September of 1984, I was a rather shy 18-year-old climbing aboard a bus to Logan Airport. Once at the airport, I would get on a plane for only the third time in my life and fly to Missouri. I admit I had no idea where Missouri was on the map, but I was going there. I had been ordered there by my Uncle Sam. Nice guy, my Uncle Sam. Promised my three hots and a cot in exchange for three years of my life. Sounded like a great deal to a young kid.
In the middle of the night, I arrived at Fort Leonardwood, so they gave us something to eat, showed us to the barracks, and bid us a good night. It seemed that my head had no sooner hit the pillow than an enormous trash can came bouncing down the aisle in the barracks. Welcome to the United States Army!
The following eight weeks were filled with constant questions: What in the name of all that is holy am I doing here? What is this on this plate that they want me to eat? Why are we running everywhere when we have a bus that we can ride on? My mind was a swirl of questions, but I asked very few. I just went with the flow.
However, others asked all sorts of questions and tried to buck the system; they did a lot of pushups. But over time, they gave in, and once they had surrendered to the process, everything started to click.
Our spiritual life is a lot like my experience in basic training. We fight it. We think we know better. But, of course, I do it better. I mean, it’s not like people have been doing this for 2,000 plus years or anything.
I want to draw attention to the last two verses we heard this morning from the Letter of James. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8) Submit, resist, drawn near all these words are not common in our 21st-century language, but they need to be in our spiritual life.
I constantly have to remind myself that trying to live the life that Christ has called us to is counter-cultural. We have to live life not according to the rules set forth by an ever-changing and individualistic culture but by a set of rules that requires us to this of other people, their needs, their wants, their happiness before ours. And friends, this is not easy.
I am presently reading a book by former President Jimmy Carter. The book “Faith, a Journey for All” explores his faith, how he came about his faith, and how he holds on to his faith. But it is also a book about doubts and questions and how those doubts and questions increased and strengthened his faith.
At 90 something years old, Jimmy Carter still teaches an adult Sunday School class at his Church. As you might imagine, the class is very popular. He writes about teaching the class the seven deadly sins. There is no biblical mention of such a list, but they all appear in Scripture, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
The list I just read is in a specific order with pride at the top of the list for pride, I believe is the chief among them all. Now, before we get too deep here, it is okay to be proud what’s not okay is when our pride places us above or in front of others. It’sIt’s fine to be proud of an accomplishment, of our children and grandchildren and all the rest. But when pride turns to “I will do whatever I can to get ahead” or “look at me” or “do you know who I am?” that is when it gets sinful.
Pride was the first sin. God told humanity not to eat from a particular tree, and humanity did just that. Humanity felt it knew better, and so in its pride, humanity disobeyed God.
We also hear in the Letter from James, the use of the word “devil.” James writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Now I do not want to make light of this, but James is writing about temptation here and not the guy in the red suit with the pitchfork.
Temptations are all around us, and some are hard to resist; back to the story in the garden. Humanity was tempted to eat what God specifically said not to eat. Humanity gave into that temptation for whatever reason, and humanity was kicked out of the garden as punishment for giving in. But, just as an aside here, God did not wholly abandon humanity; God provided. Even though humanity disobeyed, God still provided.
Often I speak and write about the command of Jesus to love everyone without exception. I talk about God’sGod’s love for us and that there is nothing we can do to change the fact that God loves us. I speak about how the divine spark exists in each human being, which is why we must always love the other person, and for some, this is difficult to hear, and I get that.
For some, to feel good about themselves, they have to put others down. For some to feel good about themselves, they have to think less of others. To feel better about themselves, they have to want less for others while wanting more for themselves. For some, to feel better about themselves, they have to work to deny fundamental rights, and the list goes on.
But James is setting us on a different path this morning, James tells us to draw closer to God, and God will draw closer to us. But for us to draw closer, we need to remove the “I” and replace it with “we.” We need to work for the greater good of all, not just for the greater good of some. If I work to lift another, I rise with that person. I don’t need to step on them to get ahead.
Anyone who is married or in a relationship knows that love requires sacrifice. Love requires the surrendering of the individual for another. I officiate many weddings, and I like to remind people of the biblical idea that the two become one, well until you have children, then it becomes about a whole different set of rules.
There is an old hymn that was played during the Billy Graham Crusades called “I Surrender All.” The song is about the surrendering of the I and drawing closer to God in Jesus Christ.
All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His Presence daily live
Drawing closer to God is a daily activity that requires work, sometimes hard work. But it all begins with the surrendering of our will for that of another.
I surrender all;
I surrender all.
All to Thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.