Standing, by God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church and Morwell Uniting Church in a cluster at Newborough on Sunday 30th September 2018.  It was my last service in that district before I moved to a new placement in Western Wimmera.

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20

Over the past month we have been examining the letter attributed to Jacob, the brother of Jesus, and the message that James offers in the way of keys to discipleship.  Today’s reading from the fifth of five chapters is not so much the pinnacle of what Jacob wrote, simply the last things he got to before he stopped.  There is no summary of all that has gone before, no conclusion, no wrapping up of loss ends.  Jacob has laid out his dot points, and today we come to the end of his list.

And so today, with no particular order in mind, Jacob  writes in James 5:1-6 of the intransigence of wealth, and of the honesty required from the rich to say that all that others aspire to is not good in the end.  Money cannot buy you salvation, this is a central Christian understanding and Jesus and Paul are as clear on this as Jacob, but we are also told today that money cannot buy you happiness.  This is also an ancient lesson, known to wise Jews at least since the days of Ecclesiastes and the teacher Qoheleth who taught the same, if not before.  Jacob instructs the wealthy members of society who are also participants in the local church to confess that having shedloads of money, (remembering that Jesus spoke of bigger barns) is not all that it is cracked up to be.  Jacob also counsels them directly to look at where that wealth has come from.  Remember in James 2:7 where Jacob tells the church to be wary of the wealthy rather than fawning?  Well, here he addresses the wealthy directly asking whether their wealth was ill-gotten through corruption, injustice, and exploitation of the poor.  Do you have anything to confess to your sisters and brothers in faith?  God looks for justice and God has heard the complaints of the downtrodden against the unjust, the unmerciful and the exploitative.

The section of Hebrew scripture suggested to us this morning comes from the climax of the story of Esther.  In assorted verses from Esther 7 and Esther 9 we hear about Haman, the arrogant and corrupt official to offered bribes against an honest man, and who is discovered and executed.  Haman’s wealth and position could not protect him from his comeuppance, but they could have allowed him to do great things.  Haman chose poorly, Jacob encourages those of his hearers who have wealth and influence in the world, including some of us in this room, to use what we have for the good of the Church and the world and not for our own selfish and ultimately fruitless pursuits.  Back to Esther we hear about the ever-reliable Mordecai and how he recorded all that took place in Susa so that the celebration of deliverance wouldn’t be forgotten: here is a man using position and opportunity to do a good thing.

Today’s Psalm, 124 which I read to you in paraphrase, is another reminder that God alone saves, and that God’s salvation is complete.  In a reading suitable for Purim and the remembrance of Esther and Mordecai the story of God’s people is that the inevitability of annihilation became victorious, total rescue with not one soul lost.  Similarly, Jacob wrote in James 5:7-12 of how followers of the Way of  Christ can wait for God in patient confidence that God is faithful and true.  More than that, a future left in God’s hands and with an ear to God’s word of instruction in the Present, is a secure future.  Even if you have been exploited and were the receiver of unjust action, says Jacob, anxiety and irritability are not necessary; enjoy each other’s company in the Church without envy.  Allow the wealthy to apologise, if they offer, and live with patient hope and even endurance like Job. God knows what you have been though, and God also knows what you have put and are putting others through and God hears everything you say – so don’t you become unmerciful either.  God’s call for the exploiters and thieves to repent is not a licence for the survivors to enact revenge and extract punitive reparations.  Be faithful in conversation and honest at all times.  Be so dependable at your word that oaths and public curses would not be required of you; let it be such that everyone trusts you to speak the truth at all times because it’s all you ever do.

And finally, in James 5:13-20 we read Jacob’s exhortation towards faith in action.  Here we get some nitty gritty teaching and some practical tips on the ways in which the local congregation goes about the work of being “The Church”.  Remembering the tradition that this was written by the first bishop of Jerusalem, whatever that means for you in terms of Church History, I’d say we can take Jacob as a man who knows what he’s talking about.  Maybe you’ll take this also as an encouragement from me as I move on and you are left without an incumbent in the manse; an encouragement that God trusts you and has entrusted to you and equipped you for the ministries in and out of this place.  “Ask the elders” says Jacob, there’s a good idea.  Two weeks ago, at Narracan, and it was a cluster service, so Morwell and Yallourn heard me say this, I encouraged you to look for and identify your leaders, and to pray for them.  Yallourn currently has people named as Elders and who form a church council; Morwell congregation is its own council and you do not have a nominated eldership.  Regardless of who does or does not have a title right now, look for leaders and encourage them to lead.  Let those who know how to, pray for the sick and expect God to heal.  Any and all of you can pray, even yourself, however Jacob writes, and I remind you to invite others into your praying, pray in pairs and teams and friendship circles as a sign of faith and belonging.  I commend to you the activities of loving, laughing and lamenting in public.  Continue to share life with the brother-sisters of your church so that all are built up in family and confidence in the God who is visibly active in your midst.  And above all, look for those who are straggling and struggling, and go in grace to them to help them and to seek to restore them to God and to fellowship. Continue to pray (with prayer) for the worn out, the worn down, and those Jacob refers to as the spiritually weak in James 5:15.

When I was invited to come here I was given three main tasks, to be completed on a 0.5FTE or 2.5 days per week contract.  Foremost, it was presented as foremost, I was to preach a good sermon every Sunday.  None of this once a fortnight stuff for 0.5FTE, every Sunday and Christian holy day, every week.  I have preached every Sunday, as well as Christmas and Easter – whether they were good sermons I shall leave to your discernment, but since I’ve not heard any complaints, or had second-hand reports of complaints, I think I’m safe.  Second task was to take time to prepare and write the good sermon.  Don’t preach from your archive as a lay preacher, write us something new and pertinent every week, and don’t write one sermon and preach it at Morwell and again and Narracan and again at Newborough.  We want God’s fresh word, not some random devotional to fit the ten minutes between the third and fourth hymn.  And third, visit those who cannot attend Sunday, the ill, the old, the hospitalised, and the residents of Narracan Gardens, Mitchell House, Heritage Manor, and Latrobe Valley Village.   In other words, you asked me to bring God and God’s word to you, wherever you were, and to prioritise that over the other things that ministers do.

I commend these tasks to you.

Your task as Church, as churches, is to bring to each other and to the people of the Latrobe Valley the means of spiritual healing. This is the work of prayer and visitation that Jacob wrote about, because as The Message translation renders James 5:20, to do so may prevent an epidemic of wandering away from God.

God and the Church have called me elsewhere, but God and the Church call you here.  Stay, and minister.  I know I’ll be missed in Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Morwell, and thank you for saying that.  But please, don’t you be missed in this places – because that is where your ministries lie.

Amen.

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Standing in Wisdom’s Way

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 23rd September 2018.  It was a service at which Holy Communion was shared and my last service as minister of that congregation.

Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Today is a day of mixed emotion for me because it is my last Sunday in Morwell.  While I hope as many of you as can come to Newborough will do so next week, today is my final service in this building and the last time I will preside at Holy Communion in Gippsland.  I shall leave any profound words of parting until next week’s service, but I am pleased to say that today’s readings offer me some excellent words of wise departure.  So, yes there is mixed emotion: I am looking forward to the future (mine and yours), and I do get to teach from one of my favourite preaching passages Proverbs 31:10-31; but it is also time to say goodbye.

But before goodbye, and before Proverbs 31, let’s have a look at James as we have been doing all month.  Last week we read how Jacob commends the work of a teacher to only the bravest and surest of Christians, and how everybody who walks the Way of God must guard his or her speech, and in today’s reading from James 3:13-4:5 we read more about what the wise actually do with their wisdom.  When a wise person is found and is set aside as a teacher let that person model gentle wisdom; let him or her avoid and denounce arrogance and corrupted ambition, and let the congregation follow that example.  Jacob reminds us of what was written in James 1:6 that any one of us can and should ask God for whatever we need, confident in God’s grace to provide and confident because of God’s wisdom previously given that whatever we are asking after is good.  The evidence that a supposed answer to prayer really has come from the grace of God is that it displays the character of God – pure, peaceable, gentle and considerate, submitted and willing to yield, full of mercy, impartial, sincere and not hypocritical. Does that sound like the answers to your prayers?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no, more yes than no I hope.  But if not I urge you to keep pressing in because God is faithful and it’s okay that we are still learning that.

One of the signs of the Kingdom of God, a sign that it has come and a sign that it is on its way, it peace.  God is not a deity of war, God is peace and God is love.  That is not to say that God cannot or does not fight, or that God did not strengthen the Hebrew, Israelite and Judahite armies back in the day, but the end of God’s engagement in battle is not empire or territory but peace and rest.  So, when Jacob writes in James 4:1-3 that war is caused by human ambition, the temptations of power and the accrual of stuff, then we know he is speaking with God’s wisdom.  When peace is brought about righteousness shall flourish amongst all people and especially amongst the peacemakers: where conflicts arise or remain these come from competitiveness and from self-seeking desires for something other than God.  Choose God or choose the world as your source of identity, says Jacob, because you cannot have both.  Jacob makes it very plain that to try to have the best of the world (stuff, power, honour) and the fullness of God is to engage in idolatry and adultery.  Indeed, the New American Standard Bible specifies adulteresses in James 4:4 and the Complete Jewish Bible says unfaithful wives in reference to Hebrew traditions that God is husband to Israel.

So, follow God.  Seek God, learn the wisdom of God, walk in the way of God, and live in a world where righteousness is rising, and peace is flooding.  To live otherwise is not only disobedient it is disrespectful, in fact it’s kind of slutty – male or female.

Speaking of male and female, but not of slutty, have a look at Proverbs 31:10-31.  The first thing I want to tell you about this passage is that it is directed at married women.  That should be obvious.  Why should it be obvious?  Well it’s obvious in a more than obvious way, and also in a less than obvious way.  This passage is directed at married women because…it speaks about a wife, and a great wife at that.  But, that’s the less than obvious way.  The more than obvious way that this passage is directed at married women is because it’s scripture and all scripture is useful for teaching and exhortation through the inspiration of the Spirit of Holiness.  It’s Bible, it’s directed at everyone, wives included.  So yes, it’s a passage for wives but it’s a passage not just for wives.  It’s a passage for women who have never married, and it’s for all men, married or otherwise.  In James 4:4 we read Jacob calling to church away from love of the world, hatred of God, to the faithfulness God as husband deserves.  In Proverbs 31:10-31 we read perhaps the words of the mother of Lemuel to her son the king, perhaps the words of Abraham to his beloved wife Sarah, perhaps someone else writing as God’s instrument, what faithfulness to God as husband looks like.

The address in Proverbs 31:10 is often rendered in English as “capable wife” or “such a wife”, but that really waters down the Hebrew sense.  The New King James Version says it best with a courageous wife, but even that falls short.  The best translation is “woman of valour”.  She is heroic, mighty and strong – she’s a Deborah, maybe she’s even a Boudicca.  And in that phrase at least she’s a “woman”, not necessarily someone’s spouse.

Much as I’d love to unpack this reading for you we don’t have time for two sermons, or perhaps three.  I really like Proverbs 31:10-31, so I have needed to contain myself and keep the focus on James 4 and how the proverbs of Hebrew Wisdom connect with the Hebrew wisdom Jacob wrote almost 1000 years later.  So, I’m going to focus on one of many different interpretations of this passage, because that’s the one that best matches with what Jacob wrote.  That’s not to say other readings of “The Proverbs 31 Woman” are not correct, or less correct, or less good, it’s just that today’s version matches today’s context.

So, today let me say that the woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 is not an actual woman.  This is not, as far as today’s message is concerned, a book of instructions for Christian wives nor is it a checklist for Christian bachelors in search of a wife.  If you are a “Proverbs 31 Woman” then I commend you, and let me express my sincere hope that your husband is one as well: here’s why, because this is a poem about wisdom.  The woman in Proverbs 31 is a metaphor for wisdom: Sophia in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew, Sapienta in Latin and regardless of your gender or your marital status this is how you are supposed to act as a member of the people of God, (and a disciple of Christ).  Be resilient, be trustworthy, be industrious, be wise, be righteous, be generous, be prudent, be loving, be compassionate, be brave, be virtuous, be humble, be bold, be kind, be vigilant, be honest, be honourable, be an example.  These are the attributes of wisdom personified, these are the attributes of Jesus, these are the attributes we should aspire to and the characteristics we should display.

And so, when we read in James 4:6-10 that God not only desires our loyalty, but our submission, we read with the eyes of a wise woman or man.  We understand that God does not need minions or sycophants, that we are to be submissive, but that we are to live submitted to God, honouring God as LORD and pursuing God’s desires for us to have wisdom aware that wisdom is best found in God.  Loyalty to God brings loyalty from God.  Imagine that the wife of noble character, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” is a real-life wife and mother and think of how her husband, the father of her children would treat her.  Can you imagine God looking at you like that?  Wisdom says it’s true, that God does look at you like that when you pursue wisdom.  We are told, if we choose to believe it, in Proverbs 3:34 that God comes close in all faithfulness and love.  Jacob further encourages us in James 4:8a that the healing grace of God will transform for the better the one who comes to God in desperate hope and openness.  Come with confidence, come without doubt or double-mindedness, come to the one who welcomes you as the best beloved of all beloved ones.

Come and receive all that the faithful One has prepared for you.

Amen.

Tongue Tired

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Narracan as the Yallourn Parish and Morwell Parish Uniting Churches, clustered for the purposes of ministry on Sunday 16th September 2018.

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

Hopefully you aren’t sick of the stories from my time living in England just yet.  If you are that’s fine, I don’t care and I’m going to tell you another story this morning anyway, but as far as you are concerned there’s only today and two weeks to go before I leave Gippsland, so you just hang in there.  Today’s story takes place at the Education Support Centre where I worked as a specialist teacher, and an episode where something seemed to change.

For those of you new to my stories, or who have heard about my time in gaol but not my time in school, let me give you some background.  Between December 2003 and October 2004, and again between February 2005 and February 2006 I taught at an Education Support Centre north of London.  In very much an oversimplification this a school for high school kids who had been expelled from their “normal school”, or who were in danger of being so.  Onsite I taught one class of year seven to nine students and another class of year ten and eleven.   I taught a broadly defined subject called Humanities, which was made up of bits of the Geography, History, Civics, and Religion curricula as stipulated in the National Curriculum for England.  Offsite or on “outreach” I went into local high schools and worked 1:1 with boys (because I’m a boy) from those same age groups who were on their “last chance”.  At outreach I was liked, and the boys looked forward to my sessions.  Onsite I was disliked, and I was regularly sworn at, spat at, threatened with violence and arson, and I was assaulted in class on four occasions.  The onsite cohort called me “Squeak” because my large front teeth and my then goatee beard made me look like a mouse, apparently.  There was a loose confederation of students charged with the responsibility of “getting Squeak out”, trying to bully me into resigning.  Eventually they gave up, I wasn’t going anywhere, and they had run out of ideas.  They still didn’t like me, they found my resilience unnerving, but the conspiracy and the all-out attacks died out.  So, there’s your background.

And here’s the story.  One Friday afternoon, when classes for the week had ended and the students were about to go home, as was our regular practice, the whole school gathered in the big classroom to count up the week’s merits.  Merits earned you points, and points bought you food.  So anyway, we’ve added up the merits and points, and determined who has earned and who will be rewarded.  And then there’s a race for the kitchen were the food it kept and one of the girls is in there and into the cupboard and into the potato chips and grabbing her allocation of packets.  I was the first teacher into the room, and seeing her there I called out, “Sarah (not her real name), please don’t take all those chips, we need to share the flavours.”  Sarah (not her real name) rolled her eyes, gave a big huff in the way that only a sixteen-year-old girl can do, and said “Oh my god Sir, this is England not Australia, they’re called crisps!!”

I was shocked: are you shocked?  Did you catch it?  Sarah (not her real name) had called me…sir.  Not “Squeak”, not “effin’ Stuart Little”, (which I once copped in class, with “effin’” given its less polite pronunciation).  Sarah had called me “sir”.

“Umm, Sarah, did you just call me ‘sir’?”

“Umm, ummm…”

By this time the kitchen’s other inhabitants were laughing at the joke.  “Oh, my effin’ word Sarah, you showed respect to Mister Tann innit?  You has brought shame upon your entire family now.”

I can’t say that the ice entirely thawed that day, or that Sarah (not her real name, she was actually called Melissa) and I became best mates after that, but it did mark a positive change.  Even so, when I read James 3:1 where Jacob writes not many of you should aspire to become teachers I do not think only of the added responsibility that God places upon the shoulders of pastors and preachers.  Teaching is a rewarding job in church as well as school; but it is also, almost, insurmountably treacherous at times, in church as well as school.

In the first twelve verses of James 3 set for us today we read where Jacob turned his attention to leadership in the community of faith.  Now, remember that Jacob is the brother of Jesus, the second son of Joseph and Mary and possibly Jesus’ first ever best friend.  We read in the gospels how Jacob along with his younger siblings thought that Jesus had lost the plot: now we find him with a fresh revelation of the Messiah and undertaking pastoral responsibility for the nascent Church in Jerusalem.  Jacob is probably a solid man to write about leadership and teaching, so let’s take a look and what he wrote.

So, Jacob unpacks what it means to be a leader by returning to the themes we have encountered in the last two weeks, especially around the ways in Christians should speak.  True wisdom, true discipleship is shown by speaking well – not just as a discipline in itself but also as an indication that what else is going on in the Christian’s life is under the blessing of God.  One of the things that really messed with Sarah and her cohort at the ESC was that I was generally kindly spoken.  Anyone can say nice things, many people can be nice even in the face of meanness, but something about the way that I seemed genuinely unfazed by the ways in which the students plotted my downfall, and over about six months of their best efforts, unnerved them.  These teens knew that I was a Christian, in fact of the five classroom teachers onsite three of us were strong in our faith, but there was something else about me, something they couldn’t break, something they needed to destroy because it was a threat to them.  That they didn’t destroy me or the thing inside me has everything to do with the grace of God, which of course was the thing inside me.  I am not claiming anything other than a vast supply of grace from my Lord in this one; but when unbreakable kindness, even in sadness, confronted them even violent, vicious bullying was left undone.  As a teacher, as a leader, as an adult, I was a grace-bearer; carrying grace inside me and sharing it with my students.

The scriptures teach that a fool cannot speak wisdom and a sinner cannot teach righteousness.  Again, almost anyone can fake pretty much anything for a short time; but longevity and perseverance cannot be built upon weakness and falsehood.  The wise and good can make mistakes, but that is seen as an aberration: the stupid and evil cannot speak true wisdom by accident.  As a pastor-teacher living alongside temporarily you I invite you to look for the signs of grace in yourself and in your leaders: and if you want to be a leader then be ready for examination.  Maybe the examination will come (as it did for me) with violence and hatred, maybe it will come in seduction and flattery, maybe it will come as damned hard work and lots of it.  If you’re not ready for the test amongst the people then you’re not ready to be their teacher or a leader.  If no one is ready for the test then the whole community will be leaderless, teacherless, and heading for calamity.  Pray for your leaders and teachers, and if you don’t know who they are then pray that God will send you some.

In the last portion of  James 3:6 Jacob sets out a frame for understanding how the ways in which members of a local church (body) speak about each other can destroy the church for generations.  Maybe this is a mixing of theologies; Paul writes more about the body as a metaphor for the Church, it’s perhaps not Jacob’s first thought, but it rings true for the big-C Church, the whole collection of Christians from Jacob to now, and it rings especially true for the local church.  I have been in congregations where there is implicit and explicit enmity – these congregations do not grow, they die.  Gossip, whispers, half-truths, complete lies, all are destructive to friendship communities, how much more so the people of God?  If Paul’s metaphor is good, and we are the body where Jesus is the head, and some of us are hands and some of us are feet, if you are a tongue then Jacob warns you to be very careful.

One of my commentators suggested, and I agree, that Jacob’s key learning outcome in this short passage is consistency.  Consistency in purity for sure, no one wants a consistent evil, although at least that would be easier to manage – there’s no deception there.  No, speak with the voice coming up from your depths, from your heart and guts, be consistent with yourself.  If you like what you hear, then honour God and stay on course, and consider offering yourself to the church as a teacher or leader.  If you don’t like what you hear, then honour God and seek healing.  “I don’t like the way I speak,” or, “I don’t like how I get so angry so quickly”, or “I don’t like that I use so many swear words without thinking.”  All are good, if they are honest.  So, seek God and look for the teachers and leaders who can help you – that’s why God has raised them up amongst you.  As was read to us this morning from Proverbs 1:20-33 heed wisdom’s warning, in other words let yourself be taught by the best teachers.

Lest you think me worthy of a double portion of Frequent Martyr Points following my story about Sarah and her classmates, let me tell you about one of the times I stuffed up.  Sarah was in the room on this, an earlier occasion, back when the scheme was still underway.  So, there were five students, all in that older group so 15 or 16 years old, and two of them were heaping the insults on me.  “Oh, my days Squeak why is you even here?  No one likes you, no one respects you, no one is listening to you, your whole life is a mess man.”  Maybe it was late in the day, or late in the week.  You know, Thursday afternoon when it’s not yet Friday and it’s been one of those days for the last nineteen days in a row.  Anyway, I snapped.  Not angry and shouty snapped, just let my guard down.  “You have got to be joking,” I said, in my normal classroom voice, “I am the most sorted person here.”  That was all I said, and I said it and didn’t yell it, and I said it and I didn’t sneer it.  In hindsight I probably said it more for my own benefit that theirs, a reminder to myself that whilst the first three points were undoubtedly true amongst the kids themselves, and some of the staff – that I was not liked, respected, or listened to – my whole life was not, in fact, a mess at all.  All I did in fact was annoy the other, silently hateful, students.  Suddenly all five of them were shouting, “Oh my days man, I was just sittin’ here and now you says I’m a mess?  You’re an effin’ mess you effin’ rat look-alike.  An’ why can’t you even speak English and why don’t you jus’ go back to effin’ Australia,” and so forth.  I didn’t lose any friends, I didn’t have any; not in that room anyway, but I lost my teacherly and leaderly for a moment.  One slip in my internal dialogue and I was set back a few weeks’ worth of slow progress toward shalom.

So, I urge you, heed Wisdom’s advice and the wisdom of Jacob.  Look for leaders amongst you and pray earnestly for them, especially if your search for a leader points to you.  Do not lose heart, stay close to God and follow God’s way as Jesus did and as Jacob and Paul and the Proverbalist taught.

And above all else remember this: in England they are called crisps.

Amen.

We stand together

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church at Newborough on Sunday 9th September 2018.  It is the second in a series of five sermons on James and as such much of the text is repeated from the first week since this is a different congregation.  I have added below only what was new, so if you want the first part then look at last week’s text.

James 2:1-10, 14-17

The third thing humanity needs in a messy world is love.  God’s first gift to each of us was life and with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  Live abundantly, which is to say generously, with love.  Listen before you speak says Jacob, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.  Love is active, and Jacob encourages those of us who are religious to practise faith as well as talking about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.

Today we read where Jacob in James 2:1-9 wrote about justice in interpersonal relationships, writing that God does not favour anyone by human standards of wealth or health so neither should the Church.  We should not exclude anyone from full participation when we meet as Church, and as Christians in our individual dealings with people in the world we should show respect.  Human justice is not trustworthy: many among the rich are exploitative and are therefore unfit to be favoured over the poor anyway, and in Jacob’s experience it is the self-satisfied who speak against the glorious name into which we were baptised.  Think about the wealthy people mocking equitable healthcare on those TV ads, the Church is not to act like that with regard to social justice.  Rather the  Church is to display the love of neighbour as for self as the scriptures used by Jacob clearly state in Leviticus 19:18.  If it’s good enough for Moses it’s good enough for me, and that Jesus said exactly the same thing leaves me in no doubt.

What we read in James 2:10-13 connects these ideas with the greater truth of keeping God’s law.  To act unjustly is to go against everything God says and is about; to follow the world in this is just as sinful as to murder or fornicate.  You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Way of God to focus on and be righteous in, it’s all-or-none, and because of this Jacob wrote in James 2:14-26 that the way Christians live is as important as the way Christians think.  A follower of Jesus cannot have one without the other.

Be in no doubt that practical help is a necessity when injustice is seen, not just well-wishes.  Your theology is important, but it must not get in the way of your work for the Kingdom in the world and the mission of extending the influence of God’s will in the world.  Jewish heroes, male and female, showed their belief in God by obeying God in action and not only in #thoughtandprayers.  A faith without action is no faith at all, and religious action without understanding is no faith at all.  As plainly as Jacob can make it he goes right to the heart of Judaism and says that even the core creedal activity, the one thing above all things that makes you a Jew, to recite Shema, is not enough.  Read the words of James 2:14 in The Passion Translation, faith without works is useless for saving anyone.

So, get on with it.  Amen.

It’s time to stand (Pentecost 15B)

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd September 2018.  It is the first in a series of five messages I wrote for the parish over September.

James 1:17-27

In the five Sundays in September I want to walk us through The Letter of James, portions of which have been set as the lectionary Epistle reading for each week in this month.  So first, an introduction.

James has had  a troubled time in Church history, and the letter was in danger on more than one occasion of not being included within the New Testament when the Church’s scholars decided what the Christian scriptures would be.  Despite the fact that this text was attributed to Jacob the brother of Jesus, which is really what got it across the line and into the top twenty-seven, there are a number of big issues with it even for Christians today.  James does not speak about Christ’s cross or resurrection, at all, and it doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit.  And, other than identifying himself as a belonger to Jesus Christ in two places, James 1:1 and James 2:1, Jacob doesn’t actually mention Jesus at all in the text.  This is a letter about God, the Adonai of the Israelites.

James is a general letter, addressed to everyone at large and nobody in particular, unlike Paul’s letters which were addressed to newly born churches in specific cities or regions.  As a general letter James is not as personal as Paul’s writings, it offers a few bits of generalist advice rather than answering the questions of one specific location.  James was written within a contemporary Greek and Hebrew literary style called paranesis which means it offered admonitions and exhortations; it’s all about “everyone should…” and “no one should…” and the like.  And James jumps around a bit, there’s no clear flow from one point to another, there’s no development, there’s just a bunch of ethical points, almost like dot points, and then having made all his points Jacob stops writing.  There’s no “farewell to the brethren and tell Sophie I said hi”, there’s just stop.  In this way Jacob’s writing is more like Jesus’ preaching than it is Paul’s writing.

So, James is in the Bible primarily because Jacob ben Joseph, the second son of Mary the former Virgin, wrote it, apparently, and somewhat in spite of it not talking about Jesus much and not talking about Calvary at all.  But the main reason that James nearly didn’t get into the Bible is because it seems to contradict Paul.  Paul is all about salvation by grace, and James is all about faith revealed by works, right?  Well one of my commentators describes the solution this way: that Paul’s key message is indeed that our salvation comes about from the sheer generosity in grace expressed by God who welcomes us home.  There is nothing to be earned or achieved, Christ has opened the way through his death and resurrection and we are invited simply to open our arms and receive the gift.  But Jacob in James did not dispute or refute this, which many have thought he did, (including Martin Luther who thought James was a very dodgy piece of work), what Jacob emphasises is that God-faith is not true faith unless it mirrors God in producing a radically generous and grace-filled life.  James does not say we must earn our salvation, James says that our salvation should prompt us to action in a world desperate for truth and love.  In other words, Paul writes about how salvation comes about, and Jacob writes about not becoming fat and lazy in the salvation you were gifted, but rather live out your faith for the good of the world, just like Moses and the prophets said.  After all, what is the point of being saved if you’re just going to be gossipy and ignore the dire plight of your widowed neighbour, or be rude to the shabby man who comes to church looking for salvation?  Jacob says that we can live generous lives safe in the knowledge that God who has already saved us (and the prophets) and is eternally faithful to Israel continues to have our back.  Jacob is actually saying that if you’re saved, drop the nervous religious pretence and live freely and openly as an ambassador of the rolling-out Reign of God.

So, with the background in place let’s look at what James actually says in today’s readings.  We’re starting at James 1:17 so very briefly let me tell you that in the first sixteen verses Jacob writes about God’s understanding that humans are basically good creatures who do dumb things.  There’s no total moral depravity for Jacob in the fallen world, Jacob takes the mainstream Jewish view that Adam was a perfect creation of God, but Adam made a mess of things and that mess continues today.  But God is still God, humanity is still the image of God, and God desires a reconciliation between Godself and humanity.  Furthermore, God understands Godself needs to get about this because humanity can’t.  Basic, simple, Jewish and now Christian stuff.

The first thing that humanity needs in a messy world is wisdom and Jacob says in the mode of the Jewish scriptural wisdom writers that we should just ask God for it.  There’s no shame in asking God for wisdom, just be confident when you do.

The second thing humanity needs in a messy world is guts.  It takes bravery and perseverance to live well in a messy world, and since Jacob tells us to be bold in living out our faith then we need to be brave against the condition of the world, and brave against those who prefer the world in its current state and will resist our desire for godly transformation.  God does not send temptation, (this is very clear in James 1:12),  but God does send hope to stand when temptation comes from desire for something other than God’s provision.  Temptation leads to death because temptation leads away from God, who is life. James 1:14 in The Complete Jewish Bible reads each person is being tempted whenever he is dragged off and enticed by the bait of his own desire.  In Jewish rabbinical wisdom, only repentance can halt the vicious sequence of hezer hara (the evil inclination).

Now we come to today’s lectionary portion, with all of the above in mind, and we read in James 1:17-18 that God’s response to our lack of wisdom and lack of perseverance is generosity.  The first gift God gave us was life, and then with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  There is nothing dark or hidden about God, God is holy and good and the more you get to know God the more beautiful God is for you (the more you see God’s beauty, the less you can doubt God is duplicitous).  Jacob counsels us that the best response to God’s gift of life is that we live fruitful lives which display God’s dependability and eternal goodness.  As I said in the introduction, this is Jacob’s main point, and it’s the reason why I for one am happy that James is actually in the Bible.  Jacob continues in James 1:19-21 where he writes about lovingkindness and patience with regard to anger.  Listen before you speak, he says, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God given through an abundant life.  We have already read that God does not send temptation, now we read that when the world does send temptation we have the opportunity of God to respond with abundance.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Furthermore, we must actively purge our lives of sordidness, immorality and growing wickedness.  James 1:21 in The New Jerusalem Bible reads do away with all impurities and remnants of evil; we must pursue the Way of God with meekness because the Way of God revealed in scripture is powerful to save.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.

Finally, for this morning, in James 1:22-25 we read about activity in faith and we are encouraged to practise religion as well as talk about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.  In James 1:26-27 this is taken further to specify good use of speech.  Speak with self-discipline and put into practice what you hear of grace, especially to your marginalised neighbours who are helpless, homeless, loveless and comfortless, and non-belonging ones in your community.  Show grace towards yourself and encourage yourself to live with resilience and perseverance in the face of temptation.  Jacob suggests that good speech is an outward sign of a good heart, so if you hear yourself speaking badly see that as an indication that you need to examine your motives and attitudes.  The best way to avoid pollution from the world is through practising wise hearing and action.

So, get on with it.

Amen.