When I see the black church pandering to liberal politicians, the Catholic leadership unwilling to correct abuses that have been going on for ages and the white church prostituting themselves for a picture in the White House, I think about this passage in James. “You adulterous people.” From the beginning the church has been plagued with divisions, betrayal, corruption, greed, ambition, fighting, slander, and chasing after the approval of the world. It’s only too late we find while we want to be friends with the world the world does not want friends. It wants worship. It wants to take more than it gives and gradually draws us away from friendship with God. It’s all here in this one chapter this morning.
There is no “solution” to an issue that is in the human heart.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
It is not structural or economic or political. It is the human condition and repeats itself over and over again in the history of the church from the very beginning. We fight and corrupt ourselves because we cannot get what we want. Our desires for more or what is not rightfully ours drives us to attack others and defend ourselves. We want what we should not have. We pray with wrong motives and are angry and disappointed when we are refused.
When dying of cancer in 1991, Lee Atwater, the acknowledged genius of political spin and dirty tricks apologized to those he had hurt and defamed.
“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The ’80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul….I was wrong to follow the meanness of Conservatism. I should have been trying to help people instead of taking advantage of them. I don’t hate anyone anymore. For the first time in my life I don’t hate somebody. I have nothing but good feelings toward people. I’ve found Jesus Christ – It’s that simple. He’s made a difference.
Roy Clark died this week and I remember this refrain from and his friends on Hee-Haw:
”Gloom, despair, and agony on me.
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery.
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.
Gloom, despair, and agony on me”
Sometimes it is easy to feel that way.
Somehow, it helps me to know that this is not abnormal and God is not surprised. He does not give up on us. Just as he does with Israel, he offers forgiveness and the hope of returning to him. Even though we cannot see it and the news makes it even more apparent, He still sees the Church as the Bride of Christ when all we can see is a stained and all-too-human institution. The hope is not in us, is it? It is in His covenant with us that He will not break.
We wonder why we have so many young people leaving the church or looking to other sources for spirituality. Isn’t it because they look at the church they see in the news and decide there can be nothing worth finding there? They are right in a way. We have adulterated both the message and the practice of what Christ intended but I still hold out the same hope as Francis Collins who wrote in “The Language of God”:
“The pure, clean water of spiritual truth is placed in rusty containers, and the subsequent failings of the church down through the centuries should not be projected onto the faith itself, as if the water had been the problem.”
As hard as it is to explain those rusty containers there are no options, are there? We are leaky pots entrusted with the greatest truths in the world. There is no Plan B. What an irony.
If there is any answer to the pattern of the fighting that comes from the desires that battle within us, the killing because we envy and covet what others have, it is probably found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 4:9-12. “Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
The church can begin to limit its own desires and instead of being noise makers anxious to be seen on the news we can make it our ambition to lead a quiet life – almost an unnoticed life. We can mind our own business and work with our hands so that it is our daily life and not our political and economic clout that wins the respect of outsiders – those who find no reason to believe in the church or the pure, clean water of the church.
James goes on to confront those who are boasting about “today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” I’ve met a few of those people in my life. Sometimes they are wannabe entrepreneurs who come with a business plan that describes how their deal is going to cash flow in one year – two at the most – and we are all going to get rich. They have no understanding of the value of business or the time it takes to build one. They are day traders – for their whole life. Never putting down roots, they are people who move around constantly because they wear out their welcome or get bored or are habitually restless and wracked with the fear of missing out. Something is always around the bend and putting off until tomorrow what they can get today makes no sense. “Delayed gratification” is silliness to them. Alexis DeTocqueville wrote in his observations of Americans,
“As soon as they have lost the way of relying chiefly on distant hopes, they are naturally led to want to satisfy their desires at once; and it would seem that as soon as they despair of living forever, they are inclined to act as if they could not live for more than a day.”
Sometimes when I hear the plans about how much money they will make I ask the question, “For what reason?” I do that because, in a sense, James does the same without saying it. He writes about people who want to make money quickly but that is the final goal. They want to carry on business and make money but nothing follows. They have no larger intention or purpose for making money. They gain the world but become people without soul – and as James goes on to say – people with no substance. “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” All of us are temporary. All of us, like grass, wither and die. None of us endure – even though we are made a little lower than the angels. The flare of a match and then smoke. It’s not that we are bad but that we are mortal.
But chasing after what is not ours to have in this life will make us even more unsubstantial people. Isn’t that what DeTocqueville is describing when he writes of those who have lost the way of relying on distant hopes? We will be ghost-like – not just temporary. Trying to add weight or importance to our lives is chasing after wind. It is not in this life that we will be what C.S. Lewis calls the “solid people” in “The Great Divorce.” That is yet to come. Until then we are, as someone has said, made of dust and stars. We are both brief and eternal.
We should not think, in Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Instead, we should say, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that we were made for another world.” C.S. Lewis
We are to live with confidence in God and His purpose for our lives but knowing that we live for His glory – not our own. We are part of a larger play. We can look at our lives as meaningless or as the only life that matters or as being lived with a purpose that is hidden to us until later. We don’t need to understand our part to play it. We don’t need a larger part or a more visible part. We may not suffer or be martyrs but we can be faithful.
I think that is why, as always, James brings us back to what is practical. We can be distracted by all the problems of the church and the dismal prospects of it changing but we can find encouragement in what is so simple. Doing what is right in front of us. As Edmund Burke said, “No man makes a greater mistake than the one who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
“Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do, and doesn’t do it, sins.”
I don’t think James is saying we do every good that comes before us. He is not saying we are to act out of guilt and oppressive obligation or a sense that we will be blessed by doing every good or punished for not doing it. How many opportunities just today did we pass up to do good because of the nature of the world? How many causes – both immediate and long term – are pulling at us to text a donation or support on GoFundMe? Children starving. Fires consuming. Innocent girls and boys being trafficked for sex. Civilians being considered collateral damage. Droughts, floods, hurricanes. The list is endless, isn’t it? We can quickly become weary in well-doing.
It was Thomas Kelly, the Quaker writer, who said we each have a particular cross or burden but some of us rush around picking up every cross we find. Instead, he writes, we should realize that,
“God more powerfully speaks within you and me to our truest selves in our truest moments and disquiets us with the world’s needs. By inner persuasions God draws us to a few very definite tasks – OUR tasks, God’s burdened heart particularizing God’s burden in us.”
Paul, for me, says it best in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There are things to which we have permission to say no. In fact, there are some good things that for us to take on would be as much a sin – a falling short – as it would be to do them.
There are good things to which you will be drawn but likely nothing good to which you will be driven.
In closing this morning, I want to share something about the hope of the church from one who has wandered and partially returned – Garrison Keillor.
What happened Sunday, in case you missed it
Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.
I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.
Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.
And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.
It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.
Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.