Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Healing" - September 27, 2015

James 5:13-2

            When you were a child and skinned your knee, so that it really hurt and stung, what made it feel better?  Someone, probably your mother or father, picked you up and gave you a hug.  Maybe they brushed the dirt off your knee and said, “There you go!” or maybe put a bandaid on it.  Then you ran off and forgot about it.  Your knee was not cured.  There would be days of scabbing and in some cases you may have developed a scar.  Nevertheless, you felt that the bad part was over.  That is what is meant by “healing”, as opposed to “curing”.  “Healing” is a matter of being made whole, “curing” is making the problem go away.  I want to get back to that later, so hold onto that thought: “healing” is one thing and “curing” is another.

            When someone goes into the hospital or is seriously sick, it helps if they or their family let the church know so that someone can go and visit them.  Usually I do that, but there are times I might be unable, and there are a whole bunch of people who stop by to check in with the patient.  When we do that, we’re doing nothing more than what the Bible says we should do.  In Matthew 25, Jesus is recorded as having said that at the Last Judgment, when we stand before God and our lives are examined, one of the questions we will be asked is whether we took the time to visit the sick and those in prison.  Visiting prisoners is a complicated process, but visiting the sick is not.  James even gives instructions on what to do.

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” [James 5:14-16]
Praying together is the central part of the visit, and the goal of the prayer is for healing.

            That isn’t to say that praying will occupy the most time.  A lot of any visit is people talking and listening to one another.  Granted, some people may not be up to that, and if somebody needs their sleep or to be left alone for awhile, those are valid concerns.  The same way, if there’s a medical procedure going on or a nurse needs to do something, that’s the sort of help the patient is there for, and I’m going to get out of the way.  But when someone is sick, they often have things on their minds that they set aside when they are well, and if they need to talk things out, it can help.

            James talks about that in terms of confessing our sins, and there is a sense of that sometimes.  Illness is not caused by sin.  God does not send someone cancer to teach them a lesson, or pancreatitis as punishment for drinking too much.  But there are ways of life that can contribute to natural weaknesses that we all share.  Lying flat on your back for a week with muscle spasms1 may make you question whether weightlifting is really your sport.  Having dangerously high blood pressure or even a stroke may make you question how you handle stress or if you have to find ways to handle worry and anger.

            So that’s where the illness becomes an opportunity for healing.  Again, “cure” is something else.  When I pray with someone, I will pray for all the caregivers around them who are working for their cure.  I will pray with thanksgiving for the skills that the doctors and nurses and technicians have, and the insight that God has given them into how to restore the body to equilibrium.  That is, for the most part, how God works.  I’m not saying that God couldn’t do physical miracles, and I’m not saying that they don’t sometimes happen.  I do remain skeptical when they take place up on a stage or when they are accompanied by commercials or when they draw attention to the person praying rather than to God’s grace.  So, yes, to some extent I do pray for someone to be cured, but the main thing is for them to be healed.

            Healing is to be made whole, and that happens apart from (if often parallel to) the physical cure.  Healing is to be put back into a healthy relationship with God and with other people.  James says that

“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up”, [James 5:16]
which means far more than recovering quickly, or even fully, from a broken bone.  To be clear, there is going to be a time for all of us when something physical will go wrong and we will not recover.  Being human comes with a guaranteed 100% mortality rate.  However, when our relationship to God is right, the rest falls into place and even dying isn’t such a big deal, when it means that we go to be with him.

            In that context, a cure may become part of the healing sometimes.  I was privileged to witness something like that one time.  There was a woman who, through a series of events that took place over decades, had become estranged from her children.  She also had developed more medical problems than anybody could really keep track of.  Finally, she developed an infection that lodged in a kind of cement that had been used to fuse some of her vertebrae together, and it spread from there throughout her blood stream.  It was going to be fatal.  The doctors were sure.  At the doctor’s request I got hold of her daughter, and let her know what was happening, because the patient couldn’t stay awake more than a few seconds at a time, let alone make any decisions.  To everyone’s surprise, the daughter let us know that she would drop everything and fly across the country to see her mother.  We told the patient, not knowing if she could hear the words, let alone understand.  A few hours later, the infection was gone.  It had disappeared entirely.  There was no explanation for it, because even if she had responded to the treatment it should have taken a week to reach that point.  She was fully free of it when her daughter arrived and spent a few hours with her that night.  I don’t know what was said, but the daughter told me the next day that they worked through all their unfinished business and cleared everything up between them.  She told me that because after she left for the evening her mother closed her eyes and got a good night’s sleep for the first time in years, but toward morning her heart stopped and she never woke up in this world.  For them both, healing had come and, with healing, her life on earth could be completed.

            Completion, rather than ending, is what that kind of healing brings.  Healing doesn’t have to wait for that kind of dramatic intervention, though.  Jesus said,

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” [John 10:10]
To be made whole by his grace is an experience available outside the hospital room, even outside the context of physical illness. 

So I invite anyone who is moved to do so to come forward and kneel at the altar rail and lift up in prayer any part of their life where they are looking for healing, and I will come along the rail and pray quietly and briefly along with you, simply offering assurance that God hears our prayers, not because he is looking for wonder-workers, but because he knows and wants whatever is best for us.  And I would ask that those who are in the pews would also be in prayer for one another and for all, anywhere, who look to the Lord for healing this morning.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

“Gentleness Born of Wisdom” - September 20, 2015

James 3:13-18

Preached at Royersford UMC (Pulpit Exchange)

 James 3:13-18

God has a way of putting us in our places, and it’s a good thing, because we need it.  Pride is the worst of sins, because it sets us up to fail in every way, since it makes us think of ourselves as perfect or beyond correction, or not in need of God’s grace.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” 

Like I say, God has ways of teaching us.  Usually, in my experience, I get taught by being thrown into the deep end.

            Twenty-six years ago this past week, on September 17, 1989, one of the biggest learning-periods of my life began.  On July 1 I had started my first pastoral appointment, serving the only English-speaking United Methodist Church in the Puerto Rico Annual Conference, which was not in Puerto Rico but in the Virgin Islands, on St. Croix.  I started out serving one, primarily West-Indian congregation, but within a month we had decided to reopen another congregation, primarily of people from the States, at the other end of the island.  It would use the facilities of the Spanish-speaking United Methodist church that it had given birth to before closing down about ten years earlier.  So I was feeling pretty good about myself by the start of September, when attendance had gone from four to fourteen rather quickly.  Then came September 17, a Sunday, when by the late afternoon Hurricane Hugo was closing in and the winds were picking up.  By morning they had reached over two hundred miles per hour. 

            Here’s where I put in my mandatory, heartfelt thanks to UMCOR for all that happened in the aftermath.  They had a plane in the air before the storm had left, and they landed before the Red Cross and their help lasted longer than the Red Cross or FEMA, and it did great good to everyone it touched.  Have no doubt that when you put money into the offering plate to help UMCOR’s work, it is well-used.

            UMCOR was one of the few organizations that did get through right away, though, and the Spanish-speaking church was stuck because their preacher was also the conference treasurer and was flying back and forth every week.  Only now, communication was cut off and in a short while transportation had to be limited to military flights, as women and children were being evacuated.

            Three weeks into all of this, Bishop Morrison made it to the island somehow.  She let me know that the churches at home were doing all they could to help, that she was keeping an eye on my parents for me, and that because of the situation she was giving me the choice of two additional duties.  Either I could become chaplain to the Air National Guard or pastor to the Spanish-speaking church.  I chose the second, since I was already overseeing reconstruction of their building.  (Had I gone the other way, I would have found myself in Iraq three months later, when that unit went to the front lines of the First Gulf War.)

            Instead, I discovered I was in the middle of a civil war in that congregation.  There were two factions.  Because I did not speak Spanish, each was supposed to provide an interpreter for Sunday mornings, taking turns.  The arrangement lasted two weeks.  They could not agree on whose week would be whose.  That’s when I told them that it would end there.  I sat down every Saturday night with a full English text of my sermon and by the light of a kerosene lamp I went through a Spanish dictionary and used a verb chart and word-by-word produced something that I could see was painful to listen to and often made no sense.  There was way too much to do to be wasting time that way, but it had to be done.

            Why?  Because there were two factions that were filled with what James calls “bitter envy and selfish ambition”.  There were people on both sides who were more concerned with their perceived prestige and holding to their self-image as leaders in the church than in doing the actual leadership.  In that time and place, leadership meant servanthood in a clear way.  There was nobody who did not have their hands full picking up the pieces of their private lives – and I mean that literally.  You had to pick up the boards and cinderblocks and put them together again. You had to scramble when you heard where there might be ice to be bought.  Everything had to be done before curfew.  To be a leader in the church meant that you had to put other people’s needs before your own most legitimate ones.

            One passage of scripture has come back to me time and time again since those days.  It begins with an admonition to a church much like that one, where there were two factions sniping at one another for reasons that we do not know.  Paul told them,

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” [Philippians 2:3-4] 

Then he went one step further than that.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.” 
[Philippians 2:5-8]

That, and not self-serving, is the wise way, filled not only with courage and gentleness, but destined for glory.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.” 
[Philippians 2:9-11]

            James offers the same warning to us all.  The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.  There’s no getting around it.  Pride and ambition have no place, and the wisdom of God does not turn us into talking heads and pundits who have the answer to everything.  It turns us into the way of humility and service which is sometimes thankless but in the end totally rewarding.

            In the end, that is.  In the meantime, we are wise to question ourselves from time to time and to accept God’s help in recognizing both the duty and privilege of serving alongside one another and alongside Jesus.

            One last story.  It’s a true story that comes from a friend of mine who was sent to his first appointment in the hills of Tennessee, where he was born.  When he was being ordained, all the candidates were kneeling at the altar rail and they were to put their hands on an open Bible as the bishop laid hands on their heads and prayed.  My friend, at that moment, was seized with deep and fearful doubts whether he was doing the right thing, and whether he was fit to preach and to preside at the sacraments.  Who was he to take any leadership position?  He began to pray for a sign, and when he saw the Bible he prayed that God would speak to him through the page in front of him as the bishop came along.  It sounds almost superstitious, but that was what he was sure would give him the final approval that he needed at that moment.  As the bishop’s hand came down on his head, he opened his eyes and looked at the Bible and there in front of him, in black and white, were the words of Job 39:5 : “Who has loosed the wild ass?”  And he knew God was setting him free to serve, and doing it with a smile.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

“Teaching” - September 13, 2015

James 3:1-12

            We spend a good bit of time trying to convince people to become teachers.  There’s the Sunday School, where each of which needs a teacher and at least one other adult.  Then there is the confirmation class, which is part of my role as pastor, but which also involves several adults as mentors and sometimes chaperones.  This year it’s combined with one of the adult classes, and there is a teacher for that.  Of course, the high school class has its own teacher and a youth director in addition, who work together in various ways.  Then we need to have substitutes on call because there will always be that Sunday when someone wakes up with the flu and (rightly) decides that sharing it with everyone at church is not a good idea. In fact, we need more than one substitute because there are also those Sundays in January and February when the roads are black with ice or white with that other stuff, and there’s no getting up or down Collegeville Road in Mont Clare.  Vacation Bible School is intense in its use of personnel: group leaders and craft people and story tellers and game leaders and kitchen staff.  A good educational program asks us to have a pretty hefty number of people available.

            James undermines that.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,” he warns [James 3:1],

and I find myself hoping, for once, that nobody out in the pews is listening. 

“Don’t say that!” I want to scream.  “We’ve just recruited enough people, and you have no idea how often I hear people tell me they cannot teach.  They don’t know enough, or they’re not good with teenagers, or they travel for work, or they have trouble speaking in front of people their parents’ age, or they are allergic to crayons, or whatever.  Don’t discourage them any further!” 

But I cannot deny that it is right there in the Bible:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters.”

I think back on the fact that Martin Luther had his questions about whether this letter should ever have been allowed into the scriptures in the first place and almost want to say he had a point.  To give James his due, though, the reason he said that had nothing to do with the usual objections that people offer to becoming teachers. 

The reason was one that probably would scare off even more.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” [James 3:1-2]

 Then he goes on to describe how serious a slip of the tongue can be. 

“Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”  [James 3:2-5]

As he continues, though, it doesn’t sound like he’s thinking about mistakes that amount to misinformation or getting doctrine wrong.  It sounds like something more from the gut than from the head. 

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  [James 3:5-6]

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think he’s just talking about getting the words of “Jesus Loves Me” mixed up with “Kum By Yah”.  What’s going on here?

            James is concerned about teachers being able to teach, above all, by example.  What he expresses is an example, which is what happens when someone cannot hold their tongue, but there are other ways that are important.  We learn, all of us, from the way that the people who teach us formally and informally lead their lives.  The most striking lessons may not come with words.

            In high school, we were required to take a course called “American Studies” that put literature and history together, so, for instance, you’d learn about the Civil War while reading The Red Badge of Courage.  There were lectures on economics when you got to the Great Depression and read Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath to get a feel for what people lived through.  One of the teachers on the history side had a warped sense of humor that you either got or didn’t get.  On one of his tests he had a question: “True or false?  As part of the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to repeal the law of supply and demand, as recommended by John Maynard Keynes.”  When the test was graded and returned, one of the students in the class was really upset about this one, and I still remember him arguing the point (which was not generally done in those days). 

“You told us that Roosevelt took Keynes’s advice.”
“Yes, I did.”
“So this had to have been true.”
“It’s false.”
“How can it be false?”
“Do you know what the law of supply and demand is?”
“Did you think to ask?”
“Then next time you don’t understand a question, ask about it.  That’s a far more important lesson than anything on this quiz.”

I doubt that those teaching methods are encouraged under the Common Core system.  Still, isn’t that what happens?  A real teacher teaches more than simple content.  A real teacher teaches ways to live.

            For James, the gospel itself is what is to be taught.  Christianity, for him, is a way of life.  That’s what annoyed Luther about James.  Luther insisted that it is our faith in Christ that leads to salvation.  The medieval Church had taught that doing good works was the key to heaven.  Luther wanted to say that works are not enough.  It’s the mercy of God that opens the door, and it’s on us to trust that mercy as shown to us in Jesus.  James insisted that faith isn’t just your understanding of Jesus’ role, but your willingness to follow his example and to lay down your own life the way that he lay down his.  To teach the gospel is to live the gospel.  He said,

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘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.” [James 2:14-17]

You cannot split them neatly apart.

            That’s why I just want to point out something that I hope disturbs you.  Just as faith and works are connected, so is life and teaching.  You may not think that you are teaching anyone anything, but someone somewhere is learning from you what it is to live a Christian life and
“you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” [James 3:1-2]

All of us make mistakes, not only in speech, but in action.  Whatever you teach, make sure it includes a lesson on forgiveness and mercy.  James, the apostle who wrote about bridling your tongue, is recorded to have had some pretty nasty arguments with Paul, the apostle who wrote about love, and in the end they agreed to let each other go their separate ways.  The writers of the Bible were far from perfect.  They were like us, people who try to live the gospel but who get things wrong a lot of the time, and could be judged by that.  Yet everywhere in the Bible people come back to the belief that, as James put it,

“mercy triumphs over judgment.” [James 2:13]

And it’s mercy that we really want to teach people about.  There’s enough judgment out there already.

            Once again, though, the important lessons are the ones that are taught by example.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

“Partiality” - September 6, 2015

James 2:1-10

               People say that the church is always talking about money, and they are right.  It’s especially true at this time of year when we work on the church budget and try to find out what resources we can expect to work with in the future. It’s one of those really awkward things that we have to do every year. It would be nice if we didn't, but that’s the way things work and if we consider it important to look at the ways that our lives fit into God’s hopes and desires for creation, then we cannot leave out such a basic component of daily life.

Money a convenience – it exists to make life simpler.  I cannot carry a chicken around in my pocket to give to someone who makes me a pair of shoes, but I can give that person a few dollars that they can then take to the store and hand over in exchange for a chicken (hopefully, killed and plucked and cleaned).  Money stands in as a signifier of an amount of effort or expertise or material goods. 

But because money is a sign of something other than itself, it can easily become misunderstood to be a sign of something it does not signify: a person’s value as a person. 

            The Church should talk about that, because not a whole lot of other people are ready to do it.  Haven’t you heard someone say, “So-and-so is worth X million dollars?”  It’s such a common way of speaking because it represents a common way of thinking.  James describes a scene from the first generation of the Church that is still possible to imagine today.

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or,‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  [James 2:1-4]
It doesn’t always happen that way, but it does happen.  In church at least we recognize the problem.  If we were an airline we would sell tickets marked “First Class” or “Business” or “Coach”.

            The Bible talks about money to emphasize that a person’s worth is independent of their wealth.  There are some wonderful poor people and some wonderful rich people, some awful rich people and some awful poor people, and a whole lot of wonderful and awful people in between.

               So let me get back to the budget. Finances are a reflection of what's going on in people’s lives, not their worth as a person. Sometimes people who are very generous are limited in their ability to give.  That is understood. And sometimes the actual amount of money given me seem little, but for that person it's a lot.

               I often think about the distinction between being the church and doing church. Being the Church can happen any time or any place, sometimes unexpectedly.  Jesus said,

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:20]

Being the Church means (in the terms that we use around here) seeking, sharing, and showing his love.

               Then there’s “doing church”.  That is the sum total of the activities and programming and work that make it easier to be the Church.  Doing church costs money.  It means paying for electricity and the copier and snow plowing and all of that.  It can also be the point where it gets harder to keep things even between those who can more easily afford to take part in activities and those who sometimes have to stretch more.  (That’s why we provide help for kids who want to go to summer camp and why, if anyone ever wants to go to a church dinner that involves tickets they cannot afford, they should just let me know and we’ll find a way.)  Doing church, no less than being Church, should include everyone.  That’s why James was saying to make sure there’s a place for everybody, regardless of how they’re dressed.

               When we work on the budget, we try to keep in mind that doing church is how we make it easier for people to be the Church.  We want to provide and maintain a beautiful place because that should make it easier to do the work of praying.  We want clean, up-to-date Sunday School rooms because having a place to teach children and plenty of construction paper and glue means that we have good ways to share the stories of Jesus and the Christian faith.  It isn’t just about keeping the kids busy.

               What James was telling that early church and tells us now, is that everyone is needed in order both to do church and to be Church. When we only see the gifts that help us do church there's a danger that we may miss the gifts that help us be the Church and that's why he has such good things to say about the poor: because being Church is all that they can take part in fully and yet it is the more important part.  When you can only afford the basics, you have to be good at them.

“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” [James 2:5] 

Ultimately, the riches that we have are the riches that God shares with us.  The best of those are what are within: faith, hope, and love.  Those cannot be quantified by anyone but God, and when he counts them it is to know how much he is giving us to give away to others.  For all the criticism that the Church comes in for, there are still many more times than not that we get it right.

            At this time last year, we were just beginning to ask how we could use the newly-renovated kitchen at the back of this building to do something for others.  That was the right question to ask, and if you want to know the right answer, then you should drop by St. Peter’s some Monday night when dinner is being served.  Only, don’t come to serve (unless, of course, it’s your turn – and we do have a signup sheet).  Just come and sit down and meet the people who eat there.  Eat with them.  Some of the guests are grumpy and tired.  Some of them are worried about their bills or their health.  Some of them are glad to have a good meal – and I assure you, the meals are good.  Some of the people are glad to have company to eat with.  Some of them just want to be left alone for a few minutes.  Some of them don’t want to talk and some of them don’t know how to stop talking.  None of them, though, would be there if somebody – in this case, us – hadn’t said, “Are we forgetting anyone?”  Because sometimes we do that.

            But Jesus never does.  And wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he’s there with them.