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Lent: Week One (James 1:19-27)

Spinning Gold from Straw - Lent: Week One (James 1:19-27)

Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • March 05, 2017 • Anna Hillaker, Pastor of Spiritual Formation & Care

 

Good morning! We are so happy to have all of you here with us today. We pray that you find welcome, encouragement, and a real experience of connection with God and his community in this space.

 

This week is the first Sunday of Lent. Some of you participated in our joint Ash Wednesday service at First Presbyterian in Ann Arbor. If you did, you may have received a mark of ashes on your forehead. This symbolizes the fact that Lent is a time of sober preparation, humility, prayer, and service. We have Lenten resources available— books in the lobby, devotional, 5 practices to try.

 

The Painful Call to Integrity

Last week, Pastor Donnell pressed into the message of Jeremiah 29, highlighting the immense difficulty of God’s encouragement to the Israelites to actively seek the peace and health of a city to which they have been exiled. We don’t like to love our enemies, especially when it means actively seeking their wellbeing and flourishing. Finding our own welfare and freedom in the welfare of the other, in the welfare of our enemy, even? That is something we’d like to pass by. See, the thing is, we have a tendency to avoid the tricky and difficult passages of scripture. We like to seek out the comforting and beautiful portions of the Bible that fill us with hope and make us feel good inside.

 

But instead of all of that, we’ll be spending Lent in the book of James and in Jeremiah 29. The book of James is something that many Christians have tried to avoid. There is something in it that frankly makes many of us feel uncomfortable. Even as I was preparing this sermon I found myself wrestling with how to dive into this book in a way that is balanced, that doesn’t come across and judge-y or harsh. James spends a lot of time emphasizing the importance of a faith that acts, that our lives should begin to reflect the character of the God we serve. And if we’re not careful this can sound like we have to earn God’s grace, or that God won’t love us if we don’t live up to some impossible standard. So let me just say before we get started— that is not what I’m trying to say here.

 

But Lent has historically been a time of sober and humble self-assessment, a time of coming into the presence of God in an awareness of our need for salvation. It is also a time to serve others. Interestingly, in the book of James, these two things go hand and hand. James calls us to lives of integrity and wholeness epitomized by both personal goodness/holiness and social action (Blomberg/Kamell). But here’s the thing: integrity is really, really difficult. I love the definition of integrity offered by Elsa Tamez, a Costa Rican scholar who wrote a book called The Scandalous Message of James. It has been very helpful to me as I have developed this sermon, and she will likely be referenced frequently throughout this sermon series. She defines James’ picture of integrity as “consistency in hearing, believing, speaking, and doing (p. 46).” We may not always be aware of the ways our lives aren’t as consistent as we might hope. But when we bump up against this lack of integrity, we usually know it. It usually hurts.

 

I’ll tell you a story about an experience that I had that has come to be known as The Waffle Incident.

  • Staying with a friend. She very sweetly bought food for me.
  • Many of you know I can’t eat gluten. REALLY can’t eat even a tiny bit.
  • Bought what we both thought were the same GF waffles as last time. Box the same (we thought!), flavor the same, same specialty food aisle.
  • Wasn’t really thinking about it— felt safe, comfortable.
  • A waffle and a half in, I realized that they were NOT what we thought they were.
  • That gut-wrenching and horrible sensation of realizing that something is not what you thought. Suddenly knowing that I’m really in for it. Even the dog knew something was wrong.
  • Let’s just say that the proof that they weren’t what we thought they were in what those waffles did to me. And that proof lasted a very long time.

Encountering something that isn’t what it seems to be, or even what it professes to be, is truly awful. We have all had experiences like this. Maybe not with a waffle. Maybe a with a person who isn’t who we thought they were. Maybe even with the church, who didn’t reflect the Jesus we have come to know. And it is painful. It can cause damage that lasts for a very long time. But something even more unpleasant is being confronted with the knowledge that we too are at times that person. We too lack the wholeness and integrity that Jesus calls us to. We, too, aren’t always who we seem to be on the surface.

 

A Difficult Task

So what do we do with this knowledge? How do we possibly begin to rectify this gap between who we seem to be and who we are? This is James 1:19-27:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Whew. That is an awful lot of suggestions, James! If you’re anything like me, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed by this. But if I can ask you a favor, it’s this— try to hang in there with me. I know that it doesn’t sound like it now, but these verses aren’t offering us an insane and impossible to-do list. For starters, this is basically a summary of James’ perspective in microcosm. As daunting as it sounds on the surface, this is pretty much what we’ll continue unpacking for the next five weeks. All of this can sound like empty moralism or an attempt to save ourselves through how good we can be, and let me just take a moment to say clearly, it’s not. There is actually a profound invitation to partner with the work of the kingdom— a kingdom of justice, love, and mercy. There is an invitation to perseverance and joy in the midst of a tumultuous world. And we do not do any of this on our own. So if you can, try to sit in this tension and discomfort with me a little longer.

 

It’s also helpful to realize that this picture of the importance of integrity for faith is not actually unique to James. It is everywhere in the gospels, the old testament, in the letters of Paul. I’ve put a few verses in the sermon notes for reference if you’d like to check them out. The call to integrity flows, from beginning to end, in the narrative of the Scriptures. Likewise, James puts priority of emphasis on doing and not just hearing. To emphasize this, he uses a really interesting simile:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Your own reflection in a mirror is probably pretty familiar. It would be pretty strange to walk away and forget not only the details of your appearance, but what you look like entirely! That is a pretty deep level of dismissal. This is what Pastor Donnell was talking about last week— we brush right by the more difficult things that God asks us to do, the more tricky parts of Scripture that we would rather not have to try to understand and apply to our own lives. It is pretty easy to talk about the importance of integrity, until we turn that microscope back upon ourselves.

 

James, it seems, is challenging us to consider how we can sometimes think we are faithful or good, or maybe we seem to be that way to others, but this doesn’t always reflect reality. There is a discrepancy here, that runs right through our hearts and our actions. “James is against the two-faced person,” says Tamez, “or as he puts it, the person living a double life (p. ).” Ouch! I know I would really rather not think about myself as being two-faced! But then I think about driving by an intersection near my house that almost always has at least one or two people with cardboard signs, asking for help. I think about the emotional war inside of me every time I drive by. Should I give them money? I never have cash. Would money even be helpful? Maybe I should keep food or warm socks in my car? Or would that feel patronizing? But you know what I usually do? Nothing. This tension rages inside of me until the light changes, and I keep driving. So what do I do with that internal struggle? How do I begin to have integrity in that moment?

 

In James, where we begin to act with integrity, to step beyond just hearing Jesus’ call, is to “look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continue in it.”  The book of James is all about the both-and arrangement. There is clearly an element of effort on our part— we must “look intently” and “continue in” what we see. But notice that what we are called to consider intently is also something that gives. In this difficult work this perfect law gives us freedom. How often do we think about the law giving us freedom? James is offering us a different picture here, a fuller one than we often imagine. This is about learning to partner with the gift of freedom that we are given, and sharing that gift with those we encounter. I love how Tamez describes this balance: “James challenges the community to hear the word and keep it, to contemplate the perfect law of freedom and practice it, to speak and act consistently, as befits those who are to be judged by the law of freedom (p. 51).”

 

Central to the picture of this kind of consistency in James is how we behave towards “the helpless of society,” those who are the most vulnerable, and have the fewest resources. One scholar writes that this is “not peripheral, nor optional, but central and obligatory to your faith (Blomberg/Kamell).” It is fascinating that James pairs this injunction to care for the widow and the orphan with a call to personal holiness. We often get caught up in this debate within the church, don’t we? One one side of the debate we say “what matters the most is that your heart is right with God and that your personal actions aren’t sinful.” On the other hand, there is the emphasis on just action, where we argue “it doesn’t matter much how holy you are! What really matters is how you treat people, how you help the world to be a better place.” The good news is that James resolves this debate pretty bluntly, and I bet you can guess how— we get to do both! “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” A faithful life of integrity is marked both by social justice and uprightness in our hearts and behaviors.

 

The Gracious Gift of Growth

There’s a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that has been resonating deeply with me lately (I know, I couldn’t resist a bit of poetry!), and I think it connects deeply to what I struggle with in the book of James. It says:

 

“May what I do flow from me like a river,

no forcing and no holding back,

the way it is with children.” (Love Poems to God, I, 12)

 

When it comes to integrity, with our aim toward maturity in our lives and in our faith, there’s this tension that we hold. Sometimes we are tempted to force things— to try to muscle toward our goal on our own strength. But we also sometimes resist, hold back. We fear the vulnerability, the difficulty of putting ourselves out there. It’s challenging. It’s scary. What struck my heart in this poem is the visual of who we are, what we do, flowing from us like a river. There is a naturalness to it but it also isn’t easy.  And I think if we dig a little deeper, we find this balance in James as well. Let’s look again at verse 21: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” Verse 21 both calls us to lives of moral quality AND emphasizes that it is through the word of God that we are saved. We get caught up in the idea that our right actions have to earn something. But what if they don’t? What if the word of God, the activity of the Holy Spirit at work deep within our hearts, are what fuel the character and integrity that we are called to? What if our integrity isn’t so much about getting right with God or “being saved” as much as they are about journeying down the path of wisdom with our Lord? What if is from the loving embrace of a generous God that our integrity flows forth?

 

The book of James actually draws pretty heavily on the wisdom literature of the OT, particularly Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. The Israelite wisdom tradition contrasts two “ways”— the way of wisdom and the way of folly. Instead of a list of things to do and things not to do, think of it more as two paths that are oriented in different directions. James is inviting us to fruitful, whole lives of wisdom. Let’s look at verse 5: “5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” We are invited to lead lives of wisdom and integrity, reflecting the one we serve, but we are also offered, in full, the resources to do so! We are given the word that is planted in our hearts. We ask for wisdom and the God “gives generously to all without finding fault” will instill in us his wisdom. James isn’t offering us a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” program of faith. He is offering us a crash course in Spirit-led transformation. As one scholar wrote, “The word of the gospel, therefore, is fully able to sustain and mature us from the beginning of our relationship with Christ…” (Blomberg/Kamell).

 

The entire letter of James is couched in the gracious, loving, and generous character of God. Verse 17-18: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” How can we possibly have integrity? Because every good and perfect gift comes from God, who is the essence of integrity, and he chose us to be the first fruits of a transformed world.

 

But the hope of the book of James isn’t rooted solely in the transformation that is still coming. There is joy, he insists in the journey of wisdom and integrity itself. Let’s look again at verse 25, this time looking at how Eugene Peterson translates it in the Message: “But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.” The perfect law gives us freedom and life. And we will experience blessing in the just and wise action! How true this is! How many times have you done something begrudgingly, or thinking that it will only benefit the person you’re serving, only to have it turn around and bless the socks off of you? James here isn’t just scolding us to be extra good. He is trying to instruct us on how to live a life filled with freedom and joy. We are not trying to earn our salvation. We are persevering in our journey towards wisdom and integrity, fueled by the Spirit, and experiencing joy even in the midst of our struggles. Integrity itself is a cause for joy (Tamez, 52).

 

Now What: Entering Lent

  • “James wishes to encourage repeated action that becomes a habit.” (Blomberg/Kamell). — Disciplines
  • It’s not about arriving at integrity, it’s about beginning towards it.
  • There isn’t a road map, or a list. Integrity isn’t something you manufacture in that way. It is active, dynamic, Spirit-led.
  • It is all about beginning in the generous, expansive love of God and from that place beginning to instill little habits and increased awareness of the way that God engages the world.
  • My friend who knew the names of every homeless person in our neighborhood. 
    • Said hello, how are you. Asked if they’d had lunch. Bought them food.
    • One man loved chocolate milk. She would often pop into the little market down the street and buy him a bottle of chocolate milk.
  • For others it may not be about a direct, personal encounter with someone. We have many community partners who are caring for the down-and-out by working to rectify broader systems of injustice that are leading to some of these disparities.
  • (James 5:13-18).
  • “The intimate encounter with God through prayer strips human beings and confronts them with their own selves. … This prayer is able to jolt and destroy the two hearts to create one heart, solid and honest (Tamez, 57).”
  • We begin in the loving embrace of God, who leads us to an honest picture of our hearts. In prayer, we can open our hearts in trust, to receive healing, to be challenged and encouraged, and to receive guidance. As we spend time in the presence of God we become more in tune with the heart of Jesus and the activity of the Holy Spirit, which allows us to become more aware of the invitations to partner with God’s commitment to make all things new.

Our 40 Day Journey Together

Our Lenten journey together will take 40 days. Chronologically, Lent starts 46 days before Easter. However, most faith traditions exclude Sundays. That’s how we get to 40 days.

 

We have prepared some material for our Lenten journey together, so I want to walk you through it now. I’m going to highlight a couple that reflect some of what we have been talking about today.

  1. Your Bold Request

    Identify one thing you’d like to ask God to do for you and then ask daily. Isaiah 62 instructs us to “remind” the Lord, and to “give him no rest” as we bring our longings to him. Jesus tells us the story of a persistent widow who receives justice from an unjust judge simply because she will not stop asking. And Jesus says to us, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” So we are inviting each of us to make one bold, deeply person request this Lent. Take some time to prayerfully choose a deep need, a powerful longing that has been gripping your heart.

  2. The Answered Prayer Wall

    If you receive an answer to prayer during Lent, we invite you to write it on a sticky-note and stick it on the ANSWERED PRAYER WALL in the sanctuary. This is both a tangible reminder to us all that our prayers are heard by a powerful and active God and an act of worshipful gratitude. We can watch together as we visibly see the Holy Spirit at work in our midst.

  3. Identify and Pray for Your Six ***

    Prayerfully select six people in your world to pray for each day through the six weeks of Lent.  I suggest people just beyond your primary relationship circle. Maybe not family and friends, but people around you—neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances— whoever you bump up against regularly in your day to day life. Especially those who might benefit from more experience of the Good God. It can be helpful to reflect on the ways you have been impacted by the prayers of others for your life.
    Maybe try to think of someone just beyond your circle, or someone you encounter frequently, who is often ignored, maligned, unsupported or looked down on by society. Consider including them on your list. If you do not know their name, try to find out.

  4. Bless Your Six ***

    This moves us to our next Lenten practice. Consider some extravagant care for one of your six. We not only wish to pray for God’s love and goodness in their lives, but we also want to become for those around us a reflection of the good God we serve. Ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to highlight a way that you can tangibly bless one of the people you’re praying for, a way that you can become for them a tangible encounter with God’s goodness. Now do it. Really. Even if it feels awkward or challenging. Ask God not only to meet the other person with love and care, but also to transform your heart through the act of sacrificial giving. To deepen this practice, consider engaging this act privately. When you give, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). Intentionally avoid recognition or praise for your act. Pray through how it feels to do this.
    Consider this practice as a possible opportunity to act in keeping with the faith you profess.

  5. Experiment with a daily devotional

    We have a reading guide that will lead you through the book of James throughout Lent.
    This is an opportunity to “look intently at the perfect law which brings freedom.”
 
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