Saturday, September 29, 2018

Not Head Vs. Heart

I've been reading and praying and thinking about the book of James all this month, calling James's letter "Practical Christianity", both in my head and aloud.  "James is practical Christianity," I've been telling my congregation, week after week, with his advice about taming our tongues, putting faith into action, taking care how we treat one another, how we treat others.

However, when I think of this week's subject, healing prayer, the word "practical" does not immediately spring to mind.  Is it "practical" to pray for healing?  Or is it more practical to make an appointment with your doctor?  What does it mean to include this last segment in James' letter in a series about practical Christianity?

When I was growing up, we did not pray for healing, at least not overtly.  There were no special services for healing in my church.  There were no special liturgies for healing in our prayer book.  Somewhere along the line I heard rumors that the Pentecostals did, indeed, pray for healing, but we didn't.

And then, somewhere along the line, that changed.  At first, the change was just in the books for pastors.  There was an option to do a "Service of the Word for Healing," if you wanted to.  Who wanted to?  As it turned out, some people wanted to pray for healing, maybe not exactly the way the Pentecostals did, but somehow.  And now, with our more recent hymnal and prayer book, the service for healing is right there, where everyone can see it.

What changed?  Is it practical?

I was talking about this with a friend one day last week, thinking about my own faith tradition, and how much our faith has become a product of the Enlightenment.  We have fully embraced scientific methods and reading the Bible historically.  I had the opinion that perhaps faith had become too much about thinking the right things.  Perhaps a service of healing brings the heart and feeling back into faith.

Head Vs. Heart.

It seemed right to me.  Faith can't stay in your head.  It has to get down to your heart.  In fact, someone said to me once, after a healing service that, "If was the first time he had felt anything in church in a long time."  That seemed to seal the deal.

But it was not more than a few minutes later that I realized that I was wrong.  First of all, I don't think that we want to "turn off our brains" in the 21st Century.  And I don't think that it is the presence of feeling that makes healing prayer services so compelling.

Maybe it's this:  services of healing proclaim the truth that God does not just care about our souls, but about our whole lives, including our bodies.  God cares about our whole lives, and right now, not just later  God cares, and we also care for one another, body and soul and strength and mind.

Faith is not a head trip.  Faith is not a heart trip either.  Faith is a whole-life trip, a whole-body trip.

In my last congregation, we offered prayers for healing once a month, at the close of the service.  One of the pastors always went to the doors, to greet the people who were leaving.  And one of us always stayed back, with words and anointing oil, to pray for people who came forward.  And so often there was a long line, people who wanted me to pray for them, or for someone else they knew.  There was one woman who always came up and prayed for our congregation.

We take our whole lives, and we offer them to God, and we pray for God to heal them and use them, somehow.  And we pray for healing for our politics, and our families, for our inner lives, and our communities.  There is not one part of us that we leave outside of God's influence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Sermon: Taming the Tongue

James 3:1-12

            May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen

            Just a couple of weeks ago, I received a surprise message from a friend.  It was late Wednesday evening, and it just popped up in my messages, and I opened it, and a strange voice began to speak.   She had sent me a Video of a man in a car. He had tattoos on his arm, and he knocked on the car window as if to get my attention.   And you know what the Message was?  It was so simple:  “Hey you! You’re awesome!  Keep doing what you are doing!  I love you.”

            Well, I have to say that even though this was a simple message, and even though I didn’t know the guy in the video, something about these words was really encouraging to me, and so, I sat down on that Wednesday evening and I shared this video with a bunch of people I knew. Just randomly.  

            And it made me think about the power of words:  our words. Simple words.  
            Maybe we don’t think enough about how powerful a few words can be.  Right?  
            Last week we heard that words are not enough.  We need to do things – works of mercy, works of love. 
             But this week, James is reminding us that words are powerful, that they can affect us in powerful ways.    Word can help and they can hurt.

            James, however, teaches us more about the power of words to hurt  -- to set a fire we can’t put out.   
            The tongue is a small member, he says, but it boasts of great exploits.  
            Sure, we can say, as we did when we were children, that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” – but is it true?  
            Sometimes words wound more deeply than sticks or stones….  

            When I think about the power of words to hurt – it’s easy to go to the big abuses first – gossip and lies and slander
           Like a fire, a small hurtful untruth can spread into a huge forest fire of lies – There are also the ways words of can be used to make fun of or belittle people 
            – I think of the little girl I knew in kindergarten that everyone called “daddy long-legs” because she was tall for her age, or the boy I knew in Japan who everyone laughed at because he didn’t know the answers to the questions.  
            He was daydreaming and everyone thought he was stupid.  Until one day he won a contest for the best invention in the prefecture. 
            I remember hearing a story of a woman who was keeping vigil at her father’s bedside when he was dying.  
            And when he awoke, he turned to her and said, “Well, I guess you wasted your whole life, didn’t you?” 

            What was it that made him say such hurtful words as he was dying?  
            James is telling the truth – our words are powerful.  What we say to one another makes a difference.  
            And maybe we don’t think before we speak because – well – we just don’t realize how powerful our words can be  -- or maybe – we really do – and there are times when the urge to hurt and destroy someone is inside us.   

            So there are a lot of examples of the ways that our tongues can be unruly – untamed, and that we can use them to hurt.  
            And even if we are wise enough to listen more than we speak, and even if we are guarded enough not to spread gossip 
            – I still think there are ways that our tongues are untamed – when we tell a secret without thinking, when we say something and then realize later it was insensitive.  

            There’s something larger going on here than any particular thing that we say – and it is reflected in verse 9  “With our tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”   
            Blessings and curses. It is about how we see others who are made in God’s likeness – and what we say to them, about them.  
            How can we bless God – and at the same time curse those who are made in God’s image?  With our words.  With our tongues…. 

            So to train our tongue is not just a training in what NOT to do – to guard your tongue, be careful what you say and how you say it 
            – to train our tongue is to learn to bless each other rather than to curse.  
            It is one of the reasons that the final step in the Faith 5 – that we teach families – is Blessing 
            Every evening parents and children share the highs and lows of the day, read a scripture verse, talk about it, pray and – last of all – bless each other.  
            “You are an awesome child of God.”  “Jesus loves you.”  “May God hold you in the palm of his hand”   
             It is so important to learn to bless one another – with words of truth that God asks us to pass along.  

            This is not simply being Pollyanna, and it’s not about telling people lies in order to make people feel good.  
            God doesn’t ask us to give empty compliments, but he does remind us that every single person we meet is created in the image of God, not to be ridiculed, not to be diminished.  
             It’s a hard world we live in sometimes, full of meanness and tragedy and sorrow, as well as joy and abundance.  
            And God gives us the gift of blessing.  Because words are so powerful.  More than we know.

            So I received that video, the one that said, “YOU are awesome!” and it warmed my heart somehow. 
            And I sat down and sent it ahead to a few people.  And you know what?  I was surprised to hear back from a few people right away.  
            A single dad, saying, “Wow, I really did need that right now.”  A college student, saying, ‘You have no idea what that meant to me.”    A high school student vowing to send it along. 

            The power of the tongue. The power of blessing.  

            I went to visit a shut in recently.  
            We sat and talked about our lives, our families, troubles and ailments.  We read the scriptures, and prayed and we shared communion.  And at the end, I said the benediction, the traditional one, the one I’ve known since I was a little girl.  
            May the Lord bless you and keep you,” I said.  
“May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.  May the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you peace.”  
            And afterwards she said, ‘You know, somehow when I hear those words, I feel calm.  I feel comforted.  
            And I said, “Well then, the words are doing what they are supposed to do.  
            They are God’s words of blessing to us – and they were given all the way back when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness  And we still say them today.”

            And she said, “Well, it seems like we are still in the wilderness today sometimes.”  

            It’s true.  And in the middle of the wilderness, God gives us powerful words, the gift of blessing.  
            Words not our own, words that belong to God, but can harness the power of our tongues for God’s purposes.  

            Repeat it after me, to your neighbor
            “May the Lord bless you and keep you….” 
            May the Lord’s face shine on you and be gracious to you
            May the Lord look upon you with favor
            And give you peace.”

            In the midst of all of the Bad words in the world – there is a Good Word – for you, from God.
            His name is Jesus. 

            You – are Awesome. He loves you.  He died for you.  He lives in you.  Pass it on.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Things that Should not Be

It was just a little over a month ago that I was in my hometown for my brother's wedding.  My brother asked me to officiate, and I felt honored to be there.  It wasn't a big wedding, but it was such a joyous occasion, to be able to share in the love of my brother and his new wife, and see so many of my cousins come out to be a part of the celebration.  We all grew up together, but we don't get together very often now.

Then, just two days after the wedding, on Monday morning, I was back home in Texas, and I saw a Facebook update from another of my cousins.  He was grieving.  He was telling us about the death of his sister.

My cousin Karen had been fighting cancer for several years.  She had setbacks and she had victories. I have kept up with her life mostly on Facebook these days, but when were children they lived just a few blocks from us for a little while.  She was a few years younger than I was back then, and very shy.  I remember she loved kittens.  She grew into a beautiful and talented young woman.  She grew up and had babies.  She played the harp.  She was also someone who pursued God and faith intensely.    And she had cancer.

For so many reasons, her death didn't seem real to me.  Maybe it was simply because we had lived apart for many years.  We had had only virtual conversations.  Maybe it was the idea that when we were celebrating my brother's wedding, she was dying.  Maybe it was just the memory that she was my younger cousin, the little girl with blue eyes who loved kittens.  How could it be?  She should still be alive.

That's what I believe, that there are things that should not be.

It was just about a week later that I got a message from a colleague.

A young pastor that I knew had just had a serious heart attack.  He wanted me to know, and he wanted me to join those who were praying day and night.

I had known this young woman since she was a seminary intern at my congregation.  Bright and articulate, full of passion and clarity about her call:  that's how I remember her.  She played the violin.  She taught us lectio divina.  She worked closely with the youth and the youth director.  After she graduated, she spent a couple of years in the Pacific Northwest, and then returned to our area to be a valued colleague at a neighboring congregation.  She was a fierce voice for justice, for inclusion.

She was the pastor of a vibrant congregation; she had a husband and three young children.

We prayed passionately.  It was just the sort of occasion made for miracles.  And that was what we prayed for.  We prayed for her heart to be strong.  We prayed for a full recovery.

We did not get what we wanted.

It's true.  We don't know the wisdom of God.  But I will also say:  these were not selfish prayers.  Our friend was a gift to us -- but she was also a gift to the world, someone who was doing healing work here.

There are some things that should not be.  The world is not yet what it should be, what it will be.

If you do not believe me, these are the words of the prophet Isaiah, longing for a different world,

"For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind....
no more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed."

Brothers and sisters,
do not be afraid to grieve.
We long for a new world.
It is meet and right so to do.

There are some things that should not be.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sermon: "Faith and Works"

James 2:1-18 

            May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen

            I had my fifteen minutes of fame a number of years ago when I was in a church production of “My Fair Lady.”  
             I still remember with affection that I got to play the leading lady – Eliza Doolittle – transformed from cockney flower girl to a real Lady.            But when I read James this week, I couldn’t help thinking of one particular song that Eliza sings, never the end of the play.  
            She sings to a young man who is professing his undying love for her.   
            While he goes on and on about his undying affection, she finally interrupts him, saying, “Words! I’m so sick of words! ‘  If you’re in love – show me!”  

            Show me – that’s what James is saying to us in this application of practical Christianity this week
            And what he wants us to show – is our faith.  In the last verse we read today he say, “Okay, you say I have faith and you have works. 
            Show me your faith apart from your works   -- and I by my works – will show you my faith.   

            James is throwing down the gauntlet here!  
            He’s making a challenge – show me your faith – and I’ll show you mine!  But just who is he challenging?  
            At first, it might seem to be none other than the apostle Paul.  
            After all, isn’t he the one who said, we are saved by grace through faith?  
            Paul is adamant that our works don’t get us anywhere with God.               It’s only faith that saves us.  But James begs to differ – or at least it seems that way.  

            But I don’t think James has an argument with Paul – not really.      The real question is – what is faith?  
            What do you think when you hear the word ‘faith’?  
            Do you think of  a “statement of faith”, like the Apostles Creed – and that saying “I agree with that” – that’s faith?  
            Faith is agreeing with a set of doctrines – perhaps --  but to both Paul and James it’s more than that.  Faith is trust.  
            Or to put it another way, we don’t just have faith in the doctrines, but faith a person, faith in Jesus, faith in God.  
            And when we say Trust – there’s action involved in that.  If we trust someone, we – just naturally – act on that trust.  
            Like Abraham, in the Old Testament. When God told him to “go to the country I will show you,” he went. He trusted God, and so he followed.

            But James is, in particular, I think, speaking of acts of mercy.  Works of mercy to others.   
            He begins by talking about the divisions we make – partiality to some, against others.   
            In his church – or synagogue, he has seen people be deferential to those who are rich, and dismiss those who are poor.  
            He warns against this – after all, he says – can’t we learn better how to trust God from those who are poor and who have to rely on God’s goodness more than others? 
             It’s also tempting to pay more attention to the people who we think can help us in our lives, and pay less attention to those we might think are less useful.   (whether rich or poor – or young or old – friend or stranger)
            But practical as that might be in life “in the world” – James doesn’t want us to do that.  
            No – there’s something else at stake for him here.  And it’s not about doing “good works” to prove to God how good you are – and it’s not even about doing “good works” to prove to JAMES how good you are.  
            It’s about something else entirely.   It’s about mercy.  It’s about the mercy shown to us in Jesus – and how did it become real to US?          Someone – somewhere – probably SHOWED us.  Someone – somewhere – probably forgave us.  Someone – somewhere – made the gospel real to us.  

            The example that James uses is a person who is naked or hungry.  If you see that person, and just say, “Bless you.  Be warm and fed”, but don’t DO anything, what good is it?  
            The cold and hungry person, the sick and lonely person – needs more than that.  
            They need the gospel in more than just words.  

            Martin Luther said it best.  He said. “God doesn’t need your good works. But your neighbor does.”   
            That’s what James is trying to say as well.   
            When we make our faith visible in works – then our neighbor experiences the grace of God – through us.  
            And by the way – we don’t get to choose our neighbors – they are given to us by God – God shows us – the ones he wants us to reach out to, share with, listen to.
            There was once a volunteer youth worker named Daryl.  
            He had just started volunteering, and it ended up that one of his jobs was to go to the nursing home with the youth group, when they did a church service once a month..  
            So he went, although he had his misgivings.  
            He didn’t really know what to do.  
            He was leaning against a wall, between two wheelchairs, when suddenly someone took his hand. 
            He looked, and it was an old man, in a wheelchair, who had reached up to grab his hand.  Daryl didn’t let go, as the youth did their nursing home service.  
            The man didn’t say anything.  At the end, for some reason, he didn’t want to let go.  
            He leaned over and said, “I’m sorry.  I have to go now, but I’ll be back next month.”  
            Then he found himself saying, ‘I love you.”

            Every month it was the same.  
            He stood by the old man, and he held his hand.  He found out that the old man’s name was Oliver.  So, when he had to leave, he leaned over and said, “I’m sorry, Oliver. I have to leave now.  I’ll be back next month.”  And then “I love you.”  

            Until one month the youth group came to the nursing home and Daryl didn’t see Oliver.  
            At first he wasn’t worried, but after awhile, he decided to go and search for him.  
            When he found Daryl’s room, he could tell his friend was dying.  He went into the room, and took Oliver’s hand.  
            There was no response. Daryl stood there for a long time. But then it was time for the group to leave.  
            Daryl said, “I’m sorry, Oliver, I have to go.  I love you.” Oliver squeezed his hand!  

            On the way out of the room Daryl met a young woman.  It was Oliver’s granddaughter.  
            She said, “I’ve been waiting to meet you.  My grandfather is dying you know.  

            She told Daryl that she was very close to her grandfather.  He had said something puzzling to her.  
            He said, “Can you say goodbye to Jesus for me?”  
            She couldn’t understand what he meant.  “Grandpa, what do you mean?  He’ll be the next person you’ll see!’

            Then her grandfather closed his eyes, smiled, and said, “you don’t understand.  Jesus comes to see me every month, and he might not know I’ve gone.” *story from Mike Yaconelli’s book, Messy Spirituality

            It’s true.  You also could be mistaken for Jesus some day. You might be the only Jesus someone ever meets.  Feed them. Give them shelter.  Hold their hand.  Show them.

            Show them the faith God has planted in you.  Show them that the grace God has given you – is for THEM, too.  

            You don’t have to prove anything -- to God.  God loves you already abundantly and unconditionally.  
            As for your neighbor -- Show them.