Sunday, November 23, 2014

All Good Gifts: James 1:17-18, 21-27

Sunday, November 23, 2014
After Pentecost
Proper 29/Christ the King/Thanksgiving
Year A

I’m sort of sad that we’ve gotten to the part of the year in which people have stopped asking me how my summer was. This year, I had what I think may have been the best summer EVER. I graduated from seminary after three long years of hard work. I went to Scotland on a trip with other seminary folks. My husband and I went on the anniversary trip of a lifetime to Turkey! At the end of summer, I was ordained after many long years of actively resisting God’s call on my life.
            And to top it all off. . . in August, I did something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was a little girl.
            I found a kitten.
I was out for a training run with my running partner one warm Saturday morning along the Ohio River when I spotted a small, wide-eyed, furry face peeking out of the brush on the side of the trail. Because my friend and I are both cat people, it was a no-brainer that we had to stop and rescue him.
Once we caught the little kitten, who we guessed was only a couple months old, we realized that he was injured. So he came home with me (since my friend already had 5 cats of her own) for some love and veterinary care. We discovered he was about 3 months old and underfed, but other than having a couple pretty nasty wounds from a dog bite, he was in relatively good health. He didn’t even have fleas.
            Tim said we could hang onto him “until he was healthy” and then we’d “see.” That was nearly 4 months ago. We still have the kitten. We named him Moses because he was found as a little baby all alone in the bushes by the river.
            With proper nutrition and veterinary care, Moses quickly recovered and he’s doing great these days. He’s almost 7 months old, he loves our other cats, and he’s more than doubled in size. He’s still skittish around the dog, though, and he’s shy around people. Except me.
            That little cat follows me everywhere. And when he doesn’t know where I am. . . he looks for me. When something startles him, he hides behind me. He sleeps curled up next to me in the bed and goes everywhere with me when I’m home. He tries to help me with everything from laundry to making beds to typing on the computer and cooking dinner. I like to think he’s thankful that I rescued him off the streets when he was hurt and alone and he just wants to be with me out of gratitude. I want to say that we have some sort of special bond because he was wounded and helpless and down on his luck when I swooped in and picked him up and took him in.
            I was hanging out with Moses this week and thinking about this sermon and Thanksgiving and it occurred to me. Once upon a time, I was hurt and alone and down on my luck. Once upon a time, each of you were hurt and alone and down on your luck. Now, that might not be literally true for all of us, but we are all stuck in a world full of sin and pain. Sin is the equivalent of being hurt and alone and down on our luck. There is not a person on this planet who isn’t a complete mess if left to their own devices. And yet, God swoops in and rescues us. He heals our wounds and feeds us the bread of life. He nurses us to health and gives us what James calls “good gifts.”
            And what is our response to God’s good gifts of relationship with God, of life and abundance and healing? How do we show our gratitude? Do we seek God always? Do we rest near to God knowing we’re safe when we’re by the side of our loving Creator? Do we follow God everywhere, always wanting to get into what God is doing?
            In James chapter 1, we are told that all good and perfect gifts come from God. Today is Christ the King Sunday – the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we begin Advent – our time of waiting for the Messiah we so desperately need when we are hurt and alone and down on our luck: when we are tied to the chains of sin and trapped in the patterns of evil. But today – today is a day of praising God and thanking God for Jesus the King! Christ the victorious King who rescues us from sin! Who conquers death and evil!
             But James goes on to explain how we as humans tend to respond to this gift, and it’s not a pretty picture. We’re like someone who looks into a mirror and turns around and immediately forgets what they look like. We read the Bible, say, “Yeah. That’s good stuff.” Then turn around and run our mouths about everything under the sun and let our hot tempers run the show.
We can’t just listen to the Word of God without undergoing some sort of radical change. This doesn’t mean we’re supposed to hang our salvation on our ability to do everything the Bible says, but if we’re serious about offering God our best out of gratefulness for what Jesus has done for us, we need to take a long hard look at our attitudes and our words – at the ways we interact with other people around us.
The Bible isn’t a rule-book, James says, but it’s a mirror into which we see how much we are reflecting God in our lives and we can’t just look in the mirror and walk away, forgetting what we look like. Not only is that a dangerous thing to do, it’s pretty ungrateful.
            Don’t be all talk and no action, James says. Don’t be like the loud celebrity Christians in the world who are all yell and no love. “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Don’t just read your Bible, then walk away like you have no idea what it says about love and justice and redemption and hope. Righteousness won’t come to the world because of a condescending bumper sticker or a wagging finger. Those things just cause hurt and destruction. Righteousness comes in Christ – the Lord of ACTION! Jesus talked A LOT, but it’s safe to say, he was always careful with his words and kept a tight reign on his tongue.. . . and he also fed the hungry, offered a hand up to the downtrodden, gave comfort to those who mourned, and healed the sick and injured.
I love that Christ the King Sunday coincides with Thanksgiving. This is the time of year we’re thinking about what we’re grateful for and Jesus is the ultimate gift for which we can give thanks!
God gave us new birth through the Truth – through Jesus – and as a response, we are to turn over our firstfruits: the best of our everything. But, says James, we’re not always really great at that. It’s hard work to give God the best of everything. James isn’t just talking about stuff here. He surely is talking about physical giving, don’t get me wrong. We are certainly called to giving of our money and other physical resources both to the church and to the people around us in need. That is a very important part of James’ message here.
            Listen carefully to the part about the firstfruits again: “that we might BE a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” It’s not just about giving our best things, but being our best selves and giving our whole being over to God.
            God isn’t some angry dictator sentencing everyone to punishment for every sin they commit in their lives. He’s giving us a gauge – a mirror. And it is our response out of gratitude for what God has ALREADY done for us that we seek after God with our whole heart and mind and soul.
            If we pray and say we believe in Jesus – both things we absolutely SHOULD DO – but there is no difference in our lives, what is the point? James says it’s like looking in a mirror, then turning around and immediately forgetting what you look like. 
            James is asking us each to take a close look at our lives and the evidence of real gratitude for the great gift of Jesus Christ. It’s not about earning anything, it’s about gratitude for what we’ve already been given. It’s about looking into the mirror and remembering what we see.
            Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday in the church calendar because while it all begins with God bursting into the world as the little baby Jesus to redeem humanity, it all comes to a head with the victory of Jesus Christ, the King of everything! This is the day on which we celebrate the greatest, most perfect gift of all: Christ’s defeat of sin and death so that we might be united to God. We have been given healing, safety, shelter, redemption. No matter how wounded and alone you may feel, Jesus Christ broke into time and space and history and humanity for you.  
            A while back, I asked people to share what it is they are thankful for here at the church. The answers were beautiful. People were thankful for the hard work of those who teach our children, for the long, rich history of this church, for the welcoming spirit of the congregation and the entire community of Liberty, for that matter. There was so much love and gratitude here, it was truly a beautiful thing. There are a lot of firstfruits here. I encourage each of you to embrace that. And to continue chasing after God. That is our first priority here in the church. When we seek God full-throttle, no-holds-barred as an act of gratitude for the great gift we’ve been given in Jesus Christ. . . that’s when the cool stuff starts to happen.
            Many people in the denomination today are pretty discouraged by shrinking church attendance and membership numbers. It’s hard to see how any of this can make a difference when our numbers are dwindling and budgets are getting tighter and tighter. It might be hard to be grateful in the church’s current situation. With fewer and fewer people, it becomes a bigger and bigger task to keep things running, let alone taking the time to seek out new things that God might be doing. I get that. I’ve been Presbyterian since before I was born. The changes to church over the past 30-40 years have been dramatic. But we still have plenty to be thankful for.
I was reading Acts 1 & 2 this week with a group of other pastors from the South Branch. After we read the scriptures, the group leader asked what had stood out to us the most in the passage. When I said, “the number 120,” they all looked at me strangely. The first group of believers upon whom the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost numbered 120. Does that number ring any bells for you all? Our approximate membership at Liberty is 120. 120 people started a revolution in Acts. The early believers were a motley crew with a range of resources to offer. But in spite of the seeming impossibility of their mission, they knew  that Jesus rescued them from dire circumstances and they chased after God out of gratefulness for that gift of Christ. They opened themselves up to the movement of the Holy Spirit and went full-force, nothing held back, each person giving all they were able in time, energy, money, wisdom, prayer, and love and it exploded.
God can work amazing things when we turn ourselves over as firstfruits. This Thanksgiving, let’s all take time to thank God for the ultimate gift - Jesus. Not just with words, although prayers of thanksgiving are certainly in order – but by really asking, “Am I being a firstfruit?” Follow God! It’s ok to be like Moses the kitten! Investigate what it is God is doing and get into it! Jump up on the craft table to see what cool stuff he’s making! Chase the shoelaces of Jesus! That’s gratitude! That’s world-changing! That’s being a firstfruit!


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