Monday, July 27, 2015

James: The War Within

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 4:1-12:

One of the things that I find remarkable about the stories of the faith that we find in scripture is that they don’t whitewash the stories, or try and hide the skeletons in the closet.  They are right out there for all to see.  And this isn’t just for minor characters, or those who just appear so that bad things can happen so we can learn a lesson, like Ananias and Saphira who are struck dead when they lie about their money to the apostles, you can find the story in chapter 5 of Acts. It’s like when an African-American character suddenly shows up in a horror movie, you know they are about to die.  Those are the ones you sort of expect to find.  It’s easy to say bad things about people no one cares about, but that’s not what happens in scripture.  It’s the biggies that get exposed.  The disciples, and Peter in particular, are constantly being shown that they don’t get it, and they are not alone.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Solomon, the biggies, they all have stories told about them in which they do questionable things, and then of course there is David.

That story we heard today of he and Bathsheba is something you might not expect to have recorded and passed on, or if it was perhaps it would be just a sort of an aside that maybe got lost over time and so perhaps there would be some comment about Bathsheba or Uriah, of which we would have no idea what it would mean.  There are certainly some examples of that in the Bible, and the farther we get away the easier it is for it to drift from memory.  To mention a somewhat similar situation, if we were to talk about Monica Lewinski, for an entire generation that would mean nothing.  Of course they could google it and get more than they ever wanted to know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Atticus Finch: Racism and Justice

Since Go Set a Watchman (whose title comes from Isaiah) was released there has been a lot of talk, and perhaps consternation, that it sets up Atticus Finch as a racist.  This shatters the sacredly held vision that people had of Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird leaving many people upset about what happened to the hero they believed Atticus to be.

Let me start by giving some caveats.  The first is that I love To Kill a Mockingbird.  The first gift that I ever gave to my wife when we started dating was a copy of that book because it came up on our first date that she had never read it.  I had a cat named Atticus and we now have a cat named Scout, so I have some background and love of the story.  Second is that I have yet to read Go Set a Watchman so can't speak from firsthand knowledge of the story. I am on vacation next week and that is one of the books I will read and maybe can provide some more perspective.

But all that being said, I don't understand what all the ruckus is about, except that some of it is because of what people brought to the story not what the story actually presented.  First is that the case of Jim Robinson was assigned to Atticus, he didn't take it on, and he actually has little to do with the black community throughout the story, thus we aren't really shown any convincing evidence that Atticus does not have negative feelings towards African Americans.  He also does nothing to challenge any of the perceptions that the community has about Tom as a black man, especially to the jury.

Second, I see no connection between someone being a potential racist as well as someone who wants to see justice carried out.  Let us not forget that John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston massacre.  That did not mean that Adams was for the British position, or against the patriot position, far from it.  But he did want to see justice carried out fairly.  That seemed to be Atticus' goal.  We could then argue whether there could actually be "justice" for a black man accused of attacking a white woman, but that is another much larger topic, and something Atticus does nothing to address.

So to me to hear that Atticus turns out to have the same prejudices of the society in which he was raised is not shocking, it's really what's to be expected.  Now it is shocking to Scout, or Jean Louise as she now going by her given name, but isn't that often the case?  Aren't we often shocked to hear what our parents or grandparents believed that seems so alien to us?  And isn't the fact that Atticus was able to raise Scout, and presumably Jem, although we don't know, without passing on the same prejudices a credit to Atticus?  This represents the generational shift we see on so many things, and the already there and not quite there that is so prevalent in society.

While both books portray very real aspects of the society and culture in which they were written, and still resonate today, let's not forget that these are fictional characters and we often bring more to them they are actually presented.  Since the books were not written to be of one piece it's also hard to necessaarily see them as a collective whole.  Perhaps Harper Lee was upset with her first version of Atticus and wanted him to be better, and so portrayed him so in Mockingbird.

Or perhaps, Atticus is simply a complex character, just as we all are, and as such seems to hold conflicting or contradictory thoughts together at the same time, and is not as good as his best actions and not as bad as his worst either.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

James: Patience, Suffering and Temptation

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 1:12-18 and 5:7-11:

When I met my wife Linda, she had a black lab, Vivian, and Vivi was really smart.  All you had to do was show her, or tell her, one time what you wanted her to do and normally she would pick it up right then.  That was a smart dog.  I’ve had some other smart dogs, but the dog we have now, Yogi, is not in that category.  And this isn’t just that he’s being ornery or stubborn, he’s just not that smart.  And to make it worse, he is part terrier and possibly some beagle, and so he likes to get his nose going and then just go.  So if given the chance, whether it’s the door being left open just a bit, or if he can find any way out of the backyard, he’s going to take the opportunity and take off and run as far and as fast as he can, until he’s picked up by the dog catcher and he ends up in doggy prison.
Now if Yogi was human, or perhaps if he was a little smarter, he might try and give some rationalization for what he was doing and why he ended up in trouble, because that’s what we try and do.  Perhaps he might try and blame the devil, with the proverbial “the devil made me do it” excuse.  No personal culpability.  Everyone else is responsible except for him, not even for giving in to the temptation.  Or he might even argue that the temptation was put there simply in order to try and bring him down because of who he is, and so not only is he not weak, it’s because he is so strong and so good that it even happened.  He is suffering unjustly.  Or he might even say, and we certainly hear this all the time, that it’s God who led him to this point, either to tempt him to see what he will do, or even worse in my opinion, is to say that God has led him to this, and not just led them to it, but actually pushed him through the door to run for all he is worth and to doggy prison, but that God will get him through it.  It’s that whole, “God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle” cliché.  But regardless of what excuse is used for temptation and suffering, they all take patience, and for me with Yogi it takes patience for me so that I don’t try and kill him.  But what James tells us today is that all of this is wrong, and the truth is we simply don’t understand what’s actually going on.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

James: The Royal Law

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 2:1-13:\

On January 11, 2007, Joshua Bell, who is world renowned and Grammy award winning violinist, performed to a sold out crowd in Boston’s Symphony Hall.  The lowest priced tickets started at $100 apiece.  But just two days later Bell performed a concert for free, but in an unexpected place.  In a situation arranged by the Washington Post as a social experiment, Bell stationed himself in the L’Enfant Metro Station in Washington, DC during the morning rush hour, and began playing one of Bach’s most difficult and stirring violin concertos.  Bell played for 45 minutes using the same violin he always plays, a Stradivarius, constructed in 1713 during the master’s golden period and valued at more than 3.5 million dollars.  Of the 1,097 people who passed by during his concert, 27 games him some money, but only 7 stopped to listen.  He ended his concert without any applause, collecting a grand total of $32.17 in tips, which included $20 from the one person who seemed to recognize who he actually was. 

So more than 1000 people witnessed one of the world’s greatest musicians playing one of the world’s greatest masterpieces on one of the world’s greatest instruments and had no idea what they were actually seeing, and so because of that they didn’t stop.  They made a quick decision about the type of musicians who play in subway stations and so just completely ignored it; he wasn’t worth their time, they had more important things to do.  How often do we make the same sorts of decisions, the same sorts of judgements that in the end turn out to be so very, very wrong, if we ever even know at all?

Today we continue in our sermon series on the book of James, who is concerned not with deep theologically statements about who Jesus and God are, but instead about how it is that we live our lives out, that’s why this series is entitled “where the rubber hits the road.”  This is about where we stop talking about our faith, or claiming what we believe and instead start living it out, how it applies to our lives.  Which led my wife say to me after last week’s introduction, “so James is the reason why we can eat bacon?”  Yes, James is the reason we can eat bacon, because he is the one who ruled that gentile converts, that is non-Jews, did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws or become circumcised to become a Christian.  So James is the one who made the Baconnator possible.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Stupidity of Some Church Signs

I know there are lots of people who talk about church signs, and even places that post the stupidest of them and yet they don't go away.  Why?

There is a church near where I live and the sign says "Don't invest in a GPS, Jesus gives directions for free."  Really?  Do they actually think this is "cute"? Or that it will attract someone to start attending their church?

Today I am flying into Denver and then driving to a conference and I really want to call this church to ask them for Jesus to tell me where it is that I am going and how to get there.  Better yet, I'll invest in a GPS and ignore their sign.

The church already has enough image problems, we need to stop feeding into them with ridiculous things on our signs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Female Sports And The Objectification of Women

We watched with excitement the US Women winning the World Cup on Sunday, but then I was slightly confused with the imagery as the medals were being brought in:

So we just saw some of the best athletes in the world competing, who also happen to be women, and we cap it off by having skinny, predominantly white, women come out in black, tight, slinky, cocktail dresses with stiletto heals. Who exactly thought this would be a good idea?  Can we say disconnect?

On the good side, since they were walking on artificial turf there was therefore no possibility that their heals were going to sink into the ground and at least the Mountie carrying the trophy was a woman.

I have two daughters and I want them to have the same opportunities to compete and to excel as anyone else.  But when we see this, and we hear about the huge disparity between money for the men's and women's World Cup, we realize just how far we have yet to go.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Servant of God

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  We began a new series on the Letter of James, and the text was James 1:1-11:

Today we begin a new sermon series looking at the Book or Letter of James, which is found nearly at the end of the New Testament.  But for most Protestants it is not a book that we spend a lot of time in or talking about.  I have never preached from James before, and I have never heard anyone preach on James either.  Just wondering if anyone here has heard sermons from James?  I think it’s a shame that James has been ignored because James has a lot to say to us, and important things.  So for example, some good advice for any time, but especially for the past few weeks, James says, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  But there is one line that has sort of cursed James within the Protestant tradition, and that is when James says that faith without works is dead.
At the time of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther began to proclaim, using the letters of Paul found in the New Testament, that we are saved by faith alone, a tenant that we still hold.  So if we are saved by faith alone, and if James is saying that we need works, then Luther needed to reject James.  In fact, Luther wanted to remove James from the cannon of scripture entirely, and while he was obviously not successful in that, in Luther’s own writings, which never included a commentary on James, he moved the book of James to a section of lesser, disputed writings.  He also called James a book of straw, in comparison to the true gold found in the gospels and the works of Paul.  Now I don’t believe that Paul and James were actually saying different things, and we’ll get to that much later, and even though the other reformers did not agree with Luther’s distaste for this letter, which is why it remained in the Bible, Luther did have a huge impact on James’ place within the Protestant tradition, mainly being that it was ignored for large periods of time.  But in recent decades James has seen a revision in how it has been viewed and interpreted and its place in the tradition, and so we’re going to build on that a little bit over the next six weeks.

While James is a letter, it is also different then most of the other letters we find in the New Testament.  I would invite you to look at James versus some of the other letters, but there is no full greeting, no opening prayer, no commendations, nor does James mention anyone else.  It is known as one of the general or catholic epistles, catholic in this sense meaning universal.  James addresses it to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, meaning those who are living outside of Palestine, and in particular Jerusalem.  It’s not clear who James means by this, but the tradition has tended to believe that he is specifically addressing Jews who have become followers of Christ.