Sunday, September 2, 2018

15 Pentecost

September 2, 2018

James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

+ As most of you know, I have been slowly moving into the twin home in which my mother lived. In the process, I have been making it slowly my own place. Which means, of course, making it a bit…midcentury.

This past week my brand new bar was delivered. Yes, I know. It’s weird that your teetotaling priest—a person who does not drink alcohol—is getting a bar.

But, I love this bar. It looks so cool! And hip!

But this past week I did not love this bar. If any of you are my Facebook friends, you saw this FB update on Tuesday night:


I was at my worst that night. I may have said a few things that night that I may be a bit ashamed by now. I may even have said some words that I didn’t even know I knew.  I may have thrown a few things.

We’ve all done this in our lives. We’ve lost it. We’ve been our worst. We’ve shown our shadow side, shall we say. And we all have one—a shadow side, a dark side of our very selves.    

In today’s Gospel reading, we get a list from Jesus of some things the shadow sides of people do.  This list that Jesus lays out is a pretty strong and straightforward one.  And an uncomfortable one.  And most of us can feel pretty confident we’re free and clear for the most of the ones he lists.  

After all, most of us don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, aren’t purposely wicked, are deceitful, don’t slander A few we might not really understand: avarice (which is just another word for greed)? licentiousness (which just means immorality, being immoral)? Yes, we’re not guilty of these!

Then there’s folly? Folly? What’s so horrible about folly? Folly could be seen as being frivolous or ridiculous.

But then, there are a few we find might actually hit home a bit, such as Envy and Pride.

For me, these two are the two that stumble me up the most.  These are the two of this whole list that I struggle with and fight against and try to overcome in my life. Yes, I have been envious of others. And, on occasion, I have been prideful.

What is especially apt about this morning’s Gospel reading is that Jesus takes these ugly things—these things from our shadow side—and uses them to engage fully the Pharisees and the scribes.

Now again, Pharisees and scribes were the righteous religious ones of Jesus’ Jewish world.  The Pharisees followed very strictly the Law. And the Scribes were the ones who meticulous copied out the scrolls of the Law.  These were the experts of the Law of their age.

Jesus takes their condemnation of him about cleanliness and keeps the conversation going regarding cleanliness.  He simply takes their conversation up a notch. He says, You are worried about what defiles the hands.  I am concerned with what defiles the heart.

The heart, for Jewish people of Jesus’ day, was truly the center of one’s being.  From the heart everything emanated.  The heart directed the mind.  It directed one’s thoughts.  

If your heart was pure, then you were pure.  

If your heart was evil, then you did evil.

Because where your heart leads, your actions follow.

Hence, his list of things that revealed the shadow side. If our heart is full of pride, or envy, or lust or frivolous folly, then are hearts are not filled with God and love.   

But one that I am surprised Jesus did not list here is “anger.”  And if we did that to the list, then this would win the prize with me.

Certainly last Tuesday night when I was trying to set up that bar!

Now most of you know me as a pretty laid-back kind of person for the most part.  I don’t seem to fly off the handle very often.  I don’t think there have been too many people who have actually seen me completely lose it with anger. OK. Some of the wardens may have seen it.

But recently I have been finding myself dealing with a strange anger that I have had within me since my mother died.  I’m told this kind of grief-induced anger is normal. 

Maybe.   And to be fair, it doesn’t always explode to the surface (which can either be a good thing or a really bad thing).

But it’s there and everyone so often I am forced to confront it. When I do, I find myself experiencing this terrible anger in all its force.  And I don’t like it.  And I don’t like me when I am the throes of that kind of anger.

Anger can be all-consuming.  When it boils up from within, all other senses seem to shut off—or it shuts them off.  It rages and roils and knocks me—and anyone else around me—around, and in the midst of it, I find I am not only angry, but almost scared by the intensity of my anger.

Which only, of course, leads us to our reading from James for this morning.  Now, I LOVE the Epistle of James. And I have never understood why people like Martin Luther felt that it should be excluded from the Canon of Scripture (along with Hebrews, Jude and Revelation).  His reasons for doing so were because they were against Luther’s doctrines of sola gratia (or grace alone) and sola fide (faith alone).

Luckily, we’re Episcopalians and we are not bound by Luther’s doctrines.  Grace alone and faith alone are not doctrines of Anglicanism.  

Luther very famously called the epistle of James an “epistle of straw.” But, what a waste if James was not a part of our scriptures!  And let me tell you, with all due respect to Luther (who most you know I actually really do love and respect)  it is no “epistle of straw.” It is a beautiful book. And I am especially grateful for the scripture we get from James this morning:

“…be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

What a wonderful world this would be if we all did just that. Anger is something that needs to be confronted and dealt with.  It needs to be systematically phased out, because it is like poisoning in our systems.  It destroyed us and those around us.

And, as James says, “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

If we think about our heart being the center of our being—as the center of ourselves— we find that anger truly does poison the heart and therefore the whole system.  When we harbor anger in our hearts, we are a slave to anger.  And if we are a slave to anger, we cannot let love flourish. And if we cannot let love flourish, God cannot come and dwell within us.  

We block out God and we block out the Kingdom of God. Anger does not help the Kingdom break through into our midst.  We are not helping build up the Kingdom when anger rules us. In fact, we hinder the Kingdom of God when we are angry.

So, these words of James speak strongly to us this morning.

“Be quick to listen, be slow to speak, slow to anger.”

We know how speaking sows the seeds of anger.  And if we’re speaking, we are not listening.  And sometimes, when we listen, we find that anger can be defused.

“Be slow to anger”.

I have come to conclusion that, like despair (as you heard me say again and again), anger is simply not an acceptable Christian response.  Like despair, which squeezes out all hope, anger squeezes out hope and love.  It is simply impossible to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves when we are filled with anger, when the storms of anger are raging within us.  

Anger prevents love.  It stifles love.  It kills love. And yet, it is such a human response. The fact is,  we will feel anger. And sometimes, the anger we feel is a righteous anger—an anger at things like injustice and racism and homophobia and sexism. We should feel a righteous anger about those things. It’s just that we should not let anger consume us.

But let us be clear about what James is saying to us. He isn’t saying that we shouldn’t get angry on occasion. He is simply saying we should be slow to anger. We don’t need to fly off the handle.  We should not react in anger. There are times when we may simply need to walk away from something that makes us angry.

Like a cool midcentury bar. Which I did. After not getting anything done in
that overwhelming anger on Tuesday night, I just walked away from it.  And then tackled it again a few days later. And guess what? I finished it! And it looks great!

This is how being slow to anger sometimes works. Sometimes we just need to recognize anger and what it is in our lives. But we don’t always have to engage it. And we should never let it be the driving force of our lives.

So, let us listen to James.  

Let us use his words as our own personal motto.  

Let his words speak in us.  Let love squeeze out all anger from our lives.

Let us banish from our hearts—the center of our very being—anything that prevents love from reigning there.

Let us banish from it those vices—both easy to banish and difficult to banish—so that pureness can exist within us.

And if we do that, God’s love will settle upon the very center of our being. And in that moment, God’s love will give us an everlasting peace that no anger can destroy.

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