Yesterday I challenged everyone to read through James this week. Look for every occurrence of the word "brothers" or "brethren" or the phrase "brothers and sisters" and pay attention to what it says when it says it.
I said to write down what it says, then do what it says.
Now, to be clear, "brothers and sisters" is rarely the point. It's the context of the point. If you received a letter from me addressed to you personally, the point of the letter wouldn't be "dear you." The "dear you" would say how you're to hear it. Similarly if you received a letter from me addressed to "Members of Sarasota Community Church" it creates context about how to hear it.
In this we're reading things addressed (so to speak) as "dear brothers and sisters," or "dear family."
I'll walk through the first chapter, just to give an example of how I would do it.
Example #1: Verse 2
2Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Just thinking out loud about that, I notice that James starts out his letter writing about trials. And when he does, he addresses his comment to us as "brothers and sisters." And then he says that not only do we need to persevere in trials, but there is value in the perseverance it produces for us. We can read that as a personal challenge or lesson, which it is of course, but we can also read it as family.
He is writing to us as family of his. And he is writing to us as family of each other. When we face trials, we do it as family.
What does it say to do as family? Persevere under trial. We might add "as family" or "together." So I might write it as this: "Persevere together under trial." And today I will do that with whatever I face.
Example #2: Verse 16
16Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
As I read that, it doesn't really sound like the gifts of God are a threat of deception, so I read what comes before it to see if the statement is referencing what has already been said. And sure enough, verses 13-15 help it make sense:
13When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. 16Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters...
How I think it through, James is writing about temptation, and the threat of deception, and he addresses it in the context of family. There must be value in recognizing and resisting deception together.
So what is he saying to do? "Make sure you're not deceived by temptation." And if I add the "family" or "together" emphasis, I might write it out as this: "Together, watch out for deception so that you don't give into temptation." And I prayerfully renew my devotion to do that today.
Example #3: Verse 19
19My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry...
Again, thinking out loud: When James writes to us about how to hear better, and how not to lose our temper, it seems obvious that he'd put it in the context of relationship. But I wonder how often we try to conquer these things on our own? What if we actually looked to each other as family to help each other do those things? What if we actually confessed our short comings to each other? What if we said, "I'm sorry, I was too quick to criticize," or "I should've listened to what you were saying before I answered." And what if we said, "I don't feel like you've really heard me. Can I have your undivided attention to really hear what I'm saying, and then I'd love to hear what you have to say about it." What if the family of believers was the context in which, not only are our shortcomings magnified, but where they're overcome?
That's how I think this through.
So what is James saying to do? "Don't talk over each other, and don't be so quick to perceive insult or lose your temper. Instead, take time to listen to each other as family." And so I take that to heart today, not just to study it, but to actually do what it says. This will affect how I converse with people. It should.
So that's how I do the first three occurrences in James. Read the rest of James for yourself.
Learning to study scripture is worth your time, and not beyond your reach.
Study not just to learn what it teaches. Study to do what it says. And in this week's lesson, learn to notice what scripture says about being "brothers and sisters" in Christ. And then put it to action.
Again, if you didn't hear yesterday's message yet, you can watch it here.
Your brother in Christ,
Yesterday, after the message, someone thanked me for the strong message. Another said it's the best sermon they've ever heard. Someone else thanked me for preaching the hard truth. But then a close friend of mine asked me: "But do you think people are hearing what you're saying?"
I live with that question.
Here's what I've been saying.
The times are hard, and hard times call for patient endurance. It may feel like the world is falling apart, but we should receive this as encouragement that we are in the Last Days. Just make sure that you're a Follower of the Way and not just just a follower of a spiritualized version of the American Dream. The American Dream is great, but it's not the gospel. The gospel is not about just having a better life.
In fact, if you want to grow your faith, devote yourself to these four things: the apostles' teachings, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer. That is the simplest expression of what it means to be Church! And yes, that highlights the fact that our larger view of church is pretty narrow. We tend to come to church for a worship experience that we enjoy. We get that wrong about worship: worship isn't for you, it's from you. Worshiping God is giving him our entire life.
But we tend to see church as something that helps us get better. And it does, I'm sure. But I think the way we've been doing church has, in some ways, made us worse rather than better.
I keep an eye on the Church. And as I see how attached we are to our above ground systems and structures, I wonder: Would our faith survive underground if it had to? That's a disturbing thought because I'm afraid it wouldn't. Like, I'm afraid that if any of the things we call "church" were taken away, our faith would feel very unfamiliar to us. If we ever had to abandon the sacred things we've made out of "stone, wood, and paper," I wonder if we would feel abandoned by God.
That thought burdens me because, for many, I think the answer is Yes, we would feel abandoned by God. And we just might abandon our faith.
So that's why I keep preaching what I'm preaching about why God has been shaking the Church. He's trying to show us a better way. He's inviting us to a better practice of our faith, and to (I think) a better imagination of what it means to be Church.
There's so much wrong with the Church -- meaning the way we do church. We have run ourselves ragged under a "church growth model" where we think that increasing the size of an organized body of believers with a mission statement, is the same as making disciples. (It's profoundly not.) And because of that confusion, we have become dependent on pastors and the programs they're able to produce, as if that's the solution to this world's problems. If things go bad, hire a better servant. And now we have weak (worn out) pastors and weak (lazy) parishioners to show for it.
I'm not complaining about you for me; I'm fine.
I'm "complaining" about us for God; we're not fine!
And so I believe that he has brought this shaking of our faith to show the quality of our faith. And much of the things that we relate to as faith are failing under the shaking.
I pray that we don't squander this opportunity to build faith well. Because I don't think the shaking is over. That's just my sense. I believe there is danger ahead. It's a storm that will cause the faith of many to slide off of the road, and the love of many to grow cold.
But, like I said yesterday, it's not a storm that's coming, it's a storm that's already here. It's up ahead, in the pass between here and where we're going. And if we keep on going like we're going, we're going to suffer loss for it.
I know it's a sober word.
When I read yesterday what Paul said in Acts 27:21-25, I had the sense that the same could be said for most churches in this season: "We are going to suffer loss to the structures and systems that have been carrying us, but God has graciously given us the lives of all who remain true to him."
I'm not sure how long I'll keep having to bring this message, or how long people can bear it. And I don't know if it's possible to "pastor" a church with a hard message week after week -- like I don't know if people will tolerate it for long. But I also don't believe it's possible to "pastor" a church without doing what I can to protect it from any danger I see.
And all I know is that, week after week, when I ask him to give me a message of comfort, he keeps impressing upon me to bring a message of warning. And so I do.
Am I claiming to speak as a prophet?
I'm not predicting the future. I'm speaking only as one who is looking into the sky and seeing evidence of a storm brewing. And who is looking up ahead and seeing that the storm is already here. Call it what you will. I think of it as discerning the scriptures, discerning the times, making observations, and hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And declaring what I believe is God's will.
These days it's a hard message. But it's not doom and gloom. If you have opportunity to laugh and enjoy life, do it! I'm able to find joy in many things these days.
But don't forget to be sober-minded about these things. We shouldn't be hyping each other up with a message that everything's going to be fun if we just believe. Our message is one of hope that, whatever God brings tomorrow, he will be faithful in it, and those of us who are faithful through it will see the day after "tomorrow."
So we live with sober concern about what we face, and a reasoned joy about what we will see.
We are not yet as we should be. I don't say that as an indictment as much as an assessment. We have been given everything we need for living a godly life. So let's do that. And let's toss off everything that so easily entangles.
Thank you for listening.
I take the responsibility very seriously, and am intent on not squandering your attention. I know that I'm one of many that you get to listen to. And I'm also aware that most people don't hear everything I say. And everyone forgets most of what I say.
This week would you take 5 or 10 minutes with each of the following sermons to refresh your memory? (They're the same as I linked to above.) They represent 12 messages that I want to make sure you've heard. Just listen long enough to be reminded of what I said. And if you realize that you haven't heard one yet, listen the whole way through. I believe this is developing a complete thought that we should all be considering personally and corporately.
If you didn't hear yesterday's message would you please take time to do so? It's important to the conversation we're having as a church. And it sets up things I need to say next.
Click here to watch the 25 minute version.
I had to say what I said because some of the things we have seen as essential to the practice of our faith simply didn't fare well under the shaking of the past year. The disruptions have been a test of our faith. But it's not only a test to see whether we will keep the faith. It's a test of the quality of our faith. It's a test to see if what we have built into our life survives the trials of life.
Some parts of our faith failed the test.
As I've watched Christians from various traditions and every walk of life respond to the disappointments of the past year, many have a faith that's pretty wobbly. It doesn't survive the shaking.
I don't mean that as condemnation, but as the grace of truth.
As human beings we're very resilient. When something falls over we stand it back up. When something falls apart we patch it back up. But some things shouldn't be stood back up. Some things shouldn't be patched back up.
And so I felt it necessary to name three things that should not be picked back up. At least, if you do pick it back up, let it be that you prayerfully considered the correction and determined that God wanted you to pick them back up.
To be clear, it's up to each of us to decide whether we do.
But I'm saying we shouldn't.
What do you think?
Did these things stay strong under the testing?
Did they fulfill their promise?
Were they elastic enough to not tear and strong enough to not shear?
And I guess the most telling question for any of us is this:
If anything about our faith failed the test, can we bear the thought of building something better that can't be shaken?
Again, listen to the whole teaching for understanding. But I'll tell you right now what the three things are. These were revealed by the shaking as not able to survive the shaking.
Now, I heard lots of amens on the first and second ones. I figured I would. And yet I'm sure some were offended. It may be that they heard me to say something I didn't say, or that they really do believe the first two are essential to our practice of the faith.
But the third one was pretty quiet. I expected it to be.
Let me clarify briefly for each of the three things. I want to make sure you know what I'm not saying, so that you can hear what I am saying.
1. I personally voted for the candidate whose policies most lined up with my moral convictions and fiscal sensibilities, and that's not what I mean by having "hope in earthly kingdoms."
I'm actively interested in politics, and have my own opinions about the next four years. I think it's good for Christians to be engaged wherever we have civil responsibility. That's not what I'm talking about when I say "hope in earthly kingdoms." We can participate in the political process without putting our hope in earthly kingdoms. But we must not put our hope in earthly solutions to address spiritual problems. We are already receiving an eternal kingdom. And it is not represented by any earthly kingdom even if there is a nominal association with it.
2. I believe God heals, and God provides, but not always.
Lazarus was raised to life the first time he died, but he wasn't the second time he died. We all die. That means that every single one of us will one day experience the finality of God's decision to not heal us of whatever fatality befalls us. (That is, if we're not still alive when he returns.)
God doesn't always heal. In fact, God always doesn't heal, at least once in our lives.
Likewise, the faith chapter (Hebrews 11) mentions heroes of the faith who went about destitute, living in caves, some of them never receiving what they earnestly believed for, and yet they are listed as exemplary of what it means to have faith.
God doesn't always provide the things we ask for.
So, I don't believe that when someone gets sick or dies or loses money, it is attributable to a lack of faith. And I'm sad at how this "prosperity gospel" has lulled so many Christians into an expectation that if we have enough faith we won't have to suffer for our faith. That's the exact opposite of what scripture says.
3. Buildings and programs serve a purpose, but they are not essential.
My family lives in a building, and has various "programs" that help us accomplish the things of being a family. We call the building a house, and our programs are jobs, and a budget, and schedules, and a commitment to mow the lawn regularly.
The house and programs serve a valuable purpose. But having a house is not essential to being a family. It's just helpful. If the house goes away, we are still family. If the jobs go away, we are still family. "For better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part."
When we consider this, it helps us to realize what it really means to be family. And it helps us to make better decisions about things like houses, jobs, budgets, schedules, and commitments.
It's the same with the church. Buildings and programs serve a purpose, but they are not essential. If the building goes away we are still church. If the programs go away we are still church.
Until we can openly consider this, and allow it as fully true in our thinking, we will make bad decisions about buildings and programs. But when we remember that without them we are still church, we will be able to make good decisions about buildings and programs.
I'd love to hear from you about any of the above three things, but I'm especially asking you to engage with me about the third one.
What fears and hopes do you have when you hear me talk about buildings and programs not being essential? I ask because three weeks ago I said that we were starting a conversation as a church about this. And I mean that. I want it to be a conversation.
If you weren't here for that annual meeting, or if you just want to be refreshed on it, email me and I'll send you a link to the video of it. This conversation affects who we are as a church, and what we attempt to do as a church. I'd hate to make such decisions without you in the conversation.
So, watch the video from yesterday, and comment below about any of the above. And yeah, I'll be saying more about this next week. :)
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.