What Is but “Ought Not”

Scripture: James 3:1-12

One-Upping James

Preachers are a strange breed of people.

Here is a passage of scripture that is packed to the gills with metaphors and analogies:

bits and ships

winds and rudders

sparks and fires

wild beasts and domestication

all kinds of trees

and even salt and freshwater springs.

Yet there is something in the preacher that cannot help but try to come up with a new–and even better–analogy than the biblical writer. Even though I’ve encountered countless insufficient attempts at “reinventing” these metaphors, I’ve yet to hear any that could count as an improvement. And that’s probably because these metaphors still work in the world we live in.

We still use bits to control horses.

Ships still use rudders.

Sparks still cause fire.

There continue to be domesticated animals of all sorts.

Trees keep reproducing “according to their kind” as Genesis described.

And we haven’t become any more adept at drinking salt water.

It all still works. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to attempting brainstorming some “improvements” myself.

“Ought”

There’s also something different about the way we preachers think about things. It may be our training, it may be our observations, it may be the painful stories of others we have heard. But whatever the reason, there are times something that appears mundane takes on extraordinary significance to a preacher. And this text has one of these challenges for me, too.

It’s found in what looks like a passing–and plain–phrase in v.10: the verse that really represents the heart of the whole reading. In the New Revised Standard Version, it reads: 

“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:30 NRSV)

It’s that “ought”–or in the NIV, “should”–that raises my pastoral hackles a bit. Let me try to explain why.

The Weapon of Fear

There are a number of weapons that the Enemy uses against us with great efficiency. The greatest of these, I believe is fear. There are countless stories in both Old and New Testaments wherein someone reacts with fear, instead of love or trust in God, and clearly deviates from the path of God-likeness. Elsewhere in the New Testament, 1John argues that fear and love are opposites. Looking at the world around us, and reflecting on our human history in both the recent and more distant past, it’s not too hard to find our own illustrations of human actions driven by fear, and the disastrous consequences for humanity (and too-often, for the reputation of Christ and God’s Kingdom).

The Weapon of the Illusion of Self-Sufficiency

Another weapon I see deployed with startling efficiency might be confused with pride, but it’s the actually the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is the deception that we are enough in and of ourselves. While other factors certainly came into it, this is the core of the deception of the first humans in Eden: they don’t need God to determine right from wrong; they can do it themselves. 

Again, the scriptures are littered with stories of our defeat by this weapon. Perhaps most obviously, this weapon was used in bringing about the defeat of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and again that of the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 140 years later. Instead of trusting in God for safety and prosperity, they trusted in their ability to navigate foreign alliances. They thought they could do a better job themselves, but it proved to be precisely their dalliances with these other nations that brought about their defeat. 

And once again, we don’t have to think too hard to be convicted about our own illusions of self-sufficiency, even as we contradictorily profess reliance on Jesus as Lord. There’s something in the very fabric of our makeup as “Americans” that imbues us with a high valuation for this deception–we want the deception to be true; we want to be self-sufficient, and we look down on those who are not.

“Deceived, we are,” Yoda might say.

The Weapon of Guilt

But a third powerful weapon (that I believe is) used by the powers of darkness against humanity with savage effectiveness is guilt. 

This may surprise you, I realize. Guilt has, after all, been part of the stock-and-trade of preachers for at least 250 years. Guilt has driven alter calls for generations. It has undergirded evangelistic endeavors. It has been used to manipulate behaviors to conform to specific religious and moral norms.

And all that shows you just how potent this weapon really is, and that even those regarded as most faithful are not immune from its deception.

Guilt paralyzes us. It does not draw us into a better version of ourself. It does not drive us toward love, but it evokes embarrassment. And that leads us to withdraw from others, to hide our brokenness, and to fall into deeper and deeper isolation. In other words, guilt makes us weaker by moving us away from God.

Back to “Ought”

Which is why I cringe when I hear people say what someone “ought” to do or “should” do. “Ought” and “should”–at least in the way we communicate here and now–is the language of guilt. 

Pastor Michael, you ought to preach more interesting sermons.

Pastor Michael, you really should dress nicer.

Pastor Michael, you ought to spend more time doing what I think is important.

There is (I hope you realize) a way of communicating all this constructively and without using words that induce guilt or shame. But when “ought” and “should” really gain destructive power is when we apply them to the past.

I really ought to have used a different illustration. Why didn’t I think of that?

So-and-so really should have learned by now… why do they keep hooking up with such losers?

Did you hear about such-and-such? They really ought to have expected this would happen!

Perhaps by now you can better see the connection to our scripture lesson.

Dangerous Speech

Despite this lengthy digression (as it might seem), I do not think James is trying to evoke guilt. I think he is instead creatively and passionately trying to illustrate a contradiction between who the community of Christ is called to be, and what they are in fact doing.

The gossiping church member has apparently been a cliche since the very beginning. 

I enjoy watching BBC murder mysteries, and it seems every episode there’s a scene where someone–usually some little old lady–exits a church building and is gossiping about someone before she even gets out of earshot of the pastor. In those mysteries, such things are sometimes redeemed, as the gossip contains hints that lead to catching the killer. In real life, however, I have yet to discover such positive outcomes of this guilt- and shame-ridden enterprise.

In Matthew 5, as Jesus is teaching his followers how to read and interpret their scriptures, he warns of the danger of words. They think that because they never laid a hand on another person that they’ve kept the command “do not murder.” But Jesus (Matt 5:22) is clear that they have murdered people with their words; to call names is to destroy something of the humanity in each other.

This isn’t any different than what James is arguing here, especially when he calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). He is not, of course, condemning the physical organ of the body, but rather the ways it is used. If we are (James 3:9-10) going to bless God as we sing and proclaim his praises, how then (James asks us) do we speak harshly and destructively about (and to) people who bear God’s image?

 

I grew up watching a lot of 1980’s sitcoms, especially of the “PI” variety. I remember a number of times when someone would start to use foul language and another character would counter “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

That’s the sentiment James is bringing out in v.10 of this reading. Hearing the destructive ways they are speaking to and about each other, James asks, “You bless your God with that mouth?…… You speak of Jesus with that mouth?”

That’s not the way it is supposed to be, he says. 

James doesn’t want to guilt them into inaction–or into hiding or being more sneaky about their sin. James wants them to see the inconsistency between who they say they are and how they are living, and he wants that awareness to drive them toward Christ-likeness–a change that will lead them to value others more than they do currently.

You see, the image of repentance in the bible–through all the stories of failing, and there are manyrepentance is never about driving people to experience guilt. It is always about people learning of an inconsistency between what is and what can be. 

brokenness vs. wholeness

doing harm vs. bringing help

hypocrisy vs. consistency

isolating vs. bringing into community

Reconciling Work

The work that Jesus tasks us with is not to invoke guilt in others. It is not to get others to repent of their evil ways. It is not to be the morality police of the world. As “ambassadors for Christ,” the work we are called to is instead the work of reconciliation. And it’s important to note what Paul says that ministry looks like. In 2Corinthians 5, Paul says this:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (2Corinthians 5:18–20 NRSV)

Note the way Paul describes Jesus’s own reconciling work. He points out that it is both the same kind of work that God accomplishes through Jesus, and that this reconciling work involves “not counting their trespasses against them.” If we are doing the reconciling work of Christ too, then that will describe what we Christians are about as well.

But does it? Or do our tongues get in the way of genuinely Christ-like ministry? Christ calls us to something more. That was James’s challenge 2000 years ago, and it is just as much a challenge today.

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The Basics

Scripture: James 2:1-17

Intro

I’m not sure if it’s James or the lectionary that schedules these readings and sets the limits, but lately it seems there’s something to the number four. 

Last week, we read and reflected on four proverbs that James groups in his presentation of how to make a difference in the world you live in. 

This week, he discusses four convictions—or perhaps commitments—that sum up a back-to-basics approach to how the Christian life is to be lived out.

Favoritism

This chapter begins with a blast that strikes deep, even 2000 years later:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1 NRSV)

“Why, James!” (we respond, like some southern belle in an old movie) “What-ever do you mean?”

Fear not: James clarifies things. And even though James says “if” to frame his evidence, I can’t help but wonder if he really means: “remember that time……”

Remember that time the community leader showed up in their neatly pressed suit, and how welcoming you were of them?

Now (James asks) remember that time that young lady showed up in that halter top and slashed jeans?

Remember that time that guy arrived late in those filthy clothes and smelled of booze?

Remember that time those kids came with that new family and they kept running around and making noise during the sermon?

Remember that time there was that older person who fell asleep and kept snoring?

Remember when that known drug user was here?

Remember that homeless woman?

Remember? James asks. Do you remember how they were treated? Because they were not treated like that wealthy, important guy. There were whispers—some not as quiet as others. There was gossip the following week. Some people avoided them; others just failed to welcome them. But it was (James tells them—and us) a cataclysmic failure to embody our faith.

 

Listen.

A part of our human nature stereotypes and responds to internal prejudices. Evolutionarily, it has helped us survive as a species. But we are not called to “survive as a species.” We are called to embody Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That calling supersedes all others, no matter what. Or it should……

When we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, our stereotypes and prejudices will be challenged. As we learn to love as Christ loves the world, we will learn to look on those society discounts with compassion instead of skepticism. Through our practice of being the body of Christ, we will discover ourselves treating those on the margins as though they were themselves Jesus.

James is clear: Favoritism is incompatible with Christ.

Honor the Poor

This conviction dovetails closely with the second: God honors and values the poor and so must we. In verses 5-6, James accuses the church of dishonoring the poor and reminds them of God’s special interest in the poor of the world.

“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…” (James 2:5–6 NRSV)

Though James doesn’t use as many direct quotations as Paul typically does in his writings, James is no less knowledgable about their shared faith tradition. It is pretty clear that James is referencing a teaching of Jesus that will eventually be recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 6, verse 20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 NRSV).

Jesus himself is of course building on a wealth of tradition wherein God commands the faithful to care for the poor. Whether we look to the Law (cf. Deuteronomy 15), the Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 19:17), or the Prophets (cf. Ezekiel 16:49), we see God repeatedly telling the faithful to care for the poor, to treat them with dignity and respect, and to work generously for their benefit. God is even pretty insistent that if a person isn’t respecting the poor in these ways, their supposed faith is worthless in God’s eyes. 

As we think of James’s back-to-basics instruction for Christians, the heart of Proverbs 19:17 comes to mind. That proverb proclaims “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full” (NRSV). The way we treat the poor should be the way we treat God; or—to put it in more Christian terms—the way we would treat Jesus himself is the way we should treat the poor: to do to them is to do to him.

Fulfill the Royal Law

In case all this isn’t clear enough for us, James then directs us back to what the early church considered the most central teaching of Jesus—what he terms the “Royal Law” of Christ: 

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV).

This teaching—particularly considering the way Jesus defines “neighbor” to include even one’s enemies in the parable of the Good Samaritan—this teaching is the core of how one lives a truly Christ-like life. In a section of scripture focused the basics of living a Christian life, this teaching is certainly its heart.

James is careful to connect it to the previous instructions as well.

Showing partiality is a violation of this Royal Law. 

Dishonoring the poor is a violation of this Royal Law. 

While they are busy judging others for not measuring up to their own sense of religiosity, they have themselves fallen into sin against God. Instead of prejudicing certain sins against others to inflate their sense of self-righteousness, James instructs the church to embody Jesus’s Royal Law by showing abundant mercy.

Lived Out Faith

Thus we come to the fourth commitment. Instead of your life being distinctive because of who you associate with, or what you look like, or how much “righteousness” you appear to possess, James insists that what should be distinctive about the Christian life is that our faith is known through our actions.

After insisting that “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (a paraphrase of Matthew 7:1-2), James verbalizes the too-often disjointed relationship between faith and life. Having faith, he says in v.14, is of no value at all if it is not lived out in your life. He even suggests that faith alone isn’t enough to enact salvation, a statement that has proven challenging for interpreters ever since.

Our challenge as more modern readers—at least in part—is reconciling this teaching of James with those of Paul. In one of my study bibles, I found a note that I think may be helpful for us. It says:

“Paul describes the root of salvation: a person is saved by God’s grace through faith. James is explaining the fruit of salvation: saving faith is a faith that works.” (The Voice, p.1499)

I think they’re right here. Perhaps James has in mind here the parable of the soils, recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. In that teaching of Jesus, the seed of the Gospel is received by a variety of soils—these people “have faith,” at least in a rudimentary sense. But for a variety of reasons, those seeds never produce a harvest at all. The soil that Jesus calls “good” is the soil that produces a harvest. So for James “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17 NRSV).

 

This command by James to let your faith be known through your actions is both the final instruction of this section, as well as an illustration of the previous three principles that were discussed. 

If you are fulfilling the Royal Law of Christ, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are honoring the poor, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are not showing bias and prejudice, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

Politics

Now just to stir the pot one final time today (because I do seem to like pushing my luck), I’m going to make a confession: I do believe most Christians think they are living out their faith through their actions and convictions. But I’m not sure this faith is always rooted in Jesus the Christ.

Especially in our nation, and especially over the last thirty years or so, there has emerged a class of leaders that claim to speak for Christians and seek to wield that power for political gain. They have dictated to millions of Christians which issues are most “Christian” and most worthy of fighting for. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to the issues that are the most politically volatile, and therefore malleable for other purposes.

I do not see in them much overlap with what we are reading here in James—in a text that is specifically aimed to reveal to Christians how their faith should be made known in the world.

I do not see in them much overlap with the life of Jesus, whose “excellent name…[is] invoked over [them]” (James 2:7).

I do not see in them much overlap with the God of the Old Testament, who destroyed Sodom because she “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV).

You see: standing out from the world is not that difficult–there are a thousand ways we could stand out. But standing out as a Christian must be rooted in living out God’s mercy–not by voting a certain way, or dressing a certain way, or even holding certain doctrines. 

If we want to follow Jesus, the bible is pretty clear about how we are to live. But we’re going to have to start listening to the bible—and the Holy Spirit—more than we’re listening to the people who are telling us how to vote.

Our Public Image Problem

Ten or fifteen years ago, we Baptists had a major public-image problem. When an average person thought of a Baptist church they thought of the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. Our public image problem was so bad, I knew of a couple churches who dropped “baptist” from their name specifically to differentiate themselves from this toxic cult. Today, most still don’t have a great image of baptists, but at least they tend to know that the Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of baptists specifically or Christians in general.

But today, I do believe american Christianity is facing a similar public-image problem. Political segments have successfully seized control of various facets of Christendom, and are controlling churches and Christians with toxic theology, and wielding them as weapons in political warfare. And many of us keep going along with it, even though these so-called Christian leaders keep changing the rules and talking out of both sides of their mouth in order to keep us supporting their people. 

The way we baptists proved we weren’t like the Westboro Baptist Church was to speak and act out in ways that proved it to the world. I think american Christianity is at a similar crossroads. If we do not begin setting our own agenda—or rather, get back to the basics of what Jesus’s agenda was about—then our reputation, our witness, and our effectiveness will wither as we “blaspheme [Jesus’s] excellent name,” as James puts it in 2:7.

Remember: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV). 

When it comes to the basics of living a Christ-like life, that’s as basic as it comes.

Four Proverbs

Scripture: James 1:17-27

Intro

Today we begin something new.

That seems apropos, because this—even more than New Year’s—is a time of new beginnings for many of us.

Students and teachers are newly back at it

Summer is waning and autumn will be quickly upon us

Vacations are past, and the long haul to Hallow-thanks-istmas is a distant mark on the calendar (regardless of what we are beginning to see in the stores)

It’s a time of settling down to some things, and gearing up for others

And so we—in worship—do the same.

For the next month, we will be reflecting on texts from the book of James in the New Testament. 

In terms of biblical texts, the gospels tend to get top billing—and rightly so, as they contain accounts of the teachings and actions of Jesus, our example and savior. 

After the gospels, we tend to privilege the writings of the apostle Paul, who—for whatever reasons—became seen as the theologian-in-chief of the early church. I’ve always found that peculiar, because Paul generally isn’t writing theology the way some of the post-biblical leaders do; he’s attending to church conflict and trying to encourage Christians to live like Jesus in an increasingly hostile context. 

The point is, books like James are often overlooked when we turn to scriptures. And that’s a shame, because James has a lot to offer the church today. 

Traditionally believed to be written by a brother of Jesus, James writes from a vastly different place than Paul. 

For Paul, conversion to the Jesus Way is a sudden and dramatic thing; this also means that the Christian life is distinguished by the way it is different than life before. 

For James, however, conversion is more evolutionary and the Christian life is distinguished by the way faith is lived out in the world. 

For Paul, a core focus is how to live the Jesus way in the world; for James, the focus is on issues of the heart—how to put your faith into practice.

I realize to some of you, these sound like remarkably similar things. But the distinction is important, I believe, because the faith that many of us possess and express is much more aligned with James’s way of discussing it than that of Paul.

Maybe this will become more clear as we go on—this week, and the weeks to come.

Since James is writing to Christian Jews wherever they may be, and given his emphasis on putting your faith into practice, it shouldn’t surprise us to find so much of this letter grounded in the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. In books like Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and others, our biblical authors and editors sought to record their community learnings on how to live a good, righteous, and God-pleasing life. 

Drawing off of that tradition—and building upon it—James offers the early church four new proverbs……four new pithy, easy-to-remember teachings that demonstrate “where the rubber of faith meets the road of life.”

James 1:17

The first of these is found in verse 17: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above” (NRSV). A pastor of mine from years back was fond of paraphrasing this verse in this way: “Every good gift comes from God.” I’ve often found myself repeating this to myself and to others as well. 

Why’s this so powerful? I think it’s because many of us struggle with seeing where God is in our lives. We see the chaos. We see things going wrong. And we’re good at turning to God in those times. When all hell is breaking lose, or when death is immanent, or when it is obvious that there are not enough resources to fulfill obligations—those are times you will find me on my knees…… broken…… pleading—deeply—with God. 

But when things are going along swimmingly on an even keel—glorious sunshine and an easy breeze? In those times I tend to believe I’m more self-sufficient than I really am. And I don’t think it’s just me, either.

Remembering that “every good gift comes from God” has two primary benefits.

First, it takes our focus off the bad and chaotic and onto the good. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not naturally a “look for the silver lining” or a “keep on the sunny side of life” kind of person. But if I can break my fixation on what’s not working and see that God has miraculously brought about any good in my life, it does tend to have positive repercussions.

Secondly, I think it teaches us to actually look for what God is up to. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard folks saying they don’t know how to hear God. Well, a first step can be to simply start tuning yourself to the right frequency—to be actively looking for God’s action in your life. 

And according to James, the way we can know it is God’s action is by identifying “generous acts of giving” and the “perfect/complete/appropriate/timely gifts” that we receive. Like Fred Rogers urged us to “look for the helpers,” James urges us to marvel at the good that comes to us, and know that God had something to do with it.

James 1:19b

With the second proverb, James may well cut to the heart of a great deal of the conflict we experience in our lives and world. In verse 19, he says: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19 NRSV).

In terms of the proverb proper, there’s not much to add. 

We know it.
We understand it.
We just don’t do it.

And it seems we’re getting even worse at it. Five years ago this month, I was discussing with some clergy friends the state of ministry in these United States. More than anything else, we lamented how our nation seems to have forgotten how to engage in civil discourse, and how this regression divides our churches and hinders the Cause of Christ. 

At that time, I recall one of us—the oldest of the group, if it matters—remarking that he couldn’t imagine how things could get much worse before society as a whole would collapse. Well, it seems the joke’s on him, because our depravity in this way keeps plumbing deeper and deeper depths. 

And clouding it all—or perhaps fueling it all—seems to be an increasing sense of self-righteousness that somehow justifies this lack of civility and unwillingness to listen to each other. But James stresses in the following verse: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20 NRSV). Despite our desire to cast our anger as “righteous,” James is clear that it is not God’s agenda we advance when we act on our so-called “righteous” indignation.

Now, as an aside, it is important to know that James is not talking about feelings here. Feelings are a natural part of the human existence. James is talking about outward expressions of anger—what we do……and especially how we treat one another. 

Several times in this letter, James differentiates between inward feelings and outward expressions, criticizing outward expressions that are not consistent with the Christian life. His problem in this verse is not with anger-the-feeling—it is with acting out anger, especially when we cast it as righteous.

I have long appreciated the way the Desert Dwellers of the early centuries attended to this proverb and similar teachings. One time, a leader named Joseph confessed to another leader named Nisteros that he was unable to control his tongue. Nisteros asked him: “When you speak, do you find peace?” The answer, of course, was “no.” So Nisteros replied: “If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent, and when a conversation takes place, prefer to listen rather than to talk” (in Daily Readings, p.26).

It’s simple, but in our rush to impress, or to control, or to avoid, we are usually formulating a response before the other person is even done speaking.

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

James 1:22

The third proverb in our reading is found in v.22: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22 NRSV).

A hundred years or so after James was writing, a terrible heresy plagued the early church. It was like a serpent without a head, and proved difficult—if not impossible—to eradicate. It seemed to emerge almost independently in different churches, each local manifestation taking a slightly different flavor. But perhaps the central characteristic of this heresy was the feature that gave it its name: gnosticism. “Gnosis” means knowledge, and gnosticism taught that we are saved, not by the work of Jesus on the cross or in the grave, but by knowing the right things. 

Jesus—gnostics believed—passed on secret knowledge to his disciples, and it is by possessing that secret knowledge—by believing the right things—that they were saved.

I’m sad to say that the heresy of gnosticism has never been fully eradicated from the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, despite this perversion of Christianity being declared antithetical to the way of Jesus countless times over the centuries, it remains a radical thing for me—a western, American, Christian pastor, to insist that “salvation is not about believing the right things; salvation comes from following Jesus.” 

For the gnostic—ancient or modern—that just won’t do. But for the Christian? For the one seeking to embody a biblical faith in Jesus as the Christ? It is the only way to live.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

James 1:27

Finally we arrive at the fourth proverb, found in v.27:

“Religion 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.” (James 1:27 NRSV)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I believe James has sequenced these in a way that they build on each other. 

The first turned us toward God and tuned us to God’s “frequency” of generousity

The second countered our basic instinct to put ourself first in relationship and community.

The third insisted that faith impacts how we live our lives: our choices, commitments, and beyond.

And this final proverb now clarifies what those choices, commitments, and the like should look like.

We humans have never been very good at doing religion. When we look back to the Old Testament, we see countless examples of folks who didn’t sacrifice the right way, who didn’t honor holy spaces, who didn’t engage in the right rituals, and who kept privileging their practice of faith over human beings created in the image of God.

In a post-Jesus world, there shouldn’t be any chance we again fall into these errors—after all, Jesus is a full and complete revelation of who God is and who we are called to be. But we humans do seem to excel at repeating our mistakes. 

So James offers us a litmus test for our religious life. If we want to know if our religion is true to the one true God, known most fully through Jesus the Christ, we measure it against this yard stick—How are we caring for those on the margins of the world, and how much has the church conformed to the world’s way of doing business?

Sisters and brothers, when I consider the American church as a whole these days and measure it against James’s standard, it does not look too good. But I’ll leave you to reflect on that yourselves. 

Drawing it together…

Instead, I’ll offer one more thing for us to think about. Reading through this chapter has convinced me that James does more than give us some easy-to-memorize verses to carry around in our back pockets. I think there’s something to taking them all together……to assuming that they together say something more than each does individually.

Perhaps (I’m beginning to wonder) these are keys to making a real impact on the world. Maybe they offer us an answer to that elusive question of how we can know that our lives make a positive impact on the world.

Maybe, taken together, these proverbs do just that. Maybe they are indeed a back-to-basics roadmap for living out a good, righteous, and God-pleasing life. Maybe they show us how to help Christ’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

All of these proverbs are teachings that James is going to return to in his letter—scriptures that we will be reading, and further reflecting upon, in the weeks to come. 

So come now, let us reason together. Let us discover again the ancient paths that produce abundant life.

Resting in God

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Giraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae & Guy Parker-Rees.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:28-30

St. Augustine of Hippo

When he was not much older than me, a man back in the fourth century started writing a book. That one book turned into thirteen before he was done pouring out his soul through pen and paper. The author—named Augustine of Hippo—had only been a Christian for ten years, and these books were an attempt to express how God had worked in and through him. The Confessions—as the books came to be called—are an outpouring of praise and repentance, and they continue to function as a model for Christians who seek to articulate their own spiritual autobiographies.

In his own telling, Augustine was a man who had trouble finding his own way in life. He was born in North Africa, in what would have been regarded a backwater area. His father was a Roman official, but his role meant he was held personally responsible when there was a shortfall among the collected taxes. This was no doubt a strain on the family’s resources and one reason Augustine described them as poor. While Augustine’s father was a pagan, his mother had raised him Christian, and her devout faith left a significant imprint on young Augustine.

That said, he never himself became a Christian until his 30’s. He proved himself to be a good student, but the family’s financial troubles kept interrupting his study. In the end, he attended university and became a professional public speaker and teacher. He started living with a woman and had a child out of wedlock, and he began following the Manichaean religion, which was a kind of syncretism of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity—all of which Mani (the founder) did not believe went far enough. (Later in life, Augustine would be perhaps the most significant voice of the Christian Church condemning Manichaeism as heresy)

At about age 30, Augustine moved to Rome—it seemed a prudent vocational decision at the time. In reality, however, it proved disastrous. The only good outcome is that he was noticed by a Roman official who helped him get a new job in Milan.

It was in Milan that everything changed. From his previous experiences, Augustine felt that Christianity just wasn’t intellectually rigorous—it consisted of simple beliefs held by simple people and it did not stand up to the inquiry of logic that was so central to his life. (He was an academic, and Christianity was soooo hoi polloi). 

But in Milan, Augustine encountered a bishop named Ambrose. Even today, Ambrose is considered an eloquent speaker, so you can imagine the impression he left on Augustine. For reasons I’m not sure even Augustine ever understood, Ambrose took him under his wing. In the Confessions, Augustine writes: “That man of God received me as a father would, and welcomed my coming as a good bishop should.”

Everything was coming up roses. His career was taking off, and his mother managed to arrange for an advantageous marriage to a good Christian girl. This latter part was painful for Augustine, however, because the cultural dictums stipulated that he must send away his lover in order to be married. 

But it was also around this time that Augustine had an experience of God that shaped the rest of his life. As he tells the story in the Confessions, it was in August 386 that he heard a childlike voice telling him “take up and read.” He understood this to mean he should pick up a bible and read the first thing his eyes alighted on—what a mentor of mine referred to as “bible roulette” or the “flip-and-point method of discernment.” Augustine landed at Romans 13:13-14:

“Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy—Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13–14 NRSV+)

This Augustine saw this to be an indictment of his life and an instruction to make some changes. He broke off his engagement, changed many behaviors, and was baptized the following Easter. Over the next years, his mother and child died, and Augustine sold virtually everything he had and gave the money to the poor, following the instruction Jesus gave to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21. He was ordained in 391, and became “bishop of Hippo” in 395, a position he retained until his death. Augustine began his Confessions just two years after becoming bishop. He was a famous preacher and we still have over 350 of his sermons preserved. He advocated for Christianity in North Africa his entire life, fighting the heresies that so frequently invaded Christian churches. Alongside John Chrysostom, he is one of the most prolific writers of Christianity, and many regard him as the most significant theologian of the Church after the apostle Paul.

In the first book of the Confessions, in the first chapter, in the first paragraph, and in the third sentence—(so the third sentence of the entire work), Augustine prays: “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” [REPEAT]

Aside from being a beautiful sentiment, I believe this brief confession is truly at the core of Augustine’s faith. As he tells the story of his life in the Confessions, Augustine tried to “find rest” through relationships, through education, through work, through prestige, through wealth, and through pretty well anything else you can imagine. But none of these things brought peace; none brought rest. Like a wandering pilgrim on a journey, Augustine shuffled from one place to another, but he never arrived at a place that welcomed him home. Not until he found a home in God.

Matthew

I think that is what Jesus is talking about in today’s scripture text. Just like Augustine, there are so many things we try to stuff into the voids we feel in our being: we become workaholics and wanton consumers who worship at the idol of busyness. Like junkies, we sacrifice our health, our relationships, our faith, and everything that counts for another hit……of new, or entertaining, or at least distracting.

It all adds up—everything you buy, everything you consume, everything you damage along the way—these are the burdens that crush shoulders and souls alike as we submit over and over to slavery to the powers of this world.

Jesus calls to us:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30 NRSV)

“God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Isaiah

It’s a call that has gone out from God since the beginning, really. The words of God in Isaiah 43 have long echoed in my heart in those times I need to find rest in God:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you…

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine…

For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:2, 1a, 3a NRSV)

Giraffe’s Can’t Dance

The children’s book this week might be about dancing giraffes, but it speaks truth to the heart of this struggling Christian as well. 

“Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song.” There is no one-size-fits-all shape to the Christian life—in fact, Paul and others are quite adamant that we are all made and gifted differently by God’s intentional design. 

We each have to find our path; we each have to discover our gifts. But we are also not in this alone. The reason we are different is so we can be complementary—after all, we are created to be interdependent……in community, as our triune God is in community. 

Hear the Christ, calling across the ages:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

And confess with me:

“God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Indivisible?

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Hugs from Pearl, by Paul Schmid.

Scripture Reading: Romans 8:35-39

Separated?

In our scripture lesson today, Paul writes to the church at Rome, where it feels the world is spinning off its axis. 

Tensions are mounting between Christians and Jews…

Christians are getting kicked out of the synagogues where they’ve had their faith home…

and the politics of their city and nation are absolutely out of control. 

In all likelihood, Nero is emperor, and the burning of Rome and his casting blame on Christians is less than a decade away. 

The Christians of Rome are in a toxic environment—one that is filled, quite literally, with “hardship… distress… persecution… famine… nakedness… peril… [and] sword.” This describes daily life for them.

Paul wants them to know with certainty that this reality does not indicate God’s displeasure with them—that they are not experiencing hardship because of a lack of faith. God’s love is indeed with them. And not only can these physical realities not separate them from God’s love, here (offers Paul) are a list of immaterial realities that also cannot divide them from God’s love: 

not death, not life;

not angels, or rulers;

neither things present, nor things to come;

not powers, not height, not depth;

not anything else in all creation (Romans 8:38–39 NRSV)

Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Period.

Lovable?

But you know, I believe Paul is also speaking to Christians here who (like many of us today) struggle with whether we are very lovable to God. 

From my experiencing listening over the years, I know there are many of us who just don’t feel like it is possible for even God to love us. 

We know some of the struggles inside ourselves all too well. 

We know our failure to reach perfectionistic heights. 

And more often than not, we were taught explicitly or implicitly that perfection is precisely the God-ordained minimum. 

So how then can God love us at all?

 

Now while I’m talking to Christians here, I have to point out that I’ve heard some of the same things from folks who haven’t yet decided to follow Jesus. 

How can God love me given my past? 

How can God love me given my struggles with addiction? 

How can God live me given the things I’ve done? 

How can God love me given the things I’ve let others do to me? 

How can God love someone as messed up, broken down, and untrustworthy as me?

The truth is, I don’t always know how to respond.

I don’t know how, because I do not understand God’s love for me. These struggles are my struggles too. But life with God has taught me that whether I feel lovable or not, God has loved me—and does love me—and will love me with a deeper, more real love than any I have ever known.

Christ is the proof of this, at least in the eyes of the New Testament writers. 

Just a few verses before where we started reading this morning, Paul defines God’s love for us: it is because God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32 NRSV). 

Or as Jesus put it in John 15:53, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). 

Or as 1John 4:9 offers, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1John 4:9 NRSV).

Wherever we pull from in the scriptures, we cannot get around the fact that Jesus demonstrates for us God’s radical love of us. 

We do not deserve it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

We cannot earn it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

It does not rest on what we do…… That’s why it’s called grace.

God’s love is an unorthodox, unrestricted, and incomprehensible gift…… And nothing we can do can cause that love to be diminished, divided, or erased. 

Period.

 

To be clear: our human embodiment of that love may be even more incomprehensible (if that’s even possible). But the nature of love remains the same. 

“Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 

It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth. 

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.” (1Corinthians 13:4–8 NRSV)

Indivisible?

I know I’ve used this illustration before, but when we were expecting our second child, I was truly concerned: I loved our first child so much that I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t have enough love for another one. My fears, however, were quickly put to rest; love, it seems, is a bottomless well, an endless stream, a cup that always flows over.

Maybe saying love is “indivisible” isn’t quite right. 

Love is divisible, it just doesn’t diminish when divided. That’s what we get wrong about love, I think: It actually has infinite divisibility. 

Infinite disibility is just one more bit of wonky church math to add to your repertoire:

There’s the Trinity, where 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

There’s the dual natures of Christ, where 1 + 1 = 1

And now we get the infinite divisibility of love, where [love ÷ n (where n = any number) = LOVE]

 

I was thinking about this already, and then I came across a pretty remarkabe poem by Anita Atina called “The Heart of Love is Indivisible.” A couple lines near the end nearly took my breath away. She says:

If the heart of love is indivisible,
set free those you love

From the chains of expectation
and labels of the world…

For the heart of love expands,
when more is asked of it

“The heart of love expands when more is asked of it.” 

That certainly characterizes the heart of God that I have come to know through Jesus. And I believe that heart of love expands even larger than anything we might conceive. 

It is God’s love that brought Jesus into this world.

It is God’s love that is demonstrated in the world through Jesus.

It is God’s love that we embody, when we allow our hearts to expand large enough to set free those we love from the chains of expectation and labels of the world.

May God’s desires be fulfilled through us, for the glory of God and the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.

Misplaced Hope

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch & Michael Mertchenko.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 10:5-15

The Challenge of Ministry

I know it seems like I say this a lot, but today’s scripture lesson is one that really challenges me. I probably say it so often because Jesus really challenges me—as I believe he does us all if we’re really paying attention.

The verses we read today are about ministry—but they’re not just for clergy. Twelve followers of Jesus are named right before our reading began, but this is an ever-widening circle. In Luke’s telling (chapters 9-10), the commissioning of the Twelve is followed by a commissioning of the Seventy. By the time we get to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 (and certainly Matthew 28), it is clear that the commission soon involves not just a select few, but rather and even “all those who will believe in [Jesus] through their word” (John 17:20 NRSV). 

At this early stage, however, Jesus is sending the Twelve among the Jewish people and giving them the power to do the same kinds of ministry that Jesus himself has been doing:

Preach that God’s Kingdom is coming near,

Heal the sick,

Raise the dead,

Restore the ostracized,

Bring wholeness to the demonized,

And demonstrate radical generosity.

Believe it or not, these are the same kinds of things the Church of Jesus Christ is called to do even today. And for that reason, maybe we’d do well to consider the next instructions too. 

“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”
(Matthew 10:9–10 NRSV)

One of the big, omnipresent issues in the biblical story is our human struggles with trusting and relying on God. This struggle is at the heart of virtually every failure we’ve enacted in the biblical storybook—from Adam and Eve, to the destruction of Israel and then Judah, to even the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. And even here in Matthew 10, Judas is named among the Twelve that goes out and performs these remarkable and miraculous tasks. 

But Jesus doesn’t give them much opportunity to trust themselves instead of God. Everything that would make them self-reliant, they must leave behind. Every resource that might appear to support a more successful mission trip, they are to avoid. As Jesus stacks the deck thusly against them, it will be undeniable that any successful ministry they undertake can only be traced back to God. 

“Laborers deserve their food”
(Matthew 10:10 NRSV)

It’s helpful to remember that: being given by Jesus the power even to raise the dead does not mean ministry is going to be easy…… It is going to be labor; it’s going to be work. 

A lot of folks read this teaching in different ways:

Some think Jesus is trying to get them to see this as important work instead of a vacation.

Others suggest they will be motivated to work harder by their growling stomachs.

But I guess I’m more simple than a lot of others. Since this teaching is connected to all the things they aren’t supposed to bring, I can’t help but think Jesus is just trying to make sure they know that doing ministry isn’t a free ride— following Jesus’ example in these ways will likely be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. You’ll wish for safety nets that aren’t there. You’ll pray for more certainty than you’ll ever have. But you’ll probably find yourself as a simple day-laborer in the cause of Christ—working day to day (or more often moment to moment) and without much clarity or security about the future. 

We most likely find ourselves drawn into an encounter that lasts a moment, a day, a week, or whatever, and then the encounter is past. We never get to see the big picture. We never get to know what happens next. We just know that we have to be ready and available when the Spirit does her thing. And in a world that cultivates addiction to busyness, being ready and available is a lot harder than it sounds.

“If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
(Matthew 10:13–14 NRSV)

Now we get to the really sticky part: sometimes we try to respond to the Spirit and our “peace” finds a home; sometimes it does not. 

Did we misread the signs?

Was God not in it after all?

What does “successful” ministry look like, anyway?

Moving to Life…

And maybe we’d be better off here removing the word “ministry” altogether—I think the message remains the same.

Sometimes, things don’t work out as you hope.
Sometimes, life doesn’t work out as you hope. 

And a lot of the time, it’s not just as simple as making lemons into lemonade. Sometimes, our attempts to do the right thing results in us losing peace—or at least sleep—and ending up feeling dirty from the whole encounter. What then?

Maybe now you see why I believe that Jesus’ instructions here aren’t helpful for just ministry and evangelism. There’s wisdom here about how to let go of bad experiences or relationships so we can continue on living. Because there are going to be times in life when things don’t work out—regardless of our best intentions and hopes. 

Thinking back to the book, I believe there’s a “Ronald” in each of our lives—and probably more than one. A “Ronald” is something we thought was going to change everything and give us a happily ever after. 

Maybe your “Ronald” was a person—someone with whom you had a relationship……

Maybe your “Ronald” was an opportunity—that job or connection that was going to turn everything around……

Maybe your “Ronald” was an object—something that seemed like it was going to be the be-all, end-all……that was going to end your search or longing for the right thing……

Whatever your “Ronald” was, you did try hard, you did try to make things happen and work out, but your “Ronald” let you down……and let you down even harder.

Death & Grief

These misplaced hopes are a kind of death, really. 

The death of a future that is no longer a possibility

The death of a relationship that can never be what was dreamed

The death of a quest, and by association, a purpose

We’re not well equipped to grieve this kind of death. Instead giving ourselves permission to grieve, we feel silly, like we shouldn’t have gotten our hopes up……

like we shouldn’t have become so emotionally invested to begin with……

like we were fools to miss whatever signs we now imagine were there at the beginning……

So we bury our grief, and we pretend that these deaths don’t even slow us down.

Back to Jesus…

Maybe……maybe these ancient words of Jesus can help us even today. Maybe within these teachings, we can find the interface between treading lightly in this world and investing deeply.

Because I think that’s what this is all about here, really. The kinds of ministry that Jesus empowers in the Twelve are a deep investment. 

I have seen the sick healed. 

I have seen those who were virtually dead—or even medically dead—come back to life. 

I have seen those who were ostracized find integration and community.

I have seen those who wrestle with demons find wholeness.

I have seen God do all these things, through cracked vessels like you and I. And the one thing I can tell you about all of them is that they are exhausting. 

It takes time to build relationships. 

It takes emotional energy to be present in heartache. 

It takes humility to truly hear someone else. 

It takes wisdom to discern where God is leading. 

It takes a lot of hard work and deep investment before any of it becomes possible.

And without investing deeply (and at times recklessly) in others, these things just aren’t going to happen. And then the Kingdom of God does not come nearer.

Balance & Outro

But there’s a balance that is urged, at the same time. Our fully human Savior Jesus the Christ advocates for that with us and with our God. 

Even in calling his followers to such deep investment, Jesus cautions them to tread lightly on this earth. 

Don’t take extra provisions. 

Don’t rely on your own resources. 

Don’t suppose you can make the Spirit show up by pushing the right buttons and saying an prayerful incantation. 

Don’t “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19–20 NRSV)

As a church: If we are so invested in something that we cannot “shake the dust from our feet” when it stops working, then that is a sign we have come to trust in ourselves to make it happen instead of trusting God to make it happen.

As followers of Jesus: If we are so stuck in our imagining about how things are supposed to be that we cannot offer others the freedom to follow their own path and be different than us, then that is a sign that we have come to trust in ourselves instead of trusting in God..

As human beings of any faith or no faith: If we are so closed to the plight of those with less than us that we dismiss the violence they experience, then it is we who have ceased being human.

 

May we discover in God’s goodness and mercy the capacity to extend mercy to all—even ourselves—when the future we imagined and the future we encounter fail to line up.

Unlimited

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim Bridges & Sophie Blackall.

Scripture Reading: Galatians 3:26-4:7

Women in Ministry

Just this week, I was in conversation with someone. The subject of deacons came up, and they were shocked that we would have female deacons.

The day before, I was in a clergy group and three female pastors shared experiences they’d had last Sunday. 

One was told to her face by a church leader that her “rack” was distracting–his word, not mine. 

The second–who has a non-gender-specific name like “Alex”–was promptly dropped from consideration as a pastoral candidate when they learned she was female. 

The third has been getting stalked by a church member and the church refuses to do anything about it.

These are not problems that are normative for male clergy like myself, but every single female pastor I’ve met has a story like this–and usually more of them than she is willing to share.

It pains me that the Church of Jesus Christ is still having these conversations……and doing such harm to itself and one another.

Jesus brought women into the closest circles of discipleship–even entrusting the first proclamation of the resurrection to Mary Magdalene (John 20). As it turns out, the first preacher we could clearly identify as “Christian” was a woman named Mary who was tasked with preaching the Good News to a group of men.

Paul names at least one woman to be a deacon (Phoebe, in Romans 16:1-2), at least one woman considered to be an apostle (Junia, in Romans 16:7), and countless women who headed house churches or are named alongside their husbands as the leaders of a house church. 

Even those texts about women not speaking or not teaching men–when read in their appropriate historical and textual context–are not limiting who can be church leaders; they are rather advocating spiritual education for a group of people that society didn’t believe were worth educating (cf. Cynthia Westfall).

It continues to amaze me that even though the scriptures clearly state that in Christ “there is no male or female” (Galatians 3:28), we continue to define some as categorically unfit to be called by God. It is rubbish.

But you know, I didn’t always realize this.

Second-Class Citizens?

Despite a series of serious crises of faith through my college years, some of that patriarchal language of fundamentalism continued to infect my faith. I was less and less a biblical literalist–I discovered (like others before me) that I took the Bible too seriously to take it literally (usually attributed to Karl Barth, but actually originating with Madeline L’Engle)–but I continued to read a few select verses in an exceedingly literal way that ignored historical and even textual context.

The tipping point came for me in seminary, as I theologically sparred with a friend. We were debating women in ministry–specifically in the role of pastor. I argued against; my opponent argued for. I’m certain there were other people involved as well, but my memory has telescoped the event into its crucial parts.

For me, such debates were recreation, like a hobby. I have since realized that for my friend in this story, the stakes were far more serious–it was a matter of living out the calling that she was convinced God had placed on her life.

I remember almost nothing about the conversation as a whole until we got to a single point–and then my memory snaps into crystal-clear, technicolor focus: “So what you’re saying,” my friend summed up, “is that there are second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God?”

That blow struck me heavy, as though I had been physically hit in the chest. And I realized almost immediately: that is exactly what I had been arguing

that some people are inherently incapble…… 

that there are some that even God cannot empower…… 

that God cannot overcome the biological hurdles required to gift certain people……

that the same divisions of society that have been so destructive on earth are supposed to be that way……

Without realizing it, this was my argument.
My life has never been the same.

In God’s Kingdom……

There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God.

In God’s Kingdom, there are no impediments to anyone. The divisions that we experience in this realm are not reflected in God’s realm. And in fact, if we are going to pray with Jesus “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” then it’s going to be the other way around–we are going to be working to make this realm reflect God’s realm.

And in our scripture lesson today, the apostle Paul couldn’t be more clear: 

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27–28 NRSV)

In this world, gender divides us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of preachers like Mary Magdalene, deacons like Phoebe, apostles like Junia, and the many women like them throughout God’s Story. In God’s Kingdom, we even tell stories of people who don’t fit into our normal categories, like the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 who (because of his castration) didn’t fit into either the male or female categories of his world. 

In this world, race and nationality divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories like that of Cornelius in Acts 10, who wasn’t thought to be the right ethnicity. But God intervened, and–through a series of visions and experiences–led Peter to conclude that the doors to God’s Kingdom were thrown wide-open in Christ. “Who?”–Paul later asks church leaders in Jerusalem–“who are we to think we can hinder what God is doing through the Spirit?” (Acts 11:17b).

In this world, our religious backgrounds divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Paul–a man who zealously persecuted those he believed were wrong. Yet in spite of–or perhaps because of this–he was able to serve as the greatest unifier and missionary of the early church.

In this world, our ages and generations divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Timothy. He was young enough to be disregarded (Paul even says “despised”) by those he was sent to lead. Yet Paul encourages him to remember that it is God who calls and empowers him. The church apparently thought he was too young, but God clearly disagreed.

In this world, our social statuses divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Joseph and Daniel–who, through their own unique journeys, ended up as slaves at the absolute bottom of the social ladder……statuses that were redeemed in ways that brought deliverance to countless others.

Of course–in the biblical world as in the “real world”–there are many with several strikes against us; we are divided and divided again. 

But in God’s Kingdom, there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome. In God’s Kingdom, we tell stories like that of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7. She’s the “wrong” gender, the “wrong” race, the “wrong” nationality, the “wrong” religious background, and she behaves and speaks improperly and disrespectfully. I’m not sure whether there’s a category for which she isn’t in the exclusion column. Yet she has a pivotal role in the shape of Jesus’ ministry; as Mark tells the story, it is this encounter that turns Jesus’ consciousness toward the salvation of non-Jews.

And we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how the women in the Bible defied social customs to live out God’s calling: warriors like Deborah and Jael, matriarchs like Sarah and Rachel, prophets like Anna and Huldah, figureheads like Miriam and Esther–to say nothing of the women who aren’t named: Jepthah’s daughter, the woman of Thebez, the wife of Manoah, the daughters of Zelophehad, and on and on.

There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Not you, and not me.

Reconciling

In God’s Kingdom, all those barriers that the powers of this world use to divide and conquer us have been overcome. The differences between us as individuals are not abolished, but are rather redeemed in amazing and unexpected ways in order to advance God’s Kingdom.

This is, after all, the point of our calling and giftedness as members of the Body of Christ. Paul insists repeatedly that our calling comes from God and should be affirmed by the church. He stresses that our giftedness–however similar or different–comes from the same Spirit and is given for encouragement, for consolation, and for the building up of God’s redemptive project (the drawing all people to Godself, or to put differently: the building up of the church).

If we are following Jesus in this dynamic project of God, then we will be living the Kingdom way here on earth. We will be living out God’s commitment to encouraging unlimited lives–believing that God does not call or gift all people to the same tasks, but also recognizing that no one is limited in their Kingdom roles by the things that divide this world. 

In the second letter to the Corinthian church (5:18ff), Paul describes the ministry God has entrusted to every Christian as the work of reconciliation. Reconciliation (by definition) involves bringing together things that do not seem to go together: that which is broken is made whole again; that which was divided is united; that which didn’t add up is zeroed out. By living these things into the world, Paul says we are “ambassadors for Christ” and “God…makes his appeal through us” (2Corinthians 5:20 NRSV). 

In that way, we fulfill a part of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: God’s kingdom comes closer, as God’s will is done on earth, just as it is already done in heaven. In this we see again that the Christian life is not about knowing the right things; it is about following the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. 

Empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we are called to be activists who advocate for the unlimited potential of each person made in God’s own image. 

Challenge

That, then, is our challenge this week. The powers of this world spend considerable resources to put us in separate little boxes and keep us there: 

men on the right, women on the left

older over here, younger over there

rich and poor

republican and democrat

those who know the right things and those who do not

……one group against another, infinitely smaller and smaller until we each are isolated and alone inside our own little prison…… each ashamed, thinking everyone else to be free.

It’s a house of cards of lies, and it crumbles as soon as any one of us chooses to trust God and break out of the boxes that define and confine us. The whole system falls apart when we really let God be God in our lives and allow the Spirit to empower us to serve God no matter who we are or what the world tries to tell us. All these walls that divide prove to be little more than illusion when we begin to advocate for the unlimited potential that resides in each person made in God’s image–when we discover together how great is the power of God’s love.

Because what we learn is that the system is not real……not like you or I are real. What is real is God’s kingdom and the freedom that is opened up when we are opened to God’s love. Everything else–to paraphrase the preacher of Ecclesiastes–proves empty and without any real substance at all.

That’s why Jesus insists his followers “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 RSV). We have to prioritize the ways of God’s kingdom over the ways of this world. Making God’s kingdom come isn’t about aligning state with religion, or pursuing misguided policies in the Near East intended to “force” God’s hand into sending Jesus back. 

Making God’s kingdom come is about embodying God’s liberating love in our relationships and life. In doing so, they–and we–discover the unlimited potential we have in God’s kingdom. 

Prayer

Give us the courage, O God, to change.

May you and others forgive us
for how we have sinned against others,
holding them back from the vocation you intend for them.

May we discover the richness
of the Body of Christ
as we advocate for the full participation
of each called, redeemed, and gifted individual.

But may we also discover,
the beauty of how their expression of gifts and calling
enriches our own lives,
for the enriching of the Church
and the advancement of your Kingdom
is the reason you gift and call any of us.

To You, O God, be the glory,
and the honor, and the power,
forever. Amen.