Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Yesterday, when I was watching part of the funeral service for Senator John McCain, I found myself reflecting on the question of purpose. I found myself asking a lot of “why” questions. Why am I hear? Why are we here . . today?
Though it’s not the only reason I’m here this morning, it’s my job to be here. But what made you voluntarily choose to spend the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend – the last Sunday of summer –inside a church? Why aren’t you at the beach? Or holding a family picnic? Or why aren’t you at the Art Festival this morning selling pulled pork?
Maybe you’re here out of habit.
Maybe you’re here to see your friends.
Maybe going to church is just “what you do” on Sunday morning.
Maybe you’re here because you’re lonely.
Maybe you’re here because something is wrong or missing in your life.
Maybe you’re here hoping that something in here will be different from all the other “places” in your life.
None of these are bad reasons to be at church on a sunny September Sunday. But they are not the reason we Christians gather for worship week after week: We worship . . . to wake up. We worship to live more consciously and to take notice of the presence and power of God in the world, in our lives, and in everything we see and do and touch and feel.
The Latin word “re-ligare” from which we get our word “religion” has the root “lig” — which scholars have traced back partly to mean “pay attention.” Any religious service, any religious act, should make us sit up, shake our heads, and pay attention to the divine, the sacred, the presence of God.
When we live by a set schedule of work, when everyday routines can be acted out without even thinking about them, we loose consciousness to the wonders that surround us in the world. The wonder of God’s creation. The wonder of love. The wonder of family. The wonder of breathing in and out. The wonder of life. The 20th century author, G. K. Chesterton, put it like this: “The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder.”
This week’s second reading is from the Letter of James, a letter that has been likened by some theologians to “weak spaghetti sauce” — not worthy of much attention. But I think the Letter of James has some of the most real life, faith-in-action thoughts and directives in all of the New Testament.
James’ first message in today’s reading is to remind us that every gift, all good things, come to us from God. James reminds us that we have done nothing nor can we do anything to deserve, or to “earn,” the gifts that God rains down on us. All we do is receive them. God is a Giver. You and I are receivers. So, from the get go many people don’t like what this letter has to say, because we all know it’s easier to be a giver than it is to be a receiver. What do you do when someone gives you a gift? You say “Thank you!” After that long-awaited birthday party and Christmas celebration there is that old ritual we dread of sitting down and writing “thank you notes” – to grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends. It’s a courteous and expected response, even from the youngest children. But it’s not something we do easily or often enough.
Well, Sunday morning worship is our opportunity to pay attention, to take note of the graced presence of God in our lives, and to say “thank you.” Thank you God, just for your presence in my life. Thank you.
But just “showing up” isn’t a true “thank you.” Once we really “pay attention” to what God has done and is doing for us, what transformation has been brought this week by the Holy Spirit — a little more response is called for. This is where James’ text gets more difficult. He calls upon all of us who claim the gifts God has given us to then be “doers” not just “hearers” of the word. If the truth of the gospel of Christ has been implanted in us, then we are called to “do” certain things.
And James’ directives on “what to do” are quite specific.
1) First, James tells us to “Bridle” your tongue. Or as our mothers used to say, “Watch Your Mouth.”
Watch what you say and how you say it. Don’t let the first thing that pops into your head be the first thing that pops out of your mouth. Think before you speak. And don’t ever, if possible, speak out when anger is the only propellant you’ve got behind your thoughts. Choose your words carefully. Because, as Jesus says in our Gospel reading for today, it is not what you put into your mouth that is dirty . . . it is what comes out of it. It takes a conscious thinker to filter out some of our sinful tendencies that come into our thoughts. But it is those tendencies that result in us blurting out words of hurt and hate, vitriol and vindictiveness, words that we usually regret. It’s sort of like having a really heated argument in the midst of a beautiful, sunny day. We need to be aware of ALL that is around us, not just that which gets our attention because it upsets us. In the midst of an argument we need to be aware of the beauty of the day and acknowledging that it is from God.
But James also says that being a “doer” involves more than watching your mouth. It also requires 2) Watching out for others. We are called to watch out for other people. Not in the “I better be careful around them” kind of watching out, but rather, we are supposed to watch out as in watching over other people. This is especially true for the most fragile, the weakest, the most helpless in the world.
James cites the frequent Old Testament mandate to “care for orphans and widows in their distress”. At that time, orphans and widows had no recognized social status because they had no head-of-household to protect them. Employment was unlikely, poverty was commonplace, and homelessness was the standard. That is, unless the wider community stepped in.
Do you want to say “thank you” for God’s gifts? Then help others, especially the most fragile, most unprotected, most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers who live in the midst of the community where God has planted us. Help in whatever way you are called and in whatever way you are able. No gift of your time, of your talent, or your treasure is to big or too small. Because it is all about you living out your faith in a way that is in proportion to the gifts that God has given you.
3) Besides watching your mouth, and watching out for others, there is a third “doing” according to our text this morning. “Doers” must engage in actions and activities that demonstrate to the world the depth of their gratitude. Some call this “Discipleship Gratitude.”
Every religious tradition has its way of moving us into a posture of discipleship gratitude. Reformed Protestant worship probably does the worst job of this. That’s why it is sometimes dubbed “sit-and-soak” worship. Parishioners usually remain glued to their pew, letting the words, the music, the message from the pulpit, all just wash down over them, like a super soaker on a hot summer day. That posture in worship may be comfortable, but to my mind it is not a posture that says “thank you God.”
Other worship traditions like Pentecostalism do a better job of waking up the body and the spirit. Pentecostal worship moves the whole person into a physical participation in the liturgy. But it’s not a physical participation that encourages thought and contemplation.
That is why, as you would expect, my preference is what is done in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and our beloved Anglican traditions where we use sites and sounds as well as physical movements to wake us up. We call ourselves “liturgical traditions” because the traditions of our denomination are rooted in how we live into our liturgy. In some liturgical traditions the smell of incense and the ringing of bells takes us out of the ordinariness of the moment, wakes us up, and announces God’s divine presence. We kneel to confess, we make the sign of the cross to bless, we dip our fingers into holy water when we enter the church and cross ourselves with blessed water to remind ourselves of our baptism, and we stand to praise God in word and song. These are all body movements that force us to step outside the ordinary and heighten our soul’s awareness of the extraordinary presence of God.
In synagogues the Torah is read through in its entirely every year. On the day that marks the final reading for that year, the whole congregation rejoices, celebrating the gift of the word of God, the Torah. The usually sedate synagogue is filled with music and dancing. The ark that houses the congregation’s Torah scrolls is opened up, and the scrolls are brought out and distributed throughout the congregation. Holding the scrolls high, worshipers dance, weaving in and out, laughing, crying, rejoicing, embracing the gift that God has given to them, celebrating that they are living life “doing” the Torah.
Maybe we’re not quite ready to wave our Prayer Books over our heads and dance together in circles. But we do need to find a way to show thankfulness and to recognize the giftedness, the presence of God, that lives in our midst.
You may each find your own way to do that on a regular basis, but this morning I’d like to ask you to try one way. I would like to ask you all to please stand. You may want to have your bulletin open to the Nicene Creed.
Next week is Welcome Home Sunday, when we welcome everyone back from the long summer break. And in the coming months we will again, as we do each year, share some important moments together. We will learn together, pray together, bless our pets together, celebrate holidays together, support each other when we experience the loss of a loved one and rejoice together when we baptize a new member or when a child is born into our community. And in recognition of all those gifts, we will this year join together to serve the world in both old and new ways as God calls us to do.
So, in a moment, I’m going to say a short prayer. Then, during the time before we begin to recite the Creed, I would like you to think of one thing about this church or perhaps one person from this church, or one outreach or service ministry from this church for which you are thankful today and which you symbolically want to welcome back into your life for this time of year. Then after a time, we will recite the Nicene Creed, which proclaims our faith and says so much about what our faith calls us to be thankful for. So, take a moment, and let us pray.
“O Lord our God, your gifts to us are so great they cannot be numbered, so we will not try. But what we will do is to pledge this day that we will strive from here on to do a better job of recognizing your gifts and responding to your generous love by using those gifts in service to the world in your name. And, we pray, that in that process we will each day continue to grow in awareness of the wonder and beauty of life. We do this all in the name of your son, whose life was your greatest gift of all to us. Amen.”