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  1. Sermons : “On Favoritism, and the Accompanying Judgment”

    James 2:1-10, 14-17, Psalm 125

    “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” This is a line that really makes me want to know what James had seen. It feels like James saw something specific happen that made him angry, that he has a picture in his head. Do you with your favoritism, picking of favorites, privileging some people over others, as William Barclay writes:  “Respect of persons[/favoritism] is the New Testament phrase for undue and unfair partiality; it means pandering to someone, because he [or she] is rich or influential or popular.”[1]  Barclay continues:

    [James] draws a picture of two men entering the Christian assembly. The one is well-dressed and his fingers are covered with gold rings. The more ostentatious of the ancients wore rings on every finger except the middle one, and wore far more than one on each finger. They even hired rings to wear when they wished to given an impression of special wealth. “We adorn our fingers with rings,” said Seneca, “and we distribute gems over every joint.”

    …into the Christian assembly comes an elegantly dressed and much beringed man. The other is a poor man, dressed in poor clothes because he has no others to wear and unadorned by any jewels. The rich man is ushered to a special seat with all ceremony and respect while the poor man is bidden to stand, or to squat on the floor, beside the footstool of the well-to-do.[2]

    While this feels exaggerated, I wonder how far it is from the truth, just in slightly subtler ways. Maybe it’s not about a bunch of rings, but it does make me think about how folks might feel welcomed here, or not. About, maybe, the difference between someone who moves into Hope Valley on a street with a handful of church members, who works with a number of you or runs in the same social circles or plays soccer with your kids. About the way they might be greeted, and about the ways someone else might be, who just moved here, who doesn’t know anyone, who is quiet and maybe even trying to slip out unnoticed. Maybe they aren’t wearing the nicest clothes – which isn’t a huge deal, we’re not a terribly formal place. Maybe they haven’t been in church awhile and it shows, standing up at the wrong time, maybe…maybe they bring one of the many kinds of diversity we lack. Or maybe its best asked as a question which is important to think about this busy time of year when we’re back in the saddle and settling into routines, working out calendars:  Who are we most likely to welcome well? And, more importantly, I think, who are we less likely to welcome well, and what might that say about us?

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  2. Sermons : What Your Life Proclaims

    James 1:17-27

    We’re spending the next five weeks with James. This is a word, as in the insert, to people who were already Christian, calling them to live the faith they say they believe. At the heart of it – and this is crucial to understanding James and the Christian life:  “Above all, the letter challenges us to be persons of integrity, that is, people who are consistent in all we see, say, believe, and do.”[1]

    Which has made me think even more about John McCain. The way a society grieves someone tells you at least as much about that society as the person who has died, about what we believe, what we think we need. I was pointed a stunning profile of McCain by David Foster Wallace, written in the heart of the 2000 Presidential campaign – I’ll link to it with this sermon and you should read it. By all accounts McCain was not a model citizen as a young man, near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. But it was this astounding crucible in Hanoi when he was shot down and captures and all of the sudden offered a chance to leave and he didn’t. It would break the code to leave before someone who was captured earlier. A POW for five and a half years, much in solitary confinement. I heard a story of him being dragged outside for a nighttime interrogation and realizing he hadn’t seen the moon for three years.  But that suffering made him see something about his country, about the life of service, that was powerful.

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  3. Sermons : Declare It Boldly

    Ephesians 6:10-20, 23-24

    I remember walking into a religious book/gift store many years ago (down at Rockwood – Sign of the Fish)  when I was still working as a DCE.  As I went in, my eyes were drawn to a mom and a young boy, maybe 3 or 4, at the checkout counter.  She was paying, and he was happily opening the package and putting on a small shield, helmet, gloves, and waving a sword.  I remember thinking at the time, even many years ago, “No, no, no, that is wrong.  It is not biblical.”  Fastforward to August 5, 2018, and I saw the news from Portland, OR, where a Prayer Patriots Rally was taking place.  The camera stopped on a man clad mostly in green, with long gloves and a mask, carrying a shield, and with something, either a megaphone or a weapon, slung over his shoulder, joining the crowd chanting, “Go home! Go home!”  Again, my first thought was, “No, that is just wrong. If you are prayer patriots, you must know that is not what Jesus says.”  And I was reminded of the little boy in armor, so happy to wear a shield and wield a sword in God’s name.

    This epistle passage uses the language of war because that was a language the people of that time would understand.  The people of Ephesus may even have been in a war at the time.  Soldiers of that era would wear a belt around their waist to tie up their loose robes, in order to keep them out of their way in the battle.  Special belts would signify higher office.  They wore breastplates of leather or metal, on their front and sometimes on their backs.  They wore sturdier shoes, for their time, so that they would not lose their footing.  Any good soldier would carry a shield. Many shields in ancient times were big enough to cover the whole body. They were usually made of leather or of wood, and they might be soaked in water before battle, in order to extinguish flaming arrows.  Helmets were needed to protect the head.  And every good solder had a sword, in this time long before guns were invented.  People of the first century would know these images because they saw them all the time.

    But the writer, who was possibly Paul, but more likely a disciple of Paul writing in Paul’s name, took these familiar images and turned them on their head, much as Jesus did in his teachings.  Instead of a belt, he said, Christians should wear truth.  And instead of a breastplate, live in righteousness, in right relationship with God and with one another.  Instead of worrying about the right shoes, Christians should make sure they are grounded firmly in the Gospel message.  Christians are shielded by faith, and their heads and hearts are protected by salvation.  The only sword a Christian should carry is the Word of God.  These are the weapons needed to fight a never ending battle, says the author, this battle against evil.

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  4. Sermons : “But This is Difficult!”

    John 6:56-69, Psalm 111:1-10

    “This is difficult,” they said.  “Who can do this?”

    At the end of July I finally read Viktor Frankl’s 1959, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl, an Austrian neurosurgeon and psychologist was, along with his family, deported first to a ghetto, then Auschwitz.  He was later moved to a camp near Dachau, which is where he was when the camp was liberated.  His parents and wife were killed.  After this experience his work shifted to assessing the psychological impact on both prisoners and guards in the camps.  How did some survive and others not?  What mattered?  He did some important work, writing and teaching in Europe and the US.  “Man’s Search for Meaning” begins with a lengthy description of his experience, then a little more analysis.  In page after page of horrors, he writes:

    I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare.   Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man.  Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do.  At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.[1]

    Frankl realized that no matter how horrible the dream was, waking up would be worse.

    “This is difficult,” they said.  “Who can do this?” 

    I bet there has been a time in your life when you have asked this question.  The couple of times I have it comes as prayer, anguish voiced to God.  Jesus.  Help make this better.  I can’t do this alone.  Be here, fix this, make him well.  What about you?  God, she’s too sick.  I’m too exhausted.  I can’t take the hurt, the betrayal, the loss anymore.  We experience it personally and we see our world.  The first anniversary of the evil rally in Charlottesville last year, you remember those torches that Friday night as all these young white men marched for the white race?  The first anniversary came and went with many more counter protesters in Washington DC, but the fact that even 30 people were willing to parade down the heart of our nation’s capital proclaiming their vile hatred is enough, and we all know means there are many, many more.  We have much work to do.

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  5. Sermons : For We Are All Members of One Another

    Ephesians 4:1-6; 25-5:2