Our readings this week seemed hit or miss to me. In the OT, we have the story of Esther. Actually, we have part of the end of the book of Esther and part of the story that gives rise to the Jewish celebration of Purim. Like Song of Songs a couple weeks ago, the book does not mention the name of God at all. Yet, it is clear in the book that God is nudging history where it needs to go. The book, of course, makes some modern preachers uncomfortable, as it ends with a Jewish uprising that results in more than 75,000 of their enemies dead. They should probably be made more comfortable by the fact that the Jews, although entitled by edict of King Ahasuerus, take no spoils. Reminiscent of the holy wars in Deuteronomy, the spoils of these skirmishes are left to God, reminding us that the Jews recognized Yahweh was at work in their deliverance and in their ability to destroy their enemies. As you can tell, on the day after our big barbecue, I discerned neither would y’all be up for that involved a teaching, and I seriously questioned whether I was energetic enough to give it the care it deserves.
The Gospel lesson is, unlike Esther, very familiar, or at least it should be. Given some conversations with some clergy friends this week, I wonder whether we really inwardly digest Jesus’ warnings to those of us given cures? Too many seem not care about those in their charge and certainly do not seem to worry a whit about millstones, even though Jesus seems rather emphatic in this passage. Better still, most of us have sat through sermons where the preacher explained the hyperbole of the passage when it comes to plucking out eyes or cutting off feet or cutting off hands. I wonder, though, if we really pay attention to Jesus’ warnings about Hell in this passage. How bad must Hell really be if Jesus is willing to use these hyperboles?
As you can tell, I ended up in James, sort of by default. I was certain y’all did not need to be encouraged to rise up and kill your enemies by a sermon on Esther. I was fairly confident that we knew the passage of Mark well enough, even if we do not always take the warnings seriously. The Psalm would have required some significant unpacking that would have led us to the OT story or the Exodus and then to real life. None of y’all wanted to sit through that, and I was pretty sure I did not want to stand through that! My problem with the sermon on James was that it was not a typical attempt to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It was more of an attempt to give Adventers the tools to evaluate themselves. That means, of course, it’s not a great sermon for visitors. Visitors often remark that they feel like they walked into the middle of a conversation between us and God. In some ways they really that, but in other ways they do not feel a part of the conversation. Today will, I think for them, tend toward the latter.
Our Sunday morning Bible Study class, led by Larry Douglass recently spent a good bit of time on James. If you have any particular question about the letter, feel free to ask them. Better still, please join them on Sunday mornings as they continue their study of the Word of God—right now they are learning all about talking asses and Balaam! Not to bore you with too many details about the book, but its authorship has been attributed to the brother of Jesus, James, also the first bishop of Jerusalem. Modern scholarship likes to wrestle with those questions. A couple commentaries I read this week asserted that the book was probably based on one of James’ last sermons and then edited after his martyrdom and disseminated to the churches in the Diaspora. Certainly, it is an authoritative book. More than half of the verses include imperative or command verbs. You and I know these as “Clean up your room,“ “Eat your vegetables,” and “Pick up your dirty clothes.” Such commands are given by one in authority and are expected to be obeyed. As to their other claims, I can speak only as authoritatively as they!
Modern scholarship tries hard to forge a contrast between Paul and James. I think their efforts are a big waste of time and, quite frankly, doomed to end in error. James does famously instructs us that “Faith without works is dead,” just as Paul reminds us that faith is what God credits as righteousness. I cannot imagine that either man, though, would find fault in the tagline of the other. They might disagree with one another’s emphasis, but I imagine both, having been well-versed in the torah, would be shocked to find modern Christians trying to place them at enmity with one another. James certainly agrees that our faith in Christ causes God to impute His righteousness towards us, and its that imputation and indwelling of the Holy Spirit that causes us to do the good works that we do, not some misplaced effort at works righteousness. Similarly, Paul always expects that the disciples’ faith will be evidenced by their love toward one another, by their care and concern of the needy, and by their willingness to lay down their lives for others. Both are writing to and caring for communities in different places, both physically and spiritually, but I do not think they would be happy with the fact that some modern theologians try to champion one over the other, let alone against one another.
What brought me, in the end, I think to this letter is the self-evaluation that is happening in some corners of the parish. I’m not sure the reason, but I have had a lot of Adventers, maybe as many as two dozen, spend some time these last few weeks wondering if we have changed, if we have changed enough, if we are making a mistake, and whether I have given up on us. As I listened to them and asked Adventers to vocalize better the things with which they are wrestling, it often comes back to the several year old self-discernment among you that you were a country-club. If you are visiting today, one of the self-descriptions Adventers used during their search process was that they were a country club looking to get more focused on being a church. To many clergy, such language was a put off. To the bishop, and later to me, it was a description that captured some Adventers, though I still, even after nearly four years among them, have not learned what benefits one got from the “country club.”
Part of the concern, of course, is the launch of the new feeding ministry and the associated information we have gleaned as a result of that launch. Many of us thought hunger was not a big issue around us a few months ago. We have distributed somewhere between 2000 and 2200 pounds of food over the last two months in our community with very, very, very little organization and promotion. Heck, the ministry does not even have a name yet! Unbeknownst to most around here, we have helped our own, we have helped our neighbors, we have helped those who serve us in this community, and we have clearly made an impact at one of the local schools. Best of all? Because of the financial support of Adventers, the funding for the ministry has come from what the Vestry might call “irregular sources” at a level which has meant the new ministry need not come out of operational budget. Better even still? The funding levels have meant we could give the food to those in need rather than charge them! And still there is money for a couple more months. When I arrived, I promised y’all in public and in private conversations that money follows ministry. The glaring lack as an outside observer back then was that we had no ministry, no purpose. We may or may not yet, God will certainly tell us, but there are worse appellations by which to be known than as “the church who tried to feed people.”
Part of the concern is regarding our corporate life together has been the changeover. Folks notice when other folks leave; folks notice when new folks show up. Why the turnover? What does it mean? In some cases, Adventers have been absent because of health issues. We do a bad job of sharing those with one another, and I will speak more to that in a few moments. But, in some cases, people have left for other parishes or just drifted away. Some have shared their reasons; others have left us wondering. Being a good Episcopalian congregation, we are always worried about change – it is not for no reason we are called God’s Frozen Chosen! So Adventers have wrestled with that issue, too.
Part of the problem, I think, is that y’all know me better, and I know you better. I know the first year I was intentional in my efforts not to change anything, unless it was clearly coming from the parish. Part of that was so I could see simply how Advent really worked. Who did what around here? What voices were respected? What whispers were ignored? Add to that the fact I am rather introverted, and we needed time to get to know one another better. Now, when I speak about something, I can be a little more blunt. Even if I choose not to say anything, y’all have become better readers of my tone or body language. Silent communication is probably flowing much better between us now. So also, I hope, is trust. Some among us thought I might view Advent as a stepping stone parish or deep pocket solution or some other benefit accruing spot as befitting a great country club. I think our time among you, and the way that we live, plus a gazillion conversations, have helped people understand me better and why I came, why I stay, why I continue to hope and pray for us as a parish, and even why sometimes I wish I had the power of the lightning bolt to speed things along!
I also recognize that I am probably not the one to lead Advent into its next historical moment. Much of my calling has been to reawaken in you that faith you had, that spiritual DNA that lay dormant here for some years. Clearly, I am an evangelical in the classic sense of the word. How do we spread the kingdom of God best in our community? How do we get others who are not yet members of this body to join us in the serving of and glorifying of God in our community? At some point, given my focus, there will need to refocus on the needs of the congregation. We don’t focus much on that now because of our collective age. Ideally, as James points out today, a healthy congregation has an eye on the world around it and an eye on itself. For too long our eyes were focused on us. It took a particular impassioned leader to pry our eyes away from our country club bellies and look to the world. I recognize and understand, though, we need to keep an eye on ourselves, just not necessarily in the ways that we did.
Are we at Advent more of a country club or more of a church today? It’s a question with which we should all be wrestling in prayer and in discernment with the Holy Spirit. When folks have come in to ask me that question, or close variations, I make a few mad by putting the question back to them. What do you think? James gives us a couple evidences to which we should look.
Are any among you suffering? One of the very few changes I made was the introduction of the Healing Service on Sunday’s. Yes, y’all were patient and willing to try it if it might get important people in the RC or Anglican church here. For those who have come in more recent times, one of my “selling points” to the congregation was that Justyn and Francis were adamant that churches needed to reclaim their position as healing communities. Far too few churches pray for and anoint with oil the sick and suffering. Of those that do, most make it a weekday service rather bringing it front and center as a main part of their corporate worship. I put it front and center, in consultation with the folks on Liturgy and Worship, but only four times a year. Yet, even in those limited numbers, how many folks have experienced a miraculous healing? I am often amazed at what constitutes a miracle in the eyes of another Christian. I long for and look for those incredibly flashy evidences. God, though, especially at Advent, seems to rejoice in quiet curveballs. Time and time and time again, Adventers share how God responded to my and their prayer, not as I hoped He would or necessarily prayed that He would, but as what was best for them. More amazingly, He has done these “mundane” works in such a way that even Bartimaeus could see His sovereign hand amongst us.
Of course, how many people hate that service? How many Adventers, in particular, hate the time spent in prayer for another? How often do we wish that service would go faster, and so we skip that service? Or, to flip the coin over, how many of us refuse to seek healing? How many of us think to keep our mouths shut, our needs to ourselves, rather than sharing with the Body we call Advent of our need? Time and time again after the Healing service, Adventers come to me asking me to pray and anoint them privately because they do not want other Adventers that they are struggling. I have had Adventers with cancer, with vision problems, with musculature problems, with relationship problems intentionally withhold such need simply to keep up appearances. When we who are in need refuse to share that need, we are being selfish and stunting the growth of others among us. There are Adventers with the gift of prayer, there are Adventers with the gift of loving service among us. When we keep our suffering to ourselves, we deprive them of their opportunity to serve God and grow in their understanding of how He uses them to His glory! Does that sound like we’ve made the complete turn?
Confession. Hoo boy. That was an issue that came up this week in a big way. It’s always fun as a priest to get to tell someone they must repent. Everyone, Adventers especially, respond so well to that instruction. By the way, if you are visiting today, you might have figured out that I, and many of them, received a double share of sarcasm. We like to claim it was from the Holy Spirit, but it is, admittedly, hard to be sure.
Apart from the corporate confession each time we celebrate the Eucharist, how many of us are willing to confess to one another when we sin against them; even more rarely, how many of us are willing to listen to confession? We give great lip service to the priesthood of all believers in the Episcopal Church, don’t we? We claim to want to value the ministry of everyone in the church. But do we? More importantly, do we at Advent? Be honest with yourself, how well do you do seeking out those you have wronged at Advent? Be more honest with yourself, how well do you do granting forgiveness, reminding yourself that you forgive because He first forgave you? I know. That was another cheap shot. We are exhausted from the barbecue. We are tired. And the Holy Spirit nearly ripped our underwear on that spiritual wedgie. James this morning reminds us of the central nature of confession in the Christian community. When we wrong each other, we should be seeking each other out to apologized. Just as significantly, when someone seeks us out to apologize, we are called by God to forgive them in His name. It’s both an incredible privilege and a weighty responsibility, isn’t it? We like to judge the apology; we like more to judge the effect of the sin against us. We are slow to forgive. Yet James reminds us that such behavior is central to the well-being of the Christian community. So, I ask again, does it sound like we have made that pivot from a country club to a church?
It’s at this point that James brings up the illustration of Elijah. My guess is that some of you wrestled with me a bit over whether you need the Rite of Confession or should be granting forgiveness. That’s ok. It does not require a spiritual superhero to make that possible. I often think of Elijah as the “Whining Prophet.” I know, Elijah has some great miracles attached to his name. Elijah raises the widow’s son from the dead. Elijah prays the prayer that closes the heavens with respect to rain for more than three years. Elijah is the prophet who does battle with all the prophets of Ba’al, mocking the prophets and their idol during the battle. Elijah is the prophet who is carried up to heaven in the whirlwind. Elijah, along with Moses, is present during the Transfiguration of our Lord. Jesus speaks with him and Moses about His upcoming death and Resurrection—talk about being on the inside of salvation history. I could name more deeds of power and honorifics, but to do so, I think, separates him from us. James does not want that. James wants us to understand that God chose to work through Elijah, just as He desires to work through you and through me. Our response, not our personalities, is what matters to God. He can mold us, shape us, and disciple us, but only if we agree to be used by Him, to think of and treat Him truly as Lord. What makes Elijah special is nothing inherent in him, just as there is nothing inherently special in each of us! What makes us special, what distinguishes us is that God has chosen us and to work through us!
What else distinguishes the people of God from other secular gatherings? Discipleship. How well are you participating in discipleship opportunities? By that, I mean, what kind of effort are you putting into knowing the mind and heart of God? How well are you attuning yourself to His desire for you and the world around you? That’s the theological way of asking whether we are studying God’s word in Scriptures well enough. That’s the theological way of asking whether we are attuning ourselves to God through prayer, either as a personal devotion or corporate exercise such as Lectio Divina. That’s the theological way of asking whether the worship of God is of primary importance in our lives, as we were all reminded this summer during our study of the shema. That’s the theological way of asking if we are participating in small groups that address the needs in our lives, be they the challenges of parenting adult children or wrestling with questions about our faith. That’s the theological way of asking what kind of stewards are we with our time, talents, and treasures.
I know. We’re tired. These are unfair questions the day after that fantastic but tiring event of yesterday. It was cruel for the lectionary editors to select this reading for this day however many years ago. Do notice, though, I’m not giving you your answers. I am asking you to evaluate your answers to those questions in full conversation, full dialogue, with God. Is He the most important person in our lives? Do we truly appreciate what He has done for us in the life and work and death and Resurrection of His Son? Do we really believe ourselves capable of grasping His promises, however tenuously, here while on earth? Do we really think He can make of us other Elijah’s, other Deborah’s, other Hannah’s, other Joseph’s, other Peter’s, other Mary’s, or other James’? Or do we think we are impossible clay for Him to mold?
James brings up one more important task of the disciple, and I have mentioned it earlier in the “drift away” comments. I promised I would get back to it. Do not raise your hands, but who has drifted away from the Body of Christ during your time at Advent? I’m not talking about people who left Advent for Good Shepherd or St. George’s or even other denominations. Who do you know that has drifted away from the Body of Christ? Put differently, how do you know those other folks just left Advent because they wanted better preaching, more youth opportunities, less fighting, or whatever excuses? Somebody asked them where they were. Too often, brothers and sisters, folks drift away. They sleep in on a rainy cloudy Sunday because they are tired. The babies get younger and play soccer or whatever. Golf or NFL football replaces God as the most important thing in their lives. They don’t need the Body to worship God.
Discipling is like training for a sport. It’s easy to slip back into old habits. The world competes for our time, and we forget who created time. We think we are lovingly serving our children by dragging them from club to club or athletic contest to athletic contest, when, in reality, we are cutting them off from knowing the One person in the universe who truly, utterly, and unconditionally loved them. Then we are shocked, as they get older, that He’s just not that important in their lives. It works for us, but they are fine without Him. We, more often than not, say nothing. You know, Barbara Jones and I spent Thursday morning at a Commission on Aging Event this week. They pounded home the idea that loneliness has the same physical effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Tons of you are in health care, so you can speak better to the physical consequences than I ever could. It impacts our heart and lungs, it impacts our diet and weight, and it impacts our mental health. If only there were an antidote! Wait, there is!
We moan and complain and whine and whimper about the modern age. Nobody has time for sitting on the porch sipping tea in a rocking chair watching the world pass by. No we don’t know our neighbors, we exchange information with our friends and family with 140 character limit texts, and we’d rather stare at our phones than interact with other, live human beings.
This body, this gathering of brothers and sisters ought to be the antidote to loneliness and drift away. I wish you had an opportunity to hear folks from my side of the conversations. This might shock you all, but most folks don’t come because I’m eye candy or a fantastic preacher. They are not drawn to Advent because of the loving care with which we conduct liturgy or the emphasis we place on programs. They come because one of you invited, or rather re-invited them. I get the sheepish apologies. You know, Father, I had tickets for a Titans game and then my grandson had a soccer match and then my other granddaughter had a gymnastics competition and before I knew it, I’d been gone x number of weeks or months. Then, so-and-so called me. Or, I ran into so-and-so at this club or this restaurant or whatever. They reminded me they missed me, and they reminded me I missed them.
Let that sink in for a second. They weren’t re-drawn into the Body because of the fancy “church” things. They were drawn back in because they were missed or because they missed. A few are here this morning. Ask them why they left for a bit. Ask them what brought them back. Of course, I used the imaginary sign for church things. That was intentional, James clearly understands the importance of fellowship in the life of the disciple. No doubt when you read this passage, or rather listened to Rosemary read it to us this morning, you had in mind those who left the Christian faith for other religions. Read James again. If anyone wanders from the truth and is brought back by another. What more important truth is there than the worship and adoration of God for the saving work He has done for us in Christ Jesus?!
And here’s the cool part. James, the brother of Jesus. The guy who probably gave him noogies as a brother and thinks that those of us whose brothers and sisters think they are god in our lives get off easy! James reminds us that they simply act of bringing another back into the fold will cover a multitude of sins. I know, we want to put that work on the shoulders of our professional Christians. Why don’t we want the benefits that James says comes from simply reaching out to those not here? Why are we willing to let them continue their drift after a few weeks? A few months? A few years? In some ways, I wish this would have been last week’s readings. How much more meaningful would some of those conversations have been yesterday, had we been re-inviting those who have drifted away and not found their way to another gathering of the Body of Christ?
All of this, of course, allows us to answer that question I posed at the beginning. James’ letter is addressed to groups of God’s people gathered throughout the Diaspora. More than that, though, James’ letter allows us even to evaluate ourselves in light of God’s revealed purposes for us. How are we doing attuning ourselves to our Father in heaven? How would He do our performance evaluations as His chosen ambassadors? Hopefully, you and I can point to some things we do well and things upon which we need to work. Similarly, when it comes to the corporate, that is the body called Advent’s, work to which He calls us, how are we doing. No doubt each of us can think of things we do well and things we do poorly, indeed.
The great news, the Gospel news, is that all He requires is that we repent of our sins and ask of Him the grace and power to try and succeed the next time, be we the ones who ignored the nudges of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the voices of those around us crying for help, those who fought hard to be self-sufficient and not allow our brothers and sisters to exercise their ministerial gifts, those who relate much better to a whining Elijah or a human things focused Peter, a body which came to self-identify as a country club, or even the ones who drifted away. There is, quite frankly, no limit to what He can accomplish with those with willing and contrite hearts.
In His Peace,