Scripture: Psalm 26, James 2: 14-26 ~
Some weeks it is effortless to prepare a message for Sunday morning worship.
These are the days and weeks that feel and evolve like I am connected to God, led by the Spirit, and guided by the gospel of Jesus as I move through time.
Last week was not one of those weeks.
Early in the week I reflected on Psalm 26 and found myself wondering about what kind of house for/of God St. Nicholas is.
Then I read an article on Homiletics Online that spoke of the psalmists mixed response of both joy and disappointment in attending worship:
“In today’s psalm, we read about another “house,” the house of the Lord. O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell” (v. 8).
The writer of Psalm 26 is absolutely crazy about the temple of the Lord, the place in which God’s glory lives (v. 8), and goes into God’s house to sing thanksgivings and speak of God’s wondrous deeds (v. 7). The psalmist wants nothing more than to stand on level ground and bless the Lord in the middle of the congregation (v. 12).
But many of the people who have lived in the house over the years have not behaved themselves. As the writer of the psalm approaches God’s house and remarks, “I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked” (vv. 4-5).
Both the temple of ancient times and the church of today have suffered at the hands of worthless hypocrites and wicked evildoers.”
I think everyone here would agree this is true. Today this is the claim of many who have no interest in either religion or the Church.
On Wednesday I read an article in Huffington Post by a self-identified “millennial” dissatisfied with the Church; even churches that seem progressive. The article, titled “Churches Could Fill Their Pews with Millennials if They Just Did This” by Christian Chiakulas, gives two reasons for declining attendance church attendance and membership:
- “Some millennials will never be interested in church,” (which is true in every generation, and has been from the beginning).
- “Those of us that are amenable to the idea of joining a congregation want it to mean something. We want more than just a group of people to sing songs … Do you know what we would buy? Jesus the man, Jesus the prophet, the Jesus that fashioned a whip of cords and overturned the tables of money changers for making God’s house a den of robbers … I spent an hour and a half at church one week and the name ‘Jesus’ was not mentioned a single time. I’m all for love and a personal relationship with God, but I choose to follow the man who teaches that political action is worship, that social justice is love.”
This young man’s comments led me to recall what church planners were saying “back in the day” in terms of attracting those who were then the quickly-disappearing young; Baby Boomers.
Back then the lament focused around the lack of personal relationships, spiritual practices and congregations so anchored in the structures of committees, boards, and Parliamentary Procedure that belonging to a church sometimes felt like being a part of any secular institution — and all of this took place during a time in our culture when traditional institutions were beginning to be held in great suspicion by persons seeking deeper connections with God and neighbor.
Both then and now the common thread is that some ultimately come to realize the essential importance of both worship and spiritual practices, and political and practical action.
As James points out about faith and works, it is not a question of either/or, but of both/and.
We worship in community and embrace personal spiritual practices; we also seek ways to care for the marginalized, poor and oppressed, engaging in political and we do these things because these are the things that Jesus did.Jesus worshiped in community. Jesus embraced spiritual practices such as fasting and prayer. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, visited and ate with outcasts.
Jesus also challenged the religious and political structures of his day, exposing hypocrisy, teaching mercy, and calling for radical change in both social and religious practices for the sake of the poor, the isolated, and the exploited.
As followers of Jesus today, this is the basis of everything we do as a congregation.
It is why we worship, and it is also why we become involved in supporting projects like Kristin Park’s mission to Haitian refugees living in Honduras.
It is the reason we collected items and sent 66 Health Kits to The United Methodist Committee on Relief in response to earthquake disasters.
Following Jesus is why some of us drive miles to participate in political processes, attend conferences, or engage in local community projects.
Last Thursday evening I was invited to offer the Prayer of Invocation and the Benediction at the annual Hulls Heroes Awards.
Five individuals and one organization — Hull Seaside Animal Rescue shelter — received honors that night, and one thing I heard each recognized hero say is that whatever they did, they did because of the efforts and support of many others; and because they knew it was the right thing to do.
And though none of the women and men receiving this award spoke directly about the connection between the works for which they were being recognized and their spirituality, many did reference a faith community to which they belonged in their acceptance remarks.
The fact they invited me, a clergyperson, to offer a Prayer of Invocation, and a closing Benediction marked the whole event as grounded in the connection between what James calls faith and works.
Then, on the late evening news, I watched the heartbreaking story of another mass shooting, this time in a small rural town in my home state of many years, Oregon.
I have been to Roseburg a few times, and Deborah and I have visited friends there as well. Other than for the prevalence of guns in Southern Oregon, it is one of the last places I can think of where you would expect something like this to happen.
When I heard President Obama speak about this and lament in frustration the growing occurrence and routineness of this kind of horrific and brutal violence, I shared his prayer and sentiment when he said:
“I hope and pray that I don’t have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But based on my experience as president, I can’t guarantee that. And that’s terrible to say. And it can change.”
What happened Thursday morning in Roseburg affected the direction of this message. I found myself asking: how does an ancient psalmist’s writing about loving God’s house and despising evildoers, a contemporary young man’s expression of dissatisfaction with all churches, and James’ insistence on the balance between faith and works possible relate to such violence?
Then I reread Psalm 26, and stopped at the words saying, “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you” (vv. 1-3)
This plea reminded me of Christian Chiakulas’ article and his statement about desiring to belong to a “church that meant something” and to follow Jesus, the human prophet and agent /advocate of social and religious change.
Both are seeking to walk in faithfulness; both are seeking a place or hoping for an experience that will provide direction.
Interestingly, both are suspicious of those around them, and have an awareness of hypocrites and evildoers present in the gathering, and perhaps questioning whether or not they can find faith, spiritual community or practical guidance in such a place.
I cannot answer that final, doubtful question for either of them.
However, I can say that the importance and meaningfulness of the Church is greater than either the imperfection of its members or any perceived insignificance of its gatherings by those un-invested in its welfare.
Neither the Church as a whole, nor any congregation I have ever served is perfect.
Neither the Church as a whole nor any congregation I have ever served has achieved world peace, brought an end to hunger, poverty, homelessness, bigotry, or oppression; or established any form of economic justice even close to resembling what Jesus describes.
Still, I believe the little things we do make a big difference; a difference not only for others but for us who do them.
Last Monday during Bible study we watched a video during which retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong talked of the church as never meant to be a powerful majority as the world understands power, but, rather, like leaven, a little salt, a little light in the darkness.
These little things are the hope. This is what Jesus said, and this is why we do the things we do.
I invite you to keep these things in mind as we share Communion together this morning. Communion, the symbol of the broken and scattered made whole again through the love of God, in the body of Christ. Amen.
Originally delivered October 4, 2015 — World Communion Sunday — by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.