Back to Basics: A Sermon for January 9, 2011

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church January 9, 2011 Christian Spirituality for Busy People: Week 1 James 2:14-26

Back to Basics

A few scenarios from the news and my life this week:

First: A philosophy professor at St. Mary’s College gave his “Altruism and Egoism” class a unique assignment: to write a final paper exploring the ethical issues of whether he (the professor) should donate a kidney to someone who needs it, and to make a specific recommendation, yes or no. The professor had been considering such a donation for some time, and wanted to give the students a real-world, practical scenario to work with.

The result? The class clearly identified a kidney donation as an excellent, worthwhile thing to do. It was an unambiguously good deed. But they stopped short of recommending that their professor go through with it. On the issue of whether he should do it or not, they punted and said, “We just can’t say either way.”

Second: A professor and researcher at Columbia University has been working on a technology that will allow for 3D facial recognition. The idea is that anyone can be identified in real time simply by running the image of his or her face through a computer. As you can imagine, there are numerous real-world security applications for this technology… and numerous concerns about Big Brother watching us, and the loss of privacy. The researcher said he himself had grave concerns about the use of such a powerful technology. He was asked, “Well, then, how do you justify working on advancing such technology?” The man answered, “Well, it’s just really really cool technology… and besides, it doesn’t really work yet.” “And when it does?” “Well, I’ll just quit at that point.”

Third, closer to home: This past Monday, a woman at my bus stop harangued her young daughter at length for wearing Crocs and short socks in 30 degree weather. It was over the top: “What were you thinking?!?” she shrieked. “This is unacceptable!!!” She went on and on; meanwhile I’m thinking to myself that cold ankles are probably nothing compared to the poor girl’s being shamed in front of all her friends and several parents. It really was quite appalling. So I did what any 21st century person would do, of course: I went right to Facebook to register my displeasure, and quickly found 10 or 12 people who shared my indignation. Only after several messages did one of my friends say, “Wow, it sounds like she and our daughter really need our prayers.” And I thought, Sigh… of course they do. I had blown that one, big time.

Now, we could go a number of different directions with these scenarios. There’s more than one way to interpret them. But what every situation highlighted, for me anyway, is the disconnect between what people believe or feel and what they actually do. In the words of the old cliché, we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. And hey, we live in complicated times. It’s sometimes hard to know the right thing to do. And even when we know the right thing, we can invent all sorts of reasons not to do it.

There is plenty of stuff in modern life to attract us and distract us from what’s true and deep and worthwhile. Maybe you’ve read the books, or seen the articles, discussing how the Internet has changed the way we think and process information. The constant availability of information and entertainment has shrunk our attention spans, eroded silence, and made contemplation and reflection harder and harder. And silence, contemplation, reflection, deep reading and thinking—these are all indispensable elements of a healthy spiritual life.

Meanwhile, the 21st century church has a huge image problem. According to one study (quoted here), the top three perceptions of Christians today are: anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical. The fastest growing religious group is “unaffiliated”—those folks who choose not to be connected with any faith tradition whatsoever. And it’s no wonder, because they look at folks like us in the pews and see people who don’t look that different from people sitting in Starbucks on Sunday morning reading the paper. We can hardly blame them for wondering “What is the point?”

Madeleine L’Engle has written: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

We’re not doing too well at showing them that light. Too often we’re more like a dull light bulb. We’ve got one in our house right now, about to blow, casting a sickly gray glow, flickering every so often, and you know if you touch it just the wrong way it will ~bzzzt!~ burn out.

And so we need these words from James. We need to be reminded that faith without works is as dead as a body without the spirit.

Today is the first day of a new sermon series here at IPC, which I’m calling “Christian Spirituality for Busy People,” and I have two hopes for what we’ll do in this series:

  1. That we will see Christian discipleship, not as something to be added on top of everything else, but as a series of practices that we integrate into our everyday life. We’re going to look at ancient, biblical practices such as Sabbath, prayer, hospitality, testimony, mission. And the point is not to add a bunch of extra stuff to our to-do lists… but to weave it all in. …To live our life “Sabbathly.” …To live a life that is prayer-ful—full of prayer—which can be integrated into all we do. …To be hospitable in the way we treat the people we come in contact with every day. …To see every encounter as an opportunity to share Christ and meet Christ.
  2. That we will hear stories about congregations that have integrated these biblical practices into their lives as a community, and see how the practices have transformed them. (You may have read in the Panorama about our new transformation team that will be working with presbytery staff and facilitators to help us discern a vision and direction for the future of IPC. This series will provide food for thought for them as they begin their work next month.)

What congregations are finding is that a focus on the practices, the disciplines, the rhythms of Christian faith, has been utterly life-giving for them.

Because the fact is, we disagree on numerous matters of faith:

Is the Bible the literal word of God, dictated by God, or is it a document written by human beings through which the Holy Spirit is at work?

What happens when we die? Does everyone go to heaven? Or just those lucky people who’ve happened to confess Jesus as savior?

Who has a right to be ordained in our church? Who has the right to marry the person they love?

We disagree on these things. If our life together depends on unanimity, it won’t work. We don’t agree… But we can pray together. We can hold one another accountable to practice Sabbath. We can urge one another to study God’s Word.

Because what we know is that these practices of faith are what helps faith come alive… what kindles the Light of Christ to burn with a hearty flame. We know it, and James reminds us. Good intentions and nice thoughts don’t cut it. Author Donald Miller writes about a friend whose wife recently had a baby, and his friend was gushing about how amazing it was to watch his wife take on these new caregiving responsibilities with such grace and pluck. He went on at some length until Don said, “Wow, what did she say when you told her all this?” His friend got quiet and said, “Oh… huh… I guess I haven’t shared any of that with her.”

…What good are all these warm feelings if they are not conveyed? If they are not embodied?

That’s what this series is about—embodying our faith. Matthew Sanford, a yoga instructor whom I heard interviewed recently, has argued that the more aware people are of their own bodies, the more compassionate they are toward others. That idea is tied up in this business about Christian practices as well—that by being people who follow the rhythms of Christian life, of resting, praying, serving and being served, that we inhabit our lives more fully… these lives that God has graciously and mysteriously entrusted to us.

And the timing of this series is quite intentional, as the Christmas season comes to a close and a new calendar year begins. It is time to attend to what Howard Thurman calls “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.

~ ~ ~

And here’s where I stopped writing my sermon last night, and stared at the computer screen for about 45 minutes with a series of names running through my head.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Judge John Roll. Gabe Zimmerman.

This morning, more names were added to the list. Phyllis Scheck. Dorothy Morris. 76-year-old Dorwin Stoddard, who died while trying to shield his wife. Christina Taylor Greene, 9 years old. And the name of Jared Lee Loughner.

Did you know that the Reformers hated the book of James? Wanted to remove it from the Bible? Martin Luther called it the “epistle of straw,” and John Calvin didn’t have any love for it either. The book of Romans was their cornerstone, specifically Paul’s assurances that we are saved through grace alone, that there is nothing we can do to earn salvation or God’s favor. And by contrast, there’s James, with his emphasis on works… and it seems like a complete offense to the idea of salvation through faith, which is so central to the Protestant Reformation. As if there are any “works” that James could come up with that would save us! It’s not about works, say Luther and Calvin, it’s about Christ’s death and resurrection that makes all people new and reconciled and free.

I think about yesterday’s abominable events, and I think about the countless other instances of violence that didn’t make the news, and I think about the pettiness that passes for leadership in our Congress and in our nation, and I think about our civic life together, with too little honest engagement and too many soundbites, too little hard work and too much posturing, too little sacrifice and too much entitlement; I think about all that, and I think, Luther and Calvin were so right. We cannot save ourselves, and we have made an ungodly mess of things. Come, Lord Jesus.

And so here we are today, grieving and angry, stuck betwixt and between the Apostle Paul and the Apostle James, with the knowledge that we cannot save ourselves, that we are utterly dependent on the gift of God’s grace… and just as certain that merely thinking nice thoughts about Jesus means nothing, that sitting around and waiting for rescue is an offense to the message of Jesus Christ, who said:

“Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” …and

“For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.”

We don’t know exactly what yesterday was. Was it a random incident of violence? Was it politically motivated? Was the shooter mentally ill? Was he pushed to extremes by violent rhetoric on the part of political leaders? We don’t know, although pundits are already lining up predictably, some decrying the poisonous atmosphere we live in, others quick to deny any culpability beyond the perpetrator himself. Maybe we won’t ever understand all the contours of yesterday’s tragedy. But we don’t need to understand exactly why this happened to be accountable as people of peace and integrity, and to hold one another accountable, and to hold our leaders accountable. When a Republican candidate for Senate spoke of “second amendment remedies,” or when a Democratic leader spoke of “enemies” across the aisle, people grumbled to themselves, but maybe what we needed to do is pick up pen and paper and tell them that as Christians, and as Americans, such language diminishes us. And it’s wrong.

So I’m glad the book of James is in the Bible. We need him… not because we’re trying to earn our way to heaven. That’s not what this focus on spiritual practices is about. No, we need James to help us live more fully as disciples of Jesus, and to love this world that he loved. With all due respect to Luther and Calvin, I tend to agree with Teresa of Avila, who lived at the same time as Luther and Calvin and who said…

Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. …Christ has no body but yours.