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