This was the message I presented at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (Bartlett, TN) for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (B), 31 August 1997. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Song of Songs 2: 8-13; James 1: 17-27; and Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23. (This has been edited since it was first published. Not sure why I had it listed as the 14th Sunday after Pentecost but my records suggest that it should be the 15th Sunday.)
There have been a number of reports in the news recently about drivers affected with what has become known as “road rage.” You can tell who these drivers are; they are the ones who rapidly change lanes, who come up behind you on the interstate driving faster than everyone else and flash their lights at you so that you will get out of your way. In the most extreme cases, they will even use their cars as battering rams or pull out a gun and shoot you. While these reports focus on towns such as Los Angeles where the car has become a part of daily life; we, as drivers in Memphis, know all too well that this “disease” is a part of the driving process here as well. And while I would like to think that going to work at 5 in the morning and coming home at 3 in the afternoon, supposedly non-peak driving times, would offer refuge from such drivers, I have seen too many examples of this phenomenon.
I really do not see nor do I understand why people want to drive this way. But I do know that this lack of civility is not limited to just the roads. I have seen people at the airport become irritated by delays in their flight and then blame the airlines, yet the reasons for the delay could not be controlled by the airlines. And I am sure that you have encountered people in your work who get angry if you do not take care of their request at that very moment. It is almost has if they have never heard the words of James,
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
In our rush to gain a better life, I think we have forgotten how to live. One of my favorite passages from the old Testament is Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8
- For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:
- a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
- a time to kill, and a time to heal;
- a time to break down, and a time to build up;
- a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
- a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
- a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
- a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
- a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)This passage, along with the next verse “what gain have the workers for their toil?” (Ecclesiastes 3: 9), make even more sense when you know that the writer of Ecclesiastes, thought to be Solomon, wrote of the emptiness in his life even though his riches were seeming unlimited and he was widely acknowledged as the wisest man on earth.
Do we not feel the same way? We are seemingly forced by society into actions which leave us wanting but with no way to find solace in our long. With society’s demands on us, with the pressures of our peers to be like them, how can we continue being a Christian? This is perhaps the most difficult question facing Christians today. For as the church interacts with the secular world, it becomes more of the secular world and less of the spiritual world. What then, how can we exist in this world?
Do we pack up our bags and remove ourselves from society? Throughout history, there have been many cases of such decisions. Many monasteries were built as a means of providing the solitude and isolation from society the members of the community would need so that they could achieve a better spiritual life.
In our own American history, there are a number of instances where spiritual communities were built in an attempt to create an environment separate from contemporary society. The Amana colonies of Iowa are such an example.
Yet today, we know of the Amana colonies more for the quality of the appliances they built rather than the spiritual heritage that the colonies were built upon. While the appliances bearing the Amana name have longed been considered a good product, not many people know the history of the towns and the company that developed them. The same can be said for Shaker furniture. Shaker furniture is highly prized by antique dealers; yet the Shaker philosophy of simplicity is in direct contrast to the prices paid for the products of their work. So it is possible to be a Christian and gain wealth, but those who seek out Shaker furniture and Amana products probably know nothing of the Christian heritage that was behind those products. And that may be more of the problem than even we realize. We follow the ways of society without thinking about what society is demanding.
When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples, they were not criticizing their culinary procedures but their failure to follow age-old traditions. Now, those age-old traditions came from what we would call common sense. It does make sense to prepare your food so that it is clean and safe to eat (and with all the news recently about food safety, that is even more the case today). But tradition practiced without an explanation soon loses its meaning. The culinary practices that the Pharisees demanded as tradition had come about from the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness many years before. And while the tradition of being clean had been kept, the reasons for the traditions had not.
As Jesus told the Pharisees,
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
As James wrote,
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
How are we to live our life? I entitled my sermon “One Life to Live” not because I am a soap opera fan but because we do have only one life to live. Jesus told his disciples, in response to the Pharisees’ criticism
“Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean'”.
“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”
Our actions in the world today reflect that which is in us.
Do not merely listed to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what is says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what he says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. but the man who looks intently into perfect law that gives freedom, and he has heard, but doing it — he will be blessed in what he does
This sermon should not be seen as an indictment of society even though both the Epistle and Gospel readings for today seemed to have a list of don’ts in them. There is a way to leave our lives that does lead to satisfaction. James started by telling us that.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
And I close with this thought
And you, too, youthful reader, will realize the Vision (not the idle wish) of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate toward that which you, secretly, most love. Into your hands will be placed the exact results of your own thoughts; you will receive that which you earn; no more, no less. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise with your thoughts , your Vision, your Ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; a s great as your dominant aspiration . . .
In all human affairs there are “efforts”, and there are “results”, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result. Chance is not. “Gifts”, powers, material, intellectual, and spiritual possessions are the fruits of efforts; they are thought completed, objects accomplished, visions realized.
The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart — this you will build your life by, this you will become. “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen.
What will you become? What life will you live? As James said, we have been given a special gift, the gift of Jesus Christ. All we have to do to accept that gift is open our hears and allow Christ to reside within us.