What Makes for Peace
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: James 3:13-17
It has been a tumultuous last couple of weeks for our community. In the wee hours of the morning on January 12, a man (captured on CCTV) walked along Main Street just a couple blocks from here and left pamphlets at businesses; recruitment pamphlets for the Soldiers of Christ, American Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The man is, as of now, still unidentified. But his bold promotion of white supremacy was chilling and offensive. One week ago, roughly during the time we were in worship, police were at the Unitarian Universalist Church just across the river investigating a scene of vandalism: banners left on the premises, filled with profane, hateful, and threatening speech that rattled a congregation and our community.
Nativism has been dramatically on the rise here in America and around the world in recent years and, though its manifestation right now is distinctive, it is a phenomenon that ebbs and flows through the centuries since – at its root – is sin… something the human species has struggled with since the dawn of time.
So my current sermon series on the book of James (which wraps up this morning) is a timely one. James is a wisdom writing (incidentally, Jesus was considered a wisdom teacher) and, frankly, given our current culture, I think we could benefit from a little wisdom… wisdom that can guide and frame our attitudes, our words, and our actions.
The Book of Proverbs is the best known biblical book of Wisdom. It states its goal at the opening of the book like a clear thesis statement: “For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity…”[i] In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified. It calls out to us, beckoning us to leave foolish paths that will ultimately lead to our own destruction and to follow the path of wisdom. God wants to give us wisdom; he offers it to everyone. James tells us: “If anyone is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously…”[ii] Wisdom is associated with the commandments, or instruction, of God. So, we cannot ever hope to attain wisdom if we neglect the reading, studying, and application of scripture. Proverbs states clearly that we need to get our focus off of worldly assumptions about success and influence. Proverbs tells us: “wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”[iii] And Proverbs tells us that, only those open to further instruction and learning, will continue to grow in wisdom. Stubbornness – an unwillingness to learn or be corrected – shows us to be fools.
Now I’ve told you all of that about Proverbs because many of those themes are found in the book of James, particularly in this morning’s verses. However in James, rather than juxtaposing wisdom and folly (as the book of Proverbs does), the author speaks in terms of true and false wisdom: true wisdom (which comes from God) and false wisdom (which follows the standards of our world). And, James makes clear, true wisdom has the power to transform our world; to alter our culture.
Now, we can identify false or worldly wisdom because it is centered on our own ambitions and desires. This worldly ambition is about putting one’s self forward; pushing one’s way to the front of the line and it, obviously, results in friction and factions. It destroys any sense of true community.
Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is wisdom that reveals the values and priorities of God and is expressed through things like gentleness, patience, peacefulness, mercy and a willingness to yield to others. So let me say a little more about each of those and how they are being viewed in our current culture.
First: gentleness: From our families to our work places to our class rooms to the halls of congress and the oval office, we are encouraged to use terms of force and power because gentleness, we have been told, makes us look weak in the eyes of the world. And yet every one of us – I assume – as a child had an experience in which we destroyed life because we weren’t gentle. It was probably an insect or a flower. I know I’ve shared the story of my pet turtle that was killed when my younger cousin Susie failed to understand how delicate the turtle’s belly was. She pushed too hard and the turtle died. James tells us that wisdom gives birth to gentleness. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says the gentle will inherit the earth. So, it’s not power that wins the day; it’s gentleness.
Peacefulness: Just this week, scientists moved the Doom’s Day Clock to 2 ½ minutes before midnight; the closest it has been since 1953. And, according to the scientists, their decision was heavily influenced by the U.S. We seem to no longer be cognizant of what could happen to the whole world if any nation were to deploy a nuclear bomb. I guess it has been too long. Too many people who witnessed the aftermath of Hiroshima have died. Our collectively memory has disintegrated. Biblically, our New Testament understanding of peace is grounded in the Old Testament concept of shalom: an encompassing term that includes wholeness and wellness of body, mind and spirit; and a right-ness of relationship with God and with others. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says peacemakers are blessed and will be called children of God.
It pays to remember that our New Testament writers spoke of peace in a particular social context. They lived within the Roman Empire: expansionists and aggressors. In Rome, peace came at the tip of a sword. That was what the “peaceful” empire of Rome looked like. But peace for Christians is different. Our “empire” is the kingdom or realm of God: a place where everyone surrenders their own individual desires and selfish ambitions and we willingly submit ourselves to God’s consistently good and gracious desires as we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” The only sustainable peace is the peace that comes from giving up our own selfish desires and letting God be in charge. Peace can’t come at the edge of a sword or the drop of a bomb. The only true path to peace is to surrender to the will and purposes of God; not our own self-serving desires.
Mercy: Throughout scripture, God proclaims that his very identity is to be associated with mercy. In the Book of Exodus, Moses goes to the top of Mt Sinai for God to give him the commandments that Israel is to live by. And in the context of forming that everlasting relationship, God reveals himself – describes himself – with these words: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.[iv] God is defined by his mercy and grace. And if we are made in God’s image, if we are to embody the Spirit of the risen Jesus, then an attitude of mercy must be revealed in us. Mercy isn’t something people earn. Mercy isn’t reliant on the character of the recipient; mercy reveals the character of the one who bestows it. Again, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses the merciful and reassures them that they will receive God’s mercy. In chapter 2, James expresses the flip side of that same sentiment when he writes, “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”[v]
Finally, James speaks of a willingness to yield to others. Friends; as a collective culture we have dug in our heels and have determined to stand our ground. We’ve stopped listening to one another. But there’s nothing biblical, nothing Christian, in that. In chapter 4, James tells us that envy is at the root of many of those conflicts among us.[vi] We have been taught to never be satisfied with what we have; but to want what others have. We refuse to yield because we are in competition with others. We want to win the argument and win the day and take all the prizes home.
I want to share with you a personal experience I have had over the past couple of years. I have a cousin in Pennsylvania and, in many ways, we are very different. Our politics are certainly different. But in some ways, we are alike. He is an addiction counselor. So he, too, is engaged in ministry. When we initially became FB friends, we had some struggles over those differences. But over the past couple years, we have learned to respectfully ask one another questions and to listen. This past Wednesday evening, I attended the service at the Unitarian Church. After the service I made a FB post. Speaking about my joy at seeing so many people come out to express love and support, my post concluded with these words: “In a nation increasingly aggressive toward ‘the other’, we affirm with a united voice that we welcome ‘the other.’” My cousin FB messaged me – a private, confidential form of communication – to ask who I meant by “the other.” That gave me an opportunity to talk about my values and beliefs and personal experiences. But over the past couple of days, I’ve just been thinking about how wonderful it was that he asked the question in such a respectful way. He didn’t need to. He could have made assumptions or just ignored my post. But he didn’t. He wanted to dialogue with me and we want to better understand one another. Our FB messaging time ended with the words: “Love you, cuz.”
Friends: the final distinction between worldly so-called wisdom and true, godly wisdom comes down to our trust in God. You see, what all of those things I’ve just discussed share in common is this: if we truly believe that God takes care of us – that God has our six and won’t ever abandon us; if we truly believe that God’s grace never runs out; then we don’t have to fear that “the other” – however we define that other – will take something from us. We have Jesus… the grace of Jesus, how can anything trump that? We’re not at the risk of losing anything when we’ve got Jesus. But when we become fearful and aggressive and self-promoting and self-serving, it belies that we don’t really trust Jesus. We don’t really trust his grace. We don’t really trust his ability to save us or provide for us. We don’t really think that his grace is abundant and never-ending. That’s the bottom line.
The pamphlets stuck in those Main Street businesses touted the “Soldiers of Christ, American Christian Knights.” But those people don’t trust in Christ. If they did, they’d never be trying to get the upper hand over another race or religion. They have given in to fear and the belief that they have to grab for what they need and defend themselves. That’s not Christianity. That’s not trusting in Jesus because when we trust Jesus, it looks very differently. When we trust Jesus, it looks like gentleness, peacefulness, mercy and a willingness to yield to others. It looks like love (what Jesus and James name as the most important commandment) and friends; they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
[i] Proverbs 1:2-3
[ii] James 1:5
[iii] Proverbs 8:11
[iv] Exodus 34:6
[v] James 2:13
[vi] James 4:1
Words of Wisdom
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: James 3:3-10
In the book Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, author Susan Phillips tells the story of a woman for whom she provided spiritual direction; a young woman named Leah. When she first arrived, Leah exclaimed: "I don't believe that God exists. I've never experienced God, but the God I've heard about is hateful. All I've known is the brutality of so-called Christians.”
Over time, in conversation, Phillips discovered that Leah had been raised in a stern home; she had been crushed with chores and responsibilities and never been allowed to have a life or a voice of her own. Her parents belonged to a church that preached hellfire and brimstone. There was no joy in her life.
But, sometimes after her chores, she would lie on her back in the pasture. It was the place where she felt accepted as she was.
Leah said, “It was as though in the pasture it was okay to be who I am. Everywhere else I didn't fit in, I was wrong. Everything at church told me I wasn't okay as I am. Being female was especially wrong in that church. Women had no voice and were either insignificant or dangerous in that male world… I couldn't see why anyone would seek out the God preached from [that] pulpit."
Again, over time and through conversation, Leah dove more deeply into her feelings in that pasture. She felt loved there; she felt as if someone was loving her when she was there.
When Leah completed her Master’s degree, no one from her family came to see her graduate. Shortly after, she returned home to the farm for her younger brother’s graduation from high school. Proudly, she took her thesis with her. But it was a disappointing visit.
“My mother really hates who I am,” Leah said. “She asked to read my thesis, and after reading two pages said it made her tired. She gave it back to me. All she ever asks about my life is how I'm going to support myself now. I could feel the joy of graduation and the confidence my work had inspired all slipping away and being replaced by anxiety and self-doubt."
Leah started sobbing... [Then] suddenly she smiled... "I did go into the pasture. I remembered myself as a girl there. I loved that girl... I cried for her. I also experienced again what it was like to be in the pasture and to be loved. God really was there for me when I was a girl. I just didn't have the right language... I didn't have any words to apply to the One who loved me in the pasture. But it was the same Jesus who commissioned me for my work. He was there with me in the pasture."
“I didn’t have any words to apply to the One who loved me in the pasture.”[i]
All of us know that words are important. Our words carry power. One of my favorite John Wesley quotes is this one: Of the dead and absent, nothing but good.” It reminds us of the destructive power of gossip and careless speech.
Back when I was in youth ministry, I would do a game with the youth. I would purchase a cow tongue and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and put it in a brown paper bag. Then the youth would be blind-folded and invited to feel what was inside the bag to identify what they thought it was. They got only one clue: the bag contained the world’s most powerful weapon of mass destruction. There is power in our tongues. No doubt our tongues can be WMD’s.
I want to invite you to take just a moment to reflect, to remember, to travel back in time to an occasion when someone’s words impacted you powerfully – for good or ill; encouragement or discouragement. Just take a moment to journey back with that memory; to remember what it felt like when you first received those life-changing words.
Throughout this month of January I’m preaching a short sermon series on wisdom from the biblical wisdom book of James. This week, we’re looking at words of wisdom. James warns us that our tongues can take over our lives. Such a tiny part of our body; and yet our tongues can co-opt our best intentions; as they spark and flare in a moment of anger or envy. James compares the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth or the rudder of a ship. Those were actually common metaphors in the ancient world. Philo commented that God made humankind to be the charioteer or helmsman of the whole creation.[ii] The ability to control one’s tongue was considered a highly valued virtue in the ancient world. Yet James deviates from common cultural interpretation. You see, in the Greco-Roman world, wise speaking was important because it brought the wise speaker honor and accolades.
But that isn’t the concern of James. James encourages wise speaking for the purpose of building right relationships; in order to honor God and others.
An examination of the entire book of James reveals that wisdom – or wise control of the tongue – originates in the heart.[iii] James uses organic metaphors. He views our hearts as fertile soil that produces or yields a harvest of words, actions and attitudes. Our hearts can be planted, watered and cultivated by our own selfish desires OR God’s word can be planted in our hearts, thereby yielding or producing the fruits of righteousness.
So, controlling the tongue doesn’t start with the tongue for our tongue discloses our hearts. Jesus also uses this organic image with regard to our hearts. In Matthew, chapter 12, Jesus tells us a tree is known by its fruit:[iv] good or healthy trees produce good fruit; bad or diseased trees produce bad fruit. Jesus elaborates on his metaphor saying, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure”[v]
Now, all throughout scripture, God’s Word functions in two ways. First, God’s Word gives life. At the beginning of our bible, in the first creation story, God speaks all of creation into existence.[vi] God said and it happened. The opening to John’s gospel is reminiscent of Genesis when the author writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him... What has come into being in him was life…”[vii] In chapter 6 of John’s gospel, some of Jesus’ followers drift away because they find his teaching, his words, too challenging. Jesus asks his inner circle of twelve if any of them want to leave and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”[viii] God’s Word creates, renews and sustains life. So, if it is God’s Word planted in our hearts then our words, also, should be life-renewing and life-affirming; never life-denying or destructive.
Second, in scripture, God’s Word is designed to bring us into right relationship with God and with one another. That’s really what the Old Testament laws were about. As I mentioned in my sermon last week, Jesus redefines the Old Testament law in Matthew’s gospel when he gives the Sermon on the Mount.[ix] It is a sermon built around the theme of righteousness; right-ness in our relationships with God and with others. Jesus says that the righteousness of those who seek to follow him should exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders of his day… for they were focused on rules and pretense. They were hypocrites.[x] But righteousness isn’t about obeying rules; righteousness is about right relationships.
So James teaches that God’s Word in our hearts will grow from our hearts to become visible through our words when our words are life-affirming and restorative and when our words bring right-ness to our relationships. That’s how we’ll know that God’s Word has been planted and has begun to grow in our hearts and lives.
Friends, right now in our nation, a lot of hateful, hurtful, destructive words are being used. There are people seeking to destroy one another with their words. But no one who claims to follow Jesus can ever use their words in that way because, when that happens, not only do we hurt others; we also disrespect God for all of us – scripture affirms – have been created in the image or likeness of God. Again, that goes back to the Genesis creation story.[xi] James reminds us that we cannot have a forked tongue; speaking in a duplicitous manner: blessing God and cursing our brothers and sisters. When we hurl insults at one another, we are really insulting God: the God who is revealed in the other. When we use our words to damage someone else, it is as if we are crucifying Jesus all over again for, when we look into the face of another, we look into the face of God; God’s image or likeness is revealed in us.
A couple weeks back, Oprah Winfrey interviewed some female celebrities about the “Times Up” movement. Among them was Natalie Portman. Hearing just a portion of the interview, she sounded like a broken record. She said, “We’re all humans. And I think it’s treating people as fellow humans and – and it’s not because you have a daughter that you respect a woman, it’s not because you have a wife or a sister. It’s because we’re human beings, whether we’re related to a man or not. We deserve the same respect.”[xii] Repeatedly Portman said, “We’re all humans.” And she’s right. But we are even more glorious than that: for we are humans created in the image or likeness of God.
Friends, like Leah in our opening story, there are far too many people in our world – in our community – whose lives have been filled with destructive, hurtful words. They have not been blessed by the Word of God: words that are life-affirming; words that establish and build up right relationships. But we can change that. Our words can become wonderful words of life. Our words can be a blessing to others when the words we speak come from God’s Word implanted[xiii] and cultivated deep within our hearts.
[i] Candle: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction by Susan S. Phillips; Church Publishing Inc.; Kindle Ed.; location 113-114.
[ii]Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; vol. First and Second Peter, James and Jude by Pheme Perkins; John Knox Press; 1995; pp. 117-118.
[iii] See, for example, James 1:13-16 (which speaks of one’s own sinful desire giving birth to sin) and James 1:18 (which speaks of the birth of the word of truth resulting in fruit). Also, James 3:17-18 which continues the fruit and harvest metaphor.
[iv] Matthew 12:33b
[v] Matthew 12:33-34. NRSV
[vi] See Genesis 1:1-26. (Some scholars feel this first creation account may have been used in a worship setting. Recurring phrases such as “And God said” or “There was evening and there was morning, the ___ day” would have been congregational responses in much the same way as today’s traditional Call to Worship format (leader, people, leader, people).
[vii] John 1:1-4
[viii] John 6:68 (passage begins at verse 60)
[ix] The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew chapters 5-7. See, especially 5:17-48.
[x] See Matthew 5:17-20 and Matthew 6:1-7.
[xi] See Genesis 1:26-27.
[xii]http://variety.com/2018/tv/news/oprah-winfrey-shonda-rhimes-reese-witherspoon-times-up-cbs-sunday-morning-1202662801/ “Variety” magazine; January 12; Oprah Interviews Reese Witherspoon, Shonda Rhimes, Others about Times Up: ‘We Deserve the Same Respect’ by Debra Birnbaum[xiii] See James 1:21b
From the Inside Out
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
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