September 15, 2018
You know, I don’t often preach on the Epistle. To be honest, figuring out the context, the audience, the motivation behind the letters of the New Testament can be a lot of work. As we are seeing in our Sunday morning discussion on the Letters of Paul. And sometimes it’s a struggle to make them relate to what’s going on with us here today.
But it was hard to ignore James’ cautionary reminder about our speech, our problematic tongues, in the part of the letter we heard this morning. James wrote, “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
Strong words. And an important reminder for those of us, all of us here I would imagine, that do not live as recluses off in some backwoods cabin, but must live and be in relationship with others. A reminder that it is often our tongues that do the most damage in our relationships. The stinging words we too often direct to those we love. And words of judgement and insult that we hurl at strangers with whom we disagree, forgetting that they, too, are made in the likeness of God. The very God that we come here on Sunday mornings to praise with those same tongues, lifting our voices in prayer and song.
Our tongues. How can something be an instrument of such love but also such hate? An important question for people trying to live in community together. And that’s the whole intent behind the letter of James. Advice for this new Christian community on how they can live in harmony with one another and also make known the love of Jesus to the world. These early Christian assemblies, like the one James is talking to in this letter, were tiny minorities living within larger populations that were often indifferent or even hostile to their beliefs. James was concerned that the community receiving his letter might fall back into the values and behaviors of the culture around them.
What does that mean for us today? What does it mean to be a Christian community in our world? We aren’t so unlike the early Christian communities. After all, while religious persecution may be largely a thing of the past in the United States(for Christians, anyway—our brothers and sisters of other faiths are often still met with suspicion or even violence in our country…); we do still live in one of the least churched states, and I don’t know about you, but I often get a blank stare or even a look of poorly disguised horror when people find out I am a practicing Christian and believe in that Jesus stuff.
Because this kind of community that we experience in church isn’t like the various communities we belong to out there. All of belong to diverse groups. Communities that reflect shared interests. Civic and political organizations. Fans of the same sports teams. Neighborhood groups. Book clubs. Work communities. Bridge Clubs. You get the picture.
But faith communities, at their best and truest, ask us to go beyond shared interests. These are the places we come to name the things in our lives that don’t make it onto our social media pages.
Our brokenness. Our sinfulness. Our mortality. Our insecurity about what awaits us after this life. These are deep and personal and speak to how fragile we actually are as humans. Our faith communities should make space for all of these realities and questions while at the same time, stretching us to become who God is calling us to be.
Not easy work.
Jeff and I have been following this show on Netflix called “The Good Place.” It’s funny, and only sometimes wildly inappropriate, while having some really tender moments and I believe sharing some really important life lessons. The basic storyline of the show is this: there’s this evil demon that brings 4 people to the bad place after their death. but makes them believe that they have arrived at the Good Place. And then sets them up to torture each other through all eternity; therefore, getting the consequence they actually deserved for living lives less than worthy of the Good Place.
But what happens is that once they are in relationship with each other, instead of torturing one another, they actually make each other better. They become “the best versions of themselves” with the support and love of the group. And when they are sent back to earth to try again…to try living a better life…they really struggle. Because they find themselves alone. It was in relationship with each other that the best versions of themselves were able to come out.
If our faith communities don’t make us better versions of ourselves, then what’s the point? Even incrementally better. After all, we aren’t looking for sainthood overnight! We just need our church community to push us closer toward who God wants us to be.
We all have those other communities that exist to give us social opportunities. To provide us with friendships. Communities where we can find other people to talk with about the things that interest us.
But our Christian communities have to be more than that. One of the many things I love about Christ Church…. And I tell people this all the time….is that there’s diversity here. So maybe we don’t have a lot of racial diversity. But we have political diversity. We have diversity of age. We have economic diversity. We have educational diversity. That’s a beautiful thing. And it can also be a difficult thing. We might find ourselves disagreeing with each other—heaven forbid. But even in our disagreements, we are called to build each other up rather than tearing each other down. And it is oftentimes in our diversity or in our disagreements that we begin to see more clearly—to formulate and articulate our own beliefs. And because we are a CHRISTIAN community, we are called to formulate those beliefs based on what we know of Jesus, incarnate God.
So even in our disagreements. Even when we drive each other crazy. Church at it’s best continues to welcome us all…to insist that all belong because all are the beloved of God. And it’s our task to live in relationship with all who choose to make this particular faith community their own.
For Christ Church, that means a community that stretches back 200 years. But even those who walk through the doors for the first time are part of what is past and part of the promise of what is to come.
This community. This Christian community will help us navigate all the challenges put before us. It is here that we have the opportunity to show Gardiner and the Kennebec Valley what it means to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
We often talk about waiting for the Kingdom of God. Waiting for the place where justice and kindness and love reign. But it’s here that we begin to build it. What we need is within us and between us, in our hearts and in our life together. Whatever problems we may encounter, ‘what we need is here’ more often than we think.*
That line, “what we need is here” comes from a poem by Wendell Berry, the great Kentucky farmer and prophet. A poem that reminds us to look around. To draw on the gifts around us. To not look for the Kingdom of Heaven as some far away place we can only dream of, but as a place we are building even now. A place of promise that draws upon all that gives us strength and encouragement right where we are. In nature. And in this community here.
This morning, I will leave you with that poem.
“The Wild Geese”
Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
* Paraphrasing Parker Palmer