Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pure and Undefiled

Pure and Undefiled from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

James 1:17-27
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all the sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22But be does of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act - they will be blessed in their doing.

26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

21For is is from within,from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Let me tell you why I think the decline of mainline protestantism is a good thing.

How's that for an attention-grabbing first line.

For about the last forty years, United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, some Baptists, and Presbyterians have seen their churches grow older, and grow smaller. They still have the big steeple in the center of town, but they no longer have the people to fill their pews.

What's more, the culture has shifted. We used to dominate the culture. Churches used to be the only thing open on Sunday, and "blue laws" kept it that way. We didn't have to compete with brunch or weekend sales for the attention of the people around us. We could build a new building, or a better program, or hire the best staff, and people would fill our sanctuaries and education wings. The church was the center of the culture, and all each individual congregation had to do was be healthy enough that people didn't leave as soon as they arrived.

Now, however, that is not the case.

The church is not the cultural and political powerhouse it used to be. We can no longer rely on our position in society to protect us. Mainline membership rolls and budgets are shrinking, and the solutions that have sustained us for so many generations are meeting with less and less success.

People increasingly see the church as hypocritical, judgmental, and irrelevant. The expectation is that “church people” are always proper, and that our God is supposed to somehow protects us from all harm because we are pure and undefiled by sin.

Perhaps instead of claiming we are pure and undefiled, we should admit we are broken and unworthy, that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” For the church, success doesn’t mean larger crowds and bigger budgets, it means pointing to Christ in both joy and grief. We recognize, as James urges us, that God, the Father of lights, is the source of all our gifts.

I think the decline of mainline protestantism is a good thing. I think that in those days of cultural dominance, the church forgot who it was, and whose it was. We forgot that we are the church of Jesus Christ. We forgot that  God, “In fulfillment of his own purpose… gave us birth by the word of truth.” We grew dependent on the culture and upon civil authorities to ensure our survival.

As our numbers decline and our dominance fades, we remember that the church is not called to survive, it's called to proclaim resurrection. In a frightened world, the church is a beacon of hope declaring that though we have much to fear, we know that our Lord, Jesus Christ, is more powerful than fear. The decline of mainline protestantism has forced us to reclaim our identity.

The church’s story moves from slavery to liberation, from death to resurrection. When we are the same as the culture to which we are sent, it is all the more difficult to offer our story as an alternative. We get caught up in the anxiety around us, we start to believe the fear that creeps so easily into our consciousness. In those moments, when we forget who we are and whose we are, we deceive our own hearts. 

In the days our cultural dominance, we somehow began to equate the size of a church with God's action in a church. The dominant logic was that if God was really working in a church, then their membership would swell. But God doesn't always work in that way, and growth does not always mean numbers.

The American Church is emerging from a time when we bought into a narrative of a passive faith. The cultural forces at work taught churches nationwide that all we had to do was show up and listen. We’re called to worship God in thought, word, and deed. American Christians have a lot of practice at worshipping God in word. Presbyterians, with our emphasis on education, have a long tradition of worshipping God in thought. From a place of cultural dominance we can do both these things passively. “James addresses the deception of passive faith and offers a durable definition of pure religion, the word of God indeed.” Just as Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, so the church is called to enact the word that has been planted in us.

The Pharisees and some of the robes step onto the scene. Folks who upheld tradition to the point that it became an idol. Their once-faithful practices grew stale and they could not see the new life God was breathing into them. Their tradition, just like the best parts of ours, was rooted in scripture.“…the fault lay in this, that they did not think that God could be properly worshipped in any other way.” They were so busy trying to build themselves up that they deceived themselves into trying to limit God. They were doing thrift deed, but for the wrong reason.

We've been fighting the battles between intention and action for a long time. Action that is not backed up by faithful intention is hollow. Good intentions without actions are worthless. When these issues come before Jesus, he sidesteps the hand washing and drives to the heart of the matter. “By quoting Isaiah, Mark indicates that this issue is not unique to Jesus or the Marcan community, but has a history extending back to the prophets.” The Epistle of James shows that conflict between right belief and living our beliefs extends into the early church, and our own experience teaches us that it didn’t end there. We're not going to win that battle. We're fighting against our own nature, and the image of God in which we are created is stained, defiled by the evil intentions of our broken hearts.

But the battle is won, and we don't have to fight anymore. We just have to do. We have to remember that so much of this nonsense is just passing through. At is growing within us, each of us and all of us, is the implanted word, the word of truth.

In worship, we reveal who we really are, and if we’re different outside worship, that’s where we’re pretending. Worship reminds us of our identity and empowers us to be doers of the Word.

But we cannot stop there. This sanctuary is not meant to keep the world out and it is not meant to keep the people of God in. God has brought our hearts close to himself and "in fulfillment of his own purposes he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures."

With the word of truth implanted in us, the commandments of God flow out of us. If we act otherwise then we are just fooling ourselves. When we hear God's word, we must be doers who act simply because that is who we are.

So if we're not doing, we are hiding from our own identity, an identity rooted in Jesus Christ. "You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness." So many of the things spinning around us in the air are pushing us towards division, and anger, and fear. But we will not be teased out into anger, because there's no room inside us for things that can defile. We will be called forth in joy as the ones who are filled with the presence of Christ. The Word became flesh and made his home among us, now as those who look to the perfect law, as we are abandoned the commandment of God, we persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act.

So in the coming years, as the American Church is said to be in decline, the Presbyterian Church of Lowell will worship God, grow in faith, and show God’s love to everyone. We will do this not from a sense of superiority, but because we remember our identity as the church of Jesus Christ. We will be guided by our tradition, but we will not make an idol of it. We will hear God’s word proclaimed, but we will not stop at hearing. We will live what we believe by pointed to the sovereignty of God over all aspects of our life, not just within these walls.

We will be doers of the word, and even when we fall into the vil intentions of our own broken hearts, we will still welcome with meekness the implanted word which has already saved us. God’s word commands response and summons us to life, and we will be doers of the word. We will proclaim the good news of God in our actions as a church, and in our interactions between particular members.

Because that’s simply who we are: our identity is rooted in whose we are. And we belong to God. Amen.

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