25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
“Hear now these words of scripture from the gospel according to Mark, chapter nine, verses thirty thru thirty-seven.”
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
“Having listened to these ancient words from the gospel of Mark, let us now open our hearts to what these words say to us now in this time and place.”
“Who is First?”
Often, as I choose our scripture lessons each week, I do so out of what is called the common lectionary; a listing of scriptures that lead us and pastor’s like myself week by week through the Biblical text in a systematic rhythm. This is done so that over the course of three years we can reflect on all the primary lessons and stories of the Bible. This is a good discipline for pastors who desire to teach and encourage others to explore the mysteries of the Bible. The drawback is that many scripture lessons are difficult, and it takes a great deal of effort and or creativity to see how they pertain to our lives here in the Twenty-First Century. I want to assure you, that given a challenge or a reason, I would preach on most any text of the Bible, if I thought it could more directly assist you in your faith journey in a more plain-spoken way. Consequently, I am inviting you: “To write down a question about (the) your faith, God, or the Bible (any verse of the Bible,) of which you wonder about.” /David Lose/ If there is something. A topic you want me to discuss in a sermon, go ahead and write it down. Pass it to me in writing so that I can be sure to grasp all that you are asking. I promise to grapple with any question you raise; then pray about it and do the very best I can to cast some light upon it for you.
Let us now bow our heads and join our hearts in prayer. Heavenly God of Mystery and Grace, open the eyes of our hearts and our very souls as we ponder and consider our scripture lesson this morning. We ask that you might please shine a light ‘upon the message’ that has been hidden within these ancient words. Words which were transcribed from the accounts of an oral tradition for several decades before being put into writing. Words, upon which many have put their faith in the hands of ancient transcriptions and subsequent translations into English… seeking to fully grasp the Spirit’s stirring within their hearts. As they, like we, seek nourishment for our journeys of faith this day. In your mystical and ancient name, we pray. Amen.
This morning’s lesson is one of four choices I had from the lectionary, as it is called, for me to choose from. Consequently, as we now turn to the message for this morning, our challenge is to see how we can turn this dialogue into a modern-day issue or problem that you need help resolving. Of course, we must consider its core meaning first, taking into consideration the context of a time which has long since passed, into the archives of ancient history. We begin by hearing that Jesus has started explaining that he shall sacrifice himself through his death, yet he shall rise from the grave. Surprisingly, we do not hear a conversation about their shock and or dismay surrounding what Jesus has said. (Perhaps they simply didn’t comprehend what he was saying.) Rather we are taken directly into a conversation about the disciples arguing about who is the greatest among them. In response Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” /Mark 9:35/ The irony here is so blatant that most of us perhaps do not see the connection. Let us see if we can see the contrast of this ancient conversation as it reflects into our own lives today.
Ultimately, Jesus is rebuking the disciples for their argument about who shall be the greatest. Let us pause here for a moment and consider a modern parallel. Have you ever witnessed a couple of children, who have chosen to spend time together? After a short time, they start to compete as they play. Surely you have witnessed this! Many games are set up to be competitive in nature, so this is actually… quite normal. Even as adults we still enjoy games that are competitive in nature, as we test our skills to see who has mastered the skills necessary to win in the competition. Competition or a healthy rivalry in of itself is good. We live in a democracy and free enterprise is the norm. In such a society as ours, competition, competitiveness is what helps us as consumers get cheaper and better products. Sports like football, baseball, basketball and of course golf, are very competitive in nature as well. If they were not what would be the point? So, being challenged to win or ‘be better than’ and excel, thus outdoing others… is something most of us, at least in our culture thrive on. Yet, based on the reprimand from Jesus, upon the disciples, we can assume that ‘at least in the heart and teachings of Jesus’ competition is not always appropriate. We can easily see that this is true in our society, even today. Although there are a great many whom do not see this as true.
Competition in games is quite alright. Competition in commerce, business, is good in a free enterprise system. On this, I believe we all agree. Yet, even in sports there are limitations. In a recent tennis match we learned that biases from umpires or disrespect of the rules of play by a competitor are improper and usually not tolerated. Well, let us say, that in our journeys of faith it is God whom sets the rules. And to complete our little allegory here let us make Jesus the umpire in the scene. The disciples were pushing the boundaries of faithful students following the lead of their teacher, Jesus. Perhaps they had heard Jesus say that one day he would die! Then they possibly were debating whom would take the lead as they endeavored to carry on the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Yet, Jesus saw this as another learning opportunity. In this narrative Jesus is the Umpire, but also, he is the Captain of the team and the Narrator of what followers of Jesus were to be like; if they truly wanted to follow him! Therefore, Jesus told them that the discuss about who was the greatest: was wrong and out of sync with what his message.
In our time-period we put the prime responsibility upon parents to teach their children the rules of the narrative of life. Some do this quite well and others seem to have skipped a class in learning to be parents. Take a moment and consider what is important to you or what has been important to how you have interacted with those under your care. As parents, many believe teaching love, kindness and respect, are some attributes that are high on the priority list for parents to pass on to the next generation, under their care and guidance. Others would add or put high priority on teaching the importance of caring for oneself, stressing health care and proper exercise routines. Still others would emphasize education, consisting of study habits – highlighting reading and writing skills. Others may focus on “the Golden Rule;” “doing unto others as you would want others to do unto you.” Perhaps as Christian leaders and teachers we might want to stress the teachings where compassion and justice are lifted-up; placing God in the number one spot in our lives. And this list can go on and on never-ending and vast. Clearly, every culture, race and creed have a bit of bias into which has first-priority. I am certain, as I look upon those of us here gathered, that we have an array of opinions, upon which we could share with one another – gleaning many and various lists of priorities.
Continuing the point which Jesus is making to his disciples, if we, like the early disciples, want to follow in the example and teachings of the man Jesus, the ‘adopted’ son of a carpenter and the ‘Chosen One’ of God: to be the Messiah; to be the Liberator and Savior; of all the children of God, we might need to adjust our thinking accordingly. As Christians, whom follow in Christ’s shadow, led by the Holy Spirit, we may need to set aside the norms of competition and realize that in winning the game of life we may lose in the eyes of God and thus be shut out of the Kingdom of Heaven! Clearly, Jesus was saying unto his early disciples, if you want entrance into my Kingdom, if you want to be considered winners, you will need to go to the back of the line, the back of the room; and you may need to do this more than once, and at inconvenient moments as well. Winners in heaven are the ones who give up their positions of power and influence… to stay behind, and make sure that even the weakest and smallest of God’s children are cared for. “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” /Mark 9: 35/ The rules of competition are set aside when we do the work of God in the name of Jesus the Christ!
“The two conditions of true greatness are humility and service; not to be the servant of friends, or kindred, or of a class, or even of church members, but of all, like Christ.” /B.W. Johnson/ Some quotes are timeless, as is the one I just said aloud. B.W. Johnson was a theologian in the Eighteenth-Century. His words and interpretations of the teachings of Jesus’ ring true today as surely as the words of Jesus still have impact on our choices and decisions here in the Twenty-First Century. Humility and service, not power and dominance are the catch words that capture how a disciple of Christ is meant to interact with others. If we are willing to become humble, allowing our personal pride and ego to take a backseat, when traveling upon the journey of faith, if we do this with a sincere desire to be kind and loving to those we meet along the way, then surely, we will be following in the teachings of Jesus the Christ. If we put service to others first on our action lists, if we do so willingly and in Christian love we will be utterly amazed at the results. As we examine who is first in the eyes of God, let us remember this teaching of Jesus as he interacted and instructed his early disciples: This is not a competition, this is to be a journey of faith which puts the needs of others ahead of our own.
“Hear now these ancient words recorded in the New Testament, the letter of James, chapter two, verses one thru ten and fourteen thru seventeen.”
1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 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, 3 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,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 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? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
“Let us now open our hearts to the words of this letter and their intended meaning. Let us listen with our hearts as to what this letter, attributed to James, is trying to say to us here in the Twenty-First Century.”
“Loving your Neighbor”
I live in a neighborhood that is quiet and friendly. The neighbors across the street wave to me and occasionally we stand in the yard and chat about our lawns or when the trash guy is going to swing by. The guy to the south of me gives me advice on how often to have someone mow my lawn. I didn’t take his advice. He only gets his lawn mowed once a month. Everyone else gets theirs done every week. The family to the north of us, well, I try to mind my own business. But, we are cordial to each other. They were the only ones who knocked on our door to welcome us to the neighborhood. The family down the street welcomed us as well when they were walking their dog in front of our new home. That was nice, and I learned later that he is a police office. Really good to have him living in the neighborhood! Judging one’s neighbors is something most of us do at some level or another. Of course, they have their opinions of me and my wife as well. Wonder how they are judging us?
The challenge today, from our scripture lesson is not about judging others, that’s God’s business; rather, the topic is loving our neighbors. Specifically, it says, loving our neighbors as ourselves! Of course, our writing, attributed to James, is quoting what we are told Jesus said to the first disciples when questioned by a religious leader, whom was trying to entrap him when he asked what is the greatest commandment? Of course, we know Jesus said: “we are to first love God and secondly to love our neighbor as ourselves.” /Matthew 29:37-39/ Many have played with this powerful message. It is not that complicated to understand. Jesus said to love God as our first-priority; or put God first in one’s life. Love God; turn to God first for everything. If you love God, you will be able to trust God with your life, all of it. Then we must love our neighbor like we love ourselves. These are not two separate thoughts. We don’t love ourselves first and our neighbors second. No, we are to do this all in the same sphere, not separately, thereby making Jesus’ simple reference to two commandments into three. Bearing this in mind let us move on.
Let us start with talking about what it takes to love God first! It takes genuine faith. It is one thing to say we have faith, yet another to ‘actually’ trust in God with complete faith. Faith is something that needs to go deep down into your being, your very soul. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is… what is the first thing you do in the morning? OK, after you use the bathroom, what is the ‘next’ first thing you do? If you said you fix breakfast or you take a shower… then you have not made a choice which puts God first in your life! Yes, I am pushing this point! Yet, somewhere in the beginning of or at the start of one’s day, we need to be reminded to acknowledge God’s presence in our life. Some of us have ‘really’ busy schedules and we are in a hurry when we get up. OK, I get that. Yet, the truth is, if we truly are trusting God with ‘all of’ our life, every element in it, at some point we need to invite God into our busy schedule. If you and I, if we are this busy, then we surely need to bring God into our day. A moment ago, we recounted how Jesus said God needs to be number one, the first commandment, loving God with all our heart, soul and minds! How can we do this if we do not stop for a moment and invite God into our day! Are we so busy, we think there is not enough time to invite God into our consciousness?! The truth is, when we are at our busiest, we shall need God more then ever!
Walking humbly with our God is a statement that we Christians need to know. Look around you, watch others as you proceed forward in your journey. Does it appear that the people you encounter are keeping God first in their lives? Does it appear that they are keeping the teachings of Jesus in their hearts? Are they showing signs of following in the examples set by Jesus? How can you tell? Well ask yourself a simple question: are they showing genuine compassion, as they interact with those around them or upon the lives they influence? When you study the gospel accounts of Jesus was he not genuinely compassionate with the people he interacted with? Hot and tired he stops by a well to get a drink of water! Out of simple compassion he talks with a Semaritan woman there and in the moments of their discourse he shows her compassion. This account is found in the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to John. Through the example Jesus set we are taught that being kind to others comes naturally, when we are following in the pathways of a loving God. We love our neighbors when we show genuine kindness to them. We love God when we follow the examples of Jesus. We love ourselves by loving God and by loving our neighbors along our pathways in life. It is that simple. One is not separate from the other. Just remember God first – you and your neighbor come after God.
Do we love our neighbors because it is the right thing to do? Have we finally come into sync with Jesus and are seeking to follow his example? Having learned to love our neighbors simply because we see them as our equals in the eyes of God, it is then that we can begin to love them just as God loves us. Having done this, we can now look at today’s lesson from the Letter of James and we can see how foolish it would be to not take heed of his suggestions. Surely, we must realize by this stage of our life’s journey that we are not meant to judge our neighbors, surely not at the level of scorn or disgust. Mild musing is one thing, yet, judgment is not ours but the right of our Creator alone to make! Loving a neighbor is not the same as making them your best friend. But it is something we need to bear in mind as life unfolds for us. They may need the kindness of their neighbor if they are to move forward with their lives. Remember always, the best way to love yourself is to love God and to show compassion and kindness for those around you… as you continue to grow as followers of the one we call Jesus.
When people lift-up Jesus they often speak of his examples of social justice. Social Justice, what is social justice? Is it just a fade or a symbol we display now and then to present ourselves as true followers of Jesus? When I ask this question, I am looking at the letter of James and examining what he is trying to say to us, today. As a church, we have been good stewards of social justice issues. This church has gone to great lengths to welcome everyone to journey with us, without judgement or distain for how they live their lives. As a church, we have gone way beyond just talking the talk of social justice. Yes, this church walks the walk. Because of this, we are a diverse group of folks. And yes, we can take pride in this. However, we must not get too smug and full of ourselves. There is plenty left to do. The battle for the needs and the rights of others continues ever onward, at a very slow pace. James was striving to clear the air with those he was speaking with. Letting them know they had a few more hills to get over before they reach perfection!
I think we all know we are not perfect. Only the Holy One of long ago has been judged to be faultless in the eyes of God Almighty! Therefore, we come together every week to worship collectively. We need each other to remind one another about the teachings and examples given to us by Jesus. Hence, we are working hard to be sure we can offer a Christian Education program to those whom join with us in this journey. As we live in the ebb and flow within the life of a living, breathing church, we continue to look for new avenues to serve the needs of others. When one endeavor stops being what we had hoped it would be – we strive to get clarity on yet another new vision of our mission together. Such is the journey of faith and trusting in God. We may find we need to readjust our relationship with God… when it has slipped from its rightful place in our lives. Therefore, let us be open to the critical self-appraisal of our ways, as this writing from James offers to us. When we find, that we have strayed from the true pathway which is laid out for us, let us come together to make any needed adjustments or realignments.
We are always looking for a few good volunteers to keep our commitments as we strive to do what is right and just in the community we seek to serve. Our life line as a small aging church is the new friends and members whom join us along the journey. We unit with them as we pray that this is the church community they have been seeking. We pray that they will see us for who we are and will not shy away from pointing out any flaws or weaknesses they see here. As they join with us on this adventure, this journey of faith, we celebrate as we will welcome them and their new talents and their new insights and suggestions. Together, we shall seek to do God’s will for this our church. Collectively, may we be good followers of Jesus and his teachings and good neighbors to those we interact with. May they be blessed as they bless us with their presence among us.
“Hear now these ancient words recorded in the New Testament, the letter of James, chapter one, verses seventeen thru twenty-seven”
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
“Let us now open our hearts to the words of this letter and their intended meaning. Let us listen with our hearts as to what this letter, attributed to James, is trying to say to us here in the Twenty-First Century.”
“Listen, Listen, Listen”
The art of listening is an attribute that brings with it a lot of benefits. If you are told how to get from your current location to the destination you have in mind, especially, when you are traveling in a far away location which is new to you, hearing the directions clearly the first time you ask, may save you a considerable amount of time and frustration. This is of course true only if the directions were accurate and were to the location you were seeking to find. This points out one true flaw to this whole concept of listening; especially, if you only listen with your ears. The one to whom you are listening needs to be someone you can count on to give you competent and accurate information. This is very, very important! It is quite evident that a great many of our youth as-well-as adults and even people whom seem to be very competent and successful are not listening to the right people. Saddly, some are listening to their own distorted inner voices. Others are listening to con artists that are preying on their naiveite. It is abundantly clear that many are lacking in experience, wisdom and judgement when it comes to worldly matters. Therefore, we need to pay careful attention to today’s teaching from the letter of James, in hopes that we will hear and learn more about how to be good listeners and good communicators.
Our writer this morning begins by telling us that recognition of generosity is the watch word when examining the many gifts which we all possess! James refers to God as the “Father of lights.” Many compare this imagery with Christmas lights or illuminations or the radiance of the gift of the Christ Child, Jesus. How-ever we grasp this, James is seeking to point out and remind us of the ‘word of truth’ which came through the gift of the Living God in the form of the man Jesus. He further infers and assumes we shall understand that in our baptism, into the realm of Christendom, we have been bathed in the Living and Holy Spirit of God. Thereby, it is an expectation that we shall bear the fruit of the living God. Essentially, it is our responsibility, to be careful as we move through our journey’s, to be diligent in our everyday jobs, our errands and our tasks, as-well-as our duties to be true to our calling. Having been baptized into the faith, the body of the Living Christ… we are charged with the task of passing on the love of God; being generous in our sharing of the ‘words of truth’, which Jesus has passed on to us. With these thoughts in mind let us examine the importance of our listening skills.
Again, our writer is pushing us, the listeners, to be aware there are many modes of listening. Quick is a key word in this. We are being told to listen quickly, meaning, don’t allow our biases or negative emotions to close the avenues of our listening skills. The word ‘profiling’ has become all to common a word used to describe how some are trained to be biased toward another, by the color of their skin or the slant of their eyes or the brogue or accent of their voice. These and other types of prejudice or narrow-mindedness can cause us to stop listening with an open heart to those we encounter along the way. When this happens, we are no longer listening with an ability to fully appreciate what is being shared with us. This is not the model of listening which Jesus taught nor is it the mode of listening which move forward the Christian message and movement! Rather, James is saying to us, slow down, slow way down before making quick judgements of others. He even interjects the word anger inferring that we may allow ourselves to prejudge another… based on intolerance and anger! This will negatively influence how we hear the opinions of those we have the opportunity to hear and witness to!
As Christians we are called to produce the fruits of righteousness as we interact with others, as we speak with our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in every setting in life. Virtue, honesty, and decency are characteristics of the righteous, not disrespect, insolence and rudeness. Opportunities present themselves every day. It is up to us to be open to each moment as it comes.
I was dropping off a shirt at the cleaners the other day. The woman waiting on me happened to be Hispanic. She has been working there for years as I have been going to the same cleaners for over twelve years now. She was polite as usual. We discussed the weather for a bit. There was a lull in the flow of customers and I took a moment to chat with her. She was listening to me and me to her. We started chatting about farm workers as I shared how I foolishly dressed like a northerner while putting down new sod on my lawn instead of like a field worker who understood the foolishness of sandals and short sleeve shirts and short pants, when doing such work. Before we finished chatting we had openly discussed bigotry, mine when I was younger! And how I had come to see my upbringing was wrong and how I had changed. I shared with her the diversity of this our congregation. She was truly in awe and grateful for the time we openly listened to each other with our hearts.
Our scripture lesson tells us “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” /James 1:22/ Every week, I find myself involved in writing another sermon and trying to find practical ways to live into the teaching. It is not always easy. Sometimes, God puts something on my plate of life, to cause me to pause and reflect. My encounter with the charming young woman at the cleaners was such a moment. It was a simple moment, nothing profound. But, yet, it punctuated my day and it felt that it uplifted hers in some way. The stories of Jesus, many of which are indeed profound and yes, even dramatic. Yet, somehow, I see Jesus more as a gently, loving man who went about his daily life in a more simplistic way. His humble acts of kindness as he encountered people along the journey of his short life were meant to be just that. It is only when his disciples tried to share those moments with others after his execution and resurrection that they become more closely scrutinized and ultimately dramatized to some degree or another. As we live out our days, let us practice the simple lessons and teachings of Jesus. Let us pay attention to those low-keyed opportunities to share our truths without dramatizing them and correspondingly to listen with our hearts to everyone we interact with when the opportunity arises.
Listening continues to be an action word. We have spoken of this in the past and this still applies in the present. When we do the will of God, when we are doers of the teachings of Christ, we shall be blessed in our doing. If we forget or neglect to open our hearts when we hear others, we shall fail to be good listeners and thus we will not be able to do as Jesus so simply taught us to do.
In recent conversations I have become more aware of how others see the church universal. Just let me pause for a moment and remind us of a truth. When I was young my mother taught me that when buying things like a bag of tomatoes, potatoes or even a basket of apples, it is important to sort them out and remove any that are over ripe or show signs of rot. She said, that one rotten one will spoil them all! In the same way if someone does or portrays an act of hypocrisy in the church universal, it affects individual churches locally, even if they are without blemish. With this thought in mind, we need to be conscious of how we walk the talk. If we say one thing and do another, we have become untrue to the words we speak. If we teach the unconditional love of God, and we do, then we need to carry that love to others, without reservation. I was so pleased to read this Sunday’s thank you notes on the back of our bulletin. Five members and friends of this congregation went to serve a hot meal this past Monday at the Dailey Bread. The call from Mary Beth for more volunteers was heard. Thank you, one and all! This is a sign that you listened and then responded through your action. Our lesson ends with these written words: “Faith that is strong and vibrant before God, is this: to care for All of God’s Children in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” /James 1:27/