Sermon August 30, 2015
James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
This week, I met with several of our neighbors. I talked with Shawn Morris who is the principal at Jefferson Middle School. I talked with Sylvia Miller-Mutia, the new priest at St. Thomas of Canterbury. I met Cory Lee, the youth director at the Mennonite Church. I got to Humble Coffee to meet Cory and noticed the t-shirts they use to advertise their shop. They say simply, “Stay Grounded”. I have been thinking this week about what grounds us. Both of the texts you heard this morning invite us to take a closer look at ourselves. There is clearly the understanding that looking at ourselves in a real, honest way will take us into the world to do the work of discipleship. But it is also clear that the work of discipleship must be grounded in a profound awareness of ourselves. This is the part where many of us squirm. Who wants to really analyze ourselves? Wouldn’t we prefer to just look at everyone else?
Barbara Brown Taylor titled her sermon on this passage “Owning Your Own Shadow”. She says, “everyone knows deep down inside how nice it is to have a scapegoat—someone you can blame for all the things you do not want to blame yourself for, someone who will carry [the stuff you would rather hide] for you so you don’t have to carry it yourself. That is why it is helpful to keep an enemy or two on hand. As long as you can despise someone else for her meanness or his crookedness, you do not have to own up to any of those things in yourself.” (p. 100, Bread of Angels)
James addresses his letter to people who look in the mirror and when they walk away, they forget who they are. It is strange but true that we can and do forget who we are. We need something to remind us. We need to take an honest look and remember. In the movie the Lion King, Simba is struggling to find his way. He is taken to the water and shown his reflection. His father appears and tells him to “look inside yourself. You are more than you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life. Remember who you are.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byDN8aoR4TI)
Our book group is finishing the book Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. The author tells about her struggle to combat racism over twenty-five years. Initially, she wanted to take care of the racism “out there”. She felt compelled to help the people who had been hurt. Over and over she was shown that she needed to take care of the racism she carried inside. She was given a mirror to see how racism was alive and real in her despite the fact that she worked hard to be a good person. She couldn’t be much good to fighting the racism “out there” until she dealt honestly with the racism inside. It required that she look in the mirror over and over and she invited us to do the same as we read the book.
Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-4 NRSV)
I’m guessing you are thinking, “I sure wish I had stayed home today. I could be doing my laundry or paying bills or anything besides listening to someone tell me to look in the mirror.” But instead, we are here and the message is loud and clear: what we say and do matters. What is underneath our words and actions matters. Pay attention. If we don’t do that, we end up with what Eugene Peterson calls “Hot Air Religion”.
It can be a life’s work to live authentically – to make all the parts of us match. We are not free to be authentic until we can bring our words, our actions, and our hearts into alignment. Jesus talks about what is coming from our heart. “He urges us to examine our own defiled hearts rather than our neighbors’ dirty hands.” (Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4 p. 23) I keep learning over and over that it takes work to discern what is in our heart. Words and actions are easy enough (though it isn’t always easy to speak and act in ways that are kind). It is much more difficult to access the heart beneath our actions. So the invitation to be grounded is very real. The invitation is to hold that mirror and see what is happening beneath the surface of our thoughts and actions.
Here is the thing James wants us to know…faith isn’t belief, it is actively loving the world. Faith = action. In Greek Philosophy, every being takes its place in a hierarchy. Then Christianity came along and called everyone equal. The starting point is acknowledging the beauty in each person and understanding each person as a perfect gift. If we take seriously the words here, we see that God doesn’t value some more than others. In the Greek world, every good proceeds from and returns to God. In Christianity, every good proceeds from God and it is our task to share the goodness with others. In doing so, we complete the circle that God began. (Haruko Nawata Ward in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4 p. 14-16)
Yet somewhere along the way, we return to that hierarchy and act as if some matter more than others. Somewhere we get weary and we say things that are hurtful. We are distracted and we fail to really listen. We are busy and we simply don’t attend to one another. One of the most powerful ways we actively love a person (whether we know that person or not) is by really listening. If we can shut off all the distractions and give someone our full attention, we are showing love in a way that is really beautiful. James says it very simply: “Be quick to listen”. (1:19 NRSV) Listening can be a powerful mirror for us. How often are you somewhere else in your mind and only pretending to listen? How often is someone talking and you are thinking of your reply or preparing to defend yourself? Can you listen through that? Can you listen to them and listen to what is really going on inside you? Real healing begins when we listen. Mark Twain can help us prioritize listening and speaking with his quip: “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”
After we look in the mirror, we are given three clear calls in the scripture today: listen, speak, and act. Deep listening can ground us in God’s call. Listening to one another allows us to be present in powerful ways. Listening is a powerful way to say “I love you”. If you can listen first, our words can then be helpful rather than hurtful. Think of all the ways we use words in a single day – we can build up or tear down each time we speak. Both James and Jesus are calling to act in ways that are loving and compassionate. Our actions always grow out of the roots that we nurture. Jesus is calling us to nurture the roots of compassion and goodness. People will remember us by our actions. How do you want to be remembered?
What if we make these our practices this week? Take these three parts and reflect each day:
First, do a listening check. Somewhere in your day, stop and ask yourself how well you are listening. If you realize that you aren’t listening well, make a real effort to listen to the next person who comes along.
Second, do a words check. What words have you used today? How have they built up or torn down? Can you use only kind words for the rest of the day?
Third, look at your actions. What did you DO today? Not what did you think about doing? What did you actually DO? Do you feel good about those actions? Is there some action you need to take to finish the day?
Together we can seek to align what we hear, what we say and what we do so that we are reflections of God in whose image we are created.