Monday, August 24, 2015

Traditional--a sermon on James 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
James 1.17-27
23 August 2015, Pentecost 2-6

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.

I frequently have conversations that involve the phrase “the traditional way.” Sometimes they are about communion—and how we should do it the traditional way. Sometimes they are about what time worship should be, or what style of music we should sing. Sometimes they are about what food shows up at a potluck—for instance, last week’s picnic lacked the traditional jello salads, much to at least one person’s surprise. Sometimes the traditions people have in mind are less benign—many believe that the traditional way excludes people from one thing or another. Still more believe that the main tradition of the church is asking for money.

Many of these conversations involve me asking the question “what do you mean by traditional?” Because for some people, passing trays of tiny cups of juice through the pews is the traditional way of serving communion, and for some people coming forward and being served by the pastor is traditional. For some people, traditional architecture is a cross-shaped sanctuary divided by columns and with very high stained glass windows, for others it is a whitewashed square room with clear windows. For some, traditional cookout food involves potato salad and watermelon, while for others it involves hot dogs and spaghetti.

Our traditional ways are, generally, the ways we remember doing things when we were younger. We apply our traditions to times past, forgetting that tradition morphs through the years, changing with the needs of the people who practice it. So traditional communion, for James, would have been a potluck where people brought food to the communion table and then shared a meal that included Jesus’s words about the bread of life and cup of salvation. Traditional music depends heavily on where we are—some might say that unaccompanied singing is the real tradition, others might say the pipe organ is truly traditional, while others use tambourines and percussion to make the traditional joyful noise.

Occasionally our traditions are more concerning. The tradition of the church grapevine, where gossip is recast as news and prayer. The tradition of the meeting after the meeting, where instead of talking to the person we have an issue with, we talk to everyone else. The tradition of arguing over the color of carpet or the location of pews. The tradition of cutting the mission budget first. The tradition of saying one thing on Sunday and doing another on Monday.

Before we all start protesting that we aren’t like that, we may want to take a moment to remember that, however awesome we are, we are not perfect. Those old stereotypes of church come from somewhere, and it’s likely we’ve played a part in them at some point or another.

And then we can look to James, and find the real issue laid out plainly in the first verse of today’s reading. While we cling to our traditions, both good and bad, we forget that they are just that—ours. And here James reminds us that all good gifts come from God, and our call is to be the first fruits of those kingdom seeds God has planted. James doesn’t give much thought to what we say we believe—he wants to see what we believe.

What happens to our traditions when we ask first what we have received from God? When we start from the list of blessings? What happens when we allow the word, planted in our souls, to take root and grow, and then we use that word as the starting point for our traditions?

After all, we would say that we believe all creation, all life, and all we have is a gift from God. How would someone see that belief in our action?

We would say that God is love and that Christ defeated death with grace. How would someone see that love and grace in our behavior?

We would say that every member of the body is equally important, equally created in God’s image, equally called to life with God, and equally equipped by the Spirit for their calling. If someone watched how we treat people with different skin color, different language, different religion, different abilities, would they see our faith?

Every family and community has traditions—some healthier than others, some more grounded in the Spirit than others, some reaching farther back than others. We might say things like “we are good Presbyterians, we do ___,” or “in this family, we always ______.” Because we belong to these communities, we do certain things. Today James has given us a glimpse of the traditions of the kingdom of God.

Because we are God’s people, living in God’s kingdom of grace, this is what we do:

*We give thanks. Everything is a gift, including our ability to earn, so we can never say we deserved something. Grace becomes gratitude.

*We are generous. Because we are grateful, because everything belongs to God, because we are called to be like Christ who gave everything for love of God’s world—gratitude becomes generosity.

*We listen more than we talk. Listen for the voice of God, listen for the voice of our neighbor, listen for the voice of the silenced, listen for the voice crying out for justice. We are the students of the greatest teacher, and so we listen.

*When we talk, it is with grace and humility. We share the love of God, and we speak up on behalf of those who cannot, but refuse to bully people into belief. The Spirit will give us the ability to speak.

*We practice healthy communication. We speak truth in love, directly to the person involved, never cloaking gossip in the self-righteous folds of “sharing concerns.” We are open and honest, so there is no dank corner where anger and hurt and disease can grow.

*We are tireless in caring for those who occupy the lowest rungs of society. We care for them directly and in big-picture ways, working for the day when the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor, the addict, the black and brown, are not outcast but included, because we know their lives are just as important to the body as ours, and so should be treated with the same respect and care.

Imagine the world if this was what we meant when we talked about the traditional way: gratitude, generosity, listening, hopeful humility, honest sharing, including and caring for all.  This is true religion, this is who we are as members of God’s household, this is the kingdom way.

May we be doers of the word, not only hearers.


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