By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: James 1:22-25
I believe I have previously shared the story of my family visiting a church in eastern Pennsylvania while I was in high school. There was a guest preacher who had a lot to say about the need for Christians not to engage in buying and selling on the Lord’s Day. Later that afternoon my family went shopping at a local strip mall. As we were walking into a shoe store, who did we spy but the morning’s preacher. We watched with curiosity as he strode through the parking lot. Perhaps he was headed to the drug store. One couldn’t blame him if a family member were ill and needed medication. But no, he walked into the Hallmark Store. My family had a good laugh over that; a perfect illustration of our American cliché, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
I begin with that story because – I believe – the perception of Christianity in the broader culture of America may well be at an all-time low. Christianity is getting a bad name in our culture and we – not the unchurched – are the culprits. In today’s culture, individuals can self-identify as “Christian” while they: engage in predatory behavior; sling racial and ethnic slurs and epithets; or belittle the weak and marginalized. I read an article about a year ago revealing that (based on research) – more than ever before – self-professed Christians in America are willing to compromise their moral integrity and accept unscrupulous behavior if they see some individual benefit in doing so.
Meanwhile, others “do good” in the name of Jesus while verbally attacking those with whom they disagree; thus turning Christianity into a club with which to beat down the opposition. While “doing good” is always better than “doing bad,” good works apart from wisdom can easily lead to feelings of superiority and attitudes of arrogance. Christianity in our culture is awash in duplicity; a duplicity that bears no resemblance to the biblical presentation of the one we claim to follow: Jesus Christ, whose words and deeds were consistent and compassionate.
So what are we to do about it? Well, these next couple of weeks, I’ll be preaching from New Testament wisdom literature: using God’s Word to offer wisdom as we begin a new calendar year. Wisdom – as it is understood in the New Testament – begins with knowledge (acquired learning); but then moves beyond mere learning to include thoughtful reflection (one might call this perception or interpretation) on that knowledge in light of three things: God’s Word, one’s lived experiences, and our relational commitments. I might add that this also aligns with what our Methodist founder, John Wesley, had to say about how we should form our theology: through examination of scripture, experience, reason and tradition.
So let me elaborate a little more on this understanding of wisdom:
Now, the portion of James I shared this morning makes use of an image: that of an individual who glances at themselves in the mirror with so little attention and thoughtfulness that, once they walk away, they forget what they look like. Now, that might sound absurd to you. But certainly it is no more absurd than someone who does nothing more than glance at scripture and who never engages in any self-examination. But that is, in fact, what an enormous number of people in our culture are doing. They memorize a few bible verses to support their own already-established opinions and whenever they find themselves in a difficult situation or relationship, they simply extricate themselves and move on. They give the mirror of their lives but a passing glance and go on their way and foolishness – not of the comic variety, but of the tragic variety – is the ultimate result.
So this morning I want to say a little more about what it means to truly live with wisdom.
James tells us that this wisdom is inextricably linked with the Word of God. In this morning’s passage that I shared, James refers to it as “law;” not that’s not a very appealing term. But James uses the term “law,” defines “the law,” in the same way Jesus does in the gospels. In fact, the book of James has more sayings of Jesus than any other New Testament book outside the gospels. Friends: Jesus is God’s Word made flesh; the embodiment of the Word of God. And Jesus boils God’s law down to two things: love of God and love of others.
In the Book of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says things like:
Friends: The law – the Word of God – as Jesus interprets it isn’t about legalism. It’s about loving God and loving people. It’s about being set free not only from legalism; but being set free from attitudes of fear and envy and retribution. That’s why James can refer to it as the law of liberty. It sets us free from the suffering we impose upon ourselves when we succumb to fear, envy and retribution.
And let me illustrate this by drawing attention to our current culture. Many want to drive out immigrants simply because they have succumbed to fear and envy. They’ve become fearful of cultures and customs different from their own and fear leads to envy that someone else will strip them of an opportunity for employment or some other social advantage. Also, when we fail to challenge a system that uses our tax dollars to incarcerate – rather than seek appropriate treatment – for people in addiction, we are succumbing to an attitude of retribution.
But, when we understand the Word of God as interpreted by Jesus and James (and dare I say on this weekend, Martin Luther King); then we experience the world differently because we are grounded in the knowledge that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above;”[v] from a God who “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly.”[vi] Or, as Jesus puts it, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[vii] We don’t need to fear others, judge others, or compete with others when we live secure in the knowledge of God’s generous love.
So, any knowledge we accumulate must be interpreted in light of God’s Word. Friends: if you are not seriously studying the Word of God, it is highly unlikely that you will ever acquire wisdom. Wisdom springs from God’s Word. We need to study God’s Word. Not just read it, but study it. Study it with consideration of biblical context and culture; with understanding of the situation of the original audience. Those things must be understood in order for God’s Word to bear the fruit of wisdom in our lives.
But we also need to reflect on and consider our own life’s experiences. We need to truly see ourselves; to look into the mirror deeply. Too often in our culture today, we race from one thing to the next. We’re on the move from the time our feet hit the floor in the morning until we drop into bed at night and we disdain silence. If we are by ourselves, we will drown out our inner voice with music and podcasts and news or a TV constantly on in the background. But if we ever hope to move from knowledge to true wisdom, we must take time to sit in stillness; too look deep within our souls; to listen for the voice of God. It’s a matter of making ourselves quiet and humble before God. James speaks of the need for meekness and gentleness; qualities that can only be cultivated over time and with patience.
Finally, James reminds us that true wisdom is acquired in the context of community. Wisdom is revealed through the nature of our relationships. So James, like Jesus, emphasizes attitudes of mercy and compassion towards others. Wisdom is something we acquire through practice in the training ground of our relationships with one another. In other words, Church is a place where we should be helping one another acquire wisdom through the authentic, honest relationships we live out with one another. That’s why Trinity’s vision statement is “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
Friends: our world has plenty of foolishness going on right now and more than enough who have ascribed to the theology of “do as I say, not as I do.” But wisdom is needed: wisdom grounded in God’s Word so that we not only hear and go quickly on our way; but become doers of God’s Word and God’s work in our world.
[i] James 1:22
[ii] Matthew 5:43
[iii] Matthew 5:21, 22
[iv] Matthew 5:38, 40
[v] James 1:17
[vi] James 1:5
[vii] Matthew 5:45
By Dr. Dave Schmidt
Scripture: I Cor. 1:4-18
For nearly 2000 years Christians have celebrated Jesus’ baptism on Sunday after Epiphany. For many this was time for baptism; for others it a time to renew baptisms.
Today we will offer a time to remember and renew your baptisms.
Christians oft debate about baptism—when and how? Infant/adult; immerse/sprinkle
This may have been part of divisions at Corinth? Faces another question, Why?
Apollos knew John’s baptism—a baptism for cleansing from sin.
Paul et al spoke of baptism in Jesus’ name—a baptism of identification.
John came baptizing and calling for repentance; washing clean as Jewish custom/mikveh.
He spoke of another—when Jesus came to join the focus shifted to becoming part
In Jesus’ great commission he called followers to mark disciples by trinity baptisms
A baptism of water and of fire/Spirit. Poured out by grace, not human act.
So why be baptized today—John’s baptism or Christ’s?
I offer a Methodist understanding.
We are baptized into the body of Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection by grace.
We are using a sacramental symbol to proclaim God’s grace, not earned—given
So when can be from infancy on. How is not key, but why?
We don’t get caught in the mechanics, but in the grace given.
We also know that we sin and fall short of living in this new family relationship.
So we offer times for confession of sins, renewal of awareness of God’s grace & promise
Confirmation is time for infants to confirm for themselves awareness from infancy
Renewal is offered again and again for us to recover our awareness of this grace.
We don’t get rebaptized; God didn’t fail in bestowing grace.
Instead we need to recover and renew awareness of this grace given.
For those baptized, Remember your baptism and be thankful
For others, you are invited to see the gift offered to all people.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Psalm 139
In 1775, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement introduced a covenant service as an important part of spiritual life of the people called Methodists. (Now, because it’s not a very common term, let me pause for just a moment to explain what a covenant is. A covenant is a formal agreement between two people or two groups. It is similar to a contract; except that the conditions of a covenant are grounded in the establishment of relationship.) Wesley’s covenant service came to be observed annually on the Sunday nearest to January 1. It was a time when the Methodists would come together for self-examination, reflection, dedication and a renewed commitment to offer themselves up entirely to God. Through repentance, confession and humility, it affirmed one’s willingness to submit one’s life fully to Christ.
A few months back, someone asked me why I continue in my commitment to the United Methodist Church. I do not agree with its official stances on some issues about which I am passionate. Likewise, while its system of governance is wonderful in theory, like our current American democracy, it often plays out in ways that are frustrating and discouraging. So, why do I persist, my friend wanted to know and it was a good question.
After a few moments’ reflection, I responded that John Wesley was the reason why I am still a Methodist. First, Wesley is often categorized as a mystic. A mystic is defined as someone who is deeply aware of God’s presence and personally encounters God. As you have heard me say over and over, Christianity is not a belief system; it is a relational system. It does us minimal good to know things about God; we must encounter and experience the God who knows us intimately, as Psalm 139 and so many other scriptures affirm. In other words, if one wishes to enter into relationship with God, it will require more than coyness or flirtation; it requires honest and truthful encounter; a willingness to “go deep” in this relationship.
Secondly, through that time Wesley spent in communion with God, in awareness of God’s presence and the Spirit’s leading, Wesley brought remarkable change to the world around him. Friends, our God chose to be embodied in the infant Jesus. Our God cares passionately for this world God created. Wesley, during his lifetime, worked vigilantly to address issues of suffering and injustice. He addressed social concerns such as debtors’ prison, slavery, lack of affordable health care for the poor, unsafe working conditions, unfair labor practices, predatory lending, lack of quality public education, and on and on I could go.
So, I am a Methodist because I desire and seek to live out the legacy of Wesley: a lifestyle whereby thoughtful, purposeful time spent “tuning in” to God’s presence will shape how I live in the world: how I think and feel; what I choose to say and do; how I spend my time, how I spend my money. That is what it means to be Methodist.
And that is a pretty intense commitment because we do not live in a culture that encourages intimacy and honesty and wholeness. We live in a culture of public persona; a culture in which what we say and what we do are often incongruous. While many in our culture are happy to embrace practices like yoga for flexibility and physical health, even within the church, we are often discouraged from raw and vulnerable encounter… with one another and even with the Almighty. In the commentary series, Feasting on the Word, preacher Dave Bland writes of Psalm 139, “As Americans, we revere our privacy… We guard the information about ourselves we share with others. We take great care in revealing who we really are, sometimes even to our closest friends and family members. At the same time we possess a deep desire for another to truly know and understand us… contrary to all our efforts to protect ourselves, God invades our privacy and knows us better than we know ourselves.”[i] In fact, we sense our own contemporary ambivalence even in the words of the ancient Psalmist as he queries: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” Both high and low – in the heavens and the depths of the earth – God is still present. In summary, the Psalmist confesses, “I come to the end – I am still with you.” It’s an unusual Hebrew word there, sometimes translated, “I awaken; I am still with you.” Either way, this is Santa Claus gospel: “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake…”
All throughout scripture, for better or worse, God intimately knows God’s people. In John’s gospel, in particular, the way in which Jesus knows the unknowable confirms his divinity. At the moment they encounter one another, Jesus renames Simon to be Peter who will, in time, live into his God-given identity. When Jesus meets Nathanael, he announces him as an Israelite in whom there is no deceitfulness. In other words, Nathanael doesn’t pull any punches; he calls it like he sees it and isn’t afraid to speak up. You see, just one day prior, Nathanael had made a wisecrack about Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Let me read it to you:
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"[ii] (John 1:44-49)
Jesus, who is one with God the Father, knows us intimately and calls us into relationship with himself. Christ wants us to know him as deeply as God knows us. Jesus proclaims in John’s gospel that, through encountering him, his disciples can intimately know and experience God. He says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”[iii] Jesus didn’t come just to die on a cross for us. He came to reveal God to us; to deepen our encounter with God. Friends: God isn’t trying to hide from us. God is in the business of real, authentic, intimate relationship.
And, like any relationship, it requires tending and cultivating if it is to grow and flourish and deepen. And that is what this morning’s covenant renewal service is really all about. We need to take seriously encountering God by setting aside time to be in God’s presence through prayer, through study and meditation on scripture, through quiet listening, and a host of other spiritual practices that Christians have engaged in down through the centuries to heighten our awareness of God’s presence; to live fully awake to the presence of God. If you want to know more about any of those spiritual practices, see me after worship or email me this week: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes Christians seem to think that such quiet time (this “sitting still in God’s presence”) is nothing more than navel gazing. But it’s not. Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak – a book I highly recommend – stresses that so many of us try to live our lives being someone other than who God created us to be. We succumb to all the voices around us in our culture, especially in our families of origin, which tell us what we ought to be. But it is God who uniquely created us and we are fearfully and wonderfully made. It is God who has uniquely created and gifted us. But, unless we spend time with God, we will not know who we are or who we were created to be. Palmer speaks of the damage we do not only to ourselves but to those around us when we try to be who we are not. Our cultural prevalence of burnout, Palmer contends, goes well beyond our reluctance to rest; it is also about our trying to do and be that which we were not created and called to do and be. So we experience discouragement and frustration; we sometimes lose hope and despair; and the gifts God has bestowed upon us are hidden under a bushel and wither and the kingdom of God suffers.
Friends, I encourage you this day: renew covenant with God and determine to establish a rhythm in this New Year that will allow you to personally encounter God and to be more deeply aware of God’s presence. Again, if you need any guidance in that, just contact me. But establish that sacred time with the God who knows you intimately, the one who wove you in secret in the depths of the earth, the one who has uniquely created and gifted you. For in knowing God, your life will speak – through word and deed; your life will proclaim the grace and mercy and justice of God. It is God’s Spirit that will set your life’s course for how best to do his work and serve his people and live into the person he created you to be.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Year B, Vol. 1; Westminster John Knox Press; 2008; P. 249
[ii] John 1:44-49, NRSV
[iii] John 14:7, NRSV
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
10 Minute Sermons