When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:9-10
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved. James 1:12-16
From the very beginning is has been our first instinct to blame others for our own sins or for things that happen to us in our lives. The writer of the Book of Genesis telling the story of the first sin in the Garden of Eden writes about Adam being challenged by God about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and Adam responds by blaming the woman, but only the woman, the woman that God gave him.
“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Genesis 3:12
The great Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote:
“Thou know’st that Thou hast formed me with the passions wild and strong; and listening to their witching voice has often led me wrong.”
Humanity has always been good at blaming others. “God made me do it,” if often heard from the lips of people even today. The blame I laid on God, on others, on everyone but ourselves. But James rebukes those who would do this and urges humanity to take responsibility when we do wrong. For James, the only person responsible is the person himself and our own evil desire.
But the great value of this passage is that it urges us to take personal responsibility for our actions, and it also shows us that God will never leave us, God does not send temptations or trials along our path, but when the trials come, and they will, God will be there with us.
Our words have consequences sometimes when we don’t even know it. A passing comment, a snide remark, a joke, to the person listening, these words can be like daggers to the heart. Sure, it’s all the rage now to say whatever we want and then print a retraction, “I really didn’t mean it,” or some other such thing but the reality is, the damage has already been done. It has been said that we sometimes say things that we do not mean, but again, the reality is if we did not mean them the words would not even form on our lips. Not every thought need to be given voice, but when it does, Jesus provides us with the answer to what we are to do.
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
May years ago I encountered a family that had suffered a death in the household. I knew some of the family members but not all of them. There were two brothers that had not spoken to each other for a very long time, so long in fact that when one brother met the other brother’s teenaged grandson, he did not know who he was because he had never seen him before. After the funeral, all the people gathered at a local restaurant for a meal as was the custom. One brother’s family sat on one side, and the other brother’s family sat on the other, and there was this enormous gulf between them.
As the dinner went on it was revealed that something had been said by one brother to the other brothers many, many years prior, so long in fact that no one could remember what the remark was. I sat there thinking how stupid this was, two brothers, the only family each other had, and because of some words, it ended with this.
So words how power and words have consequences.
As both Pastor Bill and I have mentioned in the last few weeks, we are living at a time of harsh words on both sides of political as well as the religious spectrum and although I like a good political discussion Lets just focus on the religious words.
A lot of attention has been paid to religion in the last year and a half or so and not all of it in a good way. Lots of judgments have been made about who is and who is not a Christian, who is and who is not worthy of preaching the Word of God, what the Word of God is, would Jesus be a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal? All of these question and accusations are thrown around by friends towards other friends, by family towards other family and where does it end? With one part of the family on one side of the room and another part of the family on the other. And for what? To be quite honest with you I am sick and tired of it, all of it, politics using religion and religion using politics.
This passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. So important is this one chapter of the teachings of Jesus that the people who put the lectionary readings together separated this section out over several weeks of readings. However the common thread in all of this is how we act towards each other, and in the end, the last five verses are about loving not only your neighbor but your enemies.
Jesus preaches or teaches I guess the better way to put it, from his heart. The chapter starts with him standing on a dune teaching the masses but it ends with Jesus speaking with a smaller group of his followers, and the message truly comes from his heart. I would ask that you read all of chapter five and spend some time meditating on the words spoken by Jesus. This is a very intimate moment that is shared between Jesus and his followers and he is talking to them, and to us, from the heart.
In the end, it is not about following some set of rules, in the end, it is all about how we treat one another, like it or not, we are all in this together.
So back to the brothers.
More time had passed, and still, the brothers remained apart, and nothing I could do would bring them back together. I tried everything I knew and asked others advice on how to handle such situations, and nothing worked.
Then the inevitable happened, one brother got ill and was in hospital. There was resistance from all sides on seeing each other. Usually, I respect the wishes of the sick person, but this was too important to let slide. So I was able to arrange a meeting between the two. It was tense at first, and there were others in the room to carry the conversation, and the brothers just sat there, not looking at each other, and the tension in the room was heavy.
Then one of the kids asked what the hell this was all about? It was as if the air was sucked out of the room and time stopped. I was trying to find the nearest hole to climb in as I was the one that brought them all together. I had visions of a fight breaking out right there in the hospital room. After what seemed like hours, it was only second, but everyone was waiting for someone to say something. Now keep in mind this is where I would usually inject some humor but I was paralyzed, and it was as if I could not speak.
Then the brother who was not sick said, you know, I really don’t know but whatever it was is not worth all of this nonsense, and got up, walked across the room, and gave his brother a hug and just like that, it was done. They had been estranged for almost 20 years over something that no one could remember or even cared about anymore. An entire generation had grown up while these two men were apart from each other over something no one could remember.
This is not the only story I have like this, there are many, and not all of them ended like this one did but I use this story as an illustration about what is being said in today’s Scripture passage.
For a first century Jew making a sacrifice in the temple was a way of atoning for their sins. Depending on the sin, and the ability of the person to afford the sacrifice, a different sacrifice was presented in the temple. So important was this sacrifice that people would save up money and goods they could trade and then travel many miles to make it, and Jesus is telling them that if you have an issue with someone leave the sacrifice, go and make up with that person, and then come back. He is saying that if we hold anything against another person, God will not accept the sacrifice until the situation had been cleared up! Just let that sink in for a moment, God will not accept our sacrifice if we hold something against another.
We are at a tense time in our country and in our community. Lots of words have been said and will be expressed in the coming days, weeks, and months. How we respond tells something about us, do we want to be part of the problem or do we want to be part of the solution? I for one would like to be part of the solution, and I think that is the role of the church to build bridges and not walls, to bring people together not to make them take sides and further alienate people.
It is not our job to judge who is and who is not a Christian our job is to love everyone unconditionally, we don’t have to like them, but we do have to love them. We are not better than anyone else, we are all sinners, and we all need God’s grace and they words we say could lead someone to salvation, or it could lead them away.
In the Orthodox tradition, I came from before arriving here, the pastor of the church was charged with the spiritual care and well-being of the congregation that God had entrusted to them. So deep was their belief that it was taught that the pastor would be called on judgment day to answer for everyone that God had placed in their trust. Called to answer for each person, each soul, that was put into my care. Did I help them to become a disciple or did I turn them away?
It has been said that we might be the only Bible many people ever read and that the words we speak and the actions we take will determine the destiny of someone else. Are we the hands and feet of Christ? Are we serving those on the margins as Jesus did? We are feeding, clothing, housing, and welcoming the stranger? Are we bringing people together or are we forcing them apart? Only you can answer that question for yourself.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
In the 8th Chapter of the Gospel of John Jesus says, “He who follows me will not walking darkness, but will have the light of life.” Following can mean two things, the light that comes from the source of life or the light that gives life and in this passage, it says both. Jesus is that light that comes from God and came among humanity, and He is the light that gives life to humankind. Our lives can never flower with the grace and beauty until we radiate that light of Christ.
The great Scottish theologian William Barclay suggests that follow has five distinct but interrelated meanings for us.
- It is often used to describe a soldier following the orders and example of his captain. The soldier is to follow his leader wherever that leader will lead them. In this example Christians are soldiers, and we are to follow Christ wherever he may lead us.
- It is often used to describe a slave following his master. Wherever the Master went, the slave would follow to be in attendance to him and always ready to spring into service and action when the teacher calls him. For us Christians, we find our joy when we follow Christ.
- It is often used to describe the acceptance of a wise counselor’s advice. When a person is in doubt, they will often seek out someone to ask their opinion, and if they are wise, they will receive that advice. The Christian is the one who guides his life and conduct based on the counsel of Christ.
- It is often used to describe following the laws of the place where one lives. To be a useful member of any society, one must follow the rules and laws of the pace where they live. Being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Christian accepts the law of the Kingdom and Christ in how ones govern one’s life.
- It is often used to describe the following of a teacher’s line of argument of following along with someone’s speech. As Christians, we must understand the meaning of the teachings of Jesus Christ. We must take the message into our minds and take the words into our memories and then transfer that to our hearts for real understanding.
If we are to truly follow the light, then we have to give ourselves over to the light, Christ, in body, mind, and spirit. When we walk alone, and in the dark, we can often stumble and even lose our way. We need the wisdom of Christ to lead and guide us along our path. To be followers of Christ is to walk in safety through life and then enter into his glory.
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:12-17
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16
In 1630, Puritan leader John Winthrop sitting on board the ship Arbella looked up the new city of Boston and her high hills, and it reminded him of this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, “You are a city on a hill.” Now this passage has been used by many people for many different reasons and to prove many various points, but what does it mean, from the Gospel standpoint to be the salt and light of the earth and to be set up on a hill?
For Governor Winthrop the hope was that this new colony, this new group of people, would set the example for generations to come all around the globe as a way to live, but he also cautioned that since the city was so high upon this hill, figuratively and narratively, that the world would indeed be watching and therefore we would be held to a much higher standard.
This passage come between the Sermon on the Mount and the programmatic saying of Jesus about himself and about those who would follow. It is a bridge between the two if you will that closes out one passage but also sets up what is to come in the next section. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a very personal saying, Jesus says “You who are persecuted,” before that Jesus is speaking in more general terms about people, “Blessed are those who…” What Jesus is saying here is you who are persecuted for my sake MUST be the salt and light of the world. This is an imperative statement, and Jesus is commanding those of us who will be persecuted in his name to step up. Not unlike what Governor Winthrop was saying in 1630.
There is an interesting turn of phrase happening in this passage, Jesus is speaking to people as individuals, but he is also speaking to the church if you will. You are the salt of the earth but not for yourself, and you are the light of the world but not for yourself, we have to do something with this salt and this light, or it will lose its saltiness, and the light will go out. If we exist only for ourselves or for those right around us, our mission will fail.
Each of us is called to be the light and the salt, but it is, in fact, the community, as a whole, that is being challenged to be the salt and the light to the world we must work together if we are to be an effective witness. The early settlers of Boston could have gone their separate ways, but their strength came in working together to build the city that survives to this day. No one person can hold off the enemy when the enemy approaches, but the community working together can.
Jesus is also not saying that the salty ones become the elites of the world as some ethical giants that must be obeyed, far from it. Salt adds flavor to everything; it adds that zest in food that enhances the flavor that already exists with the food. The Christian is to come along side and accentuate the work that is already being done, not judging the work or the workers, but adding zest to their lives.
It is only as the church genuinely proclaims the Gospel of Christ and that Christ is the Risen Lord, that is, not by just spouting mere theological platitudes, that the church can truly be the light and salt of the earth. The effectiveness of the witness of the church comes when the message is the message that truth is truth and that message and that truth are that God loves each one of us and sent his Son to show us the way.
The Christian life will not be easy, and Jesus addresses that directly at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are YOU when YOU are persecuted for my faith. He did not say blessed are those, as he does with all of the other passages, but this becomes personal for each one of us and each person listening. We must be that city on that hill, we must be the salt and the light of the earth, and we must be like a lamp in full view for all to see.
Apparently, religious freedom is under attack in America. I guess my head must be in the sand as I do not recall my right to practice my religion being infringed upon at all. My place of worship is still open, and we gather each Sunday morning at 10:00. We do not have to pass through armed guards or others shooting at us. I can pray wherever I like, inside or outside of my church. I was recently asked to pray at the start of a meeting for a local civic group, so I am not sure how and where religious freedom is under attack. Perhaps it is under attack because you cannot force your beliefs on me or you wish to be able to discriminate against me, or others, based upon your religion. Now that could be a problem.
Now I am a progressive theologian and believe that folks should be able to really so whatever they like as long as what they want to do does not infringe on what I want to do. I believe that is the fundamental definition of freedom. My right to practice my religion ends if I am trying to force you to think the way I do.
Last week I preached on the Sermon on the Mount. This is a remarkable passage of the coming together and the transformation of the law. The law of Moses was written on dead tablets made of stone. Jesus came, as he clearly states in the passage from Matthew that he has come to fulfill the law and by doing so the law becomes written on our hearts and thus becomes alive. The word of God is replaced by the Word of God. Jesus is the living example of the Word of God, and it is now his example that we are to follow not simply the law written on cold dead tablets that have disappeared.
So this brings me to Letter of St. James. James is often overlooked in the canon of scripture, and I think that is mainly because it is an in your face letter showing us the way to live. In the second chapter, James writes about the sin of partiality. We are to treat everyone the same regardless of where they come from or what their lifestyle is. This means we have an obligation, not to force someone to believe the way we do, but to help and assist them. Read the words:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place, “while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
We are to show mercy to everyone. Notice that there is no mention of one’s safety or security we are to assist everyone. Show no partiality.
Americans have more freedoms than most people in the world and to hear my fellow Christians speak about how their faith is under attack while watching citizens in Syria and other places just make them look foolish. Your right to deny someone something based on your religion is not a right, discrimination is against the laws of the land and the laws of God.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
While recently recovering from either the flu or an awful cold, I was searching Netflix and Amazon Video for a movie to watch. I stumbled upon the 2015 movie Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston, turns out this is a fabulous movie and one that definitely should be watched in light of what is going on in our government today.
The storyline follows the life of Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Screenwriter and a member of the Communist Party of the United States. The movie takes place during the tumultuous period of the 1950’s when we were so afraid of the Red Menace here in America we changed E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust on the currency of the United States and add the words, “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance.
But it was also a time when the Congress of the United States, specifically the House Committee on Un-American Activities took it upon itself the power to destroy lives of Americans and to make lists of people they believed were un-American. The making of the list was taking place only a few short years after another Congress decided that Japanese Americans could not be trusted, so they were rounded up and put in Concentration Camps, I know we are not supposed to call them that, but that is what they were. Rather than fight the Red Menace we frightened America into thinking that her citizens, especially actors, writers, and directors were all part of the problem. That’s how it begins, you find a group, and usually a minority group, and you make things up or exaggerate things about them, and make other folks afraid of them.
On Friday, January 27, 2017 (Holocaust Remembrance Day) President Donald Trump signed an executive barring access to the United States of human beings, I know we are supposed to call them refugees but that just takes the humanity out of the equation, barring human beings from seven predominately Muslim nations entry to the United States. Many of these human beings have been vetted for more than two years. Have paid significant amounts of money, and some of them were on airplanes in the air, heading the safety in America only to find out that they would be sent back. If that is not bad enough permanent residents of the United States and humans with valid visas, who happened to be outside of the United States when the order was signed, were also denied access. Many of these humans have jobs and family here and have been cut off.
Apparently, there are scores of people from these seven countries roaming the United States plotting all sorts of heinous actions against us that it was important that we cut off everyone from coming. Coming from places like Syria and Iraq where a military operation of the United States under the last two Administrations caused the destabilization of the governments in the first place.
In the days following the signing of this heinous executive order, spokespeople from the regime have said, on numerous occasions, that the media that criticizes the President should just “shut up.” The President himself said in an interview with a Christian broadcast network that he believes the media is the opposition party, well yes they are. Otherwise, they would be called propaganda. Other spokespeople have said that Republican members of Congress need to get in line and support the President all the while, very quietly, generals and the Director of Intelligence were removed from the National Security Council to be replaced by Steve Bannon, senior counselor to the President and known white supremacist.
Now I was not alive in the 1950’s so I am not how successful the Hollywood Blacklist was in defeating the Red Menace but countless numbers, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have commented that this executive order will do anything but keep us safe it will only turn up the heat of our enemies and maybe that is the plan. But placing the lives of tens of thousands of people we promised to help in jeopardy is not what made or will make America great. America is a country of immigrants, in fact, the President’s parents were both immigrants, and his mother was an illegal!
Friday, January 27, 2017, was a sad day for America. It created yet another list that we will be putting people on and on a day when we were supposed to pause and remember what happened the last time minorities were scapegoated we scapegoated another group of minorities.
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. James 5:1-6