Monday, September 21, 2015

James 4: Operating System Upgrade

Readings: Psalm 1, Proverbs 31:10-31, Mark 9:32-37, James 3:13-4:3
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, Sunday September 20 2015

There's a story that Steve Jobs, the late great founder of Apple computers, found inspiration whilst walking through the offices of the Xerox corporation. There he caught a glimpse of something that has changed the world as we know it.

Xerox were experimenting with how people interacted with their products and had come up with the idea of a graphic user interface. Instead of interacting with a code or series of numbers, maybe people could just push a button, that had a picture on it. They could touch it and things would happen.

Steve liked that idea so much, the idea of interacting with a machine through an icon, that he ran with it. In fact he became so obsessed with the idea of icons that he once famously said that he wanted his icons to be so beautiful that people would want to lick them.

We have come a long way since the idea of 'pushing a button with a picture on it'. Now we touch our screens and swipe and pinch our icons and whilst we have not got around just yet to licking them, some of us talk to mysterious entities like 'Google' or 'Siri' to find out all we need to know about the world and our place within it.

Of course it is not the interface that is driving the device that we are using. It is the operating system. We never really see the operating system these days. Back in the days of 'Basic' and having to type everything into a keyboard, we were a little more aware of the operating system. Now we simply get a message telling us it is time to upgrade our phone or I-Pad to OS whatever or our computer to Windows 10.987 or wherever it is they are up to now!

As a church we do ministry in a different way. We have Internet, and Web sites and Facebook pages and blogs and Google Docs and email and texting... to name but a few. I have to admit I find it a challenge to communicate in all these different mediums.

I confess I do have those moments when I lament the passing of the days when I would write out my sermons in fountain pen on folded up foolscap paper, faithfully stapled together by my own fair hands. But then I reflect that in those days I never had the joy of posting a sermon online and interacting with somebody on the other side of the world.

At a recent session meeting we decided we needed to set up a 'Communications Committee' to help us navigate through all the different ways we interface with the world beyond our doors. We even talked about what 'icons...' what images would best represent our mission statement of 'Growing in faith' and being 'Called to Serve.' (If you are into that kind of stuff, David Ritch would love you to join him on that committee!).

All these things are wonderful and exciting, and necessary for any organization wishing to interact with their community in the 21st Century. We need to do all that we can to reach others who have yet to hear the gospel news. As Jesus so clearly puts it "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37)

But... and here is where we interact with the reading from the Book of James...
the deeper question to ask is, what about our operating system? At our core, what drives us? What makes us tick? What it is it that informs our every decision and interaction? What determines our icons and moves us into mission?

Over the last few weeks we have seen how the letter of James is concerned with the authenticity of faith. Faith that is all words, that is all code, that is only concerned with process, doesn't cut it. Faith, when genuine, translates into actions. We are to hear and then do... hear-do, hear-do, hear do... that's the pattern.

Our doing is to be be done without favoritism to those we think can offer us worldly esteem. We are to be Christlike in lifting up the fallen and strengthening the weak. We are to have a living faith that is without prejudice.

We have a particular responsibility to communicate with words and actions that build community. We are to be aware that the 'Word that defines all words' has to be handled with integrity and respect. But how we do this? Our motivation may be the love of Jesus Christ, but what about our operating system?

James 3:13 puts it like this. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

The operating system that James suggest should be guiding us is 'gentleness'. Did you get that? 'Gentleness.' I can think of few things more removed from the way our society regards how things get done than 'gentleness'.

We're told to get out there, make something of ourselves, to keep on pushing till we make something happen. We live by the unspoken idea that it is those with the power and never say die who win the day. Think about politics. Gentleness? Think about the media. Gentleness? Think about the way a lot of people drive... maybe the way you and I drive... could it be defined by gentleness? We are not gentle people. This is not a gentle nation.

Note however that the gentleness spoken of here is not any kind of roll over passivity or allowing the world to use us as a door mat. It is a gentleness that is rooted in wisdom. Rooted in a very special kind of wisdom. Go down to verse 17. “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
Bear in mind James is writing to a church that was finding it hard to get along with each other. Can you believe that? A church where people didn't always see eye to eye and sometimes actually got on each others nerves? I mean aren't we all Christians? Don't we all love Jesus? Why can't we all just get along forever and ever, Amen?

'Reality check'', says James. You are indeed being redeemed and changed by the love of God, but you are not there yet! In fact you, me, all of us... have a long way to go before we are truly anything like the people that God wants us to be. The operating system most of us are operating from, is the same as it has always been. The 'me-first', the 'I want it now', the 'You don't realize who you are dealing with here' operating system.

And that operating system is so hopelessly flawed that it is leading us into all kinds of conflicts and errors. It allows all sorts of viruses in. It has many areas of vulnerability. In fact, it's fair to see that when it comes to our operating system every single one of us is broken. If you want that in biblical terms, 'For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23).

So James, to people like us, people whose very nature is to be in conflict, urges that we upgrade to gentleness. Why? Because gentleness is THE operating system needed to build communities of faith.

Here how Eugene Petersen translates the first part of Chapter 4 in the Message Bible.

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don't have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn't yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. You wouldn't think of just asking God for it, would you? Why not? Because you know you'd be asking for what you have no right to. You're spoiled children, each wanting your own way.

Ouch!! What is it they sometimes say after reading scripture. 'The Word of God for the people of God'. James isn't exactly being gentle with us is he? What he IS doing is urging us to take responsibility. He is telling us that if there's something wrong with our churches it's no good changing the icon or interface. It's not about tweaking 'Roberts Rules of Order'. It's a matter of having gentleness as the core of our understanding of God. It's embracing humility and being willing to yield in the interests of others.

Why? Because that is the pattern Jesus laid down for us to follow. The Jesus 'Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phillipians 2:6-7). The Jesus who prayed from the Cross “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)

For sure there are those times when we have to act, when we have to stand our ground. But even as we do so, we are still required to act in line with the observation of the Psalmist 'You, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.' (Psalm 86:15)

At our core we need gentleness. Because this world is a hard place. People do not need yet another voice telling them where they have messed up, what they don't have or belittling them for their mistakes. The gospel message is about renewal, recreation and starting over afresh. We are none of us all we could be or all we should be. We all need help.

Back in chapter 2:13 James offers a gem of a verse. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” There again is that exhortation to upgrade our operating system. Operate out of mercy. Operate out of gentleness. Walk humbly with God and give others the space to evolve and grow as fellow children of God.

In such ways communities become healthy and light shines were there has previously been darkness. May God help us to be people who are operating from within the core of Christ's love and therefore with all the power of His Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 14, 2015

James 3: Taming the Tongue

Readings: Genesis 2:18-20, James 3:1-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, Sunday September 13 2015

Bob Dylan composed the song “Man gave names to all the animals”. (Click link to listen).  Bob Dylan's wonderful skill lies in his words and in many ways he was the first of the great rock poets. Phrases such as “The answer my friend is blowing in the Wind” and 'The Times they are a changing” stick with us.

Outwardly “Man gave names to all the animals”seems like a simple, fun, children’s song, based on the account of Adam naming the animals in the book of Genesis. Then you get to the ending and he does something strange. The song comes to an abrupt halt just as he mentions the animal ‘as smooth as glass, slithering through the grass’. Bob Dylan knows words and he knows the earliest chapters of the book of Genesis.

How does the Bible start? ‘In the Beginning’ God speaks. God speaks and things come into being. God speaks… and it is done! The first creation account focuses on the Creative Word of God.

In the second creation account (which begins in Genesis chapter 2, verse 4) the power of creating through words is passed on to Adam. As God creates the animals they are brought to Adam and he has the task of naming them.

Through his words Adam gives form and meaning to the creation around him. The process of naming creates for Adam a world that makes sense. Through his words Adam identifies that he was incomplete without human companionship and Eve enters the story.

So we are given this picture of the garden of Eden, an idyllic setting in which man and woman have free and open communion with God, and the word of God then comes as a cautioning note telling them what to avoid.

In chapter three, the ‘smooth as glass, slithering through the grass’ creature enters the picture. What I want you to notice is what happens at this point in the story, to ‘words’, the things we form with our tongues. Up until chapter three, words have been things that create and give meaning to life.

The serpents tongue speaks and innocence is shattered. The words of the serpent destroy. The words of the serpent construct half-truths and doubts that lead to humanities estrangement from God, create conflict with the created order and tension in human relationships.

So Bob Dylan’s song ends an abrupt note. We know how it should end. “Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake… ah.. think I’ll call it a …….”

We never get to name the creature, because as soon as that creature appears on the scene ‘words’, the great passion of Bob Dylan, stop being a creative force and start to become a negative force that lead us out of the garden and we are on a road to nowhere.

Chapter Three of James is concerned with the topic of ‘Taming the Tongue’. It’s about how the words we use can either build up or tear down. It’s about how the language of faith can be a force that recreates the Kingdom of God within our church community, or, how the misguided use of words can lead us away from God.
The passage began:- James 3:1 “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
A great verse to start the new Sunday School year! But take notice of the setting in which James is speaking. He is not saying that it is a bad thing to be teacher. Nor is he suggesting that teaching is such a demanding occupation that very few are up to it. He is saying that when you teach, be aware of the power of the medium that you are working with, and be very aware of the power inherent in words.
With imagery that evokes the serpent in Eden’s garden James describes the tongue as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” and a “fire” that “stains the whole body” and is itself “set on fire by Hell”. ‘Be aware’ he seems to say, ‘That when you deal with words you are handling a product that can be as creative or as toxic as radioactive material’
He speaks about the bit in the horses mouth by which a rider controls the animal, about the rudder of a ship steering the vessel in the way it’s meant to be going, about how a forest fire can be started with the smallest of sparks. The tongue is a small part of our body, the muscle that forms our words, but capable of doing so much damage.

James is specifically speaking about words used within the community of the church. His words hit hard because we know them to be true. We know people who stop going to churches because something some body said to them upset them. We may have been ourselves the victims of others ill-considered words.

Even though the person uttering them may have not been aware of what they were saying, it hurt us or offended us, or caused us to have doubts that were unnecessary. Words, particularly words of criticism or complaint can wear us down in a way that even physical pain fails to do.

Consider a kid playing football. He gets tackled. He gets hurt sometimes. But he’s prepared to take all of that because it’s part of the game. That’s not what will discourage him. But if he has a coach or team mates that are constantly telling him, he should have done it this way or was stupid doing it that way, constantly bombarding him with negative words, or ‘this is what you should do’ then that kid may not be out on the field the next week, not because the game is to hard, or because they are afraid of the physical challenge, but words have cut them down, words have robbed them of their passion for the game.

James gives this moral discourse concerning words, and as he does he weaves into the passage images and pictures of creation. He speaks about beasts and birds and reptiles and sea creatures, recalling for us the notion that it is man who named them and therefore men and women who have the capacity to tame them.

Just as Adam used words to understand and relate to the paradise of Eden in which God had placed him, so we who are the church are to use our words to understand, to encourage and express our relationship to God, to each other, and to our world. The language we use to express our faith is therefore extremely important.

Here is the challenge in James chapter 3:1-12. How do we use words in ways that reflect the creative work of God to build the church? How do we name our experiences in such a way that we create a climate of faith that takes us further along the road of following Jesus?

How, when the tongue is such a tricky little beastie, do we avoid imitating the example of ‘the slithering, slippy one’ whose greasy declarations of half-truths became so hellishly destructive?

John’s Gospel begins with an electric phrase ‘In the beginning was the Word’ and later continues ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The New Testament is the story of God continuing to speak, continuing to create, continuing to redeem and save, in the person of Jesus Christ.

The way for us to tame our tongues is through reflecting on the life of Jesus Christ and embracing God’s life giving Holy Spirit in our experience. Whilst such will not always ensure that the words that come out of our mouths are necessarily the ones that should come out of them, that process of biblical study, prayer and ‘doing the Word’, leads to the creation of an environment where together, in fellowship, and as a church, we become a community of God’s people.

In the first two chapters James has told us to make sure that we are walking the talk. Because if we are not walking according to what we are talking, then we are not walking in the right way. This time he tells us that whilst we are walking we have to watch how we are talking. Not only do we have to walk the talk, but we have to ensure that our talk about the walk is helping us to walk together in the right way.

We are walking and talking and talking and walking and all this to the glory of God, in the company of angels and saints, who are praising and singing, and fellow believers and people who need us.…. wow…this is quite some walk we are talking about! Let us simply be those who walk and talk together in faith! AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 7, 2015

James 2: Living Faith

Readings: Psalm 125, Proverbs 22:1-23, Matthew 7:13-29, James 2:1-17 

Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 6 2015

I was visiting somebody one day and feeling a little peckish. On the side I noticed a succulent looking bowl of fruit. I can understand how Eve fell for the fruit in the Garden of Eden because once those taste buds get in motion it is hard to resist. I was thinking in my head, now I’m sure the person I was with wouldn’t begrudge me just one little apple. (The apples looked particularly sumptuous.)

They must have noticed I was distracted because they said to me, 'Pretty good looking bowl of fruit for something that’s made out of wood.' I, of course, had to agree!

As we continue to look at the Book of James we see that James is concerned about the church – that there were those in the church who looked the part - acted like they were the part - but when it came down to it they didn’t live the life expected of those who had a living faith.

Last week I challenged us to consider that if we believe – really believe - then it will show up in the way we live our lives. That to be disciples takes a process of 'Hearing' (that is looking into God’s Word to find out how we should be living) and 'Doing', (putting the things into practice that we learn). If we don’t make that second step then James suggest that we are as stupid as a person who looks in a mirror and immediately forgets what they look like!

But how can we evaluate how well we are doing along the discipleship road? If we have a living faith how should it be working out in our attitudes and the way we are living our life? James gives us a couple of stories to help us assess our spiritual progress.

The first story features a gathering of Christians. It could be a service of worship or a church dinner. In walks one man. A gold chain. Smartly dressed. Obviously wealthy. And everybody makes a big fuss of him. 'How nice to see you, come and sit up here'

The second man that enters has been having problems. His clothes are a little ragged. He looks like he may not have two cents to call his own. When he walks in, nobody wants to see him, but eventually somebody says, 'Fix him a plate, he can sit over there, where he won’t bother anybody'.

James’ second story is about a man whom God has blessed with a fair share of life’s necessities. He’s out walking down town. He meets another member of his church. The one he meets is not doing well. He’s hungry. He needs some clothes. The first man says, 'Well, isn’t God great. Praise the Lord! God bless you my friend!' and walks on by.

James concludes, 'If one of you says, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.' The opposite of a living faith is what? Obviously, a dead faith.

Underlying both stories is an Old Testament command that underpinned the life of Jesus. 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' In between the two stories James digresses to talk about the law, and how, even though we may not have murdered anybody or may not have committed adultery with anybody, if we haven’t fulfilled God’s command to love our neighbor, we are just as guilty of not living in the way that God wants us to as an adulterer or murderer.

So how can we evaluate our faith? How do we know if our faith is living? Maybe we can apply the tests of James.

1. Living Faith is impartial.

Discrimination is a sign of partiality. Scripture teaches that we are saved by grace, through faith. Grace informs us that God does not bless us because there is anything unique about us that is not also unique about any other human being on the planet. That God did not choose us because we are special, or because we behave properly or because we have a capacity for greater goodness than anybody else.

This experience of being chosen by the grace of God places a responsibility upon us to treat all others as those who equally deserve to be chosen by the Grace of God. A living faith is one that welcomes equally the poor and the rich, the black and the white and all shades in-between, the educated and the uneducated, the well dressed and the poorly dressed. Living faith is not concerned with bank accounts or skin color or anything else except the need of the individual person.

Living faith sees those less fortunate than our selves and does not simply say, 'There but for the Grace of God go I' and walk away, but sees through the Grace of God an opportunity to reach out to that person from within the blessings we have already been graced with.

Living faith calls us to love our sisters and brothers in the world unconditionally, just as we have been unconditionally loved by God. As God accepts us, so we are called to accept others. As God has called us to be part of this amazing, exciting journey of discipleship, so we are to invite others to get on board, feel the breeze, and enjoy the voyage.

2. Living Faith produces good works

In Matthew 7:15, Jesus talks about trees and the fruit that they produce. He has been asked a question about false prophets. 'How do we know, when on the surface of things all these rabbi’s and teachers look the same and sound the same, how do we sort out the good ones from the bad ones?'

Jesus explains that there are all sorts of trees and all sorts of fruits. But each tree produced a fruit after it’s own kind. In other words if you wanted grapes you wouldn’t go and look for them on a thorn bush. If you wanted figs, you wouldn’t go searching around a thistle plant. Not only were thorn bushes and thistles prickly things, but they were also quite incapable of producing grapes or figs.

A good tree produced good fruit a bad tree produced bad fruit. A good tree wouldn’t produce bad fruit. Why? Because what it produced was directly related to the kind of tree it was! Good Tree = Good Fruit.

But He doesn’t end the story there. He goes on to say that there are people who will go around saying, 'Lord, Lord', and even some who will cast out demons and work miracles in His name, but at the end of the day, for some of them it’ll come down to this. (Matthew 7:23) 'I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness'.

What law was Jesus speaking about that they had broken? The same one that James mentions. 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' By way of underlining the meaning Jesus then goes on to tell the story about the two builders, the one who builds on the sand and his house gets swept away, and the one who builds on the rock and stands firm. He says (Matthew 7:24) 'everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.'

We’re back to James - last chapter. You Hear – You Do. You Hear – You Do. You Hear – You Do. Always the two things held together. James simply will not acknowledge a faith that doesn’t produce good works as having any authenticity.

3. Living Faith makes others feel welcome

In my years being involved in church life, which has been most of my life, I have come across prickly religious folk who didn’t make me feel good, but made me feel like I’ll never be good enough. Not good enough for them or by implication good enough for God.

That is the situation facing the poor man in the first story that James tells. He walks into this gathering of Christians and he’s not good enough for them. If he wants to sit with them he needs to clean up his act, get himself sorted out, then come back and we’ll see how it goes.

Remember what the religious folk, the Pharisees and their like said about Jesus? 'Do you see the company he keeps? Spends all his time with sinners, tax collectors, good for nothings, not our sort of people. Therefore he cannot be a good person' Yet those ‘good-for-nothings’, who were rejected by the Pharisees, felt welcomed, affirmed and accepted by Jesus.

A living faith does not make people around us feel uncomfortable, but helps them to see that the Grace of God is actually so tremendous that it will take them under its umbrella. A living faith does not say 'God Bless' and then walk away but reacts to others needs in an appropriate way.

Our reading this morning has given us some contrasts on the basis of which we can evaluate our Christian lives. Do we have a living faith, as James defines it?

A living faith is impartial. A dead faith discriminates.
A living faith produces good works. A dead faith just doesn’t work.
A living faith makes others feel welcome. A dead faith makes others feel excluded.

I started out with that bowl of wooden fruit. The apple wasn’t an apple. The pear wasn’t a pear. The grapes weren’t grapes. They looked like it, but they were made of wood. From what I hear James saying, it doesn’t matter too much what we appear to be. What matters is who we really are. If we are God’s children then we will live like God’s children.

That’s not easy. James is a tough cookie. But he sure gives us something to aim for and, if we are listening, can move us from complacency to positive action.

We have the opportunity this morning to come to a table laid with the symbols of God's welcome. Christ was broken for us all. Christ was raised for us all. As we share together in this time of holy communion, may God apply the words of James to our lives, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.