The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 16, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Leigh Mackintosh, Associate Rector of St. Michael’s Church
If you’ve ever wondered what does it mean to be a Christian? Or how can I live my faith in the real world?
James is the book for you. I’ve got good news…its only 3 pages long! All you need to know about Christianity and more is found in these 3 pages of brilliant pastoral, prophetic, and educational writing that draws upon the rich traditions of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus’ teachings, and even Paul. If there ever was a book of the Bible you should read — it’s James!
James, brother of Jesus, leader of the church in Jerusalem encourages us to practice “a courageous faith — one that will help cope with the trials of life and that produces heightened moral integrity and loving actions.” (NRSV commentary) – Sounds like something we need more of today.
James connects faith with action boldly calling for God’s love to be integrated into all aspects of life — he declares, “Faith, without works is dead.” (James 2:26) Faith is not a substitute for loving action. In fact he claims, that God is shown best through our acts of love, joy, generosity, mercy, hope, even in the midst of life’s trials. It’s not just about what we do…it’s also about what we say and how we say it.
In today’s reading, James tells us that words have power. The power to create, inspire, heal. And the power to tear down, intimidate, and destroy. With our words “we can both bless God and curse those who are made in God’s image.”
He goes on to say, words have power to guide and teach. And James compares this power to a ship’s rudder. A huge ship, for it to move in the water needs great winds to empower it, but it only needs a small, seemingly insignificant rudder to steer and direct it. The small rudder can guide this entire body.
What we say with those restless, untameable, deadly poisonous tongues of ours — what we say matters. The words we say, and also the words we listen to and take in matter. Because they shape our faith, our actions, our very lives and who we are.
Oh come on! Words don’t have that much power…you know the saying, “sticks and stones”… “sticks and stones.”
Maybe…but how many of you have forgotten the bumps and bruises of last month, but you still remember those harsh, hurtful words that someone has said to you.
Last month, I spent a week in Scotland hiking the West Highland Way. This was 96 miles of tough, rocky, steep terrain — and it was difficult. But what surprised me was the mental terrain you had to traverse was tougher. All those disappointments, the failures, the surprising challenges and the unmet expectations that kept cropping up along the way…all those things you keep in your mind that cycle and circle around. Those doubtful, distracting voices — they can really weigh you down.
You know the heaviest things we carry in life is not the stuff in our bags, or the stuff on our backs or the miles that we walk. It’s the voices — those false, selfish, overly critical voices we carry in our minds and hearts day after day after day that are the heaviest — you know the ones that distract and rob us from knowing the true joys of this moment.
When we stay stuck in the cycle of those false, negative voices, we keep our heads down and only see the rough, rocky steep muddy path ahead. But if we deny those voices and learn how to detach and set them aside, we are free to look up, to raise our eyes beyond that rocky path to see all the companions walking with us on the way and see the beauty of God that surrounds us every day.
I wonder, what voices do you carry around with you?
Consider those voices, sift through them: which ones feel life-giving? Which are life-draining and weigh you down?
As you sift through those, the ones that are life draining and weigh you down — those are the ones not of God — the false, negative ones that lead to chaos and nowhere. Take those out, set them aside.
In other words rocks belong on the path, not in your pack!
The ones that are left, listen to what they say. Savor the graces in those voices. Follow any that lead to deeper meaning, healing, and joy. Even if that voice is hard to hear or difficult to accept.
Maybe this is what it means to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. To sift through, sort, and set aside those voices that are not of God so that we can hear and follow God’s call more clearly in our lives.
It takes courageous faith to set aside our own desires and agenda, to let go of the hopes and dreams and expectations of others in order to love and trust God completely. Especially when this leads down a difficult, unfamiliar path full of trials and uncertainty and suffering.
We see this in Mark’s Gospel today as Jesus knows and names God’s voice apart from others. Jesus has begun to open up about his calling to his disciples. He shares what this really means — the trials he will face — suffering, betrayal, violence, death all of which will somehow lead to new life rising on the third day.
You can imagine those disciples. They love Jesus, he is their mentor and friend. His disciples are distressed and confused, so Peter pulls him aside to offer his two cents on the subject. But Jesus refuses to be distracted or deterred from his path saying, “Get behind me Satan.”
What would it be like if you offered one of your priests a suggestion, your two cents on the subject and we told you, “Get behind me Satan” ? … the church would be a whole lot fuller right?
Peter who has just affirmed Jesus in the most powerful way — he is the one who says, “you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
But Jesus stays true to what God is calling him to. And it must have been a very painful thing to have to do that. He says, “get behind me.” In other words, “follow me, I know what I am doing.” Jesus follows God’s voice apart from all others — even when this means denying the care and concern of his friends and their dreams and desires.
The remarkable thing about this Gospel is this same courageous faithful response is in Peter. Jesus has just rebuked him severely — our response might be to rebel or leave. But Peter remains with Jesus and the disciples, remains in community, because that’s what it means to be Christian. That’s what it means to discern together. Peter, knows and trusts and names Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God. Even though he does not understand, that doesn’t mean he can’t walk with Jesus and follow God.
This Fall, we are engaging in the practice of discernment — we are working on listening for the voice of the Spirit in our lives and in this community so that we may follow God’s call to deeper gratitude, grace, and service (acts of love) in the world. But we may not always know how to hear that Spirit.
So here’s what you do. You pray. There’s a beautiful prayer by Thomas Merton, that says it all.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.