Deep Living Wisdom

Deep Living Wisdom

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 19, 2021

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 1; James 3:14-4:3, 7-8a

 

Today we continue examining the letter of James. James is not often preached in the church, and it is to our detriment because James invites us to we examine our behavior, locate what needs attention, and then work on it, diligently. In its 108 verses, there are 54 imperatives, which may explain why it is not a popular letter. After all, we don’t generally like being told what to do. While the letter does have a lot of “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” it is still an excellent example of one pastor’s effort to address bad behavior or to at least “cut it off at the pass” as they say. But the real focus of the letter is actually less about works (what we do) and more about wisdom (how we do it). As Eugene Peterson notes:

Deep and living wisdom is on display here, wisdom both rare and essential. Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is skill in living. For, what good is a truth if we don’t know how to live it?

James does not provide an extensive list of what we must do as Christians. Instead, he instructs that everything we do is part and parcel of our life of faith. And if we can keep Christ at the center, our lives will be simpler and more focused. The type of advice James has to offer might be compared to advice given by a loving mother: Be careful who you hang out with. Watch what you say. It’s not rocket science; it’s not earthshattering. But it is advice that parallels James’s perspective that Christian wisdom is expressed in the everyday happenings of everyday life. He offers such wisdom as: Faith without works is dead; A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace; Draw near to God and he will draw near to you; The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (This last one comes across even stronger in The Message translation: The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to reckon with.)

When I started preparing this sermon, it occurred to me that it might be fun to reach out to my Facebook friends with a query about wisdom, so I went online and posted the following, “Hi Facebook friends. I’m preaching on wisdom this Sunday and would love your help. Could you post a nugget of wisdom you received from someone, perhaps a parent or grandparent?” The response was wonderful, with some being incredibly funny while others were quite profound. Here are a few:

Pretty is as pretty does. (I am sure you will agree this is much more appealing than the words of the great theologian Forrest Gump—Stupid is as stupid does.) Nothing good happens away from home after midnight; It’s knowledge to know that a tomato is fruit but it’s wisdom to not place it in a fruit salad; If you want to catch fish you have to hold your mouth just right; Eat good food, be kind, tell the truth; In the words of Winnie the Pooh, the things that make me different are the things that make me; If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right; If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all; Don’t air your dirty laundry in public; Birds of a feather flock together; You never know what goes on behind closed doors; Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got; It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people; It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life; Never leave the house without clean underwear; If the person next to me can do it—so can I; You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore to be happy; Change is the only constant in life. One’s ability to adapt to change will determine their success; Life is not fair; Exactly what your future holds, only time will tell, but whatever you choose to do, be sure to do it well; Treat others the way you want to be treated; If you don’t have anything to give, give a smile; Every choice has a consequence—make sure you can live with it; A dear clergy friend shared: Always bring home the same girl you take to a party; and finally, Doing the right thing isn’t always easy but it is always right.

What a great variety of wise words. Thanks to everyone who shared them!

About our reading from James, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say:

Those who truly love God cannot fail to live in peace with one another. The only wisdom that interests James is the wisdom from above, which has nothing to do with having good ideas and everything to do with living good lives. For James wisdom is not in the head but in the behavior. It is a way of life, not a way of thinking or believing.[i]

James contrasts two kinds of wisdom. He understands earthly wisdom as coming from a place of greed, self-absorption, and ultimate destruction. Just what does earthly wisdom look like? We know it well. We see it when school children want brand-name clothing because they have bought into the lie of what it takes to be popular. We observe it when young people want the latest technology so they can promote themselves 24-7 on social media platforms. We recognize it when adults work long hours to accumulate a bigger house, a fancier car, and mountains of things in pursuit of happiness. Of course, marketing capitalizes on these pursuits. Day in and day out we are told to buy A, B, or C, so we can really be somebody!

But for James, this kind of wisdom just won’t do. Instead, to see the world rightly, to see that there are always cosmic forces at work in the world that are not visible to the naked eye, another kind of wisdom is needed—a wisdom that is hard won—in a battle that goes on within each of us—a battle for self-awareness and self-control—a battle, in short, for heavenly wisdom.[ii]  So, what does this heavenly wisdom look like? It looks like what God wants for us. God yearns for us to be who we are created to be—mirrors of God’s own image. And how might we accomplish this? Well, it begins with making a choice to draw near to God. Every time we do, earthly wisdom takes a hike. And drawing near to God, begins in prayer. Christian tradition tells us that James’ nickname was “Old Camel Knees” because of thick calluses built up on his knees from many years of fervent prayer. Prayer is foundational to wisdom. Prayer is always foundational to wisdom.[iii]

So, we have compared earthly wisdom to heavenly wisdom. How might this play out in the Christian community—a community built on God’s wisdom? Here are some of the marks of a wise church: In a wise church, church members are not asked to serve on Session because a warm body is needed but because the person being asked has demonstrated spiritual giftedness and spiritual maturity. The church is led—not just by paid staff—but by people of all ages who have gifts for leadership. When conflicts arise—they are not ignored but are handled with love, mercy, and grace. Stewardship is not a season, but a spiritual discipline lived throughout the year by the whole community. Ministries of peacemaking and justice allow the church to reach beyond their doors to bless the world. Lastly, the church does not get its identity from the height of the building or the depth of the endowment, but from nearness to God.

I invite you to hear our text again but this time from The Message:

Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish plotting. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats. Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to…So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him make himself scarce. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time.

James urges us to apply godly wisdom to our common life—from personal to professional. By drawing near to God, we are promised the gift of God’s presence. By making God’s desires a model for our own desires, we can live a meaningful life. The Letter of James offers a framework on which to build a life of prayer, wisdom, and action. It is a statement to believers on how to live responsibly in the Church and in the world. Let us now and forever more be doers of the word and not hearers only!  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Barbara Brown Taylor.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Eugene Peterson, The Message Bible Commentary on James

 

*Cover art “Bear Fruit” by Ira Thomas, used by permission

Maturing in Faith

Maturing in Faith

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 12, 2021

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 19; James 3:1-12

 

For the next two Sundays, we will explore the letter of James. Possibly written by the brother of Jesus, it is not addressed to a specific church. Instead, it holds a message for all churches—and the message is a strong one. Eugene Peterson has this to say about the church and James’ message:

When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does. Outsiders, on observing this, conclude that there is nothing to the religion business except, perhaps, business—and dishonest business at that. Insiders see it differently. Just as a hospital collects the sick under one roof and labels them as such, the church collects sinners. Many of the people outside the hospital are every bit as sick as the ones inside, but their illnesses are either undiagnosed or disguised. It’s similar with sinners outside the church.

So Christian churches are not, as a rule, model communities of good behavior. They are, rather, places where human misbehavior is brought out in the open, faced, and dealt with.

James offers warnings about human misbehavior, particularly about showing partiality to the rich, and about how arrogance and self-confidence separate the rich from God and lead to heartless injustice. Additionally, for James, there is no source for wisdom other than that received from God and there is no faith without works—caring for the poor, having self-control, honoring God, and loving God’s people. James envisions a Christian community that interacts on one another’s behalf and that seeks to grow into their baptism day by day.

For the modern reader, the Letter of James is hard to swallow. We are not comfortable with imperatives: Do this! Don’t do that! When we come to church, we are not used to leaving with a list of “shoulds.” Oh, there was a time when such a preaching style was accepted, but no more. Nowadays preaching is easier to swallow if it soothes our nerves, calms our anxieties, or helps us find ourselves. Who wants to come to worship and listen to some tirade from some amped up preacher? Let’s hear a story or two, pray, sing a song, and go home. Truth be told—I’d prefer to preach a warm and fuzzy sermon this morning. It would make me feel more comfortable, too. But in case you don’t know it already, God is not in the business of making you or me comfortable.

So here I am—a woman called to preach the word of God—minding my own business when I feel God calling me to speak—not as a preacher—but as a prophet. I have said it before, and I will say it again: I prefer not to speak as a prophet. I know what happens to prophets! They get tied up, imprisoned, stoned, and run out of town. Yet, a strong word, a prophetic word will not leave me alone and it all started—not with the preparation of this sermon but with a conversation I had with a Catholic priest. We were talking about declining attendance in the churches, and he said that the church has lost its witness. He said, “Churches are filled with people who are physically in their second half of life, but spiritually, they are still in their first half of life. And we have ourselves to blame. It’s the church’s fault that people are stagnated in their faith.”

Wow! It is the church’s fault! It’s my fault! And might it be your fault, too? For years I have been reading about churches on the downward slide because the church has such low expectations of its members. Leaders are afraid to do hard things—like speak the truth in love—like refuse to accept bad behavior as a norm—like require more out of the people of God because they are, after all, God’s people! But we are afraid. Afraid someone will get mad. Afraid someone will leave. And God forbid—afraid someone will stop giving financially. Surely, we should expect more. Surely, God expects more out all of us!

While reflecting on the expectations for membership in our Presbyterian Book of Order, I was reminded that there is no inactive category for membership. Churches used to have inactive rolls; you may recall. They were used to “hold” folks until they were contacted repeatedly, and years later, finally deleted from the rolls. But isn’t the phrase “inactive member” an oxymoron?

Today’s reading from James is specifically about learning to control the tongue instead of letting it take over the whole body and ruining everything in its wake. “With it,” James writes, “we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” Christian speech should bless, not abuse, and the Christian life should show signs of growth and maturity as the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into years. How does such maturing happen? It happens by being a part of a community of believers. It happens by having high expectations for ourselves and each other. It happens by living into our baptism as members of the church of Jesus Christ. And membership—in this church or any other—is about growing into the likeness of Christ and being his witness in the world. Disciples of Christ are not to be consumers. They are to be active participants.

The Presbyterian Book of Order states that a faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church. What does “involvement” look like? I’m glad you asked. It looks like: proclaiming the good news in word and deed; taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation; lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support; studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life; demonstrating a new quality of life; responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfilment, and supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents.

Sounds like a pretty mature list, don’t you think? Proclaiming the good news, making worship a priority, praying for one another, studying God’s word—individually and corporately, serving the needy, and working for justice! And what about generously giving of our time, talents, and treasures? Truth be told, the church should not have an annual Stewardship campaign. It should be unnecessary. Giving should be a way of life for us “grown up” Christians. And we should not have to beg believers to give of their time and talents to do things like serve on a committee, assist in worship, or support new ministries. I hear you say you want new people in our midst. Surely by that you mean you want to help them come to love Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Surely by that you mean you want to be a part of their faith journey and you want them to be a part of yours.

Last Sunday marked my 5th year as your pastor. I remember the numerous conversations I had with the Pastor Nominating Committee during our discernment process. They seemed eager to call a pastor who wasn’t afraid to try new things, and who had strong gifts in the areas of spirituality and leadership. Since arriving, I have yearned for us—not just to survive—but to thrive. I have tried to lead you to the very best of my ability. But, like many of you, I have been disappointed by our lack of numerical growth. Like many of you, I have dreamed of open balconies—not because of a global pandemic—but because of the need for additional space. Instead, while it is true that we have several church members, who continue to worship from home for safety’s sake or other health reasons (and we are truly glad they are joining us virtually), there is no denying that we are fewer in number than we once were.

No doubt, it is easy to fall into the trap of determining our success by counting people in the pew and dollars in the offering plate. We are all guilty of it. I often say, “As long as we have a disciple’s dozen, we are doing okay. Afterall, it worked for Jesus.” But the reality is I have been discouraged—like many of you—when we have worked hard to implement a new ministry opportunity that has been met with little interest. Yet, I know in my heart, good things have happened in the past 5 years. I have witnessed your spiritual growth. No longer do I hear mantras like, “We’ve always done it that way…” or “We used to be…” No longer do people rush to leave the sanctuary after worship but instead stay and mingle. No longer is there a dark sadness enveloping us because of past mistakes. No, we have not grown in number, but there is evidence that the Spirit is at work among us.

I have no idea what the future holds for this community of faith, but I know who does. Christ our Lord will show us the way forward if we will listen for his voice and if we will commit to his guidance. I am honored that God called me to be here and I believe there is still good work for us to do. But it is work that we must do together. It is work that will take us all to accomplish. My role is spelled out by Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus. As your pastor and teacher, I am called to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” In the years to come, and I hope there are many, together we will listen for the guidance of the Spirit, and together we will explore new ways of reaching the world for Christ.

The letter of James calls us to a mature faith. James urges us to become what God made us to be: God’s own children who love God, who can’t wait to worship with others, who can’t wait to serve those in need, who can’t wait to teach new believers about Jesus, and who show the world that God is not finished with the church because God is not finished with us!

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover art photo by Karim Manjra via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Poets

A Room Full of Friends: Poets

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 5, 2021

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 148

 

It was Emily Dickenson who penned,

Tell the truth but tell it slant—
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
 
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
 

We have come to expect the Truth spelled out—great truths—truths of the universe—truths of humanity—truths of God. And who, pray tell, is doing the telling? Who, pray tell, is doing the listening? This morning marks the end of the summer sermon series, “A Room Full of Friends.” Over the summer I have introduced you to friends who have come to reside on the shelves of my study—preaching friends, writing friends, deeply spiritual friends. But now, we turn our attention to poets. Likely you have heard me state that one of my favorite Evelyn Underhill quotes is this: One of the worst things that happened with the Reformation was we took all the poetry out of religion. She was right. She still is.

Perhaps you recall the Reformation did not begin as a movement to separate from the Catholic Church. No, the intent was to reform things that had gone badly—the selling of indulgences to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica—the way people were refused a biblical text in their own language—and the list goes on. In time it became crystal clear that the church leaders in power intended to remain in power and reform could only happen with the birth of what we now know as the Reformation.

Lots of good things happened with the Reformation—of course—Presbyterians being one of them. But bad things happened too. For example, extremists decided that art like sculptures, paintings, and icons were not art at all, but idolatry—so they went on a rampage and destroyed countless pieces of religious art—Christian art!

Years have passed but we appear to still be suffering from the ramifications of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. In too many churches—in too many ways—we have come to rely on our own understanding rather than the Holy Spirit. We intellectualize our faith. We hide from the Mystery of God. What’s important is what we know—what we can prove—what we can control. But what about a deeper knowing—a wise knowing—a heart knowing? Is there a way for us to get out of the unbalanced bind we are in?

In my opinion—and I know you are dying to hear it—we might go a long way toward a more balanced faith by getting out of our heads for a while and sitting with the work of poets, as well as artists and musicians. Surely that would be a good place to start since poetry and art and music summon us into wonder. It is with a spirit of wonder that I invite you to hear these words written by poet, Maya Angelou.  Her poem entitled “A Brave and Startling Truth” serves as a reminder of how we are created in God’s own image—created to do good!

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

It should be no surprise that poetry has the capacity to lead us into the mystery of our Creator—beyond the bounds of what we can touch—what we think we know. Our beloved Scriptures are filled with lines of poetry, as in our Psalm for this morning: “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him from the heights! Praise him, all his angels.” Then there’s Isaiah—one of the most poetic and beautifully written books of the Bible: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth… those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Could it be what we need now in this world that seems bent on destruction is a little quiet, a little space, fewer words strung together just so—to help us see again? Mary Oliver, in her poem “Coming to God: First Days” says it so well:

Lord, what shall I do that I
can’t quiet myself?
Here is the bread, and
here is the cup, and
I can’t quiet myself.

To enter the language of transformation!
To learn the importance of stillness,
with one’s hands folded!

When will my eyes of rejoicing turn peaceful?
When will my joyful feet grow still?
When will my heart stop its prancing
as over the summer grass?

Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer.

Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bathed in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.

Maybe poetry is just what the doctor ordered. Maybe poets are just what the Spirit provides to help us regain our balance—to help us stop relying on our own understanding and instead, gaze at the wonders that call us toward a greater good—toward our Great God. Oh, the words can be simple—nothing too complicated—even a tree can shower us with wisdom. Wendell Berry says as much in his poem, “Slowly, slowly, they return.”

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

Indeed, let us open our eyes, let us eagerly walk on radiance—amazed! Truly, now may be the time to pay attention to poets. Maybe they are in the best place to tell the truth slant—a little at a time—with gentle explanation—for “The Truth must dazzle gradually—or every man be blind.” Amen.

*Cover Art by Aaron Burden via Unsplash, used by permission