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.