Thursday, September 24, 2009

To be a friend of TextWeek is to be... ?

James 3:13 – 4:8a
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.

This is the Word of the Lord.

A funny thing happened this week. At my full-time job, we’re moving offices, and anytime you move a business from one place to another, things go wrong, usually at the worst possible time. Friday night, as I was wrapping up my paperwork, I noticed that the Internet connection had been lost. Beyond my dismay at not being able to access Twitter or FaceBook, or listen to music on Pandora, I didn’t think much of it… until it came time to put together the sermon.

For those of us who preach out of the Lectionary, there are a wealth of resources on the Internet: Commentaries and blogs and podcasts and sermons other folks have written, as well as prayers, calls to worship, and liturgies. Most or all of the sites allow use of the material if acknowledgement is given, which is why you’ll see a note in the bulletin most Sundays, and I’ll occasionally express appreciation to someone’s work for assistance in writing a sermon.

And all of a sudden, all of that was gone. I was left with a blank screen, a flashing cursor, and our New Testament reading from James. Now, I have to tell you that the Lectionary reading skips past part of what I read this morning, skipping from the end of verse three and picking up with verse seven. As a general rule, I ignore skips like that because I want to see what the people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary (not sure who “they” are, but I’ve heard them referred to as “The Elves”) were leaving out. What jumped out to me was this skipped passage, telling me that to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God.

And I thought, oh, no. Oh, great! Of all the weeks to be without my online resources! Of all the weeks for that to be the passage that resonated! What on earth does it mean? We have to make friends with people who aren’t Christians in order to invite them into relationship with God, don’t we? Am I only allowed to have Christian friends? What about things like television and radio and the Internet? Are we supposed to refrain from these things, maybe only watch TBN and listen to Family Radio? Am I an enemy of God for watching “Mythbusters” or listening to “Car Talk?” Am I a friend of the world for listening to Flogging Molly and Apocalyptica? Wait, is the passage talking about possessions?

“…When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasure.” I really like sushi, but I can’t make it so I buy it… am I at enmity with God because of it?

Man, I needed some answers fast! How was I going to get a sermon done without my tools, without my stuff?

I am not one of those folks who claims to hear the voice of God audibly speaking to me. I tend much more toward hearing the “still small voice” like the prophet Elijah more than Paul’s blinding Damascus Road experience. My epiphanies are more like ideas than Peter’s earth-shattering vision of a sheet full of unclean food being lowered from heaven. And yesterday evening, just about the time I was beginning to run around in small circles and scream in panic, “WhatamIgonnado? WhatamIgonnado?” I got one of those little nudges. I remembered what Tim and Evelyn have said to me several times about not relying so much on outside resources. I began to understand what God was saying through James – at least to me – about how friendship with the world is enmity to God. I began to see that the key word is balance, that the key indicator is in who or what we place our ultimate dependence. In a word, it is a discussion about idolatry.

Now, this is going to sound like I’m going down a rabbit trail, but bear with me, and I at least hope it will all come together in a few minutes. I think we can all agree that there is a difference between someone who is an acquaintance and someone who is a friend. Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a small circle, with other circles going out wider and wider from there. Kind of like you’re the bullseye of a target. In that outermost circle, and it’s farther out for some people than others, there are people who are passing acquaintances.

With acquaintances, we may share small talk, or just know them to look at them. I’ve traded comments with the Moderator of the General Assembly, Bruce Reyes-Chow, on Twitter, and we’re friends on FaceBook, but he doesn’t know me from Adam’s housecat. If I were to go up to Reverend Reyes-Chow and introduce myself, even with my Twitter username, I expect I would get a warm handshake and a smile, and a blank look in his eyes because he would have no idea who I was or what I was talking about. If he was backed into a corner and was feeling generous, Bruce Reyes-Chow might call me an acquaintance, maybe even call me a friendly person, but there’s no way either of us could honestly say we are friends. He would be in my outer circle.

Move in a little and you’d find Khad, who lives in Venice Beach, California and pastors Metamorphosis, a small-but-growing church that meets on Wednesdays at Saints and Sinners Bar in LA. I’ve known Khad for about a month, we’ve spoken on the phone for a few hours total, shared some text messages back-and-forth, have gotten pretty deep about theology and our lives, and are making plans to work together on some Internet broadcasts. I think it’s safe to say that Khad and I would call one another a friend, but so far our friendship is limited to common areas of interest: preaching, nontraditional worship, internet podcasts and reaching out with the love of Christ to the marginalized. It would be unfair to him, as well as presumptive and premature to call him my best friend ever.

Move in to my closest circle and you’ll find Ray, who I’ve known since we were in first grade. We grew up together, and even when we haven’t talked for months or even years, when we get together we pick right up where we left off. We know things about one another that no one else knows, and have talked about the deepest, darkest corners of our lives. I consider myself a wealthy man because as close as Ray and I are, he isn’t the only one in that closest circle.

And as far as they go, all of these are examples of healthy relationships. Each one carries an appropriate amount of intimacy and interdependence, and these are in balance. It is safe to say that God places people in our lives in all of these various circles for specific purposes in the Kingdom. The same goes for the tools and resources I was mentioning earlier, the commentaries and blogs and podcasts and online sermons. We can even add things like entertainment and income and possessions to the mix.

How ridiculous would it be if I felt like I had to have Bruce Reyes-Chow’s OK before I emailed the order or worship to Evelyn? How sad would it be if I made sure Khad approved of my sermon before I preached it? How pathetic would it be if I needed Ray’s approval to feel validated as a human being? In all of these cases, I would be bypassing healthy, interdependent relationships of one degree or another for relationships that are both unhealthy and codependent. What’s more, I would be participating in idolatry, because I would be putting these people in place of God. My friendships would become idols, and I would be at enmity with God.

It’s fine for me to read the sermons and the blogs and the commentaries online, but when I find myself unable to write a sermon because I can’t access them, and I need them so I can do a good job so I will sound learned and orthodox and oh yeah maybe it’ll be useful to the people who hear it I guess, the sermons and blogs and commentaries have ceased to become tools and have become idols.

But the more I think about it, it isn’t the people or the things that become idols, is it? Because I notice that all of the examples are about what I need. If we look at the text from James, the opposite of wisdom is envy and selfish ambition. The prayers are not answered because the object of my prayers is what I want and how I want to use what I ask for. So, really, the idol is not unhealthy friendships or possessions or anything like that. The idol is myself. I want, I “need,” I have to have… and like we’ve spoken about before, if we look at the world around us, we’ll hear how we need or deserve this or that thing – a cell phone so small it’s invisible to the naked eye, or a TV so large it doubles as a load-bearing wall.

What God expects from us is quite the opposite – not that we give up all earthly comforts, throw away our TV and live as hermits, but that we remove the focus from ourselves and place it upon God. What God wants from us is of primary importance, whether it’s our time, our talent, or our treasure.

Our reading today closes with these words, “Submit yourselves, then, to God.” Scripture has a lot to say about submission, not because if we submit enough, if we give up enough stuff, if we try hard enough to place ourselves under the authority of god then maybe God will notice and love us and forgive us, but because God has already noticed us, already loves us, already forgives us. We submit to God because God, in Christ, has given all on our behalf. We draw near to God because God has drawn near to us.

Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

  1. Good post. With more and more interactions on Twitter and even on FB, I have found that after a few reminders, I have actually met people in person for whom those interactions created an increased sense of knowing who the person is. Thanks!