Monday, September 28, 2015

Anointed with Casseroles

MARK 9:38-50
38John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

JAMES 5:13-20
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are 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. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

As we celebrate the Scottish heritage of the Presbyterian Church, we can trace a lot of our church history back to the Bible readings we have today. The passages emphasize that all people are called to be spiritual leaders. Rather than relying on people with titles and authority, we are all to be ministers to each other.

There’s a lot of history involved, but for us as Presbyterians, the main ideas are these: We are all sinful AND we are all called by God alone. Nobody gets to be “holier than thou” and nobody gets to say "I'm not qualified."

This means that Good News of the gospel is available to you, but it’s also needs to be available through you. We don’t have a religious hierarchy but believe in a universal priesthood.  This means God can use some pretty unlikely people. Even you.

I know what you’re thinking because I've thought it to. You think, I’m not qualified. I don’t have a degree. I’m not a leader or I’m not even a member.  But really what qualifications did Abraham or Moses have? What qualifications did Mary have when God called upon her to be the mother of the messiah? What qualifications did the disciples have when they started? None that we know about.

In the Bible, God appears to ordinary people like us and calls them into service. The list of unqualified people in the Old Testament is long: Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. Everyone had an excuse. Most of them tried to say no. But God persisted and gave them the tools they need along the way.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls upon a few averages Joes and says, “Hey come follow me.” And they do.  Jesus equips them along the way.

But it’s funny. Those same average Joe disciples that Jesus calls quickly form into a group with rules and expectations. They end up sure of themselves and confident in Jesus’ message. They have become the Jesus authorities. They come to Jesus complaining that other people are doing healings.

“Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”

Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

The disciples go from average Joes to wanting to be large and in charge. In last week’s Bible reading the disciples were arguing about which one of them is the greatest.  Who should be on top of the religious hierarchy? This week they act as if they have some kind of copyright on Jesus. Nobody can do anything in the name of Jesus without the disciples’ consent.

Or maybe they are the Jesus brand police. Maybe the man doing the healings didn’t fit with the images and expectations about who they are. Maybe it was a rich person or a leper or a gentile doing that healing not an average Jewish Joe.

The disciples judge and condemn that man doing the healing because he wasn't one of them. They thought certain people were entitled to do things and others were not.

We Christians are really good telling other people what they can and cannot do, right?  It comes so naturally. He’s in charge of this. She’s in charge of that. We only allow elders to do this. We do it this way and this way only. Then we get annoyed with the very system we’ve created and try to start over.  We leave to start a new denomination or church.  This has happened over and over again throughout history.

That’s what the first Presbyterians did. Remember in the Protestant Reformation we were rebelling against the Catholic Church with its beautiful cathedrals and music and the hierarchy and rules that it had created. But make no mistake, we came up with a list of rules and regulations, too!

One of the main ideas of Presbyterianism is that everyone had equal access to God. Everyone was important to the church and everyone could read and pray and serve and hear each other’s confessions. We call this the priesthood of all believers or universal priesthood. We are equal in the eyes of God. You can see this in how Presbyterians have approached the Bible—emphasizing that it be presented in the language of the reader—and in our music.

Most of our hymns for Heritage Sunday are psalms sung without any instruments because the early Presbyterians believed we could only do what was commanded in the Bible. If it wasn’t in the Bible, you weren’t allowed to do it. No words that weren’t biblical could be sung. That means hymns like "How Great Thou Art" or even "Amazing Grace" were a no-no at that time.  

Unlike other church music, the early Presbyterian church generally had no soloists and everyone sang the same words at the same time. Some even debated whether harmony was appropriate.

Singing all together was a way of lifting up all the people in the congregation, regardless of ability and background. A way of saying we are all equal. Worship isn’t a top down experience with the best and the brightest and holiest in the spotlight. Everyone encounters God in worship.

Worship is a community experience.  It’s why we have regular people read the scriptures. It’s why we read some prayers together. It’s why we sing together. It’s also why so many of us have an aversion to clapping in church. We don’t want to emphasize one person over another.

This idea of equality is also why the Presbyterians introduced the idea of compulsory public education. Everyone needed to know how to read. Not to get ahead in life, but so that they could read and interpret the Bible on their own, without a higher authority telling them what it said and so that they could fully participate in worship.

We get this idea that everyone has access to God from the Bible. We get it from Jesus telling his disciples that they don’t have exclusive claim to do the healings. Anyone who wants to do good work in the name of Jesus is entitled to do so. They don’t have to be one of “us.”

We get this idea that we all have access to God from the reading from James, too. Anybody can go to God in prayer at any time. You can pray your suffering and your joy. You can pray your anger and fear. You can praise God and you can even yell at God. God is big enough for anything you can give. There isn’t anything that you can do that God hasn’t seen or heard before. The Gospel is good news for you. God is there for you in all the aspects of your life.

But, if you are here in the sanctuary, remember the Gospel is good news for other people through you. If you are an elder, James says, you anoint the sick with oil and and pray for them. Although I think that tradition has changed a bit. Presbyterians today anoint the sick with casseroles and pray for them with greeting cards!

You, as an ordinary person, can hear the confessions of people who’s hearts are breaking because of the mistakes they’ve made.  You can walk with people in their joy and in their pain.

James isn’t telling us to pat one another on the arm and say, " I’ll pray for you." He’s telling us to say the words right then and there. Feel awkward and vulnerable. You can’t anoint someone from afar, even with a casserole. You have to be there with them in the flesh. You can’t truly hear a confession over text or even over the phone. You need to be there with a person.

And this priestly work is the hard part of being called by Christ. This makes getting up on Sunday morning to go to church seem easy and fun. But being with people and caring for them is discipleship, the universal priesthood.

Perhaps the hardest part is believing that God is calling you to the hurting people of the world. Because you don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do. You feel awkward and out of your league. You feel unqualified.

And that, my friends, is why you need to trust Jesus.

On your own, you are not qualified. Nor am I.

Every time I go into a hospital room to talk with someone about their eternal soul, I feel unqualified.

Every time I step into the pulpit to speak authoritatively about God’s Word, I am amazed that God trusts me to this.  And I never forget the words of one of my mentors—you are not there alone. Remember who has your back.

Every time I walk alongside someone in poverty or pain or addiction, I feel helpless because I can’t fix their problem.

Feeling inadequate and unqualified to do God’s work is natural because we are human. We are not Christ. We can’t save anybody or fix broken situations. But we can serve one another. We can walk with people and love them and help to make their life meaningful. 

We aren’t called to save, we are called to serve. 

Saving people is impossible. Serving people is doable. It's just not easy. Even just showing up for someone who is sick or broken can feel like a huge challenge. We worry about saying the right thing, being there for them in the right way. Sometimes we get so worried about doing it right we decide not to do it at all rather than take a risk. If we don't do it at all, we can't do it wrong.

So we pray for guidance. And in all honesty, sometimes I pray my inadequacy. I pray things like, “God, I have no clue what I’m doing, HELP!" or "This is all you, God, because I have no idea what to expect" or "God please give me the right words, the right attitude, the right tools.”

And I show up in faith and hope and with a little bit of fear. I show up and trust that the Holy Spirit will use me that way God intends. I show up knowing that I am part of the body of Christ. And do you know what?

God has not let me down. God is faithful. God shows up again and again and again.  Things don’t always go the way I hope or expect. Sometimes, I kick myself afterward for saying stupid and wrong things. But, God is still in the mix. 

That’s what Christianity is. It’s following Jesus in faith to strange places to do impossible tasks. It’s showing up and trusting and hoping that somehow Christ will work through you.

I don’t show up because I have a Master’s of Divinity degree –though it’s a great name for a degree. I don’t show up because the PCUSA says I’m qualified. I show up because I’m called by God to serve.  

I show up in difficult and unlikely places because that’s what God did. God showed up to serve our world and save it. God showed up as Jesus Christ, a carpenter not a high priest. Jesus showed up at dinner with sick and sinful people. 

God shows up time and time again. Working through common people like me and you.  

Go out into the world knowing that God has called you to show up somewhere and share Christ's love. Go, knowing that you may not feel qualified to be someone's priest or confessor, but God has your back anyway. Go and tell people the Good News that in Jesus Christ they are forgiven. 

You are called to share the news that God of the universe loves you, longs for you, desires you. Go with God and do just that.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Use Your Words!

1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or 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. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And 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. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

This month we’re focusing on the book of James in the Bible. It’s a short book in the New Testament that describes ways of living out the Christian message. The rules of the game, so to speak. He gives us the things that we should practice as Christians--some things we might want to change about ourselves or how we do church.

The writer of the book of James is like the referee who calls fouls when we don’t practice what Jesus preached. While this book was written almost 2,000 years ago, it is still relevant today. We make many of the same mistakes as people and as a church.

Last week, James reminded us that Jesus has a no-cut team. He—and the church—welcome all who are willing to walk through the doors to come to him.  Everyone who enters the sanctuary hears the same message—Welcome! You are loved. You matter. You are home.

This week James writes about the power of language. He understood that the words we choose help to create the reality we live in. He also knows we can get lazy. So, like any athlete needing to practice her sport, we have to practice using the right words.

You know that saying, sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me?  It’s what we say to bullies on the school playground when they call us names or try to hurt us with their words. It’s almost an automatic response when we are young, but I wonder if it’s true? Do we say it because the names don’t hurt us? Or do we say it because they actually do?
I suspect it’s because they do. We say it because whoever was calling us names had the power to hurt us and we want to take that power away. We use these words to fight back against the other words that were hurting us.

The reading from James shows us words are powerful. He uses the tongue as a symbol for language. And he compares it to three things:

First, the tongue is like the bit in a horse’s mouth. With it we guide the horse by showing it where we want it to go rather than letting it run wherever it would like.

The horse has a will of its own and is big enough to go where it wants. When we first moved into our house, we kept my sister-in-law's horse in our barn. Now I know some of you like horses and know how to handle them. I'm not one of those people. 

Anyway, when it was time to feed the horse, I'd open the barn door and this huge animal would come charging for me. The first time I was terrified. Don't worry, my husband says, she likes to play chicken. Just don't move and she will run around you. So in fear and terror I would stand still with my eyes closed expecting to be trampled by a runaway horse. 

Yes, indeed, horses have their own will and are big enough to do their own thing. But, put a bit in some horses' mouths and they will submit their will to the rider. Our words are similar. We can use them to guide ourselves and others in the right way when the will inside of us wants to go a different way.

We do this with our kids all the time. We take these willful little creatures and spend the first 18 years of their lives trying educate them with our words. We try to give them a good life by teaching them the word of God, words of thanks, words of love.  

Next, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a boat. Now a boat doesn’t have a will of it’s own, like a horse. It can be pushed by outside forces like wind, waves or a motor. The boat stays on course with its rudder. The wind and the waves can push a boat off course, but the pilot can use the rudder to stay on course.

The right words that can guide us when things seem to be falling apart around us, when things outside push us off course, when things like illness or job loss or divorce take us by storm. Words in the form of prayer and forgiveness can begin to heal us. They can guide us to safe places when when life is swirling out of control around us.

Finally, James compares the tongue to fire. Our tongue—our words—have the power to let things loose in the world. How we speak to and about one another influences our families, our churches and our community.

I was a Title IX baseball player. In the early seventies it became law that a community couldn't discriminate on the basis of gender for its sports programs. There had to be equal opportunities for girls and boys. Since my town didn't offer girls' softball, I was one of three girls who signed up for minor league baseball--with the boys. 

That first year, each time I'd come up to bat, the catcher would trash talk me. Come on, what are you doing here? Girls can't hit! What's your problem, anyway? Yeah, I knew you'd swing and miss!

Out in the field the players would do the chant, Come on, let's go, SHE can't hit. They'd bend over laughing because saying she instead of he was somehow hilarious. Back in 1970-something to do anything "like a girl" was an insult. Thank God that's changed. 

When I think back to that first coach, he probably took a big step at the minor league draft. He said, yes, I'll take a girl on my team. He spoke to me and treated me with respect. He created a culture with his words that allowed me to feel confident enough to keep showing up, even though I struck out a lot that first year. 

The way we talk to and about each other shows respect or disrespect, love or disdain, forgiveness or judgment. Each of us has the power to start a fire of blessings or curses with our tongues. We have the power to build up and tear down.

Because our tongues have power, we need to use them for good in the world. James says we should not use our tongues to bless God and curse our neighbor. We shouldn’t use our words to exalt God and condemn people who are made in the very image of God.

When we curse others, when we insult others, when we trash talk others we are not following the rules of God’s game, according to James. James says when we use our words the wrong way, we create a restless evil. Our tongues can be full of deadly poison. It can feed the fires of hell for us and for the people around us.

But when we use our tongues the right way, we bless God and the people around us. The Quakers have a tradition of asking three questions to help guide their tongues. A good guide for any of us if we want to bless others with our speech.

#1 Is it true? Do your words reveal something true about God’s world? Many weeks we pray Psalm 19: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight my rock and my redeemer. Don’t say anything in your life that you would not say to or in front of God. 

We also shouldn’t mistake being true for being nice and avoiding conflict. Sometimes the true words are the hardest to speak. But we still need to do it.

#2 Is it kind? We are to speak the truth in love. Paul writes: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Name calling is out. We need to get rid of all bitterness, anger, and slander, along with every form of malice.  We need to learn to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave us.  Sometimes we have to make sure our own hearts are in the right place before we open our mouths.

#3 Is it necessary? Sometimes we set out talking when we should be listening. Proverbs says: A fool's lips bring strife, And his mouth calls for blows. A fool's mouth is his ruin, And his lips are the snare of his soul.  Sometimes we get so excited about by our own thought or ideas, we forget to listen to others. We end up hijacking a conversation with our own personal agenda. 

These three questions are a good guide for speech, but I would add one more to this list:

Is it grateful? Over and over again we are told to praise God, to bless God or to tell of the good things God has done for us. Are we words we choose each day creating a life of gratitude for all that God has given us? Or are we creating a life of emptiness by only talking about the things we don't have or the things that go wrong? 

I was thinking about the importance of words when I watched a video of the 9/11 Remembrance for Flight 93. The memorial in Shanksville has added the audio messages of the people who were on the flight that went down, people who sacrificed their own lives to stop the plane from crashing and killing others.

The words at the end of life are not words of hate.  The people on Flight 93 said the most important words the could when faced with terror…

The words we choose when it really matters are words of love and reconciliation. What if we were to choose our words so carefully each day? Would that make us different people? What kind of world would we create if our words always reflected the love and forgiveness of Christ?

The book of James calls us to start a new season, one where we play by God’s rules. One where we heed Jesus’ call to love both God and our neighbor. In Christ, God shows us what happens when the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. We see what happens when God's Word is embodied. People change. Communities change. Eternity changes.

The Word of God is a living breathing thing and can be alive in you. It can be what you live out each hour of your life. Words of love can tame our wills and soothe our souls. In the end it's love that matters. It's love that binds us together in a world filled with chaos. Let’s all watch our words and live a life in gratitude for the love that God has shown us.