Faith and Works: No More Favorites

Sunday’s Scripture ~ James 2:1-9, 14-18

For the last ten years – in volunteer and employed opportunities – Andrew and I have had the privilege of weekly serving alongside incredible middle and high school students.  Together we laugh, sometimes cry, goof off, study Scripture, leave it all on the 9-square court, worship, and serve.

(And this week I have an even greater privilege and opportunity to do all these things and more as I and 500 of my closest friends spend a week on the holy grounds of the Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp!  Week 5!  Woot woot!)

You may be surprised – or may be not – to know that the most fulfilling part of serving alongside these students is not what I teach them.  It’s what they teach me.  And I am thankful for each and every lesson.

It is incredible to watch these students blossom into young adults and mature in their faith as they engage in ministry.  Usually when students enter this ministry we can visibly split them into two groups:

1 – those that seek friends by way of pleasing others

2 – those that seek friends by walking the (sometimes difficult) path of being him or herself

//

Those that seek friends by way of pleasing others show favoritism or partiality, I believe, as a way to cover or shield their own insecurities.  If this behavior is not addressed as teenagers, it continues – and I believe festers – in adulthood.  What may begin as innocently going out of your way to be noticed by someone in the popular crowd could become what James describes in our Scripture text this week:

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  …  You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:2-4,8-9).

//

Those that seek friends by walking the (sometimes difficult) path of being him or herself I believe draw closer to the heart of pure Christianity, which James defines:

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).

These students strive to remain unstained by the world.  They don’t play games.  They don’t show off to get the attention of the popular crowd.  They don’t show partiality.

What they do show is genuine care and concern for their neighbor – all their neighbors.  It doesn’t matter their family history, age, grade level, what sort of student they are, what kinds of extra-curriculars they engage, their economic status, or any other factor that might divide rather than unite.  They show their genuine care and concern through their speech, actions, service, and commitment – to God and to others.

//

I didn’t always find myself among this second group of students when I was in middle and high school.  I struggled with insecurity.  I struggled with learning the difference between friends in quantity and friends in quality.  I did eventually learn it – and frequently revisit the lesson – through the study of Scripture and walking alongside true friends and mentors that pointed me towards keeping myself unstained by the world.

I am truly blessed to now find myself as a mentor to amazing students that teach me the value of service, authenticity, and personal integrity.  Our world is in desperate need of more adults like these students.  Don’t worry; they are coming!

Prayer: “Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread; still the captives long for freedom; still in grief we mourn our dead.  As, O Lord, your deep compassion healed the sick and freed the soul, use the love your Spirit kindles still to save and make us whole.”*  Amen.

*”Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 581.

Faith and Works: Hear and Do

Sunday’s Scripture ~ James 1:19-27

Andrew and I are high school sweethearts.  We met as 16 year-olds in our church’s handbell choir – and as they say – the rest is history.  We dated through our remaining years of high school and on into college.  In December 2004 we got engaged outside the Japanese archway that is affixed in the World Showcase Lagoon (not sure Walk Disney calls it a lagoon, but I am!) at Epcot.  We are very fortunate that have friends, students, colleagues, and congregants that work for Disney and invite us to spend the day with them in the parks around our anniversary in December.

As a special treat when we visit Epcot in December the Disney’s Candlelight Processional is in full swing.  The Candlelight Processional is a mass choir/mass orchestra ensemble that sings its way through the Christmas story while portions are spoken by a celebrity narrator.

A few years ago we attended the processional not knowing who the narrator would be and I was stunned to learn that Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin would be the narrator that evening.  If you are not familiar with Marlee, you should know that she is deaf.  She lost most of her hearing by the age of 18 months, but loss of hearing did not hold her back in life or keep her from her dreams.

I cried through the entire processional.  Marlee spoke the Christmas story to a hearing crowd…she spoke the story perhaps without any significant knowledge or awareness of what her own voice sounds like.

The most moving moment of the evening, however, was listening to her sing.

Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright.  Round yon virgin mother and child.  Holy infant so tender and mild.  Sleep in heavenly peace.  Sleep in heavenly peace.  

In her final words to the congregation gathered that night she bid each of us to do what we could to ensure all people would sleep in peace.

In peace.

//

I will never forget this evening with Marlee.  She couldn’t hear the Word; she was physically stopped from doing that.  But her deafness did not impair her from doing the Word, from speaking truth in love and truth to power in a very public forum.

She connected hearing and doing/speaking and doing in such an incredible way for me that evening.  She spoke with integrity.  She spoke with conviction.  Yes, she’s an actress by vocation.  But this, my friends, this was authenticity.

Marlee spoke “pure and undefiled before God, the Father” and challenged all who could hear – and those who can’t – to do what we can so that all may sleep in heavenly peace.

I heard.  And I’ve been doing.  And I’ll keep on keeping on.

Prayer: “Lord, whose love through humble service bore the weight of human need, who upon the cross, forsaken, offered mercy’s perfect deed: we, your servants, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart, consecrating to your purpose every gift that you impart.”* Amen.

*”Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 581.

 

Jesus: The Early Years ~ Authentic Grit

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 3:21-22

Last Friday I treated myself to a movie.

In a movie theatre.

I know…this could cost a person one’s entire paycheck if he or she is not careful!

But my local theatre has a great “early bird” showing price – $4.50 for any show beginning before 2:30pm every day.

To that I say, “tweet tweet.”

I saw “Les Miserables.”  I thought it was spectacular.  The music – the sets – the costumes – the casting.  I laughed – I cried – I hummed along.  I even sang in a few instances…the theatre was rather empty…it was an 11am showing.

I have seen other installments of the film (one day I hope to see a stage production).  I have read Hugo’s work…and portions of it in French.  But each time I see it I am still not prepared for the graphic and dire straits in which the people of France find themselves.

I find the words from We Three Kings fitting, “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying…”

Driven mad by hunger, sickness, anger, grief, and guilt.  Feeling completely alone in a sea of people.  Wanting for companionship – true companionship.  Craving the chance for a fresh start.

Aching for hope.

Mind, Jesus was not a contemporary of the 1832 June Rebellion of Paris.

But

as he presented himself for baptism at the banks of Jordan River, the community gathered around him may have felt a kindred heart with the characters crafted by Hugo.

The Gospel according the Luke tells us that the baptism of Jesus occurred with “all the people.”  And who were these people?  We know they weren’t all “high society.”  Some of them may have been.  But most of them – most of them were characters the likes of Les Mis.

Robert M. Brearley describes it this way, “Jesus presented himself for baptism as an act of solidarity with a nation and a world of sinners.  Jesus simply got in line with everyone who had been broken by the “wear and tear” of this selfish world and had all but given up on themselves and their God.  When the line of downtrodden and sin-sick people formed in hopes of new beginnings through a return to God, Jesus joined them.  At his baptism, he identified with the damaged and broken people who needed God.”*

If you are familiar with Les Mis you know that a sort of line was formed among the townspeople that were recruited for the rebellion.  Leaders were appointed and they spearheaded the revolt until they met their fates through musket fire and canon blasts.  But the people who sought change fought for it and remained resilient.  The closing scene of the film is an image of rebirth – the townspeople emerging from the wreckage, claiming the newness of their lives out from under the regime, claiming their agency, claiming their destiny.

Jesus joined a line of downtrodden folk seeking new life through healing waters.  That new life also sparked a rebellion of sorts.  Some wanted it to be more of a political rebellion – perhaps along the lines of Les Mis – but what occurred first was more an ideological and spiritual awakening and realignment.  Jesus was and continues to be the leader, the shepherd, of this movement.  His leadership led him to his death, which is our threshold to eternal life, our truth rebirth.

Jesus got in line with humanity.  He got in line with you and me.  And all our mess.  He got in line with Les Miserables The Miserables and in his baptism, suffering death, and resurrection proved to us his unyielding commitment.

Prayer: Holy God, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and your voice affirmed your love in Jesus for the healing of the human race and all creation.  By water and word you lovingly invite us into this same life-giving mission.  May your Spirit, moving like a stream of water flowing from its source, work in us this day to realize your vision of a world made new in Christ, in whose name we pray.  Amen.**

* Quote from David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 240.

** Prayer from Kimberly Bracken Long, ed., Feasting On the Word Worship Companion: Liturgies for Year C (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 46.

Jesus: The Early Years ~ No Place I’d Rather Be

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 2:41-52

In our Scripture passage this week Jesus begins to live into his destiny!

(That sounds kind of corny…but I cannot think of another word that fits what I am seeking to capture.)

In this Scripture passage Jesus begins his transition from student to Rabbi.  This is all part of the plan of him being the Rabbi.  The Master.  The Lord.  The Savior.  The Son of God.  

This is who Jesus was created to be.  This is who Jesus was.  Jesus accepted this yoke.  Jesus drank from this cup.  Ultimately Jesus hung from this cross.  My intent is not to be dramatic, but to give voice to the magnitude of what may appear to be a quiet text…besides the little scuffle Jesus has with his folks about missing the departure time from downtown Jerusalem.

Mary and Joseph find him in the Synagogue.  In God’s House.  There is no place he’d rather be.  And Jesus admits it.  Openly.  Freely.  Unashamedly.

This Scripture is the springboard for Jesus into authenticity, which I think is an endangered species today.

  • We fear to be who we truly are for how we will be received or for how we have been received.
  • We worry about the ramifications it will have on our relationships with our families, our friends, our co-workers.
  • We question, “If I am me will I be passed over for that promotion?  Will I keep my job?  Will I keep my friends?  Will I keep my family?”
  • We weigh the possibility of living in-authentically because it might be an easier price to pay…then it’s only me who loses because no one else is the wiser…but if I am the one who loses then will I ever be the one who wins?

Authenticity is so endangered these days that we almost don’t recognize it when we see it…like me when I read and studied this passage from Luke this week.  Perhaps what happens more often is that we experience a bout of authenticity and someone attempts to hush it up.

Authenticity was once the norm; it has now become the aberration.

We need to get back to authenticity being the norm.  I believe we do so by being authentically ourselves and finding our safe places, our security, our families – brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers – our neighbors among those that encourage and foster our authenticity.

Mark 3 records, “Then [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ (3:31-35).

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

True authenticity.  Let’s get move there.  Let’s thrive there.

A friend and congregant this week asked me if I had seen Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech.  It’s awesome and another testament and much needed installment of authenticity.

Prayer: “That We May Be True” from A Barclay Prayer Book

O Lord Jesus, help us to be true to our faith and true to you, when things are difficult.  When we have to stand alone; when loyalty to you makes us unpopular with our fellow men and women; when doing the right thing involves us in the dislike or in the laughter of others: help us still to be true.

Give us strength to do what we cannot do and to be what we cannot be; and help us to remember that by ourselves we can do nothing but that with you all things are possible.  Amen.

(William Barclay, A Barclay Prayer Book (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 246-247.)