Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beware the Fiery Tongue -- a Sermon

James 3:1-18

The song “Pass It On” starts with the words: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” If that fire is the love of God that warms the hearts of everyone who experiences God’s presence, then it’s  a good thing to pass on to others.  But not every fire is the same. There are also fires that can be very destructive, so you have to be careful with those kinds of sparks.  

Early in life I learned how destructive fires can be.  When we lived in Mount Shasta, in northern California, we lived next door to a Fire Control Officer for the Forest Service.  When he was home, Mr. Gray’s green Forest Service pickup sat parked at the curb, ready to go at a moment’s notice.  We knew when there was a fire, because all the green pickups in the neighborhood headed out at the same time. Most of the fires occurred some distance from town, but on at least one occasion a fire started up on the mountain behind us, and we watched the flames lick the evening sky, reminding us of the destructive power of fire.  

I learned early on that when the conditions were just right – it doesn’t take much to get a fire burning.  During hot, dry spells, a smoldering campfire or an errantly thrown cigarette butt can light up the forest with flame.  And, once the fire starts, it can spread quickly, especially if there’s a hefty breeze.  Besides, these fires can be very difficult to put out.   

As Smokey the Bear reminds us –  “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires?”  When you watched those ads, did you take the message to heart?     

While I first learned about the destructive power of fire living in Mount Shasta, these lessons were reinforced after I moved to Southern California as an adult.  That region is a mountainous coastal desert.  The hillsides are covered with chaparral, a shrub that dries out in the summer and burns easily.  And when lit, especially if there’s a Santa Ana Wind alert, those fires can rush down on highly populated areas destroying everything in their path. 

If you’ve never experienced a Santa Ana wind, they’re a powerful force of nature.  Starting out in the desert, the winds sweep up and over the mountains, gaining power and speed as they go.  They can reach upwards of 50 to 70 miles per hour, and they keep on moving until they reach the ocean.  So you can image what happens when a fire gets out of control!   

Now, we never had to evacuate, but I can remember seeing large plumes of smoke rise into the sky during the day.  Then during the evening hours those plumes were replaced by the red and orange glow of the fire as it moved down the mountainside.  Yes, fire is a dangerous force of nature! 

Many fires start accidently.  Somebody leaves behind a campfire, they think is dead, but they leave behind a few embers that come alive with a warm afternoon breeze.  Before too long these embers have ignited some dry grass and plants nearby, and from there sparks and embers jump up into the trees, and then spread from tree to tree.  Before long, a massive fire has taken shape.  

As bad as these fires are, even worse are those that are purposely started.  There are people we call arsonists, who get a kick out of starting fires. And they love to start fires on hot summer days, when the Santa Anas are ready to kick up. James warns us to beware of the fiery tongue.  So, if you think you want to be a leader or a teacher, be careful, because what you say can be dangerous.  You have to be mature and you have to control the tongue if God is going to use you effectively.

Why is this? Remember that rhyme: sticks and stones, break bones, but names don’t hurt.  That’s not true.  Words do hurt and they can destroy.  Maybe that’s the point of the Proverb that suggests that if you remain quiet, people will think you wise, but if you love to talk you may reveal yourself to be a fool.  I suppose that’s a warning that politicians might heed as well! 

James uses a number of metaphors and images to get his point across.  He talks about how a bridle controls the tongue and by controlling the tongue, controls the horse’s body.  Now, I’m not a horse person, so I don’t know if this is true, but it seems to make sense!   

Whether our words are intentional or inadvertent, James suggests that the tongue is difficult to control and words can be a source of great evil.  Consider for a moment that bit of gossip that gets passed around.  It seems innocent enough – did you see Suzy?  She went to that hotel with Joe.  What do you think they were doing?  Maybe they were going to a business meeting, but inquiring minds can blow an innocent event into a tawdry affair.  Or what about that word said in jest?  “Oh, I was “just teasing.”  Maybe you were just “kidding around,” but your joke has destroyed a person’s self-esteem or undermines their credibility.

Words and images can also stir up acts of violence – if the conditions are ripe.  Did you hear about that video on YouTube that insulted Islam and Muhammad?  Although violence can’t be justified, it’s clear that the people who created this “film” were hoping to provoke such an incident.  They were, you might say, arsonists.  So were the people who decided to broadcast these images on an Egyptian TV station.  They weren’t just trying to stir up anger at the United States, they seem intent on destabilizing their own government.  Two parties essentially collaborating to wreak havoc in the land.  Yes, there are lots of arsonists in our midst.  As a result of these “words” and images, four members of the American diplomatic mission in Libya lost their lives, including an Ambassador who had devoted his life to helping people in that region. But others have died as well, and much property has been destroyed.  Words have great power to destroy.    

Now here in the United States the repugnant words that stirred the anger are protected by Constitutional guarantees of free speech.  In this country, you can say, pretty much anything you want, but, as Paul said, even though all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial. 

So, what is true on the hillsides of LA or the streets of Cairo, is also true in the church.  Words spoken carelessly or in anger can divide and destroy the work of God in that place.  So, James says to us – be careful about what you say. 

Not only that, but as Jesus said, it’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles, but rather what comes out of the mouth.  James uses a different set of metaphors.  He reminds us that fig trees don’t produce olives and grapevines, figs; fresh water doesn’t flow from a salt water spring.  If destructive words come forth from our mouths, then these words likely represent who we are on the inside.  

Although the lectionary reading from James ends with verse 12, our reading continued on to the end of the chapter because the Worship Committee wanted to observe the International Day of Peace, which occurs on Friday.  They wanted to emphasize a message of peace, and interestingly enough, that’s the message that brings this chapter to a close.  

In verse 13, James asks us:   “Are any of you wise and understanding?”  If so, then “show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.”   And what is wisdom’s lifestyle?  According to James, such a life is defined by purity, peacefulness, gentleness, obedience, mercy, fairness, and genuineness, and in closing he writes:   “Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (vs. 18 CEB).

For James, the tongue has the power to praise God and the power to curse.  It would seem that peace in the family, in the church, in the community, in the nation, and in the world, depends on having the wisdom to tame the fiery tongue.  How then can we sow seeds of justice through our peaceful acts?       

Sunday, September 09, 2012

God's Preferential Option -- A Sermon

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Do you remember when the two businessmen visited Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve hoping that would chip in with a nice charitable contribution to provide meals for the poor at Christmas?  Now, Scrooge has no interest in contributing to their cause.  For one thing, as far as he’s concerned, Christmas is a humbug.  Besides, he really doesn’t care about the fate of the poor.  After all, despite his wealth, he won’t even spare a few cents so his beleaguered clerk can get a bit of coal to warm himself with, and besides that he’s already paid taxes to support the workhouses and the prisons – let the poor go there.

Later in the play, just before he leaves Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his robe to reveal two children – “Ignorance and Want.” Scrooge is appalled at their appearance, and asks the ghost:  Are these your children?  The Ghost replies: “No, they’re Humanity’s.”  Scrooge asks:  "Have they no refuge or resource?" To which the ghost responds with Scrooge’s own words: “Are there no prisons?”  “Are their no workhouses?”

By the end of the story Scrooge has a conversion experience, and he changes his tune.  He finally understands that God does care for those living on the margins of society.

Many years ago I was introduced to the phrase: “God’s preferential option for the poor.”  This phrase is used in Roman Catholic circles to describe a major element of their Social Teaching, and it reflects the message of scripture.  If you look closely at the biblical story, you’ll discover that God seems to favor those who are poor and defenseless. You find this message prominently displayed in the prophets and in the words and actions of Jesus.  Of course this message has political implications.  If God is on the side of the poor, shouldn’t this be true of God’s people as well?

This morning the word of the Lord comes to us from the Book of Proverbs.  It’s a book of wisdom that offers words of guidance about practical living.  Be wise, and things will go well for you.  But what does it mean to be wise in our daily living?  Doesn’t that involve seeking to do as God does?
As you know proverbs can take the form of a story, but we often find them in the form of straightforward propositional statements that are easily remembered. And so we have these statements to remember:  

  First:  A good name is more important than wealth.

Second, no matter if you’re  rich or poor, you still have the same Creator.  That means we’re all equal in the eyes of God.  God’s not impressed with mansions.

Third, the path of injustice may seem profitable, but it’s not.  In the end, injustice leads to calamity.  Sort of like – you reap what you sow.

I want to come back in a moment to the fourth statement, which talks about the blessings that come from sharing with others, especially the poor.

Finally, there’s another warning:  Don’t mess with the poor because they’re poor.  Don’t think that because they’re defenseless that you can exploit them.  Why?  Because God has taken up their case – and God “will exact life for life.”

So, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, black or white, red or yellow – we’re all one human species, with one Creator.  That means that we’re all one big family – and families take care of their family members – right?   Each of these statements has its own power, but I’m especially drawn to verse nine, which states: 
The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.  
So, here’s the big question – do you see yourself among the generous or among the poor?  Whichever place you see yourself, are you ready to share?

There are two words that seem to say the same thing, but I think there’s a difference.  Think about it – do the words “give” and “share” have the same meaning?   Can’t you give without really sharing?  Doesn’t the word “share” have an attitudinal difference to it?  You can give your money but you share your self.

When we share, we recognize that we’re all in this together.  Whether it’s through giving to charity or paying taxes we help provide a safety net for the poor and the marginalized.  While, churches and non profits play a big part in caring for those in need, the job is much bigger than we can handle alone.  What a government can do is marshal the resources of all the people.  So, maybe we should see our taxes as an act of sharing?

Think of Medicaid, for instance – we often think of it as providing health care for those in poverty, and it does that. It also supports millions of seniors living in nursing homes.  It also provides medical care for many people with disabilities. If we think about it, every one of us has family members who have made use or are making use of these funds, which are being threatened with major cuts.  As a former President said the other night – I don’t where these folks are going to go.

But there are many ways in which we can share.  Yesterday, for instance a number of us participated in the final event in the 2012 Gospel in Action Detroit effort.  We joined with other Disciples, with Presbyterians, Muslims, and members of the neighborhood to share our time and energy to help others in need. We fixed up yards, painted porches and railings, and the sides of houses, and much more.  There are many stories to tell.  While I came home early for Greg and Melissa’s wedding,  I did some weeding and trimming. The lady who owns this house where I was working, was so pleased with my efforts that she gave me a bag of green peppers and green tomatoes from her garden. Now that’s called sharing!  

In preparation for this sermon I began thinking back to the 1930s.  Back then our nation was experiencing even deeper economic troubles than today.  Some of you remember those days because you lived them, and as the son of people who grew up in that era, I’ve heard the stories.

So, as I was thinking about the way in which God stands on the side of the poor and those living on the margins, I decided to check out what this church’s founding pastor, Edgar DeWitt Jones, was preaching about back in the 1930s.   So, I found a book of his sermons published in 1934, and in it is a sermon entitled”How Many Loaves Have You?”

In this sermon that takes its lead from the story of the feeding of the 5000, Dr. Jones declares:
These are troublesome times. Thousands are out of work.  Many are hungry.  Hard times come a-knocking at the door. . . . It is a time of depression, industrial, commercial, agrarian.  What can be done to better these conditions?  Has religion no answer?  Have the people of the churches no solution, nothing to offer? 
In answer, he points to those five loaves and two fish, which the disciples rounded up.  It’s not much, but for Jesus it is enough – but it requires a good bit of sharing!  Dr. Jones goes on to say:  
There is only one answer to this question – sound the note of faith, raise the banner of loyalty, bring the loaves of mind and heart, whatever gifts you have, purpose, hope, patience, courage, and place them on the altar, the high altar.  
Make your gifts available to God, and God will do what only God can do.

I don’t know what year Dr. Jones preached this sermon, but times were difficult, and it took a very long time for the nation – indeed the world – to emerge from this season of economic crisis.  Like I said – some of you here today have stories to tell about how you survived because people shared.  Neighbors, churches, non-profits, and yes, even the government, pitched in and shared.  

Dr. Jones asked the question:  “What is your capital and how do you purpose to use it?”  He then declares: “Our failure is not due to the fact that we have so little but to the tragedy that we are often unwilling to invest that little in life.”  [Edgar Dewitt Jones, The Pulpit Stairs, (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1934), pp. 109-112]
And as the writer of this Proverb declares: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.”  Yes, and if people choose to oppress the poor because they’re poor, God will take up their case.  And who wants to face God in the courts?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2012

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Need a Job? A Sermon for Labor Day 2012

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus liked to tell stories, and the story we’ve heard this morning speaks of a vineyard owner who goes down to the corner, where the day-laborers gather, to hire some help for the day.  

Back in California, in places where construction is taking place or in agricultural areas, a scene like this is quite common.  A truck drives up, a person gets out, asks the group if anyone there needs a job.  The prospective employer will describe the job, tell the prospective workers how much the job will pay, and if there are any takers, the laborers jump in the truck and off they go. That’s not all that different from what happens in Jesus’ story – except for the pickup truck – for obvious reasons.   

In Jesus’ parable, the vineyard owner goes down to the corner early in the morning, hires the hands he needs and puts them to work.  He’ll continue doing this throughout the day.  I don’t know if the job ended up being bigger than he thought, or he’s just overly generous.  Near the end of the work day, around five in the afternoon, he stops by the corner one more time, and seeing a group of workers standing there, he asks – “need a job?”  When they say yes, he tells them to come along, promising to pay them what he thinks is right.  And so these unemployed workers go with him because at least one hour’s worth of pay is better than none.  

These words – “need a job” – which  form the title of this sermon can be taken as both a statement and as a question. It’s no secret that we’re living at a time when getting a job, especially a well-paying and meaningful job, is difficult. The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high even as the economy slowly recovers. Of course this all has political implications in an election season, so we have politicians of every stripe telling us that they have the solution, and hoping we’ll believe them! 

I hope you think that the text and theme are appropriate for this weekend. After all, we’re deviating from the lectionary to take up a Labor Day focus.  I realize that for many people this weekend is the signal that summer is coming to an end and the children get to head back to school. The time for fun and games is over, and we all have to get back to work.  Of course, we can wait until Tuesday, and enjoy all the big events from sales at the mall to the Detroit Jazz Festival.  You might take in a sail on the lake or pay a visit to Royal Oak’s Arts, Beats, and Eats.

Of course Labor Day is about more than fun and games. The holiday itself was established in the late 19th century, during a time of great labor strife, as a way of recognizing the need to give workers the right to good pay, decent hours, and safe working conditions.  Maybe we don’t pay much attention to the purpose of this holiday because we often take these rights for granted.  But, at a time when the CEOs of the nation’s 350 largest companies make on average 231 times what the average worker makes, even as union membership decreases, maybe it’s time we take another look at the world of labor.

Now, Labor Day isn’t a religious holiday, but it does speak of matters of justice, and God cares about justice.  So, maybe we should ask what Jesus thinks of the current state of labor in our country.

He tells parables about working and the Biblical story pictures God as one who labors.  Consider the creation story in Genesis 2, where God plants a garden and then takes some clay to form the man who will help him tend to the garden.  Later God makes a partner for the man, fashioning woman from the man.  Doesn’t this suggest that God values work?  

Of course, this story also reminds us that God rested from his labors on the seventh day.  And if God rests, then shouldn’t we rest from our labors as well?      

Work is good, but not all forms of work are the same.  For example, there are jobs that demean a person’s humanity.  Think about sweat shops, which we’ve largely banned from our shores, but which still benefit us when we purchase many of products made overseas.  Just the other day, while I was in Costco, a man said to me – look at all the cheap clothes we can buy that are made in places like Bangladesh by people who make $35 a month.  No, not all jobs are the same.   

As for me, I’ve been working since I was a kid.  By that I mean, I mowed lawns, pulled weeds, and shoveled snow.  I also had a paper route and later got a job as a box boy at a small grocery store.  I’ve set up mobile homes, done janitorial work, tended irrigation ditches, was part of the staff at a summer child care center, pulled brush, served as a youth minister, worked in a book store, ran a library, taught college, and now I’m employed as a pastor.  I even spent one day unloading cases of frozen Brussel sprouts from a freight car.  You can understand my disdain for that vegetable!  Even if our work histories are different, I think most of us can tell a similar kind of story.

I understand the value of work, but I also understand that sometimes work is difficult to find.  When I graduated from college in 1980, the nation was in the midst of a recession.  It wasn’t as deep or as long lasting as the one that hit in 2008, but I do have a feel for what people are experiencing today, especially young adults and returning veterans.  

There’s another issue that is affecting our ability to find jobs that are rewarding and also pay a living wage.  For the past few decades we’ve been moving out of a manufacturing-based economy to a service and finance-based economy.  What this has meant is that many of the good paying jobs that ushered people into the middle class are no longer there.  Work is good, but the story is complicated.      

But there’s another question and its part of the reason why I thought it wise to observe Labor Day.  I was reading a book recently about “how the church fails Businesspeople.” The author suggested that the church doesn’t do a very good job encouraging and honoring the work that people do in their everyday lives.   We honor church staff and volunteers for their labor in the church, but we don’t honor and bless the work that people do when they’re not at church.  We teach the bible but we don’t address the kinds of issues people face at work.  So, I thought – why not address this issue on Labor Day I the sermon and in the prayers.    

Now, getting back to the parable, when the workers gather at the end of the day to receive their pay check, the owner starts with the ones he hired last.  To their surprise they receive a full day’s wage, as did everyone else, including the workers he hired first.   As you might expect, these workers weren’t very happy about this.  This didn’t seem at all fair.  How come they got the same wage as those who worked just one hour?  After all, they worked all day in the hot sun. 

For his part, the owner replies: Well, didn’t I pay you what I promised?  Are you mad because of my generosity?  I don’t think they cared so much what the others got paid, they just thought they deserved more.  

I’m not so sure that we should draw any business conclusions from this story, but Jesus’ message that the last shall be first and the first last, suggests that God not only treats us equally, no matter what we can contribute, but that God is also concerned that we have jobs that provide a truly living wage.       

May we honor Labor Day by blessing those who work, asking that their employment will provide them with a livable wage, a sense of fulfillment in their work, and the opportunity to be a blessing through their work. That is, may we recognize the presence of God in the world of labor, so that we might live and work in ways that express the justice and love of God.         

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
September 2, 2012
Labor Day