Scripture - Mark 9:38 - 50
Mark 9:38-50 (New Revised Standard Version)
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Let us pray - these words are written by Kathrine Hawker:
God of the salt
God of the fire
God of anger
God of laughter
God of parables and riddles
God of story and proclamation
God of comfort
God of affliction
God of the salt
God of the fire
I’ll always remember a conversation I had in a small group setting...probably about 10 years ago. I don’t remember the passage we were discussing, but somehow the distinction came up about being nice versus being kind. You can probably articulate the difference right along with me. Being nice is often related to being polite, agreeable, congenial. Being nice generally doesn’t ask us to extend ourselves in any meaningful way. It’s about manners and cultural currency like holding the door open for someone, or paying it forward at the tollbooth or coffee counter. There’s a place for being nice, but it’s often a surface level exchange.
Leadership coach Banu Hantal notes this about the dangers of those who identify as being a “nice person”, when speaking of the difference between “nice” and “kind”, “They do not ask for what they need, they do not give crucial feedback and they enable dysfunctions of others by overcompensating for them – all in the name of being nice.”
“Frequently, it’s the disguise of our selfish need to be liked. We want to think that we are nice, but more than that, we want others to think that we are nice. This kind of niceness makes us lose our voice and leads us to become inauthentic.
When we stop speaking up on important issues because we are afraid to hurt or offend others (translation: when we are afraid they won’t like us or be mad at us), it locks us and others to the status quo. It rips off the chance for things to get better.”
Kindness, on the other hand, costs more and proceeds from a deeper place within us. It’s about having our hearts in the right place for others and, oddly enough, for ourselves. Kindness is about authenticity and empathy. It’s about caring enough for people to face their reality and grow from it. It’s not about being liked, but it is about loving others enough to want what is best for them, even if it means sharing hard truths.
Niceness is simple and easy. Kindness often is not. Sometimes there is overlap between the two, but sometimes, there is not.
Now circling back to the conversation I was having in my living room 10 years ago about the difference between nice and kind...what was shared in that space was that the church is full of nice people, but not often full of kind people.
This sentiment was shared by a group of young adults who knew this because they had experienced the general niceness of most church folk, but they had also witnessed and experienced the extreme lack of kindness from Christians in their lives, like Christians who were overtly judgmental (but who proclaimed grace and love)...like Christians who said they’d be there for you in hard times (but wouldn’t help out if you were in desperate need)...like Christians who said they’d love you, if only you changed your behavior.
The biggest stumbling block for these friends of mine wasn’t Jesus...but other Christians.
Our passage this morning gets at the heart of this hypocrisy, as we look at the witness of community, the pain of sin, and the call to be salted with fire. It’s not an easy passage and we definitely don’t get meek and mild Jesus here. Contrast this to last week, where we have Jesus embracing a child in this image of what it means to embrace and welcome the divine. Now we have severed limbs and drowning with millstones and fiery punishment. This is a hard teaching - certainly not a nice teaching - it’s one that contrasts the popular image of Jesus as a docile and distant teacher dispensing wisdom in placid, peaceful tones.
No, this teaching comes from a Jesus that boldly names reality and one that does so for the sake again of the most vulnerable...for the most dismissed and overlooked...for the sake of the oppressed and exploited...for the sake of the voiceless and disempowered.
It’s threatening. It’s painful. It is a warning shot to those who would even think about harming or being an obstacle to the “little ones” - and it’s a statement about how far we as a community of faith need to be willing to go to for the sake of life and liberation for others.
It’s kind, but harsh. Definitely not nice.
Jesus starts out in this story by putting John in his place because the disciples tried to disabuse someone for casting out demons in Jesus’ name - but he wasn’t one of the group. Jesus rebukes John for stopping this person and draws the circle wider - “whoever is not against us is for us” right? Jesus doesn’t want the disciples putting up barriers - nor does he want them policing the behavior of others. It’s like he says, “don’t pay attention to what they’re doing over there - I’m not concerned about what they are or aren’t doing, whether they do a deed of power in my name, or whether they give you a cup of water because you are one of mine.”
“No,” he says, “tend to your own self. Look at your own behavior and what’s causing someone else harm -- and what’s causing you harm. Cut that stuff out of your life. If what you do puts blocks in the way of others - these children, these vulnerable ones, these disempowered ones - who are trying to embrace me, it would be better for you to drown. What are you willing to sacrifice for that to happen? How far are you willing to go to ensure life and liberation for these little ones...and for you?”
Now I don’t quite know in what tone Jesus might have delivered these words, but I can’t picture him being dispassionate in his delivery. And he absolutely wasn’t being nice - and it may even be a stretch to say that he was being kind in this instance, but he certainly was more concerned with the welfare of the vulnerable and with the disciples not preventing those who are suffering or hurting from having access to him. In that way, he was doing a great kindness to those looking to get in on the abundant life Jesus was about - and he was doing a great kindness to the disciples in correcting their course, even if he had to use shocking images to do it.
Because what Jesus says to the disciples is this: what you do - or don’t do - matters. Clear the things from your life that prevent access to me - either your access to me or another’s access to me. Don’t let anything get in the way.
Sometimes, those things are personal individual things - and it can feel really painful to do, as painful as severing a limb -- getting rid of a toxic relationship; forgiving a friend who has deeply wounded you; breaking an addiction; changing a damaging habit, admitting when you’re wrong and confessing sin. Sometimes, those things are systemic and pervasive -- identifying your privilege and working to become more aware of it and helping others identify their own; decoupling yourself from the constant need to associate self-worth with productivity; changing your worldview from a whitewashed history to name the complexities and threads of Indigenous peoples, Black and Hispanic folx, Asian Americans and more.
All these things point to a communal witness of an embodied love - that we as individuals and as a community are intentional about identifying and growing in love, about admitting when we’re wrong and seeking God’s reconciliation, about authentically showing up and being present to who we are and who God is calling us to be. In other words, we’re rooting ourselves in being kind - not nice. Because the world doesn’t need more nice people. But it does need more kind ones.
The conversation held in my living room ended with a resolution - that the church we were creating, birthed in small groups and block parties and board game nights, would not be a nice church. The church would be a kind one - in the way that true kindness is hard and authentic, unafraid to name difficult realities, and deliberately centers others in their growth as disciples and in their wholeness as beloved children of God.
I want to end with this poetic reflection shared by Steve Garnaas-Holmes entitled “Cut it off” - and it’s a beautiful reminder of how these painful separations are healing for ourselves and for others:
The hand that causes you to stumble
is not at the end of your arm. It’s deeper than that.
What is the hand in you
that reaches for what is not yours? Cut it off.
There is nothing you need to grasp.
What is the eye in you that does not look with love?
Pluck it out. The eyes of love are good enough.
What are the feet in you that that won't trust,
that lead you away from the path of love?
Cut them off. You don’t need to go there.
Does it sound harsh? Don’t worry,
they’re not part of the real you.
Besides, they’ll grow back.
The Teacher is not asking you to maim yourself.
He is inviting you to name what interferes,
and to take away its power.
He's leading us out of the unquenchable fire
of our fears, desires and attachments.
Without our grasping, fearful, compulsive parts,
perhaps then we will rely more
on the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus.
This pruning is how we become whole.
May we ever be on that journey towards wholeness in God’s love and care - for our sake, for the sake of Jesus’ little ones, and for the sake of the world. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 9:30-37; Proverbs 31:10-31
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Proverbs 31:10-31 (read from https://www.sefaria.org/Proverbs.31.10?ven=The_Rashi_Ketuvim_by_Rabbi_Shraga_Silverstein&lang=en&with=Translations&lang2=en)
Ok, folks- how many of those characteristics could you check off the list, either for you or your spouse?
Kind of daunting, isn’t it? I mean, what a laundry list of household management, economic investments, fashion designer, late-to-bed-and-early-to-rise, not to mention her personal characteristics of generosity and wisdom. Whew. I mean - there is no way that I can compare here and if I find a person who lives up to this standard, I’m going to sit them down and ask them to teach me how to balance it all.
While this is one way to read the passage, we’re invited to look at it a different way as well. Proverbs is part of Wisdom Literature in the (along with books like Job or Psalms or Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs) and throughout the book, the author personifies wisdom as a woman. She is the force in this book of scripture that was present at creation, a partner with God in creating the order of things (read Proverbs 8 for a lovely poetic description). So in this poetic sense, perhaps the “she” that’s referred to here - the “woman of valor” mentioned in verse 10 - isn’t just an ideal individual - but a personification of something else. What if we looked at the church in this light? Certain strains of Christian tradition refer to the church as “the Bride of Christ” - with the thought being that within the relationship between God and the Church, communities are invited to embody values that work in partnership with God, mirroring God’s presence, desires for justice, readiness for action, and steadfast lovingkindness in the world.
Even if we took this as a laundry list of values for individual Christians, we’d all fall short - but if we look at it as virtues and characteristics for the Church as a whole - the body of Christ, of which we are all members - then the whole body can carry and embody these things together.
AnaYelsi, writing at enfleshed, draws these points out: “As the bride of Christ, how are we as a community of believers living out the virtues of Proverbs 31, and what does our community need to do to look more like a Helpmeet [a partner] of God?”
She starts out her reflection with some very interesting questions - for example, “how many of our churches are so noble in character that the members of our community are moved to respect and praise God at our city gates? Are they able to speak of the good we do, the harm we prevent, the portions we provide and the wisdom we speak? Are we recognized for our laughter and the strength of our communities, not just the charm of our buildings?”
These are important questions for us to ponder as we consider how we carry ourselves forward as the Chebeague Community Church.
We talk a lot about welcome and belonging and we spend a lot of time holding out our welcoming statement, and ensuring that folks know that there is a space for belonging here. These are words that I would wager many in our community are familiar with - that on the whole, people connected to our island know that we say that we want to embody that kind of welcoming culture - and we’ve put our money where our proverbial mouth is in that regard in a pretty big way.
This is where our Mark passage dovetails nicely with our reading from Proverbs, even if on the surface they seem like two very disconnected passages. In this story, the disciples are bickering - as they are wont to do - over who is the greatest. Who is the best. Who has got it going on over all the other disciples. Maybe they were ticking off some biblical qualities personified in the psalms about kingship or leadership and who exemplified them the best. Jesus, keen on what they were discussing, talks about greatness not as the best...but as service to others, taking a backseat. In some ways, much like our woman of valor’s service to her household...much like the Church’s service to God. And then Jesus takes a child, and says 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
And in this welcome - it’s not one of being nice or kind. It’s not a welcome to create a safe space of belonging or because it’s the right and polite thing to do. As Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes, Jesus challenges: “Do you want to see what God looks like? Do you want to find God’s stand-in, hidden here among you? Are you curious about the truest nature of divine greatness? Then welcome the child. Welcome the child, and you welcome God.”
This isn’t the only time that Jesus makes welcome of children or the sick or the stranger or the imprisoned or the marginalized a direct comparison to experiencing God’s presence. Welcoming the Other - in this particular case, the child - is how you welcome God.
We welcome others not because we are loving or generous - we welcome others because we want to see what God looks like...and in that encounter, God shapes us into the community we are called and invited to be.
Both our Proverbs and Mark passages list these all these values and virtues - welcoming, intentionality of service, commitment to work and wisdom, not for self-acclaimed greatness or for making us strive for some unattainable goal - but to remind us that everything we are and everything we do is in service to God’s greater work and unfolding in the world.
Our work as the church isn’t to be great - it’s to be faithful. It isn’t to build up ourselves, but to be reflections of God - and lead others into that awareness of God’s presence. It isn’t to look out for ourselves, but to look out for the most vulnerable among us. Our work isn’t about self-preservation, but to partner with God for the work of the kin-dom among us.
If we keep these things in mind - that we do this work together for the sake of God’s greater work in the world, I think we’ll find the answers to the questions that we posed earlier...that we’ll be a community of radical welcome, of humble service, and great joy - that we will be “an inclusive, diverse and caring Christian community: worshipping, praying, witnessing, reaching out to all people on the Island and beyond, daring to grow and change as God calls us.”
May it be so for us as we grow together as the Chebeague Community Church. Amen.
Scripture - Selections from Isaiah 43
Readier 1: 43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Reader 2: 5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth--
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
Reader 3: 8 Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
9 Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, “It is true.”
10 You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Reader 4: 16 Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
In the early part of the 19th century, Methodist missionaries visited Casco Bay. The story goes that the island matriarch was removed - “excommunicated” - from the Congregational church when she joined the Methodists. They held class meetings and built a small meetinghouse. There were 19 members in 1814 - members of the Hamiltons, Bennets, Curits, Hutchinsons, and other families. Most of those 19 members were connected to the Hamiltons. I bet that some of you in this room can trace your family back to some of those people who started something new over 200 years ago.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
Things change and evolve. Families move on and off island, children are born and grow old, elders pass from this world to live on in memory and story. Legacies are forged, a heritage is fashioned, and roots deepen to nurture and feed the growth that buds on the tips of leaves and that pushes out the bark of the widening trunk. It is doubtful that any one of those people part of that first Methodist class meeting 200 years ago envisioned where we’d be today - but the seeds of this beginning have been nurtured from generation to generation - always blossoming, growing, changing, and dying - passed down in songs and story and ritual, some forgotten, some adapted, some fresh and new.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
The community that first heard our passage from Isaiah was a community in transition - they were the descendents of those who had been taken away from Jerusalem when the Babylonians conquered Judah. They were a people who had grown up in a foreign land, but who had heard the stories of how God had brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt - a people that had passed through the waters and experienced the challenges of settling in a new land. The people hearing these words would have most likely understood the reason for their exile as God’s judgment upon their ancestors and struggled with what faithfulness as God’s people meant.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
God led the Hebrew people out from slavery and formed them into a new kind of community before entering the Promised Land - in this way, God did a new thing among them. That was part of the Israelites’ story. And now, in our text, we see God’s desire to gather the exiles back to Jerusalem and yet again fashion them into a new kind of community - and that all the trials and struggles they endured through their time of captivity - the waters and the fire, the uncertainties and anxieties, the disorientation and wonderings - God was yet present with them...and was making a way for the next phase of their life together.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
I think about that with our own journey - about how God’s new thing worked in an island matriarch to start a class meeting here over 200 years ago...about how we are the heirs of the love and labor of the various incarnations of church here on this island throughout the generations - about how the church is never about individual people or pastors but is always about A People, living and breathing and working and loving together - A People bound and journeying together, open to being made and remade in God’s own image - A People claimed in the waters of baptism and who covenant together for the work of God’s unfolding kin-dom in this time and in this place.
And that’s where we stand - at the threshold of something new -- even as we inherit the legacy of the church past -- knowing that we have been entrusted to partner with Christ in the work of peace and justice -- knowing that we do so to pass the seeds of hope and love to those who will receive it 200 years from now.
God is about to do a new thing - it springs forth - do you perceive it?
Part of being able to perceive God’s action in the world is through remembering - remembering that we are baptized - that we are God’s people, that God has fashioned us, claimed us, that God has redeemed us, called us by name, that we belong to God...and because we belong to God, we belong to each other. We have gone through the waters of baptism, we have been sealed with the flame of the Holy Spirit. We are not held back by obligation to the past even as we give thanks and acknowledge our history - but we are not bound by it, proclaims our God.
And so as we are here as a people - even though we’re not in the same space, ready for God’s new thing - even though we may not know fully where that leads yet - to remember that we are baptized, to reaffirm our commitment to God and to each other,
Today we come to the waters,
to renew our commitments in each other's presence
to Christ who has raised us,
the Spirit who has birthed us,
and the Creator who is making all things new.
Scripture James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
James 1:17-27 (New Revised Standard Version)
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
I’m sure that many of you have heard the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I know it’s a mantra that I learned as a child, and one that I’m sure a well meaning adult taught me to help insulate myself from the boys who would tease me on the playground and call me names or the other kids who would make fun of my clothes. Yes, I was one of those kids that was mercilessly picked on in late elementary and early middle school, and I always wished I had that superpower that I know some of you have that can dismiss someone’s hurtful or mean comments as not affecting you and I have to say that I deeply admire the good boundaries those of you who can do this demonstrate.
Because the truth of it is - words can hurt us. Words can wound and demean and make us feel worthless. Words can also build us up and empower us and affirm us. What we say - and how we say it - comes out of who we are at our core. Out of the heart.
The other phrase that came to mind for me was the one “actions speak louder than words.” The Christian version of this is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” - we won’t unpack the nuances of that particular statement for this morning. Suffice to say that the power of words - and the power of actions play key roles in both our passages from Scripture this morning.
To start with Jesus, here he is having yet another conversation with the Pharisees, who have been critiquing his followers for not following the purity code. They weren’t following the prescriptions for ritual washing as observant Jews were expected to do. These codes and laws were meant to help preserve identity and tradition in the midst of a secular landscape - in this case, occupied Roman territory. The performance of these rituals helped define who was “in” and who was “out” - who is clean or unclean, who is part of “God’s people” and who is a Gentile or pagan. The Pharisees taught adherence to these codes, thinking that it is these practices and rituals, passed down from their elders and their elders’ elders and their elders’ elders’ elders as sacred tradition. Jesus laments that the Pharisees are missing the point - that they emphasize, in the words of Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus, rite over mercy, heritage over hospitality, ritual over compassion….that these actions take priority over the freedom of loving God and neighbor fully.
Even in this, Jesus doesn’t condemn them in their rule-following or in their desire for cleanliness before God - but notes that it isn’t what is on our hands or on our food or dishes that can defile - that can make us unclean or impure - but what comes out of us - the evil intentions that arise within our hearts are the problem.
James also takes the time to talk about what comes out of us - words and actions - and using the language that Jesus used, noted that the actions that are undefiled before God are care for others - the orphans and widows, and to let our actions be sourced in God’s generous love - every generous act of giving with every perfect gift, coming from above, coming as its source, from God’s heart.
In addition, James focuses specifically on words - knowing that words reveal something important about who we are - our beliefs, our motivations, our emotions - and expose us primarily to others, but also lead us to a greater awareness of ourselves. (For example, the more words you know that describe emotions, the greater capacity you have to understand and differentiate your emotional state of being).
Words have so much power - they describe, name, blame, label, convict, lecture, explain, persuade, condole, console, counsel, eviscerate, heal - words can alarm, harm, uplift, inspire, degrade, or silence someone. In the language of James and Jesus - words can defile if they come out of that place of evil intention...words can also lead to healing and wholeness. Words can delineate - who is in and who is out….or words can liberate - setting all of us free.
Where words have power, for James, actions give those words weight and meaning - they give our words life, they are the framework that underpins what we say, they are the means by which we are measured - there needs to be consistency between what we say and what we do...and for both James and Jesus, as we are drawn more deeply into the life of the kingdom, God becomes more fully the source of our words and actions, that we, in the language of John Wesley, are made more perfect in love.
I think we know how hard that can be - even as we tend to look down upon the Pharisees and think that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes - that we wouldn’t mistake religiosity for true authentic worship (that we would never say the “right” words and perform the “right” actions but live lives out of alignment with God’s love and purposes).
But we do - all the time. We cling to old traditions, we set up religious litmus-tests. We draw lines in the sand. We use words to hurt and injure. This is why we confess our sin each week in worship (and hopefully more often personally) to be honest with ourselves and with each other and with God so that our words and actions - so that our lives can be more in tune with God’s kingdom...and so that our words and actions can be truly life giving for others… and for ourselves.
All we need to do is pay attention - the advice Jesus - and James - give is to notice what comes out of you. Notice your words. Notice your actions. Are they in alignment? Do they lead to hospitality and inclusion? Greater compassion and freedom? Do they, as Debie Thomas writes, “lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table? Make you brave, creative, and joyful? Prepare your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new? Facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution?
Or do they make you small, stingy, and bored? Fearful, suspicious, withholding, and judgmental?”
Moreover, we can ask these questions of ourselves as a faith community - we have words of welcome - do our actions and decisions as a church, especially as we soon move into a new phase of being as the Chebeague Community Church, lead us to make accommodations so that all are welcome? Do our times of worship, prayer, and study equip us to practice what James calls “pure religion” - radical love for those on the edges and a deep trust in a God who is always creating all things new?
These are questions that invite us into a life of reflection - of paying attention, of discernment, of noting God’s movement in our life and in our church as we seek to become the people God created us to be. In that journey, we will be drawn ever more fully into the Source of all that is, the heart of God’s love, and we will find ourselves in that place where we are, as James puts it, “doers of the word” “practicers of pure religion” or as Jesus might name it, a place where our hearts are close to his. My prayer for us as we move forward today is that we find ways, with God’s help, to continually place our words and our actions before God - that they may be used to build a community of compassion and peace, forgiveness and hope, healing and justice. That we may move beyond our purity politics and religious litmus tests and to offer welcome at the Table for all who are hungry. That we may notice the kin-dom of God inbreaking among us and among this community...and in our world, and so be part of God’s redeeming work in this world. May it be so on this day and as we move forward together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.