Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Dis is not good... If you dis a person, you dis the law and you dis the law giver" (james 4:11-12)... Shedding Light On The Epistle of Straw; Finding a faith that works in the book of James (Part 9)

You know sometimes finding illustrations to start a sermon; illustrations that help us connect and get into the passage we are looking at are the hardest thing to find.

Then sometimes illustrations just fall into your lap. Like this week…  when the media headlines and public interest was captured by two x-factor New Zealand judges gave a perfect example of what James was warning the church against in the passage we had read to us today. ( just in case you haven't seen it here is a link... I'd normally embed it in my blog... but felt I didn't want to dignify it by doing that)

Willie Moon and Natalia Kills ripped into unlikely x factor contestant Joe Irvine. Not offering constructive criticism of his singing or performance but making very personal attacks: Attacks that the human rights commissioner labelled bullying.  Attacks that went beyond the confines of being an x factor judge and mentor to unfairly judging and being a tormentor. Attacks that have seen the two judges fired from the show; They were deemed not fit to be judges.. Attacks that, by the way Moon and Kills have been abused and mocked in the media show how prevalent this way of ripping down each other is part of the human condition.  The kind of attacks that James who had been talking about quarrels and fights in church said were sadly prevalent amongst God’s people.  The kind of attacks that I know have left many of you here battered and bruised and hurt. The kind of attacks that James says goes against the royal law of loving your neighbour. That goes contrary to the character of the one true law giver and judge, Jesus Christ.

A few weeks ago when we looked at James teaching about the tongue in chapter three and how it could be used for great good or great harm, I introduced you to that most dangerous of animals the Glossa. Here James warns the church about one particularly dangerous and deadly variety of Glossa. Glossa is Greek for the tongue.  The scientific name of this Glossa is  Glossa kataleleo . the Greek word katalaleleo literally means to’ talk down’ or to talk ill of someone. It’s translated slander in the NIV bible. It has to do with spreading false accusations or untruths about a person. You could say that the common name for the Glossa kataleleo is the Back Biting Glossa. To your face it is all smiles and friendly but when your back is turned it strikes and often the victim does not know they have been attacked until they start to experience feelings of rejection, isolation and a change of temperature in their upper torso, they receive the cold shoulder.

Maybe we have to deal with James warning here with humour because what he is saying is very heavy, very serious. James articulates that by using legal terms: Speaking against a person, bearing false witness, judging another person, slander. To Judge someone is a very exacting and challenging occupation for a human being. We expect high standards from the people we call to be judges in our legal system. RVG Tasker contrasts that process with what James is talking about here

 “In a court the judge is bound to pass judgment, but only in the light of specific charges and after all the facts have been discovered as far as humanly possible to discover them.

The back bitter on the other hand is in effect passing judgment without either the opportunity of knowing or it may be, without the desire to know the truth. “

James takes it a step further to say if we do judge a person or speak against them falsely then we are speaking against the law itself and sitting in judgment of it, we are saying that we know better. In Leviticus 19 there is a list of various laws to do with how we are to treat one another that line up with what James has been talking about through the body of his letter. Not showing favouritism, not disrespecting the poor, not using slander or bearing false witness against a neighbour, not to seek revenge, or bear a grudge, which are often the kind of motives that are behind speaking people down and in the end of that list Moses gives the law in a positive way he says we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is the law that Jesus had picked up, along with love the lord your God with all your heart and all your mind, all your strength and your soul as being central to his own ethical teaching,. Mother Theresa sums it up succinctly like this’ if you judge people, then we are too busy too love them”

 In going against that law, ‘to love our neighbour as ourselves,’ we find ourselves at risk of taking on the divine prerogative of judging. James finishes this brief section of his book by reminding us that God is the only one who can be truly trusted to judge rightly. He finishes with a proverb and applies it with a rhetorical question.  “There is only one lawgiver and judge, who is able to save and destroy. But you-who are you to judge your neighbour?” In the end we need to realise that God is the only one who can truly and rightly judge another person, who can be trusted in all situations to decide and act justly. 

But in inviting us to look to God as the only one who Judges and gives the law, James is inviting us to see the character of the one who is able to judge as well. The one who is the judge is the one who desires our greatest good. The one who is the judge is the one who, in Jesus Christ, came and lived amongst us and gave his life for us. The one who will judge was willing to pay the price for the things we had done wrong. Is willing to forgive and bring back into relationship. Id the one who in John’s gospel it says came not to condemn the world but to save the world. As Paul says in 1 Timothy, as an incentive to pray and partition this judge in all situations, he is the one who desires all to come and know him as Lord and Saviour. If we focus on this judge and both his righteousness and his mercy James says well who are we then to judge our neighbour. Mercy triumphs over judgement.

What does this have to say to us today?

Three things… The first is that James warns us against and challenges us about back biting and judging one another. Let face it we all do it… you know the meetings and gatherings we have after the meetings and gatherings we have; The ones that take place in quite voices in hall ways and carparks where we critique other people’s performances and say what we really think. The snide comments whispered behind hands, behind backs.

James had laid the ground work for this challenge in a way that I think helps us to understand why we so easily fall into talking others down. He had contrasted the wisdom of the world with the wisdom that comes fromabove. The wisdom of this world was about personal success and power and how to get ahead, as opposed to humility and the common good. He had called for repentance of coming to community to fulfil our own selfish desires and pleasures, and often at the root of talking others down is the need and the desire to talk ourselves up. We want to be acknowledged, we want to be right, we want to be affirmed and often the only way that will happen is by putting others down. One of the ways it manifests itself in New Zealand culture is what we call tall poppy syndrome, someone sticks their head up and does something good or great and right away we feel the need to cut them down to size. I know for many of us its because we’ve been bruised and battered by the same treatment. In the case of x factor, Natalia Kills thought that Joe Irvine was copying her husband’s style… She thought It all revolved around them.  These insecurities and desires within us are what make it hard for us to be righteous Judges.

Secondly, James words here do not say we should not make judgment calls. There is a difference between discernment, seeing something is wrong and needing it addressed and judging someone, writing them off. James is dealing with issues that need to be addressed in the church in his letter. In fact he finishes his book with a proverb which says “whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” But we need to realise that there is a right way of dealing with that. Back biting, talking down are not the way. In Matthew 18: 15-20 Jesus outlines a process for dealing with when someone has sinned against you.  You don’t talk behind the back you go to them face to face, you do not talk down you talk to, you go and seek reconciliation. You don’t talk at but talk with, it a process of talking and listening… and if they won’t listen then you get someone to go with you, you continue the process,  out of a commitment to one another. Finally it says if it is unable to be sorted at that level then it is right to take it to the eldership, it should become a matter for formal church discipline, mediation, and even judicial consideration.  The motivation is not to get revenge or be proved right but reconciliation and the building up of the body of Christ. Just as James does with his original readers we need to acknowledge that we are brothers and sisters first and foremost.

Lastly, I think it is important for us hear the wisdom of James proverb, that there is “one lawgiver and judge- who can save and destroy”.  It frames how we choose to relate to one another. Not out of fear that the one who is judge will somehow disapprove of us and write us off. But because we know that the one who is judge is fair, is just and shows us great love and mercy and we who have known that justice and righteousness, mercy and love, in Jesus Christ seek to live it out in our lives. But also remembering that in the one who is lawgiver and judge we can find healing from the back biting wounds that scar our soul, that leave our inner voice speaking us down…  in that lawgiver and judge we can find the wholeness that will enable us not to want to talk ourselves up by talking others down.  This is the healing verdict the judge has to say of us, you are my beloved, I made you, I love you, I have provided for you, in Christ I came to give you life, you are forgiven, in me you are freed from sin and death, you are being made whole, the same power that was at work in Christ is at work in you.  Amen…

In the end it is a matter of changing a ‘d’ to an ‘h’ in a little three letter word.
The word to ‘dis’ is slang, it means to disrespect, disparage, denigrate, put down, talk down and backbite. I wonder if James was writing to a young urban audience today he might not say…’Dis is not good, you dis a person, you dis the law and you dis the lawgiver and judge…dis has got to stop’ But maybe it would be as incongruous coming from James mouth as it does from an old fella like me. And if you don’t like using slang, well in the classic Dante’s Inferno, Dis was the name of a city in hell reserved for non-believers, and when we act like judge and write people off it’s like we consign them to dis.

But if we remember that there is one lawgiver one judge who can save and destroy it changes and we live out of seeing things as “His”. We are his: His beloved, his redeemed people, the world and the other people in it are his to be treated with that same love we have been shown.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This is the Humility factor not the X factor: learning to fight like Christians (James 4:1-10)... Shedding light on the epistle of straw: finding a faith that works in the book of James (part 9)

I don’t know if you are big X-factor New Zealand watchers… A couple of weeks ago they had what they call a six chair challenge. Contestants sing for the judges and if they do well they were invited to take a seat in the judges top six. If the judge likes a contestant and the chairs are full then they have to swap someone out… It adds to the drama. In the boys category that very situation happened. English Judge Mel Blatt to build the tension asked those who were seated if they were willing to give up their seat for the person who had just sung. She probably didn’t understand New Zealand culture that well, or it was well orchestrated. But two of the contestants stood up, then the other four got to their feet as well.  Mel’s response was to go  ballistic at them she told them  that none of them were going to go very far in the competition or the business because they obviously didn’t want it enough.

Stan Walker understands New Zealand culture and in particular Pacifica culture  a bit better   and responded to the guys by saying it’s the  ‘x-factor not the humility factor.’ And yes they were going to have to fight for their place in the competition.  Maybe that is the prevailing wisdom of this world but it is not the wisdom that comes from above.

In the passage we had read out to us today, James flips that wisdom on its head,. He says in the church it is not all about the x-factor it is about the humility factor.  It’s not about fighting one another to get the top spot, it’s not about ‘I really, really want this’ but rather it is about living together humbly in response to the grace of God. If any  x factor is involved it should be the cross of Christ.

James starts by expressing the problem the church is facing in two rhetorical questions. It is a church that is beset by quarrels and factions. This says James is because people are more focused on their own pleasures their own agendas and desires rather than the gospel. It is the issue that James has been dealing with all the way through his letter. It is what he calls being double minded, they believe in Christ, they have been saved but somehow their understanding of how community is to work and what is success and important is shaped by the society around them rather than Jesus Christ. It had manifested itself in who got a seat in showing favoritism to rich and powerful people at the expense of the poor. It was about their faith being a good show not a heart change resulting in compassion: they were quick to bless people with words butdid not follow that up with actions. They wanted the same things that the world wanted rather than to live a life focused on Christ. James says even their prayer life is ineffectual because they are simply praying that God would bless them so they can focus on their own desires, their own pleasures.

It may be a bold move for an x-factor contestant to take on that Frank Sinatra standard ‘My Way’, you know… “ I did it my way”… but sadly said James  it has become a standard in the church as well.  It may win the approval of the judges  to tackle Freddy mercury’s  souring high notes in Queen’s “I want it all”… I want it all… and I want it now…  but that hedonistic song has no place in the community of faith.

James uses some strong wording to talk of the effect of these conflicts and desires… murder, war , and fighting. But that is what they can do to a church and a community. Factions that want things their way can kill off a church, can stop it growing and moving out in mission. The epitaph of many churches is but we’ve always done it this way… our way… my way.  I know many people who have been left battered and bruised and even whose faith is on the critical list because of the way that the church fights amongst itself, and the way we fight amongst ourselves… There are conflicts that need to be resolved but we need to have Christ honoring ways of addressing them.

Then James moves on to address these issues on a theological level. He says that you can’t be friends both with this world and with God.  The wisdom from above is totally at odds with the wisdom of this world..  For the x-factor you might get somewhere singing Mary McGregor’s 1976 chart topper ‘torn between two lovers’ But James says that this kind of double mindedness is adultery. In the Old Testament, the prophets likened Israel’s worship of other god’s alongside YHWH as adultery. Jesus had said it very succinctly when he said you can’t serve two masters, you can’t serve God and mammon (or wealth and riches) you will end up loving one and hating the other.

James move towards the solution for us. He says that God is jealous, He has given us his Holy Spirit and does not want it to simply be one thing amongst other things in our life.  The bit we keep in the god box, right next to the other box which is all the things we want and desire, because simply putting it in the god box can lead to it being considered the dog box, where we put things that are inconvenient or unwanted. The solution however is that God’s grace is greater than his jealousy.  As we saw a few week ago 'mercy triumphs over judgment'... God loves us and welcomes us back, if we will humbly come to him. To put our desires on the same level as God is arrogant and as proverbs 3 34 says God opposes the proud … But if we humble ourselves and turn to him God will be gracious to us.

That then is what James says is the remedy for us. He expresses it in ten imperatives or commands. Submit yourselves then to God… As we said last week when we looked at the word submissive, this is not just giving in it is a willingness to recognize the truth and let it be what guides us.

Resist the devil and he will flee from you. We are not often that comfortable talking about the devil or Satan, but James sees the devil as being the one behind our selfish desires wanting to  stir them up and use them to destroy community and our relationship with God.  In his introduction to his book the screwtape letters CS Lewis says that we can fall into two traps when it comes to the devil. One is we can give him too much power and see a demon behind every bush, that we are simply powerless against him. This is not the case, James recognizes our personal responsibility for our own desires and actions, but also that satan will flee if we resist.   The other trap is to assign him to the realm of fanatsy, and we can be blindsided and unaware of the presence of real evil. In my ministry there have been a few times I have encountered the demonic in people’s lives and can testify to the truth of James word that the demonic is bent on our destruction  but also in Jesus we have the power to resist and overcome.

Come near to God and he will come near to you. The other side of the coin is that to resist the devil is to repent which is to turn away from going our own way and to turn to God. In the end these two imperatives go hand in hand in saying where we invest our energy and our time and our focus will result in whose presence and power we experience  in our lives.

Wash your hands, you sinners and purify your hearts, you double minded. Here James uses the language of temple worship to talk of how we are to resist Satan and turn to God.  We are to stop doing the things we know displease God, like we’d wash off filthy muck off our hands after we’ve been working in the sewer and  make our focus in life going God’s way.

Grieve mourn and wail, change your laughter into mourning and your joy to gloom’, Is a call to know our need for God’s forgiveness. It is not to say that the Christian faith is not full of joy but we need to be aware of the seriousness of sin and its consequences on our lives and not take it lightly. David Nystrom says “ it is to come and recognize that the paths we thought would led to true laughter and joy are dead ends and need to be abandoned”.  We find our joy in the peace and the presence of God who lifts up the humble, we find joy in recognizing that every good thing comes from above, we find our joy in knowing forgiveness and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

James finishes this section with a proverb. That the one who humbles himself before God will be lifted up. St Augustine uses a tree to illustrate this he says ‘ As a tree must strike deep roots downwards, that it may grow upwards so everyone who has not his soul fixed deep in humility, exalt himself to his own ruin.’  Growth is dependent on our acknowledgment of our need for God.

How does this apply to us today.

The first is that it is very much about how we deal with conflicts and difficulties in the Church. James’s focus is on division and faction. We often come to conflicts knowing what we want and what we think is right. But James invites us to come with humility, knowing our need for God’s forgiveness and grace, aware of our own short comings and failings. It is a call to fight like Christians. Humility calls us to listen and hear and to understand what the other person is saying and respect their opinion before we move on. Last week we saw that James held up being considerate as  a virtue of the wisdom from above… humility calls us to be considerate. I may be wrong about this but it also calls us to be prepared to be wrong about things, and when we are to be willing to repent, rather than to simply become entrenched for prides sake. One of the biggest problems facing the church historically and today has been how to be a true expression of God’s new people from every nation, tribe and tongue. One commentator has said that the only way to become a multi-cultural church is to be willing to live with a certain level of discomfort for the sake of unity: To be open to different ways of doing things different languages and food even though it not our way of doing it. We have cultural pride that the way we do things is the right way right! We need to be willing to humble ourselves. Going back to our x-factor illustration instead of “ I’m not going to give my seat up for anyone” It is I am going to offer you a seat at the table.

Secondly, James invites us in our own lives to come to the chair challenge. Bill Bright the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, uses the illustration of a chair to talk about how we grow to maturity, how we are sanctified in the Christian life. He uses three simple circle illustrations to explain the Christian life. In the center of each circle is a chair that represents the throne of our lives, the central place. He uses dots to represent different aspects of our life, our desires for financial security, relational security, meaning and purpose in life, our hobby’s studies family life and social life.  He uses the letter ‘S’ to represent the self.

Before we are a Christian Christ is on the outside and the Self is on the throne and these different aspects of our life and our selfish desires battle for supremacy. To be in the judges top six.

Then we become followers of Christ, we invite Christ to come into equation. Christ can become just another of those things that are trying out for the top spot.  James calls this being double minded.

But as James says as we humble ourselves we are willing to stand up off the chair and acknowledge someone greater than ourselves is present and should take that place and we order all our life round that.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"I'm Not A Smart Man But...Wrestling with two kinds of wisdom (James 3:12-18)... Shedding Light On The Epistle Of Straw: Findaing a Faith that Works in the Book Of James (Part 8)

The 1994 movie Forrest Gump tells the story of a simple man, Forrest Gump, and his lifelong love for a broken and hurting woman, Jenny. It is painted against the background of US culture and history from childhood in the 1950’s through the turbulence of the 60’s and 70’s and on into the 1980’s. The movie is peppered with Forrest’s, folksy down home sayings, His momma’s wisdom captured in easy to remember proverbs. “Momma says, ‘life’s like a…Box of chocolates.” Not necessarily earth shattering insights or the prevailing wisdom of the day but things that steer Forrest through his life. One line from the movie sprang to mind as I contemplated the two different kinds of wisdom that James talks of in the passage we had read out this morning… I’ll let Forrest Gump give us the line…

 “I’m not a smart man, but I know what Love is”, all through the movie Forrest has cared for and befriended Jenny, he has shown her kindness and respect, welcomed her back after wild episodes, feed her, nursed her through drug withdrawal, he had been the only person who didn’t exploit or use her, in the end his love for her is redemptive and healing for both of them. Maybe the character Forrest Gump wouldn’t naturally come to mind as an answer to the question James asks ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ but just maybe Steven Spielberg and his writing team have managed in Forrest Gump to capture something of the wisdom from above that James speaks of. 

James contrasts earthly wisdom with wisdom that comes from above, and in his very practical way he says you can tell which wisdom is which by the kind of life that they result in. Wisdom, like faith, is demonstrated in actions. The wisdom from above is the one needed for Christian leadership and Christian community.

Cricket world cup fever seems to be sweeping the country at the moment, and of course one of the things that makes it great is that our cricket team is playing so well. A lot of that is down to the leadership of Brendon McCullum and Coach Mike Hesson.  But you won’t hear that from them. One of the things that McCullum has introduced is what he calls a culture of humility. Cricket has been called a team sport played by individuals. Much of the focus is on individual statistics and achievements, but when members of the Black caps are interviewed you will not hear them talking about their own great performances rather they will talk of the contributions of others. Batsmen will acknowledge the people at the other end, and how the bowlers backed up what they did. Bowlers will talk of how the bowling group as a whole exerted pressure, how they were backed up by good fielding and that the batters had set them a total to defend. It’s all about the team, it’s all about the common good and the common goal.

This is what James is talking about when he says that the wisdom needed for Christian leadership and living in community is shown in acts of humility. The Greek word here is the word meekness. It has the idea of being committed to the common good, and not being willing to be distracted or diverted from that common good by thoughts of personal advancement or avoiding personal disadvantage and suffering.  The illustration often used of this is a Clydesdale horse, which is blinkered so it will not be distracted from harnessing its great strength to the task at hand. The great example is Jesus Christ, who Hebrews tells us for the joy set before him, endured the cross.

Earthly wisdom, says James, is the opposite; it is motivated by personal achievement and personal success. It is what Dan McCartney calls the wisdom of success and power. The words James uses to explain it are bitter envy and selfish ambition. People involved in leadership because of what they can get out of it rather than what they can give.  When it is focused on the individual and not the community the community will suffer. Such wisdom says James is earthbound, it is unspiritual, and it is the sort of behaviour you would expect from the demons. WE only need to look around us in the news today to see the impact that focusing on personal gain, personal success and personal power can have… as James says it leads to disorder and every evil practise.

hen James moves on to contrast the wisdom of this world with the wisdom that comes from above. Wisdom Dan McCartney sums up as “ how one displays Godly character patterned after the life of the one who identified himself as meek and lowly”…Jesus Christ. We should not be surprised that the wisdom from above reflects the one who came from above, who was God’s word, God’s wisdom made flesh.

James explores this wisdom through a series of seven virtues. In the Greek they are all start with the same or similar  vowel sounds.

Most importantly says James this wisdom from above is pure.  As it comes from above it comes from God. It is not contaminated by divided loyalties and divided motives. At the beginning of his letter James had spoken of two kinds of faith, one that was totally focused on Christ and the other that was in two minds and here James picks that up again to say that wisdom from above is focused on Christ and the common good opposed to the double minded earthly wisdom, split between Christ and self, a division that will result in a divided community. In Hebrews we are encouraged to fix our eyes on Christ the author and perfecter of our faith. Wisdom from above is undivided it is pure because it comes from God and reflects Christ. In the Civil rights movement in the 1960’s one of the catch cries when faced with opposition and opportunity for self-advancement not the cause, was to keep your eyes on the prize.

Peace loving. Again speaks of desiring the common good. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom which speaks of wholeness and right relationship. Sadly in the church we have seen peace loving as avoiding conflict at all cost. We often will sweep things under the carpet, which really only means that we will trip us up later, or we will walk away, or give in for the sake of peace. But to be peace loving is being willing to face and work through those things to be committed to each other and to justice. It is to seek wholeness.

Being Considerate speaks for itself. It is being willing to consider the other person, the other perspective.  David Noystrum says that being considerate was usually associated with the administration of Justice and had to do with a judge not abusing their power but staying calm and committed to the exercise of the highest ideal of that position.

Submissive. Kind of sounds like it does not fit in this list, it sounds like you just give in to the most dominant voice… which only gives the semblance of peace. But it is not simply the idea that someone will always give in rather it goes along with being considerate, its acting on what we consider, we are attuned to hearing the truth and the word of God and being willing then to accept it and work with the rest to see it put into action: Being a team player. 

Mercy and good fruit go together and speak of that willingness to care and be committed to the common good being shown in acts of kindness and love: In meeting the needs of others.

Being impartial and sincere, are grouped together. James had already spoken about impartiality and favouritism, encouraging his hearers to care equally for all within the community of faith. Being sincere calls this not to be simply for show, it is not just a shallow mask to hide our selfish ambitions but rather comes from a genuine heart felt love for others.

James major concern was with those who lead and teach and this passage challenges us about how we view leadership.  Robert Greenleaf wrote possibly the most influential book on leadership of the twentieth century, it was called servant leadership. He looked at the model of Jesus and others and it is a good summary of what James is talking about here. He says that a servant leader is a servant first and a leader second. They lead out of the desire to see others benefit rather than a personal need for power or to obtain some material benefit.  He goes on to say…

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. (This is a great definition of the Greek word agape which epitomised for the Greeks the highest ideal of selfless love and which the New testament writers used to talk of the love of Christ) The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

It also speaks to us all about how we live. We started off talking about Forrest Gump and the proverbs that encapsulated his momma’s wisdom and steered him through life, James finishes each of his section of teaching with a proverb to sum it up. Here it is verse 18, ‘Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness’, and maybe its lost something of its pithiness in translation from Hebrew thought patterns to the Greek language and on into English, but it hasn’t lost anything of its challenge. It is a call to be a people who are about peace. That we are called to be Peacemakers… To be first and foremost about the wholeness of the community and the world in which we live, because that reflects the priority of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.  As I mentioned before this does not call us to simple avoid conflict, or be willing to settle for peace by appeasement, or by forcing others to see things our way, or even compromising our standards. As one commentator has said “Peace that leads to righteousness is peace that steadfastly refuses to let go of its standards: justice, righteousness and the wisdom of God.” Peace that sacrifices these things is not biblical peace.

We are called to be peace makers because we follow the one who himself has become our peace. Who was not willing to sacrifice his standards or settle for anything less but gave himself as a sacrifice so that we might be reconciled to God, that we could be reconciled to one another.

 In the end we may not be very smart, but in Christ we know what love is.

We are wise if we seek to live that selfless love out, to make peace with the help and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit that lives in us.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Public Health Warning: Guard Against Deadly Glossa Attacks (James 3:1-12).... Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw: finding a faith that works in the Book of James (Part 7).

If you are planning a trip over to Australia in the near future you might not want to hear or see this promotion being suggested to the Australian tourist board…

Who knows if your an adrenaline junkie Australian flora and fauna might just be for you... But the song is satire, about all the dangerous animals over the ditch…just waiting to kill you. But this morning I want to be serious and issue a Public Health Warning about a very dangerous animal … because while we see all these vicious and deadly animals we seem to be unaware of what is possibly the most dangerous animal in the world. In actual fact more harm and damage is done by this animal that shark bite, snake bite, spider bite, and even hippo attack all put together. It’s so dangerous that a single bite can actually affect a whole community of people. We do tend to think that we are safe from most dangerous animals here in New Zealand, and our bio security people are vigilant to keep pests out,  but you may be surprised that we actually have a lot of these animals in this country, and they do a lot of damage. The animals name is the Glossa… and at great personal risk I have gone out and got a close up photo of a Glossa in its natural habitat.

Ok by now you may have worked out that the Glossa is the tongue. In fact Glossa is the Greek word for tongue. Perhaps we needed to start with a bit of humour because what James has to say about the tongue and how we use words is quite serious and challenging. James applies a whole array of amazingly vivid metaphors to prove his point that while the tongue is capable of great fetes it is also if left unguarded the source of a whole lot of evil.  While we have managed to tame all kinds of wild animals says James we have not been able to tame the tongue.

ames starts by focusing on the root problem that had manifest itself in showing favouritism in the church and a faith that had more to do with simply holding to a belief rather than living out a faith, false teaching. James warns that not many of us should be teachers because a higher standard is expected of teachers than other believers.  He goes on to use the illustrations of a horse being lead about by a bit in its mouth, a boat being steered  by a small rudder and a forest fire being started by a small spark as illustrations of what he means. They all show how a small thing like a teacher in a church can influence where a larger entity, like a ship or a horse or in this case a church, goes. That is a good thing if it is under control. A rudder can direct a boat through the storm, A bit or bridle can harness the horses great strength to a beneficial task,  a spark can start a fire that warms and sheds light in the dark… But if out of control of the Spirit of God it can well run amok, burn it all down, run aground.   Controlling the tongue says James is a sign of maturity in Christ. And Praise God James is very honest as he says that we all suffer from foot in mouth disease at times.

But on a wider scale this is not just about teaching it is a challenge to all of us about the dangers of tongue and our words. They can be both loving and uplifting and life bringing  but also devastating and destructive.

Like with favouritism and faith without works, James uses a concrete example from within the church to bring it home. How can we worship God with our mouth and then curse Human beings, who are made in his image. To put down someone is to put down the one who made them. At the heart of holding all human life as valuable and sacred is the fact that we were made in God’s image and designed for a relationship with him. Disrespect for humanity is disrespect for God. It is hard to praise God when we mistreat or write off what he has made as junk… God does not make junk.  Again we head back to the words of Jesus and the royal law that we are to love the lord our God with all our mind and soul and strength and love our neighbour as ourselves… and words are works, our faith is shown in our faith words as well as our faith deeds.  In fact says James combining both praise to God and cursing people, ripping them down verbally, is as incongruous and irrational as salt and clear water coming out of the same spring, Or a fig tree bearing olives or a grape vine producing figs. Go figure.

How does this passage apply to us today?

Firstly, if James is focusing specifically on teachers in the Church, It says we need to be careful who we let teach us and have influence. It may be that as James was writing to a church that had been scattered amidst the diaspora because of persecution that they hadn’t been able to develop a proven and tested leadership, so error had been able to creep in. teachers were easily mislead to think in the same way about status and how the church should be as the society around them. They used words to maintain and build their own power to the detriment of the church itself.

I’m very aware that I am standing before you today as a teacher preacher and can I say I often maintain “the fact that I am a Presbyterian Minister is a sure sign that our denomination is in trouble”.  But James words are a constant challenge to have integrity between what you say and how you live. It is a constant wrestle to be faithful to God’s words in what is said and in life, and as Paul calls us all to do speak the truth in love.

 It is easy to equate success with God’s blessings and just recently a Mega church that I had some admiration for has been blown apart because of the behaviour of its minister. It’s a good example of what James is talking about here… The pastor was known as a fiery prophetic teacher, and you know he could preach he really could… But that word fiery is a two edged sword…  It started to come out that he had said many angry and hurtful things that displayed what many saw as a character flaw. Words such as bigot and misogynist were bandied about, about him. The way staff and leaders were spoken to and treated began to surface on the internet and media. Because of this even when he talked about repentance and changing his ways started to be doubted.  Other issues started to come to light about the use of money and misuse of power. The pastor resigned and the church that was over 10 000 strong and impacting millions round the world closed its doors at the end of last year.  This passage is a constant challenge and a timely reminder for all in church leadership about our words and our heart attitudes.

Secondly, for all of us, we need to acknowledge that scripture says words have power: The power to heal and make whole and the power to hurt and even to maim and kill. We are used to the saying sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me… we tell it to our kids like we would give them a rain coat. To keep off the harmful things that people might say to them, like a rain coat can keep them dry.  But we know at a heart level that that is a lie. James has a more realistic view of words; they can do a whole heap of damage. They can impact and affect the human heart and they can impact and infect and implode a whole community of faith.

While James does not go into how to tame the tongue the bible has some very good tips for training the tongue. Here are three real quick tips…

The first is that it needs to be housed properly… That is its best keep in a dark moist cave with a guard outside. Proverbs 21:23 says …Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity. Now this is not a passage suggesting we all need to hire a minder when we go out although sometimes my kids will tell you they think it would be a good idea for me and shopping trips with me have now become known as elder care. But the verse in proverbs asks us to consider our words and weight them before we speak. When I was young my father would always quote the Disney film Bambi to me. He say what did Thumber’s father tell him… “if you can’t say nothing nice don’t say anything at all.”

Here are two tips about what to do with our tongue the first is we should kiss… yes I’m saying Kissing is good exercise for the tongue.   And no it’s not what you are thinking, although that is very nice, rather Proverbs 24:26 says an honest answer is like a kiss on the lips. The kind of words that benefit us and a community are words of truth. The ultimate example of that is God’s word of truth, but also for us to speak honestly but just like someone would resist a sudden lunge and lip lock, it needs to be speaking the truth in love.

I also have found that the way I hold my tongue, really helps when it comes to using a hammer to hit in a nail. Towards the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul encourages his hearers to build one another up and this is a great way to look at how we use our words in a Christian community. To ask the question am I doing this to encourage the other person, am I saying these things to honour God. It is the exact opposite of what James says in this passage about using words to curse another person, or to bring them down.  I like the way the New Zealand Cricket team handles press interviews at the moment. They are reluctant to talk about their own great achievements but will acknowledge the good  performances of team mates. Bowlers will acknowledge that while they have got the wickets  the pressure that lead to that was because of the pressure asserted on the opposition by the batters getting a high score or the other bowlers drying up the run rate.  Batsmen will acknowledge their partners and others who have contributed to the score. This culture is lead by the captain Brendan McCullum, and helps to build up the team as a whole, in a sport where it has been said its about individuals who just happen to be in a team.

I went to the film Selma with James (my Son not the writer of the letter of James) for my birthday treat a couple of weeks ago. It tells the story of the civil rights marches in Selma Alabama, to insure that African Americans had equal access to the right to vote. It’s an amazing movie. I think David Oyelowo deserved an Oscar for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr, or at least a nomination. The film contains several of Kings Speeches ad sermons as well as a profound and liberating speech by President Lydon Johnson. They are speeches that not only stir the soul but lift the human spirit because of the justice and truth they expound. King applies the gospel to the plight of his people, oppressed by a wrong system with power and dignity. They acted like a rudder for a whole nation.

James says that our words and gospel teaching can do great things… great good things… they can encourage the depressed, bring out the deepest of human emotions, give voice to the powerless, rouse the careless, stir men and women to noble action, welcome the wayward, give hope in the darkest of night, give solace, point to the saving power of Jesus Christ. And sadly great harm…It is why here James warns us to be careful with our words.  Like a horse to place our reigns in the hands of the one who can be trusted to lead and guide, like a boast to know that the one who is at the helm is to be trusted, that our words and our lives are in the hands and responding to the leading and guiding of the spirit of God.