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.

But even that is not really the same, because David is not just any king of Israel, he is the king, the greatest and most important king, the one who is promised that his reign will live forever, from whom will come the Messiah.  He’s a big deal, and yet we have this damaging story told about him, and it really starts in the first line because we are told that it was the spring, the time when the kings went out to battle, and yet where do we find David?  Not out with his troops, but back in Jerusalem seeking his own pleasures.  And since we heard the story of David and Goliath a few weeks ago we know that David wasn’t afraid of battle or wasn’t any good at it, but he is not doing what he should be doing, he’s doing more what he wants to do, which inevitably leads him into trouble.  He has a dalliance with Bathsheba, who is married to someone else, and she becomes pregnant, and David then tries to cover up what has happened.  And as so many politicians learn, and yet others fail to learn, the cover-up is often worse than the original crime, and in doing that David ends up having Bathsheba’s husband killed.

Is that the type of story we would tell about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?  Not really, and anytime someone tries to bring up the seamier sides of their lives, the attacks are quick and vociferous.  And yet that is the story we know about David, and this certainly isn’t the only one that should make us question his character, or at the very least question his judgment.  And yet David is held up as the greatest king in Jewish history.  Why is that?  I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that scripture wants to portray them as they really were, not to make gods of them, not to make them something they were not, not to make them perfect, but to make them seem human, because they were.  That they had the same struggles and difficulties that we have, and in that they are identifiable and we can see ourselves and our faith journey through the faith journey of the Bible.  And that leads us squarely into what James has to say to us today.

Last week we looked at suffering, patience and temptation, and really today’s passage could be a continuation of many of those same ideas and themes.  In the passage from last week James said that it’s not someone else who tempts us, not God or the devil, we are lured and enticed by ourselves, by our own desires, and we are the ones who give into them, which leads to sin and sin leads to death.  We see that played out in the story of David and Bathsheba, and we see it played out in our own lives.  James says that if we are in conflict, it is not because we are right and someone else is wrong, but that all of us are at war with ourselves.  It is our own desires which destroy us and destroy others.  James says, “You want something and do not have it; and so you commit murder.  And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

Certainly David’s desire does in fact lead to murder as he sends Uriah to the front lines and orders Joab to basically make sure he’s killed.  But we might say that we’ve never committed murder so James has to be wrong, or at least he’s talking about someone else, it doesn’t apply to us.  Except that James is talking about something much deeper, just as Jesus does.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.”  (Matt 5:21) That is anger itself is equivalent to murder, and if you think that’s not the right interpretation, in 1 John we are actually told, so that we are very clear, “all who hate a brother or sister are murderers.”  And why do we then do these things? It’s not because we usually don’t know what God is calling us to do, but instead we do what we want to do which leads to negative outcomes.

And if we remember back several weeks ago James tells us that we can’t ignore the laws that we do commit because we don’t violate other laws, because if we violate one then we are found guilty under all.  Of course James’ example is saying that if you commit murder but don’t commit adultery that you’ll be okay.  Sort of ironic when we think again of David who has just violated both.  But if we want to compare ourselves and say, “well at least we’re better than David,” then we are going to end up getting ourselves in trouble, because it’s not that if one person violates more laws then we do that we are then innocent because we haven’t done as much, but again what James says is that if we violate one law then we are guilty for all, and as a result we are adulterers James says.  That is prophetic language that was used to refer to the Israelites violating God’s covenant, with Israel being portrayed as the bride who strays to God’s groom who always remains faithful.  And so when it comes to adultery one violation is all it takes to bring the covenant, it’s not that the break is less because it only happened once is it?  Certainly not the way that God sees it, and so through the prophets God called the Israelites back to faithfulness, back to the road of righteousness, back into right relationship, and James is calling for us to do the same thing.

Because the truth is we all have temptations and we all have some level of envy, indeed in our culture it might be nearly impossible not to because our entire economy is based on the idea of envy and of wanting new and better things, of coveting things we can’t have.  I’m not sure what advertising would look like, or if it would even exist, without making us covet something else, of changes our wants into needs, and often we then turn to God to try and make these things come true.  Bishop Will Willimon has said this is God as cosmic butler, where God serves at our beck and call and that whatever we ask for, God is expected to grant it for us.  In this scenario, which is all too prevalent in our culture, and I have to admit I have even done at times, we don’t serve God, but God serves us.  I remember a number of years ago seeing a t-shirt that said, “God if you let me win the lottery, I will prove to you that the money won’t change me,” and while I was trying to find an image of that shirt I actually found prayers online asking God to help you to win the lottery.  “You do not have, because you do not ask,” James says.  That sounds like what Jesus says, “ask and it shall be given to you, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door will be opened.”

But, then James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your own pleasures.”  That’s a pretty strong indictment, but what it also says is that our struggles are nothing new; they are part of the human narrative.  James is not writing this to twentieth century Americans expecting what we would be going through.  He is writing this to first century Christians who happened to be going through the same things, and dealing with the same temptations, although they didn’t have 24-hour stores so we can give in at any time or bikini clad women and their talking horses trying to convince us that we have the wrong cable provider.  And do we really need 500 channels?  That does not include getting the MLB package so that you can watch every Yankees game, and watch the Red Sox lose, that is necessary to have.  But all the rest of them are superfluous.

Later in the fifth chapter, James again talks about prayer and says that we should confess our sins to one another, to pray for one another, and that the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  Prayer is not about me, it’s about us, that’s why the Lord’s Prayer uses plural language, you never once say me or I.  Righteousness is about living in right relationship with God and doing what God has called us to do, and living in right relationship with each other.  For James that means being friends with God, not friends of the world, or as Gerry Lightwine will talk about next week, knowing about the wisdom from above rather than the wisdom from below.

But normally when we think about being friends with the world, there are certain connotations that go along with what that means, of having “worldly knowledge”, but James is actually calling us to see it as more than just a limited connotation, but instead to view absolutely everything that we do about whether God is calling it to us or not.  Does it bring us into right relationship with God? Does it bring us into right relationship with each other?  And how do we know if we are doing the right thing?  If it is bringing us into conflict with others, that tends to be a good key that we are going down the wrong paths, or if it’s about what we want, or what we prefer, rather than what God wants.

Of course the problem with that is that few, if any, of us think that we are wrong about anything.  Certainly there are times in which we know as we do it that its wrong, but normally we don’t think that.  We think that we are right and we want what’s right, and obviously we also want what God wants because if we are right then God is obviously on our side.  But obviously sometimes we are totally wrong in that belief.  So how do we know?  As we covered several weeks ago, for James he says that we are to follow the Royal Law, or judge everything against the Royal Law, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Is what we are doing creating community, proclaiming relations, bringing about love, or is it destroying those things?  If it does the first, of creating community or building it up, then we might guess, or hope, that God is involved, but if it does the second, of destroying community, then we are probably more concerned with the things of this world rather than the things of God.

Yesterday the Special Olympics World Games began in Los Angeles, featuring more than 7,000 athletes from 177 countries.  The Special Olympics was begun as a project by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who wrote an influential article that talked about her older sister Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability, but who up to that point was virtually unknown to the public.  But that was not unusual as those with intellectual disabilities tended to be locked away in institutions, and that was usually the medical recommendation, because it was thought that there was nothing that could be done with them, that they could not contribute to society, and certainly you did not talk about them or tell anyone that you had a family member with such a condition.  But Shriver brought the conversation into a new light and radically changed society’s perception of those not just with mental disabilities, but even spreading to those with other disabilities as well, such that today, not only do we not institutionalize them but even work to integrate our classrooms, and ESPN is even covering parts of the games.

Are you in friendship with the world, or in relationship with God and living into the law of loving your neighbor as yourself?  James says that “God opposes the proud,” that is those who are doing things for their own purposes, following their own desires and their own intentions, those who ask not for the greater good but for their own pleasures.  Are you doing things for the right reasons, or are you doing them because of what it will give you in return or because you have a preference that this is the way things should be?  God “gives grace to the humble” and for those who draw near to God, God will draw near to them.  and that is really at the heart of what James has to say to us today.  James says that the disputes, arguments and wars that we enter into as individuals and as societies and countries are not the result of the natural order of things, but simply because we choose not to play nice with each other.  That we are driven by our own urges and cravings and desires, and when they are not fulfilled we act out.  And worse is that we ask God for things simply because we think they will be pleasurable to us not because it’s actually what God wants for us or for our lives, and as a result, James says, we don’t receive it, but blame God as a result.  But, when we seek God’s will in our lives, start praying, “not my will, but your will be done,” then God will draw close to us, and we will be offered grace.

That’s what the story of David also shows us.  David fails and falls, he gives into his own desires, and in this case it really does lead to the murder of someone else.  And yet, David finds pleasure in God’s eyes.  Why?  Because he is willing to repent and to humble himself before God, to admit his mistakes, although sometimes they have to be pointed out to him (Nathan), to cleanse his hands and purify his heart.  These are not just mere words, but actions that we are to carry out, knowing that when we humble ourselves before God and seek forgiveness, not because we demand that it should be given to us, but because God wants to give it to us.  In the 51st Psalm, which is a Psalm of David following his affair with Bathsheba, we hear him say, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me…. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  Or as James says, “Submit yourselves to God, draw near to God and God will draw near to you.  Humble yourselves before God, and God will exalt you.”  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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