this way.

Bottle that anger up. Better – don’t even feel it in the first place.

That’s real fine and dandy until someone takes your parking spot and you roar in your car.

WHY did I explode inside? Why did I feel so much anger? It happened so fast!

I think because “never be angry” is not possible for ANY human at all.

God gave us anger. God gets angry, a lot, in the Bible. Jesus got angry. Prophets and people got angry. Our church mothers and fathers got angry. Anger is an emotion all complex creatures feel — from the anger of a rat having their food stolen to the anger of God – and everyone and every creature in between – we get angry.

Often, the Bible talks about righteous anger. So maybe Christians ought to only have righteous anger and not selfish anger. I’ve heard this argued, lived, and preached too.

The woman taking my spot wasn’t an affront, an insult, a sin against God. So my anger wasn’t justified. Had she done something truly heinous (like purposefully harm someone, steal money out of greed, blasphemy against God )I should be righteously furious. But since this was just taking my spot, I didn’t have a right to be angry. It wasn’t right – righteous – anger.

I should be righteously angry at injustice – just like God. I should be righteously angry at evil – because that is the opposite of our good, loving God. I should be righteously angry at everything that perverts, blasphemies, harms the relationship of any with the Holy. Scripture, especially the First Testament’s stories, speaks often of God’s anger getting provoked and God taking action. But it also speaks of God being “slow to anger, and rich in love” (Psalm). And James has the popular phrase “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19).

Righteous anger is an anger that is educated, controlled, slowly comes to be, but quickly passes as soon as forgiveness is petitioned. An anger based out of love.

I didn’t have righteous anger over where I wanted to park my car. Was my anger the sin Paul tells us today to not have? The sin that Jesus says makes us liable, prone to, hell?

Although many Christians would say yes, I think otherwise. And I didn’t always think this way. It’s been a process of change.

As a child I saw when my parents got angry. We all do. My mother believed the Christian thing to do when angry is to not say a thing if you have nothing nice to say. Or, in Paul’s words today, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” So she kept her anger inside. An icy, steely silence would fill her when she was angry. She still smiled. She still nodded along. Usually the person she was speaking to had no idea they were crossing a line. I knew! I saw it in the way her smile was tight and thin. I saw it in the stiff way she walked. This internal anger simmered and brewed inside of my mother never expressed.

I learned to bottle my anger like she did. This or that person would minorly insult me, and I’d bottle it up. I’d not say anything. Then they would do it again. And still I would smile and say to myself I was forgiving their trespass by not speaking a word. But over time, angry drop by angry drop filled up my internal bottle. And the person I was growing more and more angry with never had a clue. Because I kept smiling. I kept it to myself. My silence was my anger. My tension in my body my anger.

I began to say little things to OTHERS about being angry with So-And-So. Over coffee. In the parking lot. Over Facebook. But not to So-And-So’s face. Oh no – I couldn’t. This wasn’t righteous anger, so it had to be sinful anger that I – as Christian – am not allowed to have.

And then one day, something happens… like my parking spot is taken… and all that anger that’s been pushed and shoved into a bottle inside me goes off like the cap on a shook bottle of New Year’s campaign. And I get irrationally angry over something stupid and silly. I get way more angry than I ought to be for the situation. I lose control of my emotions, my body, and after roaring — then sit in grief and self-hate at my sinful anger.

Sinful anger, I used to tell myself. What do you do with that? Shove the anger into that now empty bottle… and repeat the process.

Does this sound familiar to any of you? Are you a bottler of anger? Are you carrying about a lump in your stomach, or a tightness in your shoulders, that is all your pent up anger you won’t let yourself feel, or express, or even acknowledge?

I had a pastor once hand me a phone book. A big, thick one. She said, “I get angry. I get alone. I sit on the floor and I rip out big chucks of this and shred it. I yell. I do this until it all passes.”

I thought about yelling. I had a friend whose family yelled when they were angry. Loud, abusive language would flow from their lips. Insults and curses. These often were followed with belts, or hands, or sticks. While my house shoved everything into little hard diamonds of bitterness and grudges… my friend’s house spread anger to the four winds and over every relationship. Alcohol made it even more explosive there. It was a constant walk on eggshells.

Was this pastor telling me to just wallow in anger – to welcome it and throw it around like that household did? Telling me to be the pastor of a congregation ran this way?

No. Not at all. She told me a Buddhist teaching is to accept emotions as they come, feel them, and then let them pass. So when she got angry she recognized she was angry. She identified why she was angry. She felt the anger – ripping out some phone book pages – and when the anger was exhausted, she let it go.

No longer angry.

Nothing bottled.

Now she could address WHY she was angry. She could go ask the person who insulted her to not say such a thing again. She could try calling customer service again. She could look forward to her next sermon or meeting or visitation even if that was with the person who made her angry. She could re-enter a hospital situation where she has no control, cannot fix it, and is feeling nearly hopeless… and go into it being centered.

She told me today’s passage. “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

Be angry.
We all get angry. Over righteous things and over unrighteous things.
We all get angry.

But do not sin.
Don’t harm your relationship with God. Don’t harm your relationship with others. Don’t isolate yourself and remove yourself from the community; and don’t scream profanities at others or name call or slap them or harm them.

Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Don’t bottle it up, day after day, week after week, until you become a pressurized bottle ready to crack open over something silly. That bottled anger turns to bitterness, and grudges, and hate. The devil, writes Paul, settles into that pent up anger and encourages us to sin, to separate ourselves and others, more. That unspoken anger breaks relationships. The person you’re upset with may not even know what she or he is doing is bothering you. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Speak about it. Speak the truth. Address the issue. And do something to express the anger.

And then let it go.

Paul doesn’t write anger is evil, or sinful. Anger just IS. It’s an emotion, an emotion God has given us. And we are full of many emotions.

Emotions cannot be controlled.

We do control what we do with those emotions.

Psalms tells us that to control our anger — not by never being angry, but by being able to feel it, express it, and let it pass — is more impressive than conquering a city. A huge feat. It takes time and practice.

Paul advises we practice doing no evil with our emotions.

Evil is what harms, what intentionally causes hurt for the sake of hurt. Evil is what tears down the body of Christ…

Anger can be good, or bad. Holy or evil.
Anger can build us up.
Anger may be the words of grace we need to hear.

That woman who took my spot saw my expressed anger. I was more angry than I ought to have been… as I said, it is a process to learn to healthily express ourselves. But she saw my anger and backed up to give me room to park.

She saw my tears and asked me if I were okay.

I could have bottled it up. I could have continued to lie to myself about how I feel and lied to her. But I said the truth, “No. I’m not.”

That blessed stranger invited me to talk. So I did. I told her how I was there to euthanize my cat, and this was the final two spots, and the whole week had been full of stress and anger, and I’ve been trying not to express any of it, and…

In the end, I was given tissues, and volunteers like the woman in the lot helped me through my day. I was given grace and hospitality. Kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving… building one another up.

We’re instructed to do these things. Instructed to embrace one another just as we are, with all our emotions, all our feelings, and then help one another towards shalom.

Shalom is being healthy, inside and out, body and mind and soul, being whole. Shalom is peace. True peace. Not the peace of steely silence. Not the peace that is so thick you suffocate. Not the peace of a house walking on eggshells.

But true peace.

The peace where we understand and support one another. The peace where we are free to express our emotions – without judgment. The peace where we can speak truthfully to one another and, because we are in covenant, not fear one another will gossip, slander, or react with malice. Peace where we are authentic with ourselves, with one another, and know we are forgiven and loved and welcome.

Peace, Jesus tells us. Peace. Take time to savor the Bread of Life, to release the shaken up, and return to peace, to shalom.

Be angry, but do not sin – and don’t bottle it up and let the sun go down on your anger.

Amen.

Is There Worthless Religion?

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Do you dare to turn on the news lately? Do you dare to listen or read the stories coming out of Southern Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa?

There is a migrant crisis, so it is being called. These common words obscure the horror of what is actually going on. The civil war in Syria, now four years strong, has displaced millions and millions of people. Ten million, as an estimate in March, are fleeing ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State is associated with the horrors of Boko Haram, and chemical warfare, suicide bombers in the middle of mosques, churches, and temples, and public beheadings.

These ‘migrants’ are refugees. Every day people, Jews and Christians, Muslims and athiests, who are fleeing the take-over of the Islamic State. For those pushing the Islamic State are not normal Muslims – but a group teaching that the end of the world is nigh, and they must found a state under ancient Muslim laws since God is watching and soon to send the final prophets. Since the end is near, and this is God we are dealing with, life is valueless. Compromise is not wanted or needed. All must obey the super conservative particular form of Isalm they teach, or one must die.

This is a modern day crusade. Just like when Christians went out and did the same, in both cases anyone who speaks of tolerance, of caring for the weak, of making peace are branded as heretics and murdered. Just like when we had crusades, religious wording, religious after-death promises, and talk of the end of the world and return of God’s full reign on Earth fuel people into a frenzy where new levels of violence seem okay now.

It is so easy to conflate one militant religious group with a whole religion. But just as most Christians back in the dark ages didn’t go on Crusades, and most Christians today say the Crusaders killed a lot of innocent people… so too, most Muslims do not support the Islamic State. Most of our refugees are Muslims themselves, seeking freedom from war, from fanatical military extremists, seeking freedom from the Islamic State.

… More people are displaced and seeking safe harbor from this conflict than were displaced and fleeing Nazi Germany in WWII.

… let that sink in.

There are more people who need safety now than in WWII.

Are we going to be like our grandparents, our grandparents, or ourselves in WWII and ignore those who plea for help? America ignored the plight of those Nazi Germany was destroying and taking over until Pearl Harbor. We even turned away ships of fleeing Jews. And where was there help at all for the gypsy, the homosexual, or any other category sudden chosen to eradicate? Today there are people begging for help, any help, to get themselves, their children, away from another militaristic, fanatical group.

James, the little brother of Jesus, writes to other Christians about pure religion and worthless religion. He isn’t talking about comparing Muslims and Christians, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims… James is talking about comparing each person with themselves. In our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, in our actions… are we followers of a pure religion or a religion that is impure?

How to we measure if we are on the right path?

James says we must be quick to listen. Quick to hear the stories of other people. Ready with open ears to hear their perspective. So often when someone begins to say something we don’t like, we formulate, we think of, how to argue against them while they are still talking. This clogs up our ears so we can’t hear what they actually are saying. Instead, says James, just listen. Don’t think of a counter argument. Just listen deeply. For instance, today, when I mentioned refugees and migrants, and ISIS, you may have begun to close your ears. You already have thoughts and opinions on these issues. No need to hear more. James says listen anyways, for you may hear something new.

Then, after listening, think. It’s okay to take time to think, or formulate what you want to say. We don’t have to fill every silence with noise. Sometimes, in the pauses, in the silence, there is a moment for God’s soft voice to speak. In the pause, we can think about what we know of the topic at hand — what we already know about ISIS from the news — and compare it with what the person we’re listening to has just said. Do they match? Is there new information? In the pause, we can consider what we feel. What emotions does this topic bring up in me? What emotions does it bring up in the speaker? Are these emotions because of the topic, the speaker, or something else?

Today, talking about ISIS likely made some angry. Some uncomfortable. Others bored. Others scared. Others felt helpless, or overwhelmed, or confused. I think we each felt many different emotions. James advises we let anger be our slowest emotion. The one we hold back so we can consider all the others first.

“Your anger does not make God right.” James writes. In other words, you are not the one to judge. God knows right from wrong, God does as God will, without you putting your two cents into it. God doesn’t depend on us getting our noses out of joint for God to know about a situation.

So we can take a moment to think. To ponder. To try to understand. And we can take a risk in trying to understand someone who we think is not ‘right’ with God… because we don’t get to judge that. God does. We can set our fear and anger, judgments, aside, and be present now to the person before us.

… We don’t have to decide how God feels about Muslims.

No… says James… don’t worry about the judgment of others. Instead, focus on judging yourself. Go to a mirror and look at yourself. Study who you are.

How do I feel about Muslims?

How do I feel about people fleeing war?

Why do I feel angry?

Why do I feel scared?

Humbly look at yourself, says James. Humbly accept the Word of God and how it points out both how deeply we are loved, and how much sin we still carry. Look in the mirror. Look and don’t flinch. Look and don’t admire. Look and honestly see.

Each of us have good points and bad points.

It is not weakness to admit our bad parts.

It is not vanity to admit our good parts.

It is honesty.

When we know ourselves, it is much easier to know others. Especially those who are from different cultures, different countries, and/or different religions. When we know ourselves, we feel secure to interact with those who’s very existence, who’s very viewpoints and world-views, challenge our’s. When we feel secure in who we are — secure in the good things and bad things about ourselves — we are not threatened by those who are different.

So the sight of a woman wearing a head cloth, a hijab, chador, or other head covering doesn’t make us uneasy. Instead, we can respect for her having enough faith to keep to her religion even when it makes her stand out. We ought to respect that! We, too, teach that a faithful person is heavily pressured to blend with culture which often is at odds with being faithful to God. We are secure in who we are, and so not threatened by someone who is different than who we are.

Indeed, we may have more in common with that faithful woman than someone who isn’t wearing a sign of their faith. We both likely read holy scripture, attend worship services, and are concerned about being a good person. I can’t say that about most of the other people I see during the day.

So James, says, keep open ears. Be ready to listen.

Take reflective time. Thinking time.

Be slow to judge. Slow to respond in anger.

So that you are secure in who you are. We know who we are.

And with these, we are ready to take God’s word and get into action. If we did all this work and didn’t do anything, our faith would be worthless says James.

Worthless!

Now, I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to find something that is worthless. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Everything can be re-purposed. I have a friend who’s mother is the queen of re-purposing. For example, she took outdated refrigerator magnets, cut them into squares, put them into old square makeup cases, and now has a purse-sized sewing kit. The magnets hold the needles in place. Each one has a different color of thread for emergency clothes repairs. She’s incredibly good at re-purposing.

Yet James goes as far as to say that our religion is WORTHLESS if we work and work at it, do all these steps of self-reflection, of listening to others, of knowing the word of God… and do nothing.

Worthless… because although we know much, we have lied to our hearts. Worthless because although we looked at ourselves, we forgot who we are the moment we stopped looking. Worthless because all that work led to no action.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God,” writes James, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Religion that is worth something is religion that cares for people in need. Orphans and widows had no political power, no way to make a honest living, and were outcasts. Refugees have no political power, no way to make a honest living, and are outcasts. People who are weak, who are desperate, who are suffering are people who we, as Christians, as the followers of Christ, are supposed to care for. Supposed to look out for. Supposed to say, “We may be really different, but that’s okay. You need help. Let me help you.”

James ends this passage by saying we are to help without being stained by the world.

You don’t need to become Muslim to help Muslims.

You don’t need to think Islam is great to help Muslims.

You don’t even need to Islam is ‘okay’ to be neighborly, to be Christian, to be friendly and compassionate and loving.

A religion has worth when its message and its deeds match up. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” What we do tells people what our faith says. Our faith says what we do. When all of this matches up, aligns, we are testifying to the great goodness of God. We aren’t sending mixed signals. Aren’t preaching peace and then shooting death glares at strangers. Aren’t preaching welcoming in the outcast and then telling the outcast to go home and leave us be.

Jesus’ words in Mark are on the very same topic.

In this scene, some of those who follow Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Now, all conservative Jews to this day wash their hands before they eat. So the highly educated and the conservatives went to Jesus and said, ‘Hey, you, Mr. I’m So Holy- if you’re so holy, how come your followers aren’t washing their hands, like the faith elders told us to do in the past?’

Jesus answered, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” You teach human rules as if they were rules from God.

The commandment of God, as we know later, is to love God. The second is like it – to love one’s neighbor.

Neither of these is about washing hands. Washing hands, a very good thing to do, is still a human teaching. Sometimes, out of love, one can’t wash their hands.

Sometimes, out of love, we have to ignore the good teachings around us to do the best teaching – the commandment of God – to love. So… sometimes this means associating, being around, being nice to people different than us. It means being loving to refugees and immigrants, whether they are here legally or not. It means being loving to Muslims and Christians, whether they think like us or not. It means being loving, being neighborly, being kind to all.

Jesus tells the crowd about him — what you touch and are around outside of yourself does not contaminate, does not defile, your inside. Your core, your soul, your heart — that can defile its outside.

To tie this with James, then, Jesus is saying that if your soul is healthy and happy, other people can sense it. They see it in your deeds. You bless people just by being present. But if your inner core is unhealthy, unhappy, evil… then you defile people just by being present. You spread the deeds of theft, murder, breaking trust, being greedy, lying, being sleazy, speaking badly about others, acting stupidly, acting too prideful, and using your sexuality in a way that hurts yourself or others.

So one who has paused to know themselves, to be at peace with themselves, does not have to fear or be angry with those who are different. In their hearts in the commandment of God — to love. Their religion is pure because they know love, and act loving.

But those who don’t pause to know themselves, or don’t learn from that self-reflection, have a lot to fear from and be angry about with people who have different faiths and ways of doing things. They say their religion is love, but they don’t know love, and so they don’t act loving.

I ask today – does your religion have worth? Does it make you stop, think, ponder, reflect, and then take action? Does your religion challenge you to be better?

If Christianity has become easy, then we are deceiving ourselves. Acting loving is hard. Being Christian is hard. Every person has to work at following the examples of Jesus. Our reassurance is that we do not do this work alone. We’re all in it together. The Spirit is there, guiding us. Jesus is here, leading us. God is here, beckoning us.

“Every generous act of giving is from above,” to paraphrase James, Every generous act we receive is a gift from God. Every time we are generous and kind to others, people receive glimpses of God.

May we, in the words commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Ohio, 8-30-2015

Cravings and Temper-Tandrums

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

There are affinities among religions. Places where they touch each other and share truths. Today’s reading from James is a place where we share an affinity, a similarity, to Buddhism. Both the Buddha and James said cravings, deep hungers, cause suffering and unhappiness.James explains it as such – inside of us are competing desires. Cravings at war. Things we covet – things we want with envy and jealousy. Usually this is money, because money is power. But other things of power we crave – the power over our lives, over our jobs, over our time. The power over others, over creation, over God. James says we humans murder so we can steal; we fight when we’re envious; and we ask for things for selfish reasons. From all of this wanting and wanting and wanting comes hurt.

Our affinity with Buddhist is the man called the Buddha– which means the awake one, the one know knows– also taught wanting and wanting and wanting causes hurt. Understanding cravings and how to end them is the core of the philosophy of Buddhism. You may have heard of the Eightfold Path – if not – it is the eight ways to combat cravings.

Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

James, throughout his letter, is saying something very similar. He’s writing to early churches who are full of feuds. Full of temper-tantrums. He says look – understand where your conflict is coming from – it’s coming from having wrong cravings.

We can infer from his writing that everyone in this early church was doing good things – helping people out – but the helping was leading to fights inside the congregation. James says these fights are because people are helping each other for arrogant reasons, selfish reasons, because they crave more for themselves.

What’s this look like? Well, I think Jesus’ own disciples give us a great example today. They’ve left their homes and families. They are living hand to mouth, walking on the roads, following a heretical Jew who is gathering more and more followers and haters. They’ve sacrificed a lot. But they still are thinking with impure wisdom, with impure hearts and logic. They covet, they crave, to be Jesus’ right hand man. His number one.

So as the men walk to Capernaum they begin to bicker. Here they are – following Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed — here they are, not only witnessing miracles but being part of them. Here they are – personally chosen by God Incarnate for a New Revelation — and here they are, not happy with these honors because Mark might be a bit more chosen, or James might be a bit more loved, or that John a bit more favored by Jesus.

In Capernaum, Jesus sits down and asks them what they were talking about on the road. But no one answers. Silence. Shame. How embarrassing. None of them say a thing, for they all know Jesus heard them and they all know they were not focusing on the things of God.

Jesus had just told them he was going to die, and be resurrected! And they had all stayed silent because they didn’t understand and were afraid. Now they are afraid again and stay silent again.

And so again Jesus tells them a hard, hard lesson — Whoever wants to be first must be the last and servant of all.

As if this wasn’t hard enough, he then takes a little kid – some little girl or boy who can’t properly talk, might still need help going to the bathroom, and is utterly helpless without adults caring for him or her – this little grimy kid who isn’t even considered fully human, fully a person yet, because she or he likely will die before reaching adulthood. Jesus picks the kid up and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and who ever welcomes me welcomes not be but the one who sent me.”

In other words, whoever greets a the very low of the low as if they were seeing and welcoming Jesus himself, are actually welcoming not only Jesus but God.

What we do, how we act, how we treat the most personless people is how we greet God.

The people who can’t pay you back; the people who can’t give you honor; the people who can’t give you favors; the people who the world scorns… we are to serve them as if we are serving God.

I saw an example of this once. For this story, I’m going to call the boy Bobby. In a hospital room a boy lay in a bed. He was there for a routine procedure – routine for someone who has severe mental and physical disabilities. He’d been there so often he was now a non-person. I went in to visit with him and greeted him good morning. I talked with him about the cartoons on the TV and told him about my favorite ones. A nurse came and checked his vitals. She looked at me and said, “He can’t respond.”

“I know – it’s fine. Bobby, do you like Thomas or Percy better?”

The nurse asked me in the hall to explain the boy’s medical condition and asked me, “What are you doing? He can’t answer. He can’t think.”

I explained, “That boy is still a boy. Still a person. Still human. So I’m going to treat him human. It’s okay he doesn’t respond. I don’t expect him to. But thank you for letting me know.”

Later I saw the nurse speaking to Bobby the same way I had been. She saw me and said, “I agree. He’s still a person. This is good karma.”

Here in the west, we usually use the word karma to mean tit-for-tat. What goes around comes around. But in Buddhism, it is a religious word that means something a little differently. It means actions, deeds. Good karma is made of good deeds. Things that follow the core teachings of Buddhism: discernment, virtues, and will. In other words, being wise, thinking, reflecting; not lying or using words to hurt others, and having a job that doesn’t hurt others; and focusing on the good, being aware of our bodies and others, and focusing on higher thoughts.

The Buddhist nurse and I shared in our faith traditions that good deeds to those who cannot even respond are deeds we ought to do to be faithful to our faith.

These lessons are quite similar to the ones James gives us. Don’t focus on evil! Focus on God. When you focus on God, you and God become closer. Don’t turn your prayers into ways to hurt others. Use them for good. Don’t be envious of each other. Help one another. What is wise is working with gentleness, compassion, compromise, mercy, impartiality, and truthfulness. What is wise is greeting and treating each person as if they were God…

Because Jesus says how we treat others is how we treat God.

We are made in the image of God. Christians carry the Holy Spirit. We are the body of Christ.

Bobby in his bed. The child in Jesus’ arm. The man on death row. The pregnant teenager. The “welfare mama” and the “bleeding heart liberal” and the Teaparty extremist — we are all the body of Christ.

Since there is no human who lacks the image of God, there should be no one we ever think we can treat as less than the very reflection of God.

The Hindi phrase ‘nameste’ means something very similar. Not only is it hello, but it also means “I greet divinity” or “Not for me, but for you.” In other words, it means recognizing the divine is also in the other person; and saying that you will be a servant. These are rough translations, but namaste is a place of affinity, of similarity, where we can relate with Buddhists.

We both teach that the divine resides in people. And we both teach that we’re to think of the community, the whole, before individuals.

This is radically, radically different than our culture. Our culture lauds, approves, of selfish ambition. We celebrate a self-made man or woman. But James points out that selfish ambition and individual success is made possible by hurting others. To be standing at the top of the heap means standing on top of everyone else.

And Christianity is about giving up being up there at the top – but instead, going down to the bottom and joining everyone there. It’s about coming to the world like a child – unaware the CEO and the janitor are any different. It’s about welcoming God by welcoming all with the peace of Christ.

So, to paraphrase Helen Keller – let us long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but know it is our chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble. It is a small task to treat all as we would treat Christ, but it is a hard task, and a very great and noble one. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio 9-20-15