Living Faith: Faith That Works

Scripture: James 2:14-26

Back in the year 1789, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, asked an important question: “What a mystery this is,” he said, “that Christianity should have done so little good in the world!”[1]

This always seemed to me to be a strikingly modern question.  It’s easy to look around at the state of the world, at the state of politics in the US, at the state of the church, and wonder whether the faith we claim has really made a positive difference in any of it.  I’m sure some people would even say religion is the problem.  Those of us who don’t want to go there might be tempted to blame all the Christians who aren’t like us for messing it all up.  For what it’s worth, John Wesley thought it was because Christianity had been co-opted by wealth.  In any case, it’s a question a lot of us are still asking.

But Wesley’s question is also a very old one.  As early as 62 CE (depending on when the letter of James was actually written), 30 years into the life of the Christian church, we can hear this question being asked between the lines in our Bibles.

Last week, we began our sermon series on the book of James and read a passage from chapter 2, in which James asked pointedly if those of us who show partiality to the rich rather than the poor can really claim to have faith in Jesus.  (In case you missed it, the answer was no.)  The passage we just heard is the very next part of James’s letter, and as he develops his theme of being doers of the word and not just hearers, he asks another important question.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?”  In other words – what good is it if you claim to have faith but aren’t doing anything to show it?  “Can faith save you?” he asks.  The thing is that for all of us who have grown up as good Christians in Protestant churches, the answer to that question – “Can faith save you?” – is a resounding yes.  Yes, we learn, our faith is exactly what saves us, or rather, it’s Jesus who saves us through our faith in him.  Not anything we’ve ever done, not anything we ever will do, not anything we ever can do – none of these things will earn us our salvation, which is only available to us through faith.  This was, in fact, one of the key tenets of the Protestant Reformation.

So this is a bit of an awkward question to find right there in the Bible and everything.

But James goes on with an example.  Last week he asked us to imagine a rich person and a poor person walking into a gathering.  This time, he says, imagine you come across a brother or sister in need, someone who is part of your community.  You can see that they’re cold, that they don’t have enough clothes or blankets for the weather that is forecast.  You can tell that they are hungry, that they haven’t eaten much today.  So you stop, and maybe you feel a little pang in your heart, and then you say, “Well, stay warm and have a nice dinner!” and then you move on.  (This is James’s version of “thoughts and prayers.”)

Faith without works, James says, is kind of like that.

I have to admit that this is a passage that always convicts me, because I find myself in this situation a lot.  I’ll leave church on a winter evening to find people stretched out on our church doorstep, planning to deal with whatever weather and temperatures come that night.  “Have a good night,” I say.  Or someone will come to my office asking for help with a certain need that seems outside the bounds of what we would normally provide.  “We can’t do that,” I’ll say, “but I’ll keep you in my prayers.” But enough confession time.

James goes on.  You might try to say, he says, that one person has faith and another person has works, kind of like they are different spiritual gifts, but no, he says, it doesn’t work like that. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” he says, “and I by my works will show you my faith.”  “Just as the body without the spirit is dead,” he finally concludes, “so faith without works is dead.”

As I told you last week, not everyone in Christian history has unequivocally loved the letter of James.  Martin Luther called the letter of James “an epistle of straw,” meaning it was worthless, or didn’t hold up.  “It has nothing of the Gospel about it,” he said.  Again, Luther’s reform had as one of its core tenets the notion of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.  If you’ve grown up Protestant, this should sound familiar – maybe even obvious.

Luther was solidly backed up by the Apostle Paul on this.  In Galatians 2:16, Paul writes, “We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the law, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ.”  He follows that up in 3:2 with “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?”  And in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Romans 4 is similar to Galatians – we could go on.

This is the understanding of Christianity and salvation we know and love – that there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation, that we would never be able to do enough to earn our salvation anyway, that all we have to do is believe in Jesus and stop worrying about it.  Right?

And yet James asks, “What good is it if you [just] have faith?”

And James says, “So what if you believe the right things – even demons can believe the right things.  What about what you’re actually doing?  What about how you’re living out what you say you believe and how you treat the people around you and the difference you as a Christian are actually making in this world?”

It’s easy to believe something.  James wants us to do something about it.

I like to imagine James and Paul coming together for a theological showdown.  James vs. Paul.  Who (in the words of Iron Chef) will reign supreme?

Let me ask you this.  If you had to vote right now, who would it be?  How many of you are on Team Paul here?  How about Team James?

How many of you refuse to buy into my false dichotomy here at all?

Probably it doesn’t come as that much of a surprise that both James and Paul would undoubtedly reject the idea of a showdown.

Let’s go back to what each of them has to say about faith and works.  We read in Galatians that “a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the law.”  Well, the focal point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians isn’t whether God expects us to do good things.  It’s a fight over whether new believers have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to follow Jesus.  No, Paul says, they don’t, because salvation doesn’t rest on being part of one particular group of people or the ‘works’ that identify you as such.

He does tell us in Galatians 5 about the fruit of the Spirit, things we should expect to see evidence of in our lives as people of faith: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In Ephesians Paul said that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by our works.  But in the very next verse he says, “We are…created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

In other words, Paul is saying, we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, and a new way of living in the world should be a natural expression of that salvation.

And James is certainly not saying that faith is irrelevant.  He says “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”  He’s not pitting faith and works against each other.  He’s telling us that they are inseparable – not that we are saved by our works themselves, but that if our faith doesn’t result in changed hearts and lives, then maybe that’s not really faith at all.

So in other words, kind of the same thing.

I suspect that part of the problem lies in what we mean by faith in the first place.  If faith simply means I believe something, intellectually, if all I have to do is check a box or sign on a dotted line that I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, if faith means I say a certain prayer and get my ticket stamped for heaven – then I’m not sure that’s the kind of “faith” that even Paul thinks will save us.

But what if by faith in Jesus Christ, we mean actually acknowledging him as Lord of our lives – in a way that means following where he calls and living like he did?  What if faith means trust that Jesus’ way of life is the way that leads to real, true, and eternal life, even when it’s hard?  What if faith means where we stake our claim in this life and the one to come, what kind of future we invest in; what if faith means what we dare to choose and what we dare to risk?

And maybe the other part of the problem lies with what we mean by saved.  If all we mean is getting into heaven, then that’s one thing, but what if, like Wesley, we define salvation as the whole process of being re-shaped into the image of God in which we were created, growing in love and holiness over the course of our lives?

Because then being saved through faith starts to mean a lot for the way we live our lives in the world – the way we love, the way we give, the way we speak, the way we live in community together, the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Those things aren’t the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of faith.  They’re actually part of what faith means.

And yet maybe here I’m veering into the dreaded works-righteousness (dreaded for all good Protestants, that is.)  Because it’s not a big leap from what I’ve just said to tallying up our good works and good deeds and putting them next to the bad ones and seeing if we’ve ended up in the black or in the red, and calling that proof of our faith.  The truth is we can believe in something without living it out perfectly; we can love someone and not always act like it; we can be committed to a person or a way of life and sometimes fall away.  We can have faith and not always be faithful, and grace means God is never just sitting up there in heaven doing the math.

One of the interesting things about this passage from James is we just might actually be able to hear the remnants of an ancient conversation with Paul (or Paul’s followers).  Scholars disagree on whether that’s actually the case or not.[2]  It is notable that both James and Paul use the example of Abraham.  In Galatians and Romans, Paul uses Abraham as an example of someone who was justified by faith alone.  He’s referring to the story in Genesis 15 where God tells Abraham to look up at the night sky and try to count the stars.  That’s how many descendants he will have – even though he and his wife Sarah are old and childless.  Genesis 15:16 reads, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Before he had done anything, he believed God.

But James sees that verse being fulfilled in another way.  You know how much Abraham believed God? he asks us.  Abraham believed God so much that even when he and Sarah did finally have a son, Abraham was ready to give him up when God said the word.  We can certainly have lots of conversations about what kind of faith it is that makes you ready to sacrifice your own kid on an altar – but for James, Abraham’s belief in God’s promise didn’t mean a whole lot until he had to put his money where his mouth was.

For what it’s worth, I do kind of like to imagine that James and Paul are talking here.  Not a theological showdown, but a conversation. Paul says we are saved by faith, and not through works.  James responds, “Yes, AND – what we actually do is inseparable from our faith.”  And Paul says, “Yes, of course, but let’s not delve into works righteousness, here,” and James says, “No, of course we can’t earn our salvation by racking up points, but let’s not think that nothing is expected of us, either.”

The thing is, I think I need both sides of that conversation.

My faith became real to me when I heard God inviting me into this life of service and solidarity with the poor and self-emptying, when I realized that it was through all of those things that real life was to be found.  That’s when faith became not just something I should have, but something I chose, something that compelled me.  I can’t stomach an idea of faith that promises something without demanding anything. John Wesley once called faith without works “that grand pest of Christianity,”[3] and I’m inclined to agree.  So if I had had to raise my hand earlier, I think I would have been on Team James.

But sometimes I really do fall into this trap of thinking it’s all up to me, that I really can be one person who changes the world and that when I don’t it means my faith is lacking.  The truth is I can’t clothe every person or feed every person or comfort every person on my own.  And sometimes even when I can, I’m going to fall down on the job.  And it’s at that point that I need some Team Paul in my life – someone to tell me it’s not my job to save the world or myself.  Jesus already did that.  My faith does tell me that.

It’s never been James vs. Paul, faith vs. works.  My faith comes to life in my works.  My works give form to my faith.

We are saved by God’s grace through faith – faith that puts its trust in God, faith that chooses God and the people God loves again and again, not because we’re earning something or keeping score, but because faith is meant to be not just thought, but lived.

And I believe that that’s the kind of faith that can make a difference in this world.

 

 

[1] John Wesley, Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity. https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-116-Causes-of-the-Inefficacy-of-Christianity

[2] In the Interpretation commentary (First and Second Peter, James and Jude) Pheme Perkins writes that “The particular formation of the slogan being rejected in this section, ‘faith without works,’ seems to be dependent on the Pauline assertion that people are made righteous through faith in Christ, not through works of the law” and suggests that “the slogan seems to reflect a secondhand Paulinism” (p. 112) – i.e. people misuing what Paul had written.  In the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary (Vol. XII), Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “It is very unlikely that James was responding to Paul or that Paul was responding to James.”

[3] John Wesley, The Mystery of Iniquity, https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-61-The-Mystery-of-Iniquity

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Living Faith: Playing Favorites

Scripture: James 2:1-8

Today we’re starting a new series on the letter of James.  When we start out reading a letter, it’s always important to know a few things: Who wrote the letter?  Who did they write it to?  Why did they write it – what was the occasion?

Unfortunately, we know almost none of these things about the letter of James. Who is the author?  There are multiple famous Jameses in early Christianity.  This one seems to probably be James, the brother of Jesus, who was a leader of the Jerusalem church.  But even so, he may or may not have actually written this letter himself, since it was pretty common in those times to attach the name of a famous person to your writing for a little extra oomph.

And who is the letter to?  It’s addressed to the “twelve tribes of the Diaspora,” which might mean Jewish Christians, or might just mean all Christians.  Either way, it’s pretty broad.

And what’s the occasion for the letter?  We don’t know that either.  Presumably it’s not just one situation, but a letter meant to be read by different communities facing the same typical church problems.

For reasons entirely apart from how much we know about it, not everyone likes the letter of James. For a New Testament book, James only directly mentions Jesus a couple of times.  He’s big on talking about law, and says that “faith without works is dead,” which may seem to contradict the Apostle Paul’s assertion that we are saved by faith alone, and not through our works.  All these things led Martin Luther to call James an “epistle of straw.”  This was an insult – basically saying it’s worthless.

I, however, have always liked the letter of James.  I sometimes have trouble with the biblical writers who make everything sound so heavenly and ethereal.  James keeps it real.  His letter is all about how our faith and theology come to bear on how we live life here in this world and in community together.

James talks about what it means to choose friendship with God rather than friendship with the world.  He talks about being doers of the word, and not just hearers.  He talks about wealth inequality in Christian community.  He talks about the importance of being intentional in our speech.  He talks about the temptations we face to choose the world and not God, and how this leads to discord in our communities.  He talks about being people of prayer.

And, in the passage we read today, he talks about how we play favorites.

In this passage, James asks us to imagine two people walking into a gathering – either a religious or a civic one, we can’t be sure.  One is wearing “gold rings and fine clothes,” and those gathered fall all over themselves showing this person to the best seat in the house.  The other one is clearly poor, and that one is told, “You can stand in the back,” or maybe “Sit at my feet,” a posture of servanthood.

One of my commentaries had a lot to say about how different James’s world was from our world today, enough that we might not even recognize it.  After all, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the social system was made up of an intricate system of patronage and debt.  You would have been indebted to someone richer and more powerful than you for the favors and protection they could offer, and in return, it’s possible that someone poorer than you was indebted to you for your patronage as well.

So it might be tempting to hear James’s description of two people entering a room and think, well, things wouldn’t go down like that today.  We’re not jerks.

And actually, yeah.  I really don’t think it would go down like that today.  At least not here.  Because we’re not jerks.  We’re nice people who know that Jesus wants us to be nice to everyone, whether they’re rich or poor.

But what I changed the details a bit?

What if the people who walked in the door one Sunday morning were a young family – a father, a mother, and two adorable kids?  Imagine them, clean cut, nicely dressed.

And another person, alone, dirty clothes, carrying a duffel bag.  You get the impression that they have perhaps not bathed for a couple days.

Would you respond to those people equally?  Who would you invite to sit with you, or join you for coffee at fellowship time?

Again, maybe the answer is both.  I really do think that Arlington Temple is one of the most welcoming churches I’ve been a part of.  We do certainly have people here not only from all over the world, but also from all walks of life.  I’ve said before that this church is a place where you might see a diplomat having coffee with a homeless person.  I think that is a sign of the Kingdom of God and I’ve always been really proud to tell people that.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  What assumptions might you make about each of those people (or sets of people) who walked in the doors of the church on a Sunday morning?  Who would you consider part of the community?  Who would you hope to see again?

I couldn’t help but think of a woman I once knew in a different church I was involved in.  Her name was Glenda.  She was friendly and enthusiastic, maybe a bit overly so.  She wanted to be a part of everything the church did.  She also always needed money, and would ask whoever she saw on Sunday mornings if they would give her some.

The thing is that people tried really hard to be nice to Glenda.  No one was rude to her or told her to take a seat in the back.  When she wanted to go on a retreat she couldn’t pay for, they made sure she was covered.  But let’s just say that if she sat down at a table at a potluck, that table was never the first be filled.  It seemed like people mostly tried to subtly avoid her.  I couldn’t blame them.  I did too.  She made me uncomfortable.  I never quite knew when she was going to want something from me, or what I should tell her.  People were nice and polite to Glenda.  But, whether she sensed it or not, she never quite seemed to fit in.

Was it because she was needy?  Was it because she was socially awkward?  Did it make a difference?  Did she upset a kind of subtle idea we had that we, the congregation, were supposed to be helping other people outside of the congregation?  Did God have a place and a role for Glenda as part of this community? I wonder what James would have had to say about that.

James makes playing favorites sound like a black and white kind of thing.  But it’s not.  Not in our day.  It’s actually kind of complicated.

Of course, our human tendency to play favorites hardly stops at the church doors.  The implicit biases of our families and the societies we grew up in form and shape us in ways so subtle we don’t even know they are there.  And so we play favorites: when we decide that the resumes with more pronounceable names move on in the hiring search; when we give more media attention to crimes that happen in white neighborhoods than in black ones; when we decide whose stories we’re going to believe.  Will it be the white police officer or his alleged black victim?  Will it be the woman who makes an accusation of sexual assault, or the man she is accusing?

Maybe given today’s context and even the news of the last week, those things just sound like political flashpoints.  But they are actually complicated questions.

Do any of you follow tennis? Did any of you see Serena Williams lose to Naomi Osaka in the US Open last month?  I don’t usually follow tennis, though I did happen to be watching some of it with a friend at the time.  I didn’t see the end of their match, but I read about the drama afterwards: Williams got in a fight with the umpire when he issued a code violation for her coach supposedly coaching her from the stands, she got angry, broke her racket, stuck her finger in the umpire’s face and demanded an apology.  In the end, she was fined $17,000 for her behavior.

Social media was abuzz.  Did Serena Williams deserve the punishment?  She did demonstrate unsportsmanlike conduct.  And yet, people asked, how did white, male tennis players who similarly got angry on the court get treated differently?  Was Williams treated more harshly for being viewed as an angry black woman?  Was it fair, or was it a case of playing favorites?

Last week many of us watched or listened as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford sat in front of the Senate and testified about how now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had (she said) sexually assaulted her as a teenager.  And we watched as Kavanaugh answered questions, visibly angry at being (he said) falsely accused.  And the country asked questions.  What assumptions are present as we decide whose story to believe?  Would Kavanaugh’s angry and emotional testimony have been received the same way if it came from a woman, or a black man?

I don’t necessarily have all the answers to these questions.  But just like with Glenda, the woman I knew from another church, there’s some unraveling that has to happen: the unraveling of my own instincts, my own gut reactions, my own assumptions, my own bias, my own inclination to subtly play favorites without even realizing it.  And I wonder: whether it comes down to a needy woman who walks into a church or tennis star or a Supreme Court nominee, are we ready to do that unraveling, to figure out how we may be elevating one person over another?

James has some pretty strong words for us: “My brothers and sisters,” he writes, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  The CEB translation puts it this way: “My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism, you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The translations differ somewhat, but I think the implication is clear: the depth of our faith in Jesus hinges on whether we treat all God’s children as equally valued and equally loved.

It’s one of those things that’s obvious in concept – and, sometimes, really, really hard to unravel in our own hearts and our own lives.  It’s that work that James invites us to do.

I think in the end, what Jesus wants us to know is that we need each other.  Rich and poor, men and women, young and old, all of us from the many places we come from and the many backgrounds we bring to the table – we need each others’ gifts, and we need each other’s perspectives, and we need each other’s stories.

In the end, we are the Body of Christ when we welcome one another, and value one another, for all that we are.

In the end, all of us are God’s favorites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Life of Joy: Joy That Grows

Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9

For the last two weeks we’ve been talking about joy, using this book The Book of Joy written by Douglas Abrams and based on a series of conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.  Two weeks ago we talked about what joy is. Then last week we talked about obstacles to joy – the anger, grief, adversity, fear, and other feelings or situations that might prevent us from living a joyful life.

We’ve also heard from both the Apostle Paul and the Psalmist on their experiences of joy and hardship.  Today we heard from Paul again, from his letter to the Philippians.  Philippians is sometimes known as “the letter of joy” because Paul says “joy” or rejoice” 16 times in four chapters.  You heard him in the passage we just read – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.”

The thing is that, just like anyone else, the Philippians had reason to not rejoice if they wanted to.  I guess otherwise Paul wouldn’t have had to be so adamant about it.  Philippi was a Roman city where worship of Jesus Christ was not necessarily looked kindly upon.  Paul, the spiritual leader of this persecuted community, was in jail at the time.  There were people coming in to try to teach the Philippians things Paul considered heresy, like you had to be circumcised to be a Christian.  AND, there was infighting in the community, too.  And yet Paul has the audacity to tell these people to rejoice always.

This is really a beautiful passage and yet I find it a little annoying because, as I’ve said throughout this series, it just doesn’t seem as easy as Paul makes it out to be.  Rejoice always, oh OK, I guess I’ll just do that, then.

But actually what I realized about this passage is that Paul follows this command up with some instructions.  Rejoice always.  Be gentle to the people around you.  Pray and release your worries to God.  Look around you and see the good things God has given you in the midst of your difficulties.  Keep doing these things, and you will be at peace.

Paul knows joy isn’t automatic, especially when times are hard.  Joy needs to be chosen, and nurtured, and cultivated.  So today, in this last week in our series, we’re going to talk about positive qualities we can cultivate in ourselves – or, as I said last week, let God cultivate in us, but with our own cooperation.

[And – I’ll add what has become my usual disclaimer: our experiences of mental health and/or illness may significantly affect our ability to feel joy.  If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, that does not mean that you somehow aren’t doing faith right.  God does want joy and healing and wholeness for you, as God does for everyone, and that might come through medication and therapy as well as through prayer and the support of a faith community.]

Our book lists eight pillars of joy, and just like with last week’s obstacles to joy, any one of them could make for multiple sermons in itself.  So if you want to hear more about any of these, you can read the book – or let me know and maybe I’ll preach a longer sermon on one or more of them sometime.[1]

 

Perspective

Last week, we talked about the power of reframing our situations when we encounter obstacles to joy.  This is one of the pillars of joy: the ability to put and keep things in perspective.

The book tells the story of someone who visited an army medical center and met two soldiers, on the same day, who had both lost the use of their legs.  Their physical state and prognosis was the same.  But one of them was curled up in bed railing against God and life and everything that had brought him to this place (which, by the way, I find totally understandable.)  The other said he had been given a second chance at life.

The Dalai Lama says we should always look at every situation from both a wider perspective and a larger perspective.  With a wider perspective, we see things more objectively – we realize that we are not the only one who matters, we are not necessarily the main player, and “our limited perspective is not the truth.”  When we look at things from a larger perspective, we think about how things will seem and how much they will matter a month or a year from now or even in the context of history itself.

Archbishop Tutu calls this seeing things from a “God’s eye perspective.”

When we can put things in their proper perspective, sometimes our problems and difficulties don’t seem quite so big after all.

 

Humility

The Dalai Lama told the story of a spiritual leader at a conference he went to in Delhi who insisted that his seat be higher than everyone else’s seat.  They had to bring in bricks to put under the legs of his chair to raise it up.

Needless to say, this is NOT the way to true joy.  In fact, when I read that story, I realized Jesus had something to say about that: “When you’re invited to a wedding feast,” he advises, “don’t sit in the seat of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited” (Luke 14:8).

Humility isn’t about being self-effacing or being hard on yourself, which in the end, are just more ways to focus on yourself.  Rather, humility allows us to see our actual place in the midst of things, to know that we are loved, that we matter, that we have something to share with the world – but also that we matter neither more or less than anyone else, and that other people have their own gifts and perspective to share as well.  When we’re not so worried about where we fall in the hierarchy, that frees us up to live more joyfully.

 

Humor

I’ve mentioned in the past couple weeks that it was surprising to me how much a book about joy really talked about suffering. But something author Douglas Abrams made a note of was how much time during these conversations was spent laughing.  “Having spent time with many spiritual leaders,” Abrams said, “I’m tempted to see laughter and a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development.”

Obviously, laughter is not always an appropriate response to personal or global problems.  But often times there is something to laugh at within a situation that itself is not a laughing matter.  Archbishop Tutu talked about how during apartheid, they would sometimes have funerals for people killed by police, which would turn into unofficial political rallies.  He said, “We found that one of the best ways of helping our people direct their energies in positive directions was laughter.”

I know that as I’ve officiated funerals, some of the best funerals I’ve seen are ones where people tell stories and laugh about the person who has died.  It’s not about denying grief, since there are often plenty of tears too.  But laughter is a way to find joy and gratitude and togetherness even in the midst of sadness and loss.

If you need some help cultivating your own sense of humor, Archbishop Tutu also has some advice for you: “If you laugh at yourself,” he says, “…it’s really the easiest place to begin.”

 

Acceptance

The Dalai Lama’s favorite saying is: “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied?  What is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?”

I know many people, in this political climate especially, who would say, “If you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.”  I know a lot of people who would say that this week in particular.  In other words, it seems like the last thing we should do is accept the status quo.

But acceptance doesn’t mean resignation.  It doesn’t mean cynicism.  It means being realistic about what currently is so that we can move forward from there.  Acceptance means not hiding from the truth, not being in denial, but seeing what is and what we can do to change it.  In the famous words of Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

 

Forgiveness

I’ve told you before that the first time I ever considered that I might be called to ministry, it was in reading Archbishop Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, about his time leading South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu has some powerful stories to tell – for example, about the parents of Amy Biehl, a white student who was killed in one of South Africa’s black townships.  She had gone there to do the work of reconciliation, and her parents carried on that legacy after her death by forming an organization to improve conditions in the township – and even employing the person who had killed their daughter.  And, for example, the story of a black mother whose son had been dragged to his death who confronted her son’s killer during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings and said, “My child, we forgive you.”

“When we forgive,” Archbishop Tutu says, “we take back control of our own fate and feelings.”  Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean your relationship is the same as it once was.  Rather, you can decide whether to renew the relationship or release it.  But either way, that person doesn’t have to keep you imprisoned in your anger and bitterness anymore.

 

Gratitude

In the words of a Benedictine monk named Brother David Steindl-Rast, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful; it is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

At the beginning of this year, I tried taking this to heart by starting a gratitude journal.  The plan was that every day I would write down things I was thankful for.  I have not done that every day.  I have averaged maybe once a week.  It’s been an imperfect practice, but I’ve also found that even during the hardest times I’ve had since I started doing this, there are always things to be grateful for.

I realized during one of those hard times that I could be sad but genuinely grateful too.  Gratitude doesn’t mean that we stop feeling normal human emotions.  But it does, I think, open up some room for joy even in hard times.

According to the Dalai Lama, it’s not just those good things that we should be grateful for.  We should even be grateful for our enemies, “our most precious spiritual teachers.”  So if you feel like you’re pretty good at gratitude and want to level up, you might try being thankful even for the hard times and difficult people you encounter and how they can help you grow.

 

Compassion

One of the monks who works with the Dalai Lama had a good definition of compassion: “Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”

In other words, it’s possible to have empathy and simply feel someone else’s pain, but compassion moves us toward action.

“When we think of alleviating other people’s suffering,” said the Dalai Lama, “our own suffering is reduced.”

In the end, we are not meant to do this alone.  When we are both ready to help someone in need and willing to receive help from others when we need it, we are living into who God created us to be as human beings.  We can live more genuinely and more joyfully when we live it together, with all of its challenges and heartaches.

 

Generosity

We all know that money can’t buy happiness, right?  Well, apparently it depends.

I heard a TED Talk a while ago from a professor at Harvard Business School who had been involved in a study.  They took a bunch of people, asked then to rank their happiness level, and gave them some money.  To some of the people they said go do with this money whatever you would normally do with it.  Buy something, go out to eat, pay your bills.  To the other people they said use this money on other people.  Give it away, buy someone something, or donate it.  At the end of the day they asked the people to rank their happiness again.  The people who spent the money on themselves were no more or less happy at the end of the day than at the beginning.  But the people who gave it away or spent it on others were more happy at the end of the day.[2]

Not everyone has gobs of cash to give away, of course, but actually in this study, the amount didn’t matter.  It’s not limited to money, either.  I know I’ve experienced real generosity from people I meet here during the week who probably don’t have a whole lot.  I’ve been handed money for the offering plate from people who are staying at the Homeless Services Center.  I’ve also gotten flowers, Metro tokens, and baby gifts.  I’ve been bought breakfast.  Generosity is never the privilege of the rich – in fact, statistically, the more we have, the less – proportionally – we tend to give.

This is another one of those times when Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said to give to everyone who begs of you, to lend without expecting anything back, even when he told the rich man to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor.  These aren’t just impossible expectations.  They are invitations into a more joyful life.

Archbishop Tutu likes to say that “God doesn’t know very much math,” because instead of having less when you give something away, you end up with more.

 

 

Again, joy isn’t found by flipping some switch, and none of these pillars of joy are the result of flipping a switch.  These are all things that we can keep growing into over the course of a lifetime, as God grants us grace, and as we intentionally take God up on it.

A life of faith is perhaps by definition not an easy life, because it is a life of sacrifice and service and giving yourself for others.   But God does want it to be a joyful life.  Joy may not be immediate, it may not be automatic, but God invites us to grow in it – and we can start today.

 

 

[1] His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness

in a Changing World.  All quotes and references in this sermon come from the third section of the book, “The Pillars  of Joy,” p. 191-275, unless otherwise specified.

 

[2]     https://www.npr.org/2014/04/04/297888687/can-money-buy-you-happiness

A Life of Joy: Joy That Overcomes

Scripture: Psalm 30

We are spending these last few weeks of September talking about joy.  Last week I introduced to you the book which is guiding this series, The Book of Joy, written by Douglas Abrams and based on a series of guided conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.  Not only are both men famous spiritual leaders, they are also both known for their joy, and these conversations were meant to collect their lived wisdom on the subject.

Last week I asked you to define joy for me.  You answered things like peace, contentment, waking up to a new day, knowing that you are a child of God.  These are all things that God wants for us as God’s beloved children living a life of faith.

Today my question is: what are obstacles we encounter to finding joy in our lives?  What kinds of things might prevent us from feeling joy?

The book lists 8 of these obstacles to joy that emerged from their conversations.[1]  They are:

Fear, anxiety, and stress.  We’re not necessarily talking about immediate dangers right in front of us, but as Douglas Abrams wrote, “We have a continual feeling of being overwhelmed and not being able to handle our work commitments, our family commitments, or the digital devices that are constantly reminding us of all the things that we are missing.  Juggling so many things at the same time, we can feel like we are always one step behind.”  I like to make notes in the margins when I read, and next to this one, I simply wrote, “Yes.”

Frustration and anger: Anything from good old-fashioned road rage to a rift in a personal relationship, or maybe even anger that is more systemic and directed at oppressive aspects of our society.

Sadness and grief.  Sadness, according to studies, is apparently the longest-lived of our negative emotions.  We tend to get over fear and anger relatively quickly, or at least they come and go.  Sadness tends to linger.

Despair.  One woman who sent in a question for this series of conversations put it this way – “The world is in such turmoil – war, starvation, terrorism, pollution, genocide.  How do I find joy in the midst of such large world problems?”

Loneliness.  The book cites a study that shows the average number of close friends people report having is decreasing, and one in ten people say they have no close friends. We’re more connected than ever and also, often, lonelier than ever.

Envy.  We tend to compare ourselves most to people we consider to be like us.  So, I’m not going to be jealous of the fact that Mark Zuckerberg is worth $60 billion – he’s barely even on my radar – but if my colleague gets a promotion and a raise, I’m going to have a lot to say about that.

Suffering and adversity.  Here the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu talked a lot about the challenges they each faced on behalf of their people in South Africa and Tibet, though we could also talk about the unwelcome challenges each of us face in our lives, from homelessness to racism to addiction to cancer.

Illness and fear of death.  I’m reminded of the book of Ecclesiastes, where the specter of death looming over everything seems at first to make life pointless.

Does that seem like a good list?  Are you all good and depressed?

I said last week that I found it interesting that in a book about joy, so much of the conversation revolved around suffering.  But when I thought about it more, that actually made a lot of sense.  No one needs to read a book or hear a sermon about joy if you never have a reason to not feel joyful.  The question is, how do we find joy in a world where there seem to be so many obstacles to doing so?  And then the second question is – in a world full of such obstacles, randomly divvied out, do we even have any control over whether we are joyful at all?

Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama come from two different religious traditions, which means they don’t always agree on everything.  (I’m sure if they came from the same religious tradition they wouldn’t always agree on everything either.)  One thing don’t always agree on is how much control we have over the feelings that can become obstacles to joy.

The Dalai Lama spends a good amount of time in these conversations talking about building up what he calls “mental immunity.”  He says that just like building up our physical immunity by doing things like eating a healthy diet and being active, we can build up our mental immunity to help us avoid negative emotions and develop positive ones.  If you have mental immunity, he says, “when disturbances come, you will have some distress but quickly recover.”  If not, then small problems are likely to become big.

Archbishop Tutu always wants to stress that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for having negative emotions.  This is a natural part of the human experience, and we can just make things worse for ourselves when not only are we angry, but we’re also mad at ourselves for being angry.  Or not only are we sad, but we feel guilty for being sad.  “I do at times get very angry at God,” he admits.

I tend to take comfort in the fact that the Bible does encapsulate and embrace the vast range of our human emotion, and nowhere do we see that better than in the Psalms.  In the Psalms we encounter pain; in the Psalms we encounter anger; in the Psalms we encounter contrition; in the Psalms we encounter comfort and contentment; in the Psalms we encounter elated joy.

Today, in Psalm 30, we encountered both suffering and joy.  As in most psalms, it’s hard to make out exactly what’s been going on in the background that has led to either of these states of being.  But what we know is that the psalmist once felt close to death, either literally or metaphorically, and now they praise God for delivering them.

In the Psalm we learn a little bit about what that previous period of suffering was like.  We even hear the psalmist bargaining with God: “What point is there if I die?  Will I be able to praise you from the underworld?”

But then the Psalm moves abruptly back to joy: “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”  In fact, in almost all of the lament psalms we have – and there are more lament psalms than any other kind – we find a shift at the end from lament to praise.  It may be that what the psalmist prayed for has come to pass, and then the ending was added.  But it might not be.  It might be that the psalmist himself or herself has come to a new place in relation to the situation and in relation to God.[2]  It might be that the psalmist has discovered that joy and dancing don’t have to depend on external circumstances.

What the psalms promise us is that while weeping may last for the night, joy comes with the morning.  Despair doesn’t have the last word.  In fact, that’s the central tenet of our faith rooted in resurrection: despair may linger, but it doesn’t get the last word.

But the psalms don’t promise is that this shift is always going to happen outside us, with a change in our circumstances.  It would be nice if that were the case, that sickness always ended in physical healing and the sources of our adversity were eventually removed.  But it’s not, at least not in this life.  Sometimes resurrection happens in our hearts instead.

The psalmist still gives God the glory: it is God who has turned weeping into dancing.  It is God who works this kind of change in our hearts – but, most often, at least, with our cooperation.

In the end, it’s possible to accept and embrace our real human emotions and also develop some mental immunity that will help get us get from weeping to dancing again.  Of course we’re still going to feel grief when tragedy strikes, but we don’t have to wallow in it forever.  And at the same time, little things don’t have to become big things.  The driver who cut you off on your way to work doesn’t have to ruin your whole day.  There is joy to be found that overcomes these obstacles.

So we come back to the question of how: how do we find joy in the midst of a world filled with fear, and anger, and grief, and loneliness, and despair, and envy, and adversity, and death?

I’ll be honest, as I was writing this sermon, my original intention was to go back to each of those eight obstacles and talk about how Archbishop and the Dalai Lama advise overcoming them.  I quickly realized that we were going to be here all day if I tried to do that.  So if you are interested in reading about them in more detail, I will commend to you this book.

What I did notice as I went through them was that the changes involved in overcoming each obstacle were actually pretty similar.  Each one requires us to intentionally reframe the circumstances we find ourselves in, to start to think about them differently so that we can respond to them differently.  (Let me repeat my disclaimer from last week that being able to do that probably requires a reasonable amount of mental health in the first place, and that God can absolutely work through medication and therapy as well.)

For example, in talking about frustration and anger, the Dalai Lama gave the example of someone he knew who was repairing an old car that had broken down.  As he came out from under the car, he banged his head on the fender.  He got so mad at this that he just started banging his head on the car over and over.  Obviously, this didn’t do him any good.

“When anger develops,” the Dalai Lama says, “think what is the cause? And then also think, what will be the result of my anger, my angry face, or my shouting?”  When we can answer these questions, it becomes easier to put some distance between ourselves and our anger, to see it more objectively.

Archbishop Tutu spoke of praying for the South African government officials who were responsible for upholding the apartheid regime – not just that they would have a change of heart, but also praying genuinely for their well-being.  (I sense a lot of us might feel like traitors if we did that.)  But, as Douglas Abrams put it, this “helped [the Archbishop] to love [those officials] rather than hate them, and ultimately made it possible to work with them to help transition the country to democracy.”[3]

There is joy to be found in the reframing of our circumstances.  When we are overcome by stress, we can choose to rethink our own goals and ambitions.  When we are sad and grieving, we can appreciate the way sadness binds us together with others, and may even gives us a sense of purpose – to live the way someone we lost would have wanted us to, for example.  When we are envious, we can challenge our own perception of “me” and “them” and think of the happiness this thing we envy must bring the other person.  When we are faced with death, we can redirect our focus toward the eternal.

I told you last week about a not-so-distant time in my life (when I was reading this book) that I was having trouble finding joy, and my reaction to suggestions like these was almost always, “It’s not that easy.”  I had some fights with these two spiritual leaders in the margins of my book.  You can’t just flip a switch, I would say.  You can’t just be angry, remember that you are supposed to be joyful instead, and all of a sudden feel joyful.

The truth is that it’s not that easy, and I don’t think either the Dalai Lama or Archbishop Tutu is saying that it is.  None of these things are meant to be quick fixes, and honestly I think a big part of my own problem is that I’ve expected them to be.  I think I should be able to count my blessings and automatically feel better. But in reality these are disciplines, meant to be practiced over and over until they become easier.  We Methodists would call this sanctification, the process of becoming more holy throughout our lives.  And it is always God who sanctifies us, never us by our own effort.  But that said, we do have to cooperate.

I want to end by actually working through one of the practices that the book provides that help us reframe the obstacles to joy we face.

(For those reading along at home, this is a practice that allows us to contemplate a situation that has given rise to a negative emotion in us and analyze it or look at it more objectively.  In it you are invited to bring to something that caused you fear, anger, or sadness, then ask yourself a series of questions: What is the source of this feeling?  Is this the only way to look at it?  What is the worst that could happen?  What were my expectations, and can I release them?  Is my [fear, anger, etc] helpful?)[4]

Use this practice to help you enter into the life of joy that God invites you into, which is a joy that doesn’t deny the suffering of life but also is strong enough to overcome it.  Because weeping may linger for the night, but if we allow God to work on our hearts, joy will come with the morning.

 

 

[1]  His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.  All quotes and references in this sermon come from the second section of the book, “The Obstacles to Joy,” p. 83-168, unless otherwise specified.

[2] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 21

[3] The Book of Joy, p. 319

[4] The Book of Joy, “Joy Practices,” p. 317-319

A Life of Joy: Joy That Endures

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18

Today I’ll open with a question: how do you define joy?

Joy is one of those things that we all want; we know we should have it, to be living fully as God desires for us; we know it when we feel it, and yet it can in fact be hard to define, and when we seek it, it can prove to be elusive.

A year or so ago, a book came out that was all about joy: what it is, what are the obstacles we face in finding it, and how we can intentionally cultivate it in our lives.  It’s called The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. [1] It might have been just any slightly cheesy self-help book, but this book was written based on a set of conversations between South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader.  Both are spiritual giants (and/or religious celebrities) who are known, among other things, for the joy they seem to exude.

You may know from previous sermons I have preached that I’m a bit of a Desmond Tutu fangirl, and I consider him and his writing about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid instrumental in my early understanding of my call to ministry.  I do also appreciate the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, though his wisdom is that of a different religious tradition.  Anyway, when I saw this book was coming out, I knew I would have to get it.

Honestly, while I ordered the book largely for the names on the cover, the question of joy and how to find it was also a personal one for me.  I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, but I can think of a couple semi-prolonged periods in my life that were probably kind of borderline.  I ended up reading this book, toward the beginning of this year, during one of those periods.  And so what I first approached as something that might make a good sermon series became a chance to ask for myself: what is joy, really?  And where do I find it, or how do I generate it, especially during a time when for one reason or another it seemed kind of hard to come by?

I’ve never really been one for easy answers to questions like these.  I’ve never liked, for example, the assumption that a strong faith alone would make me feel joyful.  Maybe it should – which is one of the things I’ve wrestled with some during those periods of my life that I have struggled – but that’s not always my experience. My faith may tell me that there is something bigger than what I am going through at the moment, but it doesn’t necessarily make me feel it.  And since even Mother Teresa famously experienced that “dark night of the soul” over much of her life and ministry, I know I’m not alone in that.  And I’ve also never liked the implication that if I could just remember to be thankful for what I have, then that would be the change in perspective I needed to make myself feel joyful.  In fact, this is the kind of thing that has often made me feel guilty, because I know how much I have to be thankful for – I’ve listed it out, regularly – and I don’t always understand why that doesn’t seem to translate into a feeling of joy.

I’m not going to tell you that this book changed everything for me.  Actually, I think the changing seasons and some extra vitamin D in my diet once a blood test showed my levels had dipped low again made a lot of difference.  I’ll add my disclaimer here: sometimes God works through things like vitamin D.  And antidepressants.  And anti-anxiety medication.  And good therapists.  If you need those things, or those are things that help you, that is not a negative judgment on your faith.  Those are resources God has given us to help.

Still, those are things that can help us lay the groundwork for joy, and help create the conditions for joy to take root in our lives, but they don’t create joy itself.

Neither can reading a book or hearing a sermon spontaneously create joy in our lives, but I do think Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, along with the science and research that writer Douglas Abrams brings in, can help us think about joy and where it does and doesn’t come from in new ways that might even find helpful.  So that’s what we’re going to do over these next few weeks.

Interestingly, for a book about joy, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama spent a lot of time in their conversations talking about suffering.

Both men have led lives that included some amount of suffering.  I don’t want to overstate that, since there are certainly people in the world who I imagine have it worse than two prominent spiritual leaders.  And yet the Dalai Lama, who was born in a rural part of eastern Tibet with the name Lhamo Dhondup, was taken away from his family at the age of two when he was found, according to their tradition, to be the next incarnation of the previous Dalai Lama.  He was raised in grandeur but also relative social isolation in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.  When he was 15, China invaded Tibet, and he was thrust into a life of diplomacy as he tried to rule his country, until nine years later when he decided to go into exile and escaped over the mountains to India.  Since then, he has not been home.

Archbishop Tutu, for his part, repeatedly put his life on the line as he helped lead the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  It was a long struggle that I’m sure must have often seemed thankless, and though the apartheid regime did of course fall, the struggle for racial equality and justice in South Africa is far from over.  These days he’s fighting prostate cancer, a very different kind of struggle.

And so one of the questions the book started out with, asked by Archbishop Tutu to the Dalai Lama, is “Why are you not morose?” In other words – how come you can be joyful, anyway?

I read that and was reminded of this passage from 2 Corinthians, which I’ve always loved.  The apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about some of the struggles he has faced.  He’s not specific about what troubles he’s referring to, and so it’s likely that some of them are physical persecution, imprisonment, and threats to his own life as he goes about his ministry, and that some of them also might be disappointments he’s faced in trying to build up these first churches in different places around the Roman Empire.

Paul writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Paul doesn’t use the word joy in this passage, but what he’s describing is life and wholeness and peace found despite or even within his own suffering.  Beneath it all, there is something good that endures, and that allows Paul to endure.

It’s natural that we may feel happier or less happy dependent on our circumstances in life.  We also know that circumstances aren’t everything.  In college, when I worked at my church’s Respite Care center for older and disabled adults, I knew a blind quadriplegic who was just about the sunniest person I had ever met.    And on the other hand, I think of someone like Robin Williams, who seemed to have it all, who was known for making other people laugh, and yet who took his own life.  (I know that gets back to mental health and again, any mental health struggles you may be having are not a judgment on you.)  But it is clear that how good we may or may not have things, outwardly, isn’t everything.

But it makes me wonder what it is that makes the difference.  Why is it that one person who is persecuted might feel forsaken, but not Paul?  Or that one person who is afflicted might be crushed, but Paul is not?

For Paul, when nothing we have is good, that’s when we can best know the goodness of God.  When our human power fails, that’s when we can mostly clearly see the power of God at work.  And when we are robbed of all the things we have that are temporary, that’s when we learn to value what is eternal.

I’ve already shared that this shift in perspective is not an easy or automatic thing for me.  I may believe this in my head and not in my heart.  And at the same time, there is a freedom in realizing that my circumstances, whether they are good or bad, don’t have to define me.  God is bigger than they are.  And God invites us into a life of joy, all of us, rich and poor, healthy and sick, persecuted and celebrated.

“We are fragile creatures,” says Archbishop Tutu, “and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy…We can face suffering a way that ennobles rather than embitters.  We have hardship without becoming hard.  We have heartbreak without becoming broken.”[2]

A commentary I was reading pointed out something interesting in this passage from 2 Corinthians, something I never paid much attention to before.  When I quote this passage, I usually stop after this litany of empowerment: “…persecuted, but not forsaken; stuck down, but not destroyed.” But Paul continues: “[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.  For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you.”

Death is at work in us, but life in you?  You would think, this commentator said, that after talking about the life of Jesus being made visible in him, Paul would say his people “should be finding the same in [themselves].”  But the reason Paul is going through everything he is going through, the thing that keeps him going through all of it, is not just that he’s gaining something spiritual for himself.  It’s that he’s doing it for others – that others might know God and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Just as Jesus died that we might have life, Paul dies to himself every day so that others might have life.[3]

As it turns out, maybe that has something to do with Paul’s enduring joy despite his circumstances.

Paul can be afflicted but not crushed and persecuted but not forsaken and struck down but not destroyed because even when the power of death is at work all around him, God is at work bringing forth life – through Paul, and for others.

And because of that, for Paul too.

A theme that both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu return to again and again in their conversation is that true joy comes from opening ourselves up to othes.

For the Dalai Lama, meditating on his own suffering and the suffering of his people leads him to think of others in the world who are suffering.  It’s not about schadenfreude, or being relieved that someone else has it worse than you do, or giving thanks that you are not like other people.  It’s about seeing yourself as connected to other people, as part of a bigger picture of humanity.

Archbishop Tutu, for his part, appeals to the concept of ubuntu: the idea that a person is a person through other people.  “Ubuntu,” he says, “says that when I have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit that I share it with you.  … I mean simply to say that ultimately, our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.”

Have you ever had the experience of feeling sad, or grumpy, and something happened to pull you away from yourself and do something for someone else, and it completely changed your perspective?

When I was in seminary, the church where I was an intern had a women’s shelter in its basement.  As part of my internship, I used to go every Tuesday and talk and pray with the women who were there.  As a rule, I never wanted to head downtown on a Tuesday night to do this.  I was always tired.  I always had homework to do.  I did not feel joyful about sitting in Atlanta traffic.

And yet almost without exception, every Tuesday night, I drove home singing.

It’s easy, as we search for joy in this life, to search in the wrong places.  And I don’t just mean the obvious wrong places, like money and fame (though those too.)  I wonder – and I’m guilty of this – if we worry so much about finding our own bliss, our own self-fulfillment, our purpose, even our one true calling – that we stop really looking outward to how we can help and how we can serve.

In the end, as Archbishop Tutu puts it, if we set out seeking joy itself, we’re going to be disappointed.  The real question, he says, is not “How can I be happy?” but “How can I spread compassion and love?”

I said before that I don’t like easy answers, and I don’t think that this is a magic one either.  We may not always feel joyful, and that’s OK.  We’re human, just as God created us to be.  But if we are to seek a joy that endures, love and compassion and service to others seem like a good place to start looking.

That’s the life that God invites us into, as we learn day by day to die to ourselves, and offer life to others.

Do you want to be joyful?  How can you spread compassion and love?

 

[1] His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.  All quotes and references in this sermon come from the first section of the book, “The Nature of True Joy,” p. 30-64, unless otherwise specified.

[2] The Book of Joy, p. 11

[3] Ernest Best, Interpretation: Second Corinthians, p. 43.

You Will Know a Tree By Its Fruit

Scripture: Luke 6:43-45

I want to begin today by saying that I love the United Methodist Church.  I was baptized in it, formed in it, learned to understand my call to ministry in it, and have committed my vocational life to it.  And while the Body of Christ can never be encapsulated in just one denomination, I believe we the United Methodist Church are an important part of that Body with a message of God’s love and grace to share with the world.  I want you to believe that too.

So I would much rather stand up here today and tell you about all the wonderful things that we are doing together as United Methodists – things like Africa University in Zimbabwe, and young adult mission programs, and some awesome disaster relief efforts around the world – than tell you about how we are fighting.

But we are fighting, and I don’t think it does us any good to ignore that.  If you’ve been around for a while, you know that I’ve tried to update you occasionally on what’s going on, but in case you are new, basically there are deep divisions in the UMC, as in our surrounding culture, over the questions of same-sex marriage and whether people in same-sex relationships can be ordained as clergy.

We’ll get into some of the details of this conflict later during our Q&A time after worship, but right now I’ll just say that it’s gotten to a point in the denomination where basically everyone agrees we can’t just go on fighting like this, and we have to come to some sort of agreement, whether it’s a compromise, a split, or something else.  On February 23-26 in St. Louis, we will have a special General Conference, a denomination-wide meeting, specifically for the purpose of finding a “way forward.”

Again, this is a hard thing to talk about.  I know some of you are going to disagree with what I’m about to say.  Some of you might question my commitment to certain things you value.  I might even make some of you mad, though that is not my goal.  So, as I’ve said here before, if I do make you mad or uncomfortable, or if you have questions about where I’m coming from, I hope you’ll talk to me about them instead of just leaving angry.  I hope that today can be the beginning of some important and necessary conversations.

I know that you all probably hold a variety of opinions and beliefs when it comes to same-sex marriage and whether gay clergy should be ordained.  You come from different places around the world, different cultural contexts, and different generations.  You may or may not have people you love in your life who openly identify as LGBTQ.  All of those things contribute to the beliefs we hold.

Many of you have probably also found that your beliefs have evolved over time, as our cultural conversation and norms around same-sex relationships have changed.  Those of you who grew up in a time and place where these things were simply not talked about now live in a world where same-sex marriage is legal, where gay characters are routinely depicted in TV shows and movies, and where it’s very very likely that you know someone who is gay.

I’ll turn 35 next month, which means I grew up in a different world (as far as all this is concerned) than many of you who are older – and also a different world from those of you who are somewhat younger.  I know I seem young to some of you, but our cultural conversation around same-sex relationships and LGBTQ issues was very different in the mid-late 1990s, when I was first starting to become aware of it at all, than it is today.  And so my beliefs have evolved and changed over time, too.

I remember, for example, the first time I heard a rumor that a boy in my middle school was gay, and I thought it was weird, and maybe kind of gross.

I remember, in high school, going to an event that was jointly sponsored by the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, where they brought in a self-identified “ex-gay” person and had some debate and conversation around that, and I remember not being sure exactly what I thought or how my faith played into it.

I remember being in college and talking to my campus minister about the conversation that was going on in the United Methodist Church at that point, as I prepared to enter the ordination process.  I told him, at that time, that I thought same-sex marriage was OK.  But I didn’t feel like it was my personal cause.

This is the story of how it became my cause.

So often our hearts and minds are changed not because we heard a convincing argument, but because we met someone who didn’t fit into our boxes.  I met Dave at the very beginning of seminary, on registration day, when they gathered us into a room to fill out bubble sheets.  Later that morning he was in line ahead of me at the bookstore, and he said something about needing a lunch buddy.  I was all about making new friends, so I took an introvert-leap-of-faith and said, “I’ll be your lunch buddy.”  So Dave and I had lunch that day, and we ended up talking for hours, and at some point during that conversation, Dave told me about his partner, Jay.

Dave quickly became – and stayed – one of my best seminary friends, and he brought Jay into the fold of our group as well.  Dave was the first openly gay person I had ever been close to, and Dave and Jay were the first gay couple I had ever known well.

I was 23 and single when I met Dave.  He was in his thirties and had been with Jay for about three years.  They weren’t able to be legally married at that point, but they had a house together, and wore rings, and were committed to each other as husbands.  What I saw in their relationship, as I got to know them both, was exactly what I hoped to someday have in a relationship of my own.  They balanced each other ( with Jay’s even-tempered good humor to Dave’s constant enthusiasm); they supported each other; they had fun together; they weathered hard times together; they loved each other.  And they made each other better.  Obviously they had their own struggles and imperfections as everyone in any kind of relationship does – I don’t want to idealize their relationship or any category of relationships.  But I will still contend that they are one of the best couples I’ve ever known, and best suited to each other.

Jesus once said “A tree will be known by its fruit.”  Actually, he said it twice: once in Matthew and once in Luke.  He’s not talking about relationships, per se.  When he says these words in Matthew, he’s talking about how to recognize false prophets.  When he says them in Luke, he’s talking about knowing someone’s heart by the evidence you see in their words and their lives.  But I once heard a writer, whose name I can no longer remember and who the internet did not help me find, use this verse in the context of thinking about same-sex relationships, and that was helpful to me.  Because the fruit of Dave and Jay’s relationship, that I saw, was love and support and commitment and forgiveness and strength and joy.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to hear Jesus’ words here: a bad tree doesn’t bear that kind of fruit.

Over our three years in seminary I got to know a lot more about Dave and what life had been like for him before Jay.  He had been raised in a conservative Presbyterian denomination and much of its theology and evangelical spirit still resonated deeply with him.  Dave loved Jesus and wasn’t afraid to tell anyone about it.  He had long felt called to pastoral ministry, and had even begun seminary years before, at a school related to his conservative denomination.  He had also spent years praying to God every night to let him stop being gay, and Dave did his best to work with God on this one: he was even engaged to a woman for a time.  But it wasn’t honest, and it wasn’t sustainable.  Something had to give.

What gave was Dave’s relationship with his church and his hopes for ministry; even his relationship with his family became strained.

These days Dave and Jay live in southern California, where Dave is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ.  They got married five years ago at the UCC General Synod, with over a thousand church people present.  And while he and his family may still have their theological differences, they realized over time that their love for each other was enough to overcome those.

For me, when my own denomination fights about whether same-sex couples should be able to get married or whether LGBTQ people should be able to be ordained, it’s not some faceless theological issue to discuss or debate.  It’s about Dave and Jay, and whether we can call their relationship good in the eyes of God, which I believe it is.  And it’s about whether Dave should be able to bring the immense passion for the Gospel and the real gifts he has to the leadership of a church.

To me, this fight we are having in the UMC is a fight over whether Dave should be welcome in my church.  Not just welcome as a sinner specifically called to repentance for a particular part of his identity; not just welcome as long as he sits there quietly and doesn’t act too gay; not just welcome as long as he doesn’t expect to have his marriage honored or celebrated here; not just welcome as long as he doesn’t expect to be able to share his gifts for leadership in the same way I can – but welcome, as he is.

It honestly hurts my heart that I can’t say that’s the case.

I know – I know – that if we’re going to have a biblical argument, it’s easier to make a case against same-sex relationships than for them.  Loving, committed same-sex relationships were simply not a thing that were on anyone’s radar thousands of years ago in the Ancient Near East.  And so when same-sex sexual activity occurred, it seemed to people to violate something about the world as they understood it.  And so Leviticus forbids a man from sleeping with another man.  And so in several of Paul’s letters same-sex sexual activity is named as a sign of sinfulness.  There are certainly conversations we can have about the translations and intent behind those passages, but there are no scriptures I can point to and say, “This is where God specifically condones same-sex relationships.”

But I don’t believe the only or most faithful way to read the Bible is to take ancient laws that come out of ancient social contexts and try to directly apply them to life today.  And, in fact, most of us intuitively get this, which is the reason we do things like wear clothing made out more than one kind of fabric, which is forbidden by Leviticus; or why we don’t make women wear head coverings in church, as instructed by Paul.  We know that we have to look for the larger message of who God is and what God wants from us.

When I read the Bible – not just a few select verses but the whole story of God’s people – I am confronted with a story of God breaking down the barriers that human beings set up to divide ourselves from each other.

In one of my favorite stories in Acts, Peter confronts an issue that would threaten to divide the early church.  Peter is an observant Jew, and that means he keeps kosher – he doesn’t eat certain foods forbidden by Leviticus.  But then one day he has a vision in which God tells him to eat non-kosher food.  And just as he has this vision, there’s a knock on the door.  It’s the messengers of Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman (not a Jew).

If you were going to have a strictly biblical argument, it might have been easier to make the case that Peter shouldn’t go to Cornelius’s house.  There he might be served and eat non-kosher food.  And if you were going to have a biblical argument, it would have been easier to make the case that Cornelius never should have been fully welcomed into the church, not without becoming Jewish, and yet when Peter goes to Cornelius’s house he hears testimony of the new things the Holy Spirit is doing, and Peter becomes the champion of including people like Cornelius.  It becomes his cause.  He sees the fruit of the Holy Spirit moving in Cornelius’s life, and no matter what his prior convictions may have told him, he knows this tree must be good.

I believe that sometimes we find that all our best theologies can’t stand up against love and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

You might tell me that I can’t just throw away the parts of the Bible I don’t like.  I agree.  I believe we need to read the Bible seriously and prayerfully with an understanding of the ancient culture in which it was written and with our hearts open to what it has to say to us today, including when that convicts us.  I believe that it’s not always easy work to discern what aspects of an ancient culture are meant to apply to us today, and in what way, and it takes humility and discernment to figure it out.

I also believe in a God I meet through Scripture who made an unimaginably diverse creation and called it good.  I believe in a God who wants us to love one another, fully, even when doing so stretches us and our belief systems.  I believe in a God who wants to knock down the walls that divide us.  I believe in a God who calls us to lives of mercy, and hospitality, and justice, and joy.

I don’t always practice those things perfectly, but I know them when I see them.  You will know a tree by its fruit.

My prayer for my beloved church is that we will open our hearts to see God’s grace and goodness in ways, and people, and relationships, we may never have expected.

Judges and Kings: A Kingdom Divided

Scripture: 1 Kings 12:1-17

Today is our last week – our final episode – of our summer sermon series Judges and Kings, so let’s take a moment to rewind and remember how we got to where we are in our story today.

We began in the book of Judges, just after the Israelites have settled in the Promised Land.  At this point they are a nation without a state: twelve tribes, joined together by their shared history, but with little centralized leadership after the death of Joshua.  Soon a pattern begins to emerge.  The Israelites forget the God who led them into the land; they turn away and disobey and worship other gods; God allows them to feel the consequences of those choices in the form of other nearby nations who conquer them; the people cry out to God for help, and God raises up a judge, a military hero, to deliver them.

The first judges are pretty good, but as time goes on we realize that this pattern is less of a cycle and more of a downward spiral, with each judge less faithful and less competent than the last, until the curtain closes on the book of Judges with Israel in complete and total chaos.

Into this chaos, a prophet is born.  His name is Samuel and he grows up in the holy sanctuary as an assistant to the priest Eli; and one day Samuel starts to hear from God for himself.  Samuel provides good and faithful leadership to his people for a time, but as he grows old, the people begin to fear for their future.  So the people tell Samuel that they want a king.

Samuel warns them that this is a terrible idea.  A king? he says.  A king will send your sons into the army and make you do forced labor for him and he’ll tax you heavily for his own gain.  But the people want a king, and God tells Samuel to give the people what they want.

Enter Saul, a tall, handsome, unsuspecting young man from the tribe of Benjamin.  Samuel intercepts him one day while he’s out looking for a lost donkey and, at God’s direction, anoints him as king.  Saul gets off to a reasonable start, but soon we see him start to make hasty and selfish decisions instead of trusting or consulting God.  So God says, yeah, never mind, and sends Samuel off to anoint a new king instead.

David, son of Jesse, a Bethlehemite from the tribe of Judah, is anointed king while he’s still a young boy taking care of his father’s sheep, and his rise to power is one for the books.  He enters Saul’s inner circle as a court musician, marries Saul’s daughter, and gains fame as a warrior in Saul’s army.  Saul’s not blind, of course.  He can see David climbing in power and prestige, and he gets jealous.  And then he gets angry.  And then he kind of goes off the chain and tries to bump David off.  David escapes Saul with the help of Saul’s son Jonathan, and begins a new life on the run.  But make no mistake, he’s making alliances and forming his base the whole time.

When Saul is killed in battle with the neighboring Philistines, David takes his divinely appointed place on the throne, and he both centralizes the government and forges a national identity in a way Saul never did.  David is the king, the iconic leader of Israel, to whom God promises an everlasting dynasty.  But even David finally succumbs to his own weakness – first in the matter of Bathsheba, then in resulting implosion of his own family.  Still, David withstands his own son’s armed rebellion and is restored to the throne a humbled man.

When David dies and his son Solomon becomes king, it might seem as though the glory days of Israel have arrived.  Solomon famously prays for wisdom, and God is so pleased with this request that God promises him riches and honor and long life too.  Solomon lives in grandeur and splendor; he builds Israel’s first Temple in Jerusalem; there’s peace on all sides; and, we read, “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.”

But maybe the whole picture is a little too perfect.  Maybe this is the social media depiction of Solomon’s reign.  And as we know, things aren’t always how they look on Instagram.  Because we also learn that Solomon has been using work gangs for his building projects – and not just foreign work gangs, but Israelite work gangs.  And all that grandeur and splendor had to come from somewhere – your Israelite tax dollars at work.  And we learn that Solomon loved foreign women, and took a number of them as his wives, and they “turned his heart after other gods.”

Remember Samuel’s warning?

So maybe it’s not surprising when a leader of one of the work gangs, a man named Jeroboam, begins to plot rebellion.  And maybe it’s not surprising when Jeroboam meets a prophet on the road who tears his shirt into twelve pieces and proclaims that the kingdom itself will one day be torn – not from Solomon himself, but from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.

That is all to say: maybe what happens next isn’t ALL Rehoboam’s fault.

[READ 1 Kings 12:1-17]

When I was planning out this sermon series, I had a hard time choosing where to end it.  Because of course, the story doesn’t end here.

But this is the end of the story of Israel as one kingdom.  From here we enter into two parallel stories, one in the north and one in the south, each with their own colorful cast of royal characters.  Both of those stories lead into exile.  One of them leads back out.

When Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam heads to his own coronation, where some people are eagerly awaiting to make him king.  But remember that at the end of Solomon’s life, rebellion was beginning to bubble up.  Jeroboam has been hiding in Egypt since that run-in with the prophet on the road, but as Rehoboam is about to be crowned, he returns and leads the people in making some demands.  “Your father made our yoke heavy,” they say.  “Tell us you’ll lighten our load, and we will serve you as king.”

Rehoboam has to think about it.  He tells them to come back in three days.

Meanwhile, he consults some elders, men who had advised Solomon.  They tell him to agree to the people’s demands, that it’s a good investment.  These guys know where power and legitimacy come from, even in a monarchy.

But Rehoboam says nah, that doesn’t sound right.  So he finds some other advisors, friends of his, and they tell him he’d better show these people who’s boss right from the get-go.

So when Jeroboam and the people come back three days later, Rehoboam tells them, “You think it was bad under my father? My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins!”  (“Little finger” is a euphemism.)

The people respond, “That’s cool.  Have fun being king over the people of Judah, your own tribe.  The rest of us are going home, and you are no longer our king.”  And the northern tribes of Israel crown Jeroboam.

We’ve now gone from the inception of a kingdom to its dissolution.

I have to ask here – what went wrong??  Anyone want to take a stab at summing that up?

Where do we start, right?  God’s people worshiped other gods when they forgot what God had done for them.  They wanted a king when they forgot who their first, real king was supposed to be.  Those kings themselves forgot that being king didn’t make them invincible, that there was a power still greater than theirs.  They forgot where their power came from; they wanted what was theirs and they forgot whose they ultimately were.

What went wrong is that they forgot: they forgot God’s mercy, they forgot God’s provision, they forgot God’s ultimate sovereignty, and they forgot their own places in God’s story.

And we can hardly blame them because we, too, are so prone to forget: God’s mercy, God’s love, the call of God on our lives.

It is a dangerous thing, to forget.  And we do it all the time.

And yet the author of 1 Kings is adamant that God is somehow still at work in all of it.  When Solomon lets his heart be turned away by his foreign wives and their foreign gods, God tells him that this means the end of a kingdom.  When the prophet Ahijah tears his shirt and predicts that the kingdom will be torn away from Solomon’s son, it is God he speaks for.  When the people make their demands to Rehoboam, we’re told that God hardens his heart, Pharoah-style, so that this prophecy will still come true, and yet when Rehoboam prepares to send his army after the tribes who have seceded, God tells him no, and Rehoboam listens.

In a time when anyone living might have sincerely questioned where God was in everything that was happening, the author wants to assure us: God is there.  God isn’t asleep on the job.  God is still, somehow, moving God’s story forward.

Has there ever been a time, for you, when everything seemed messed up, you couldn’t see God’s hand in any of it, but only later it became clear that God was still somehow at work?

I don’t necessarily mean, or believe, that God was orchestrating all of it so that each little thing was exactly according to God’s plan.  Bad things happen in a broken world and sometimes we really do mess things up.  Solomon didn’t have to be the kind of king Samuel had warned the people about.  Rehoboam could have listened to his advisors.  Just because God may want one thing doesn’t mean we can’t make our own decisions, good or bad, out of our own free will.

And yet God can always work with what we give.

I’m trying to keep this in mind these days as we stand at the precipice of an important moment in history for the United Methodist Church.  Because we’ve gotten to a point in our denominational life where everything really does seem like a mess.  As a denomination, we don’t agree on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed or whether LGBT people should be able to be ordained.  Some people who feel our current rules against both are unjust have broken those rules, and other people have gotten mad about the rules being broken and the fact that the first people aren’t getting punished enough.  You all hear about this from me from time to time – we’ll hear more in a couple weeks – but I know it might seem like just church politics, far away from our mission and ministry here.

Let me tell you from someone whose job it is to be in touch with the institutional side of things that it feels like a mess.  And it’s sometimes hard to see in the midst of the maddening institutional politics how God is at work in any of it at all.

I don’t know what will happen at our General Conference in February which has been called to find a way forward through all of this.  What I do know is this: the church has been in some messes before.  In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split in two, north and south, over the question of whether a bishop could be a slaveholder.  The two churches (two kingdoms?) came back together in 1939, when slavery was safely out of the question, but as part of the deal, they created a separate jurisdiction for all the African-American churches in the denomination, with their own bishops and their own pastors and their own churches.  The Central Jurisdiction was abolished in 1968 when we became the United Methodist Church, at a time when we as a wider culture were doing some reckoning with the idea of segregation.  And, you all, I know we have a long way to go in addressing the sometimes more subtle racism that still persists in our culture and our churches, but we’re here, and we are a church of people of many different colors who come from many different places, with a bishop who is African-American, and through all of the mess we have undeniably made, God has been at work to bring us here.  And God is still at work to bring us forward – maybe as a “united” United Methodist Church and maybe not, but always as God’s people living out God’s story.

It may be that we read the paper and look at our whole national political situation and all we can see is how messed up everything is, how we don’t do anything but fight with each other, and high-up people are being convicted of crimes, and students are going back to school worrying about mass shootings, and I am not saying that any of it is God’s will, that any of it is the way God wants things to be, but I do believe that God still has a hand in our story, and that God does not ever leave us alone.

For the people of Israel and Judah – the northern and southern kingdoms – the story will get worse before it gets better.  Redemption doesn’t always come in a linear fashion.  Both kingdoms will have kings who mess a lot of things up.  And occasionally there will be a good one, and then the next king will go back to messing things up.  And eventually, there will be exile, as those kings succumb to foreign powers who conquer the land and scatter the people.  But there will also be return from exile.  There will be restoration.  And then God’s people will keep messing things up, and the story continues, but still God doesn’t stop being at work.

And when God decides something drastic is called for, when God decides to do something bold, and God takes on human form and joins God’s people here on earth, and offends the powers that be with the life of love and peace and sacrifice he calls us to, and they put him on a cross – even then, in the biggest mess ever made, God is still at work, and God will be victorious.

The good news is this: the Kingdom of God needs us, but it also can’t be stopped by us: by our pride, by our selfishness, by our mistakes, by our forgetting.

God’s story continues, and God will be victorious.