Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"A Religion of Deeds"

The Book of James and a Religion of Deeds

As I look towards a new year, I am looking to this Letter of James to the early churches. And, what I find in this letter is a new word for the church in our day. Let me read a couple of passages from this letter to introduce this new word:

Chapter 1, vv.26-27: “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.”

Chapter 2, vv. 1-4: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

Chapter 2, vv. 14-17: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Chapter 2, v. 18: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

Chapter 3, vv. 13-15: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”

And, since James learned from the Master, I ought to quote the fountain of this wisdom: In Matthew, Chapter 7, vv. 22, we hear these words of Jesus: “Not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my father in heaven.”

In this new year, I hear this ancient letter speaking a present and living word about A RELIGION OF DEEDS.

We live amidst a society saturated with religious influence. And, yes, I know, we also live in a society full of irreligious, secular influence. But, you can’t go too far, at least not in the Bible belt where we are, without hearing someone say “Jesus” or “praise God” or “church,” or something else about “I’ll pray for you.” And, you can’t go too far in your channel flipping on cable or satellite tv without running into preachers and religious music and teachers of all sorts. And, when you come to church, you are encouraged to “have faith,” to “believe,” to “keep the faith,” and to believe in your hearts in the grace of God. You are encouraged to confess your sins in prayer before God, to grasp his forgiveness by deeply believing in your souls. Now, all of these points are important for so many of us. Belief, inner conviction, silent or vocal prayer. These, we might say, are at the very heart of what it means to be a believer in God. We might say that all of these are right at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

James challenges this approach to religion. James strikes a strong chord of challenge. “I by my works will show you my faith.” Faith without works is dead. And, to make his point, James adds: “So you believe that God is one. . . even the demons believe!!” Sure, faith is made up partly of inner conviction, and expressed belief, but, even more central faith is “a way of life.”

When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t say: “recite this creed, say out loud that you believe in me.” He said simply: “Follow me!” Again, Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

Now, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, because prayer is part of that following. Prayer is that communion that inspires, and consoles. But, everything is about the way of life – the following, or, as James would say “works.” In the early church, we are told in Acts that Christianity was simply called “THE WAY.” James reminds us that Christianity is at it most basic level “A WAY OF LIFE.”

The well known instruction of the early church is recorded in a book called “THE DIDACHE,” which means “the teaching.” It begins like this: “There are two ways, one of life, and one of death, and great is the difference between the two ways.”

Some people take right to the language of faith, the creeds, the praises, the sacred rituals. And, for some people, these churchly things just don’t make much sense (or, you could say, these worship rituals and responsive readings and hymns just don’t do much for them). Of course, you and I may be moved by the language of faith, the creeds, holy songs on one day, and, then, on another day, we aren’t touched or affected at all. So, I think we know a little more about the lack of interest that some have in church - more than we like to admit. Because, this lack of interest comes into our lives and hearts as well. And, I’m not here to chide anybody for having days or even Sundays when their heart is just not very moved by holy words and holy songs or holy rituals. Because there are days when we say the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, but do not feel the reality that the Creed and Prayer point to. There are days when even our prayers seem so empty as to be unreal. There are days when the language of faith doesn’t do much for us. Yes, there are days like this even for those who feel it is almost second nature to pray and believe. So, on days like this are you a Christian? On days like this are you still a believer? James helps us out here, and unites to all who struggle to find a way of truth in this world.

James tells us: “The way of faith – if it is real – is all about the walk, and very little about the talk.” If you asked James: “is so and so a Christian?” James would answer: “Let me live around them for awhile, and see their way of life, and I’ll let you know.” And, I’m beginning to think that God’s saving power is more in the walk than the talk. As James said: “True religion is this: to care for those who have no one else to care for them, and to remain unstained by the world.” The most important thing in the New Testament was not what Jesus said, but what he did, which of course was united with what he said.

Religion comes down to a way of life amidst destructive forces in this world. It is about real life right in the here and now. It is serious challenge in the world to show mercy and remain uncorrupted by the world. There is a way of life in the world, and there is a way of death. Whereever human love and liberty and hope and purpose are being crushed the power of death is at work. Wherever human love and liberty and hope and purpose are being renewed and upheld, the power of life is at work. We believe in the God who works life out of death, who brings hope out of hopelessness, and who brings it in the here and now, in the flesh and blood Jesus shared out lot in life, to blaze a trial of life amidst a world of death, to cut out a path of hope in a forest of hopelessness.
But, even though Jesus cleared this trail of life for us, we, in the church have so often never walked on it. Its like he layed down his life to make a way for us, and we said: “We believe that you did that,” and somehow thought that belief was all that was required of us. I can almost hear Jesus saying: “Do you think I did what I did so you would believe in me and celebrate me?” Do you really think I care if anyone believes in me? All I wanted, ever wanted is for all of you to find the way to life, the way out of death, to way out of hatred, and hopelessness to a good land of love and peace and purpose and hope. I didn’t go through all of that so that you would gather in pretty buildings and say pretty prayers and sing pretty songs and say you believe in me, and say how great I am . The way from death to life is a real way, a real walk, a real struggle. You can’t believe your way through the woods; you’ve got to walk. You can’t sing your way to the good and broad land; you’ve got to climb the way of faith. There are people walking way ahead of you, approaching the powerful and good land of life. And, many of them don’t even know the songs of the church yet; they don’t even know that I am the one who blazed the trial. But, they have a taste for life, and a hatred for sin and death. And, they are on the way. When they get there, they will know me by name; they will know the one they honored without knowing exactly why. And, then, o yes, we will sing those praises, praises of joy to our great God, our gracious creator.

But, I don’t want to shut down before I bring it down even more clearly. James brought it right down to where we could touch it, taste it, even feel what he was saying.

What if we say: “God, I believe in you and that Jesus is your way of life in the world.” It is just as well, and even better, to simply follow that way of life in the world. There will be time enough to talk about it along the way, to enjoy and give thanks to God and share our inner convictions with each other along the way. But, the real important point is to walk in that way of life. So, what is this way of life? What does it look like? It looks like Jesus life did in this world.

-mercy on outcasts

-humility in prayer

-other’s needs over security of self

-openness to goodness wherever it is found

-courage to do God’s will without fear of human authority

What did your path look like this Christmas? Just like it looked throughout the year, probably. But, maybe Christmas makes it easier for us to focus on the way, and what it really looks like, feels like. The way Christmas is celebrated in our society is an strange mix of some real good things with some real bad things. And, a good time to ask about Christmas is after Christmas day, because then you start to get a feeling for what kind of Christmas it really was. Whether it was true or whether it felt false. Did we find a path of life through Christmas or did we get caught up in the way of death? But, maybe I ought to back up when I use terms like path of life, and path of death. Because I am talking broadly. When I say path of life, I am talking about those things which enhance life (such as a positive word from another) in distinction from those things that break down life (such as a word of condemnation or insult from another). I am talking about the path of life as an experience of walking down the street and enjoying the Christmas lights and thinking on good things at night, or, the path of death, as an experience of once again feeling you are broken by misunderstanding and wrong words said, and wrong deeds done that have broken a relationship with someone you love. Those things that raise our hearts, give us energy, enhance and strengthen the power and feeling of being alive – that’s what I’m talking about it feels like on the path of life. Those things that burden our hearts, take our energy, distort and twist and weaken the feeling of life within us, and leave us feeling more dead than alive – that’s what I’m talking about it feels like on the path of death. And, all of us know something about both paths, I think.

What we all need is encouragement and some good instruction and examples and above all, opportunities to find our way on the path of life, and to find our way off of the paths of death.

What does the path of life look like? It looks like my Dad coming in the morning and inviting me to breakfast, letting me know I was still a part of the family after I had badly violated the trust of my parents the night before. I had been on that path of death the night before and awakened on the path of life.

What does the path of life look like? It looks like a mother and daughter hugging each other after a long separation has been broken through. They had felt the pain of the path of death which brings separation even while we are alive, and they broke through to the path of life which brings reconciliation while we are still alive.

What does the path of life look like? It looks like the face of my Dad who has come to the hospital to check on my 2 & 4 yr old children who are both critically sick. It looks like my little daughter, at two, standing up on that hospital bed with the iv still in her arm that morning after the fever had broken. It looks like my little son, at 4 years old, sitting up and smiling in a hospital bed after he is starting to turn the corner after being critically sick.

What does the path of death look like? It looks like me walking around deeply discouraged because I’ve not listened, but only spoken, in a way that hurt someone I loved in their time of need.

What does the path of death look like? It looks like choosing some quick way to happiness and forgetting who you really love in life.

What does the path of death look like? It looks like a man who has given more importance to drinking and partying than to his own family, and now he has lost his family – maybe his health as well.

But, the path of life looks like the prodigal son, like so many prodigal sons and daughters, coming to his senses amidst filth and ugliness and immorality and remembering the path back to his father’s house – it is the determination in his eyes that says: “I am going home; I am going home; come hell or high water, I’m going home!!”

We are called to get up and follow along the way of life.
It is a way - Jesus cleared the way – the pioneer of the way of life. Jesus said to the paralyzed man after he had forgiven his sins: “GET UP AND WALK.” So, I say to you: THE WAY OF LIFE IS BEFORE YOU. GET UP AND WALK IN IT. AMEN.

Jan. 4, 2009, 1st United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

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